Austraeoh

by Imploding Colon

First published

Rainbow Dash flies east.

Rainbow Dash flies east.

Sunrise

View Online

The morning sun greeted her like a furious torch. Golden beams of light glittered across innumerable cloudtops as Rainbow Dash glided towards the fiery horizon. She felt a cold gust of air rippling across her tail, and she knew the final throes of night were over.

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. A pair of shaded goggles reflected a green world as she tilted her gaze earthward. Pulling her wings to her sides, Rainbow effortlessly dove down through the cloudcover until she was skimming a series of rolling emerald hilltops. Sporadic ponds and rippling blue streams interrupted what was otherwise an immaculate landscape of high grass and bushy knolls. Several lakes loomed in the distance ahead, sparkling platinum reflections of the rising sun.

Rainbow's nostrils flared. As she darted mere inches over pond fronds and cattails, she was greeted with every scent and flavor of spring. On a whim, she spun upside down—gliding—and allowed her wings to break the top of several emerald blades. As a result, she was christened with a liberal spray of fresh dew. The sensation was cold, tickling the skin beneath her blue coat.

It was the first thing that made her smile in hours.

There was a deep lake up ahead. The waters were so tranquil that the entire basin could just as well have been filled with pure sapphires. Feeling suddenly exhausted, Rainbow Dash lowered herself to the sandy banks, relaxing her wings for the first time since the prior sunset.

Her hooves twisted and dug into the dirt, relishing in their wet mushy feel against her tingling limbs. Trotting to the very edge of the lake, she raised her goggles, exposing a pair of squinting ruby eyes that took in the sunrise, and then tilted down to take in her own reflection.

Rainbow's mane was windblown, its many colored threads mixing wildly as a testament to her nocturnal journey. Her coat was unkempt, bespeckled with dust. In spite of her haggard features, the one thing not remotely affected was her eyes. They appeared as alive and awake as ever as she looked herself over, then reached two hooves up to her goggles.

Removing the article, she sat down and examined them closely in her grasp. There was a great deal of condensation and grime gathered on the lenses. Rainbow leaned forward and breathed hotly on the goggles. Using her condensation, she wiped the twin lenses free, then moved to slap them back on her crown. She paused, however, upon seeing the canvas strap of the item. There was an image of a prancing, caped foal, along with the initials 'S.L.'

Rainbow Dash smiled gently. She finally placed the article back on her head and gave her reflection one last look. Her blue wings lifted, exposing a dark blue saddlebag strapped around her body, tailor-made to fit her agile figure. The pouches on either side were snapped shut by the insignia of a crescent moon, and from the meager weight of what was lying within, Rainbow Dash knew that it was only a matter of time before she needed to find food again.

Just then, a familiar sensation struck her, that of a golden glint being shone into her face. Rainbow Dash grunted, then glanced lethargically at what was weighing on her neck muscles. A golden pendant hung just below her throat, emblazoned with a ruby shaped like a lightning bolt. For the briefest of moments, she felt a wave of dizziness, and considered tossing the object viciously into the waters. Instead, she sighed, gave her face one last look, and slammed her head full-force into the surface of the pond.

After a major dunking, Rainbow Dash flung her head straight up. She gasped as her wet mane filled the air with a wild splash of lake water. Reveling in the cold sting, she grinned devilishly, slipped her shaded goggles down, and took off once more towards the sky, burning a straight path for the rising sun.

The air bit harshly against her wet face. It served to remind her that she was alive.

Map

View Online

Afternoon came, and the hilltops blurring beneath Rainbow Dash turned into jagged promontories as she came upon the crest of a mountain range. The sun was well overhead, approaching its peak climb over the globe of the sky. Rainbow Dash realized she was still squinting, so she raised a hoof up to her goggles and turned a dial. With a gentle click, the shades of the lenses popped back to reveal a clear pair beneath. She relaxed her ruby eyes and kept soaring eastward.

The earth turned progressively uneven below. When the mountains began, the topography shattered into a craggy affair, with several stretches of alabaster rock shredding the green vegetation into thin emerald scraps. The air above these sharp formations grew misty, coalescing into thick clouds that gathered into a gray miasma above the sharply rising landscape.

With experienced caution, Rainbow Dash elevated her ascent several dozens of meters above the visible stone. She was adamant about making a speedy pass over the mountains, but she wasn't about to stupidly plunge into any hidden rockfaces beyond the clouds.

The mist in the air grew denser. Rays of sunlight danced around Rainbow Dash in swathing beams. In mid-glide, she reached a hoof out and played with the many yellow bands. Her mind wandered, and for the briefest of moments she thought she heard laughter. Her eyes blinked beneath her goggles, and the sensation left her, trailing on the fringes of a deep sigh.

There was a sudden gust of wind. If she was any other pegasus, she would have been tossed wildly into the ether, but Rainbow Dash swiftly countered for the gale attacking her wings. She leveled out and hovered up, getting a good view of the landscape beneath her as the misty clouds parted.

She spotted a sudden dip in the mountains. A deep ravine had formed suddenly, and a heavy current of cold wind was billowing down to fill the canyon.

As Rainbow Dash coasted the top of this landscape, the clouds dissipated, and she was taken back by a sight ahead of her. Two mountain ranges rose sharply and met a single point, as if bluntly colliding. The result was a pair of tall summits, twin spokes of ancient rock that pierced the sky like granite antennae.

Rainbow Dash hovered in place, staring for a prolonged period of time at the image. She couldn't help but feel as if the twin peaks looked familiar. Bothered by her lapse in memory, she spun cyclonically through the mountainous currents until she found a dry plateau of pale rock to perch on. A sharp rise in craggy stone behind her canceled out the wind, giving her a peaceful spot to touch down and reach back for her saddlebag.

She slowly removed the contents of her pack: a canteen of water, two loaves of crumbling bread, a first-aid kit, a metal hatchet, a compass, a container of flint and steel, three blankets, and finally a green-bound book. This last item she purposefully avoided looking at as a loathsome shudder ran through her body. Gently, she slid the book out of sight and reached into the saddlebag one last time. She produced a paper scroll with a lunar seal.

Unrolling the scrap, she stretched out a rich detailed map labeled "Known Realms." In the center of the amber parchment was a landscape etched in black ink. Rainbow Dash's eyes stared at the mountainous summit of “Canterlot Mountain,” then traveled to the right past “Everfree”, then past a broad stretch of dotted paper titled “Undermarshes.” She traced her hoof even further across the paper, past “Dream Valley,” past “Sea of Songs,” past “The Diamond Flats,” and finally settling on “Blue Plains.” Just east of this spot was an unnamed mountain range, but one thing stood out. It was a pair of mountains that rose like sharp spokes into the sky.

Rainbow Dash looked up. She saw two enormous peaks lingering two kilometers in front of her, bathing a thick shadow across the grand, misty ravine surrounding the mare. She looked back down. The twin peaks dotted a part of the map that was no less than five centimeters from the right edge of the paper.

For some reason, that only made her smile all the more.

Rainbow rolled the map back up. She put away her belongings, lingering slightly with the green-bound book, and clasped the saddlebag shut with its crescent-moon buttons. Hoisting her goggles back over her eyes, she stood against the wind, gave the mountains a silent snarl, and threw herself off the cliff face so that she soared between the two peaks as if they were polished goalposts.

Food

View Online

When Rainbow Dash's stomach began growling, the mountain range had begun to slope into the brightest, greenest landscape she had seen for days. The air was wet here, filled with the most delicious scents of spring. She gazed down as she saw lush forests dotting the eastern edge of the mountains.

The afternoon sun warmed her flank as she touched down in an emerald glade. Several small woodland creatures bounded away immediately after her landing. Rainbow Dash glanced around, feeling as if she was the first pony in centuries to set hoof in this beautiful, alien landscape. Her insides gurgled once more as she desperately scanned the nearby trees. She thought of the moldy bread in her saddlebag, the same pathetic thing she had nibbled on ceaselessly for weeks, and she couldn't help but grimace.

Something sparkled in her goggled vision. Her heart jumped, and she found herself galloping towards a cluster of trees to the north. She skidded to a stop as soon as she was underneath the desired branches, and she actually drooled.

They were apple trees, and the fruit hanging off them were of a plump and ripe nature befitting a pegasus' dreams, her dreams. With a gentle flap of blue wings, Rainbow Dash hovered until she was nose-to-skin with the brightest apple in sight. She gave it a close sniff and could already sense the sweetness. With two hooves, she plucked the apple loose, raised her goggles, and turned the object over in her grasp.

The skin of the apple looked perfect, but she was hardly a qualified judge. There was no telling if there were parasites hidden inside the thing, or if the apple was rotten at the core, or if there was a bitter taste just waiting to poison her. So much as licking the strange fruit could very well have been an extremely dangerous prospect.

So Rainbow Dash took a huge bite.

Immediately, her mouth was filled with a flooding river of euphoria. Her ruby eyes flew back in her head, and she let herself fall like a feather to the downy grass below. She took another bite, reveled in the heavenly taste, and giggled like a foal, her voice echoing gaily across the emerald clearing. Less than two minutes later, the entire apple had been scarfed completely. No sooner was Rainbow Dash finished with this gluttonous feat, she was darting back up to the tree for a second fruit, then a third, then a fourth. She tucked these under her hooves, forelimbs, and even her wings. Stifling another evil laugh, she victoriously galloped over to a patch of shade and set her things down. Pulling her blanket loose from the saddlebag, she rolled it out along the soft blades of grass and laid herself down so that her forward half was in the shade and her rear half was warmed by toasty sunlight.

So luxuriously reclined, she took her time savoring the succulent fruit. Her eyes danced with the rays of sunlight glittering through the waving leaves above. Her mind toyed with errant thoughts, bursting through her head in cadence with the felicitous tastes bursting in her mouth. She let a giggle leave her lips, then another. Soon, the first three apples were consumed. Tossing the cores away, she polished the fourth and last apple against her chest and raised it to her lips.

But then she stopped.

Rainbow Dash blinked. Slowly, her jaw clamped shut. She gazed with a solemn expression at her face being reflected in the immaculate red skin of the apple. Her nostrils flared, and scents that didn't belong to the emerald glade were now assaulting her. The next breath from her mouth was painful, and soon her eyes fell to the reflection of the ruby lightning bolt hanging from her neck.

A sour lump formed in her throat. Rainbow Dash said nothing. She didn't eat the apple. Shadows began filling the glade as the Sun was setting beyond the mountains to the west. It was still early in the afternoon, but Rainbow Dash no longer felt like flying—not yet. The wind had been taken from her wings.

With a gentle yawn, she grasped the blanket in her mouth and dragged it to the base of a tree, where the shadows were thickest. Pulling a second blanket out of her saddlebag, she wrapped it around her blue body and settled down on folded legs. Rainbow Dash lingered before resting her head. Gnawing on her lip, she reached once more to the apple. Instead of nibbling on it, she merely cuddled it close to her—even nuzzling its soft skin with her cheek.

Exhaling, Rainbow shut her eyes. There was a touch of moisture to her lashes, but she paid it no heed as she happily embraced the lulling kiss of slumber.

Flash

View Online

Rainbow Dash stopped staring at the ground, and the first thing she saw was Pinkie Pie's bright blue eyes. A breath escaped her lips as she saw her friend waving towards her from the front entrance to Sugarcube Corner. More bright colors joined the fray, with Rarity winking and Twilight giggling and Fluttershy and Applejack strolling around the bend.

Pinkie Pie cupped her hooves around her mouth and hollered something before motioning Rainbow Dash dramatically towards the group.

With a bright smile, Rainbow wasted no time. She blurred over the rooftops of Ponyville on swift wings. Touching down in a billowing cloud of dust, she struck a heroic pose... only to blink confusedly at what she saw.

Pinkie Pie was making a strange face. Twilight Sparkle was squinting. Fluttershy and Rarity flinched in disgust while Applejack marched up and pointed worriedly at Rainbow's face.

Rainbow Dash was confused. She turned to look in the windows of Sugarcube Corner. Her reflection glossed over. In a blink, her eyes morphed into red-on-yellow phantoms of their usual ruby luster. Before she had a chance to react to this, a lock of her mane fell limply from her head.

She fell on her haunches and raised two hooves in time to catch the limp hairs. When they fell in her grasp, they lost all of their color, turning to a pallid gray... along with the rest of her coat. She gasped, glancing at her limbs, trying to find where her bright blue hues had disappeared to. She heard a whimpering sound.

Spinning, Rainbow Dash glanced towards her friends, but they were gone. Sugarcube Corner had also vanished, and in its place was a dense wall of green foliage. Rainbow hyperventilated, finding herself surrounded by a labyrinth of emerald hedges. She flexed her wing muscles, but all her feathers were suddenly gone. Just as she felt the urge to scream, she heard the whimper again, only this time it was directly overhead.

She tried looking straight up, but her neck was being weighed down by a golden pendant. After much sweat and aching, she finally gazed skyward, only to be flooded with a wall of impenetrable gray ash.

Spring

View Online

Rainbow Dash shot up, gasping. She clutched for something—anything—and found a canvas blanket surrounding her. She hugged herself, shivering, under the shroud of fallen night. Her breaths slowly settled, as well as the frenetic beat of her heart. Sighing, she glanced down at her saddlebag and other belongings, dull shapes under the kiss of starlight. Leaves rustled overhead. The murmuring chirps of various nocturnal animals serenaded her from the apple trees bordering the glade.

It wasn't until five full minutes had passed that Rainbow Dash realized she was caressing the golden pendant about her neck. It felt heavier than ever. Gnashing her teeth, Rainbow seriously considered tossing the ruby-studded item away, but she knew better.

A cold wind blew through the shrouded valley. Rainbow Dash felt her mane kicking like a flag behind her head. She prayed that there'd be colors when the sun rose. Gazing skyward, she regarded the stars with jaded interest. Her afternoon “nap” had carried her well into the fall of evening, but now she had become completely restless. With a groan, she stood up, collected her blankets and other belongings, then stuffed them into her saddlebag.

Last but not least, she found the crimson apple lying in the grass. She picked it up like an infant, cradling it. Another breath left her, only this time she managed a slight smile. Eventually, she pocketed this too away. Just as she snapped the saddlebag shut, her eyes lingered on the crescent-moon-shaped buttons to her pack. Thoughtfully, she looked up towards the night sky once more. A plume of pale clouds wafted far overhead. A dim glow suggested a waxing moon rising over the edge of the mountaintops.

Rainbow Dash rubbed a hoof over her pendant and tilted it skyward. She stood quiet and listened. Nothing happened; the golden necklace was just as quiet and dormant as ever. She knew better than to expect otherwise. After all, it wasn't a full moon yet. She was almost glad for the fact.

Wasting no more, time, Rainbow flapped her wings, ascended in a graceful spire, and bulleted her way eastward—away from the taller mountain ranges.

For hours, she glided under the glittering cosmos. The ivory band of the Milky Way stretched majestically above her, unimpeded by any stray lights or colors. Rainbow's nostrils flared as her goggled eyes took in the dull horizon looming beneath her, awash in the pale haze of celestial tranquility. She was alone in the sky, a single spot of warmth burning ever-eastward like a comet. At times, she closed her eyes and imagined she was one with the stars, beautiful and insignificant all at once. Her mind wandered to places as grand if not grander than the nightscape bowing beneath her, and she knew—secretly, she knew—that she was all that mattered in the grand silent dream of it all.

A dozen miles of flight later, Rainbow Dash descended. She was attracted to the sound of rippling water. In the starlight, she spotted a glittering sight below. Upon closer inspection, it turned out to be a babbling brook, cascading down lower and lower crags of jutting rock. The water started as a trickle, combined to a rippling stream, then coalesced into a majestic waterfall that emptied into an elevated spring cradled by the convergence of several mountain ranges.

Landing beside this high altitude pool, Rainbow Dash raised her goggles and gazed with naked eyes. She produced a whistle of wonderment The water was so pure, that even in the dim starlight she could see three dozen feet straight down to the bottom of the spring. Smiling, she tilted down and gave the liquid a gentle lap with her tongue. Her upper body shuddered; it was the cleanest water she had drunk in all her adult life.

She drank liberally, like a foal lapping at delicious milk. Her body felt instantly refreshed. She forgot about the starlight, about the moon, about dreams. She was simply alive.

Rainbow Dash exhaled long and hard. She had to carry some of this beauty with her. Squatting down, she reached into her saddlebag and produced her empty canteen. Swiftly, she filled it to the brink, smiling victoriously at her acquisition. Just as she finished screwing the top back on, something bright and lavender darted on the edge of her peripheral vision.

Rainbow Dash gasped. She spun about, blinking. She was alone in the tiny spring clearing. The only moving shadows were those belonging to her. Nevertheless, that didn't calm her beating heart, nor did the blinding sensation that swiftly followed.

She squinted. She gazed sideways towards a crest of jagged rock to her right. Murderous beams of gold were setting the air on fire as the first slivers of sunlight pierced the otherwise tranquil moment. A part of her shuddered, regretting the death of darkness.

With icy resolve, she picked herself up, pocketed the canteen away, and faced the burning dawn. Raising her hoof, she twisted the dial of her goggles and covered her ruby eyes with dark lenses. The pure taste of spring water was like an angelic song on the tip of her tongue. She savored it, as she did all pleasant flavors that still clung to her, and carried the weight of the pendant with her as she flew into the fire.

Cabin

View Online

Rainbow Dash thought it was a boulder at first. However, as she flew closer towards the object on the top of the hill, it turned out to be hollow. Her goggled eyes finally made out what could only be splintery spokes of wood and the crumbling mortar frame of a fireplace.

There was no second thought to it. She shifted her wings, coasted down, and dove towards the site. The abandoned cabin was located quite literally in the middle of nowhere. Rainbow Dash had since passed over two sharp mountain ranges. Here, a shallow ravine ran north and south, splotched over with thin grass and green shrubbery. In the center of this ravine—surrounded on all sides by forested mountains—was a lone, run-down cottage. It was as alien as alien could be. It called to her like a kindred spirit.

She touched down in a flat yard of grass bordering the cabin. Blades of grass splattered her limbs with cold dew as she trotted slowly around the structure. The golden glow of early morning electrified the scene with a rising, platinum mist. Stray butterflies took off and fled lazily from Rainbow's presence as she approached the doorframe to the crumbled house.

Standing upon the threshold, Rainbow raised her shaded goggles and stared nakedly upon the junk-laden “interior” of the place. There was no surviving ceiling, so that every bit of the cabin's contents had been soaked to the brim with moisture, mildew, and the mountains' perpetual breath of fog.

There was a bed in the corner, its rusted springs overgrown with vines and flowers. A tattered mattress had spilled over. It must have once made a home for winged creatures, judging from the threadbare nests half-stuffed in its fluffy folds.

The fireplace was full of dried logs, painted over with green mold and algae. Rainbow Dash wondered who had left the pieces of lumber there, unlit, as if somepony was once planning on a peaceful evening alone.

She glanced around the lengths of the place. There was no sign of another soul having been there for ages. She could only wonder just how old the house was, or why it had been built in such a remote place to begin with. Every hoofstep she took sent crackling noises through the crumbled domain, tearing down countless years of abandoned history beneath her twitching ears. Her eyes fell over a sea of shattered dinnerplates. The slightest hint of floral designs across the porcelain material glistened in the neutral sunrise.

Rainbow Dash let loose a strong exhale. The more she looked, the more detritus and rubble there appeared to be. She glanced at the top of the fireplace and saw what looked to be a picture frame. She marched over and raised a hoof to the object, tilting it up so that its canvas surface once again graced the light of day. All that spoke to her was brown mildew, except for a few stray lines etched in the shape of what she could only determine to be the royal celestial crest.

The very moment she saw those solar bands, she dropped the picture frame like a brick to the uneven floor. Her nostrils flared. Spinning around, she trotted firmly back towards the doorframe of the cabin's entrance. Just as she was about to take off, her peripheral vision caught something. She glanced aside, squinted, then knelt down low.

In the wooden surface of the broken doorway were two initials, carved within the unmistakable outline of a heart: “EE & EG.”

Rainbow Dash's lips pursed. Her wings flexed briefly. She wondered who could have left those initials, how old they had to have been, if the pony who first etched them there could still be alive or not. She pondered over how many ages had gone by—cold winters and dew-laden summers—during which those lone and seemingly insignificant letters had lingered lonesomely, abandoned in the vacuum of two steep mountain ranges, only for one soul and one soul alone to eventually stumble upon them.

Were they made for her? Could she have possibly given them the proper attention they deserved? Were the souls who scratched them into the annals of history properly vindicated from their existence?

Rainbow Dash had flown by herself over valleys, mountains, rivers, and plateaus. She had pierced the penumbra of stars and the pale gaze of the moon. Only now did she feel suddenly and hideously alone.

A lump formed in her throat. The pendant weighed heavily. She trotted numbly away from the cabin like a pony possessed. Suddenly, though, she stopped. Her head lifted up, her mane being caught in a warm gust of morning air. She turned around, stared at the cabin again, and smiled.

Firmly, she trotted into the cottage. She fetched several of the logs that had been left in the fireplace. Opening her saddlebag, she pulled her metal hatchet out and clamped it in her teeth. Using the instrument with expert precision, she hammered four of the logs into the ground so that they acted as signposts. Next, she pulled loose a fallen panel of oak from the cabin wall itself. She slid this over and propped it in between the four logs. She gazed proudly at her work. Not even the strongest blizzard could shove this erect plank of lumber down.

Next, she squatted before the wooden panel and aimed carefully with the sharp edge of her hatchet. With strong teeth, she leaned forward, back, left, and right, so that she etched several sharp lines against the pale surface of oak. It took the better part of an hour, but she was convinced that what she made would last for decades.

Once her work was done, she slid the hatchet back into her saddlebag, took a few steps back, and stared at the panel. Five names shone in the golden light cascading across the valley. The sign was arranged so that the letters would catch the sunlight at both dawn and sunset.

It didn't make Rainbow Dash feel any less lonely, but the site felt a great deal holier than it was before she arrived. Satisfied with her task, she turned her back to the names, stretched her goggles over her face, and soared sunward, allowing the heat of the birthing day to melt her thoughts into obscurity.

Cave

View Online

Three hours into the early morning, and Rainbow Dash had passed over two more mountain ranges. The rough topography was rather surprising to her. She briefly wondered if the map in her saddlebag was anywhere remotely accurate, for there was far too much uneven earth that she had covered and she yet she still hadn't stumbled upon the last two or three landmarks marked on the east end of the illustration.

What was more, the rocky peaks stabbed remarkably high into the air, breaking the clouds and dissemenating the moisture so that a heated bubble of vapors gathered along the eastern slope. More hours went by, during which Rainbow Dash witnessed rapid convection as she pierced the hot air. Sooner than she had hoped, she heard a loud rumble filling the troposphere around her. She glanced left and right, finding herself surrounded by black, anvil-shaped thunderclouds.

A groan escaped her lips as the first of several hot drops of moisture began to fall. Her wings were growing damp. The air tingled with the threatening hint of electricity. There was no way of avoiding it: she had to put her rapid flight on hold and find some cover.

Gazing down, Rainbow Dash adjusted her goggles so that the clear lenses gave her an unobstructed view of the world below. Dense trees had given way to dry bush. There was no vegetation tall enough or spacious enough to give her a natural ceiling. So, beginning to grow desperate, she dove low and skimmed the west side of the craggy hilltops just beneath her. She studied every nook and cranny of the bouldery landscape, desperate for an enclosure that could keep her from becoming soaking wet. To her gasping surprise, she stumbled upon such a niche. It was a cave, immeasureably deep, with a grand black entrance that entreated her like a Cloudsdalian atrium.

The world rumbled loudly behind her. Rainbow Dash started to feel her coat hairs standing on end, something sparked by the queer sensation of cold winds pierced by hot rain. She had lost track of time, and she briefly wondered if summer had crept up on her.

Wasting no time, she darted straight for the cave. There was a flash of bright light in her peripheral vision, forcing her heart to jump. When she stood in the enclosure, she gazed out—panting—in time to embrace a wave of vibrations as the dipping valley below the rocky hill yelled from the storm's immensity. She gulped, breathed easier, and managed a deep chuckle.

Rainbow Dash sat on her haunches and watched as the world turned gray. The dark flanks of the overhead stormclouds dipped down to kiss the earth, and soon there was a syphonous hiss of moisture pooling over the empty landscape as far as she could see. Her wings fluttered a few times to shake off the loose droplets, and then closed in on her sides. She had made it to the cave on time. Reveling in her miraculous dryness, she gazed at the rainsoaked world like a mare might sit at a theatre show. This was just as entertaining—soothing, even—and the roar of the precipitation lent her gentle heartbeats a pleasant ambiance.

Half-an-hour passed, and Rainbow's antsy nature got the best of her. She stood up, turned around, and faced into the dark recesses of the cave. She raised the goggles and blinked widely into what turned out to be a black expanse. Marching forward, she came to a point where she was no longer gifted with the vestiges of daylight. There she stopped and whistled. The echo that replied was formidable to say the least. She couldn't help but wonder just how deep the cave was.

She needed light. In a practiced ritual, Rainbow Dash stood still, took a meditative breath, and ran a hoof up to the ruby lightning bolt of her neck pendant. Once making contact, she spun concentric circles and murmured something to the stale air of the place. It took a few seconds, but a deep red glow came to life from within the gemstone. A dim crimson spotlight was cast before her, growing brighter by the blink, until the walls and floor of the rocky enclosure took shape.

Rainbow Dash did a double-take. What she originally thought was a cave actually turned out to be a tunnel. The red light went down the distance of fifty feet, and then blackness once more layered the extremity of the natural corridor. There was no telling just how deep the passage went, or what may have been lurking within. It would have been very unwise to blindly trek down.

Rainbow smiled.

She glanced behind her at the bright world turned gray with rain. With a flick of her tail, she abandoned the stormy afternoon, choosing instead to trot firmly down the dark corridor. As her hooves scraped against the polished rock, the world rumbled again. For the briefest moment, however, Rainbow Dash imagined that the thunder was coming from below instead of above. She shrugged the thought off, adjusted the saddlebag on her spine, and quickened her descent.

Limestone

View Online

As Rainbow Dash trotted deeper into the descending tunnel, all she saw was barren rock. The polished stone was painted in the red glare of her glowing pendant. As she tilted her head left and right, the swath of crimson light bobbed with her. She proceeded slowly, her gait slow and cautious, for what had to have been several minutes in the heart of the hillside.

The air was dank and moist, though it wasn't from the storm that was still roaring against the surface of the world far above her. The subterranean passage had a finely preserved quality; the walls and floors of the place felt as if they hadn't been disturbed in ages. The deeper Rainbow went, the more shocked she was to find herself breathing normally. She was still getting plenty of oxygen. If she didn't know better, she'd imagine that she had been breathing just as easily in the open air.

Rainbow had assumed that this was a natural cave. As she glanced left and right, she saw no etches or finely carved grooves or insignias or any other signs of intelligent design. However, the tunnel was so smooth and perfect in its descent that she couldn't help but assume that something had willfully dredged it. She imagined that perhaps this chamber she had stumbled upon was built in ages long gone by. Maybe weather and time had eroded the material to its present smoothness, but Rainbow Dash wasn't about to pretend that she was an expert in such area. She merely trotted forward and explored.

There was suddenly a cold dust of air, as if a mysterious wind was being funneled through the chamber. What was more surprising, she felt the sensation from above. Coming to a stop, she gazed up and tilted her neck pendant towards the ceiling. She saw a branching junction of holes—all large and connecting to the corridor she was in. Two of them led diagonally upwards to her left and right. One led directly up.

She gazed into the hole in the ceiling and immediately flinched. Two things had stabbed her eyes: a dot of bright light and a drop of icy cold water. Grunting, she shook her face dry, slid her goggles back onto her eyes, and gazed up again. With her face protected, she allowed a tiny trickle of water to splatter across her lenses just long enough to focus on the light source. She surmised that the vertical tunnel led to the very top of the hill. There, it broke through the surface, and rain water was trickling straight down and onto her.

She smirked at the discovery. Twisting her lips in thought, she looked down and watched for where the moisture went. Sure enough, there was a collective puddle of liquid, and from there it rivered down the corridor that she had been navigating until it hung a sharp right through another, far steeper tunnel.

Rainbow Dash swiftly followed the trickling, underground brook. The corridor echoed with the liquid and the splashing of her hooves. The ceiling danced from the kaleidoscopic bands of her glowing pendant's reflections against the stream. The current grew faster, joining with other corridors that bled in from seemingly nowhere. Rainbow Dash was spelunking deeper and deeper into an abysmal labyrinth, and she dared not stop for anything. She was carried forward by a smirk.

A few minutes later, the echoes of the trickling stream doubled, tripled, and then turned into a gentle roar that drowned out the storm above the mountain overhead. Rainbow Dash's light stopped piercing the path ahead of her, and that's how she realized that the tunnel had finally opened up into a large chamber.

She stood at the entrance to the large underground cavern. Meditating, she ran her hoof once more over her neckpiece and murmured a few breathy words. The crimson glow intensified. She found herself squinting, then lifting her water-slicked goggles to get a good look at what she saw.

The chamber was spacious, a surprising contrast to the claustrophobic corridors that had led her down there. Pooling about a forest of limestone stalagmites was an underground lake, stretching left and right—from wall to wall—at a width of over three hundred feet. How long the chamber was, Rainbow Dash couldn't tell. It was like she stood at the entrance to a grand, foreboding stomach.

She flexed her wings and flew straight into the hollow expanse.

Rainbow Dash glanced down as she coasted over the cavernous lake. She was greeted with the sight of her pendant's bulbous, crimson reflection. The water was murky and covered with a thick layer of slime. The closer she glided over the lake, however, she could have sworn she spotted something oddly pale.

So, finding a fairly blunt stalagmite jutting a mere six feet out of the pool's surface, she touched down and perched on the pointed limestone. Positioned in the middle of the large pool, she leaned over and peered hard into the lake.

The glow of her pendant was glinting across the slime, making it hard to see through. She swiftly thought of a crude solution. Sucking all the saliva into the back of her mouth, Rainbow Dash jerked her face forward and spat hard into the lake. The slimy surface of the waters parted ways, rippled, and re-coalesced. However, she had successfully afforded herself the glance she needed, and she saw what turned out to be many pale spheres resting just inches below the top of the pond.

As the loud roar of thunder echoed through the chamber from above, Rainbow Dash couldn't help but make a face at what she just saw. They were the strangest rocks she had ever seen. She couldn't imagine a part of the limestone ceiling from which they could have crumbled.

The thunder rolled again, and this time it sent a heavy ripple through the waters all around her. Rainbow Dash blinked. Her ears twitched as she realized that she was so far down in the cavern that there was no feasible way she could still have been hearing the storm above ground. And yet, the rumbling intensified, becoming almost deafening.

It wasn't until the stalagmite beneath her began to wobble and the waters parted ways once again that Rainbow Dash realized what it was she saw. They weren't pale rocks. They were eggs.

The thunder developed a screeching tone. The air filled with a foul odor. Rainbow Dash looked up, and her ruby eyes reflect the looming overbite of a giant angular creature lunging straight at her. There was a huge splash of water, a flash of red scales, and then all Rainbow saw was teeth.

Eels

View Online

With a gasp, Rainbow Dash dove low. The air crackled with the snapping sound of the beast's massive jaws, then she was mercilessly soaked by a spray of water and slime as the creature's forward half plunged straight into the cavernous lake just behind her.

Rainbow Dash gnashed her teeth and flew forward as hard as she could. To her horror, she found herself having to navigate around a giant, red-scaled, serpentine body that was roping in and out of the waters all around her. Dipping under a looping flank of muscle and shooting up, Rainbow Dash clung with four hooves to a stalactite. She hung upside down like a bat, panting, her mane soaked. Tilting her head, she aimed her pendant down at the subterranean pool beneath her.

The large, hulking body of the quarry eel was just then finishing its epic plunge into the underwater nest. But just as she was trying to get a mental estimate of its size, there was another gigantic splash, and two completely new heads were lunging at her, shrieking.

Rainbow Dash kicked off the stalactite, spun, and narrowly dodged the two sets of razor-sharp jaws. Just as she dove under the two arching bodies, she was flung head-first into a third eel's maw, then a fourth. She barrel-rolled left and right, assaulted by walls of tossed water and ooze, but barely managed to evade the snapping mouths. Her world had turned into a heated kaleidoscope of dancing crimson light and bestial shrieks.

No matter how agile or evasive Rainbow was, these giant monstrosities caught up with her, forcing her to perform increasingly wild and acrobatic maneuvers. She had encountered quarry eels before, but not in this fashion. She had never been foolish enough to have been stuck in the heart of a mountain, in a dank claustrophobic space with these giant carnivores completely surrounding her. Here she was now like a small field mouse caught in a pit of snakes, and as the seconds ticked by she was further and further amazed to still be alive.

Then her ruby eyes caught a cluster of thick stalagmites sticking out of the waters several meters ahead in the crimson glow of her pendant. Spinning in mid-air, she threaded her way through two looping flanks of scales, darted through a pair of snapping jaws, and skimmed the slimy lake's surface as she made a bee-line for the rock formation. She flapped her wings harder than she had ever before. She could hear the conjoined hiss of nearly a dozen giant eels speeding towards her from behind. With dexterous grace, she soared straight towards a “fork” in the rising rock formation, spun sideways, and effortlessly slipped through them.

The monsters behind her were hardly as nimble. Six of them in a row slammed murderously into the rock, sending chunks of limestone debris flying across the echoing chamber. They collapsed like a giant bag of wet noodles as several more eels slithered past them and resumed their chase, albeit at an increased distance.

Rainbow Dash exhaled in relief. She had been successful. She now had the space she needed to fly forward, unimpeded, and find a tunnel that could safely take her out of that place. Using her head and agility, the pegasus had once again avoided death, and now she was speeding for her life.

Then she stopped in the middle of the giant cavern.

Rainbow Dash hovered in place, her deadpan face strewn with sweat and slime.

The roar of splashing water increases as the remaining quarry eels converged on her.

Slowly, Rainbow Dash pivoted around, and her pendant's light along with her. She stared into the faces of the incoming eels. Her jaw tightened until her gritting teeth showed. Flapping her wings harder, she lowered her goggles and performed a complete about-face, flying directly towards the incoming phalanx of monsters.

Their red eyes glinted from the light of her neckpiece. Theirs forest of razor sharp teeth glistened with slime and saliva. Powered by hunger and rage, they lunged straight at their prey.

Rainbow Dash's eyes flared beneath the goggles. The ceiling shook and the water parted ways as she burned a lightning bolt's path towards them, greeting their menacing scales and serrated teeth with a long, loud, and haunting scream.

Stalactite

View Online

Someone flinched, and it wasn't Rainbow Dash.

As soon as the first of the many eels twitched, Rainbow Dash angled her wings towards the lake. As a result, her body lifted up at the last millisecond, landing her hooves square in the center of the giant serpent's forehead. As a result of her full-on-impact, the monster's skull was sent colliding with all of the others. The eels collapsed like a wet sack of meat. A huge explosion of lake water shot up, but Rainbow Dash was already majestically climbing above it. She shot straight towards the ceiling, and to her luck she saw a bright circle of light. There was a vertical tunnel directly above her daring charge, and it was bordered by several thin stalactite formations. Surging straight towards the hole, she twirled so that her hooves came into contact with one of the limestone spikes. She snapped it effortlessly off the ceiling and carried it with her into the thin corridor.

The echoes doubled, tripled. She knew without looking that two or three of the eels were darting up into the tunnel to chase after her. She also realized that they would catch up to her in mere seconds, seeing as they had to have been the ones who carved these corridors to begin with.

Rainbow Dash maintained her speed, darting up the tunnel, flying towards the light, piercing the storm's rainwater pelting her from thousands of feet up. She felt the air turning rancid, heating up from the pursuing eels at her tail.

She had waited long enough. Finally, she pivoted the broken stalactite in her grasp so that she was scraping it along opposite sides of the thin tunnel at the same time. Showering sparks and pebbles, she spun in her ascent, carving the tunnel wider like a buzz-saw climbing its blurred way to the surface. The tunnel shook and crumbled, and soon it couldn't handle the punishment. Rivulets of cracking rock outraced Rainbow Dash. Everything threatened to collapse all around her.

It was at this moment that the first of several hissing eels caught up with her. Its jaws lunged for her prismatic tail hairs.

With a snarl, Rainbow Dash flung what was left of the stubby stalactite down so that the creature awkwardly swallowed it. She then kicked her hooves off the gaping jaws of the thing and propelled herself upwards. The boost was well-timed, for a claustrophobic avalanche of crumbling rock was filling the tunnel. Soon, all of the eels beneath her shrieked as the lower end of the tunnel collapsed, carrying their meaty weight back down towards the distant nesting cave below.

Just as the combined cacophony of their collapsing bodies filled the chamber, Rainbow Dash had reached the light. She burst out into a blindingly bright world, beset with rainwater, thunder, and wind. Her body spun awkwardly into the chaos, dodging gale force wind and sheets of needle-sharp precipitation. Ultimately, she dove towards the earth, ricocheted off a hilltop, and came to a grinding stop in a soaked bed of soil and grass.

Rainbow Dash slumped to a stop there, panting. She was covered in water, slime, mud, and sweat. She was filthy and soaked to the bone. She was also laughing.

Rainbow Dash's guffawing voice broke through the storm, challenging the lightning. She rolled over and clutched her mud-stained chest. As she cackled and gasped, her mouth caught gallons of rain hammering down at her. But it made no difference.

She was alive.

Her goggled eyes opened, taking in the cloud cover above. She smiled at the random flashes of lightning and bursts of sunlight, until her vision was overcome by just how gray everything was. Slowly—like a deflating balloon—her laughter stopped and her smile melted away. Eventually she gulped and just lay there, becoming one with the moisture.

She was alive, but she was still alone.

Minutes passed, even an hour, during which Rainbow spent the entire storm sitting up on her haunches and staring into the water-soaked landscape. Her back was to the east, but she knew it would only be a matter of time before she turned around completely and resumed her trek. For the moment, she simply enjoyed the natural shower. She could have caught a cold. She could have even risked pneumonia, but she wasn't afraid.

There was more than one way to cheat death, and if Rainbow Dash was anything, she was an explorer.

Stars

View Online

When night fell, Rainbow Dash was actually ready for it. She set up camp beneath a pair of dead trees on the east face of a low mountain. With the aid of flint and steel, she started a humble fire and laid herself besides the flames to dry her body.

Thankfully, her saddlebag was made of stern stuff. The royal fabric had little to no risk of allowing any moisture to leak through. That didn't stop her—however—from habitually opening the pouches and examining the contents within. The bread was ever crumbling, but still edible. She chewed on a few morsels with boring precision before moving on to the rest of the pack. The map was untouched. The hatchet hadn't rusted. The green book...

Rainbow Dash lingered. She slowly blinked and icily moved the tome beyond sight.

Reaching into the saddlebag once again, she produced the red apple. It was as shiny and beautiful as the bright afternoon when she plucked it. Squinting through the flickering firelight, she polished the surface once more and smiled proudly at the fruit's glistening skin. Her stomach—barely aided by the stale bread—gurgled deliciously for the sweet object in her grasp. She did not give into it, and instead placed the fruit back into the deepest recesses of the saddlebag.

Minutes later, Rainbow Dash was lying on her back, her ears enchanted by the percussion of the campfire's crackling embers. She gazed at the stars, not with amazement and wonder but rather with a placid solemnity. It seemed as though no matter how far she flew or how many miles she traveled, the constellations looked the same, so that the lone pegasus wondered if she had crossed any distance at all.

At least the stars had texture to them. Drawing in and out of the streaming band of the Milky Way, she could have sworn she saw color—blues and reds pushing and pulling at her eyes. However, she danced with them like a stone golem would patrol a cemetery. There were too many stars to grow attached to. Rainbow Dash wondered if there was another pony like her a galaxy away, staring back and seeing her as just one more insignificant speck of light amidst the canvas of eternity. In the end—as her squinting eyes took her into the unforgiving realm of sleep—all of the light bled into a heartless gray, and it felt to Rainbow Dash as if she had never taken to the air to begin with.

She tried to shatter these thoughts. She remembered the quarry eels. She remembered countless other dangers that she had recently encountered, each of them wild and spectacular. She had flown fearlessly into the angry faces of anything and everything she had come across, and still the night's sky looked gray as she fell into slumber.

So she embraced blackness instead. Clenching her eyes tightly shut, she rolled herself into her blankets until they enshrouded her like a cocoon. Somewhere in the midst of that lonesome dark, she felt her head filling with her own heartbeat. It was something worth dancing to, and it made herself feel like she had the ability to show off once more.

And as if to grant her most secret wish, she had no dreams that night. When the stars passed over Rainbow Dash, they shone over a smile.

Dizzy

View Online

By the next afternoon, Rainbow Dash had traveled a great distance. Unlike the two days previous, she hadn't let any passing landscape or random sight interrupt her. She coasted with great speed, breaking the clouds and piercing her way eastward like she was a second sun on an unwavering path.

When the horizon grew dim enough, she slid the shades out from her goggles and squinted at the world below. With clear vision, she saw the mountains smoothing from jutting frames to rolling curves. Instead of barren rock, the mountainous terrain was covered with a dense ocean of green fur trees. The air was thick with oxygen and life. Several flocks of birds criss-crossed with Rainbow's path as she sped towards a dark spot on the horizon.

From a distance, Rainbow tried to discern just what the grand blemish was. She had flown over so many mountain ranges that she had practically memorized the shape of such geographical features. She wondered if perhaps she was spotting a rainstorm on the horizon, but as she sped further and further towards it, the dark spot failed to move.

Her lips pursed as her forehead scrunched in thought. She wondered if it could have been smoke from a forest fire, or a random mesa jutting up from the ground, or even some building of sorts. How long had it been since she had seen civilization? She had studied the map on several breaks during her trek, and though she found the entire process boring, she had become well acquainted with many countries lying on the far right edge of her illustrated guide.

In the middle of her pondering, she was interrupted by the horrible sensation of her eyes forcibly rolling back in her head. Rainbow Dash's entire world jolted as her wings briefly went numb, throwing her body limply through the air. She coughed, spat, and struggled to jerk her wings into action. Her vision had all but left her, and a nauseous dizziness was taking her over.

It was happening again.

She tried not to panic. She held her breath, relaxed her muscles, and stretched her twitching wings straight out. With remarkable grace, she glided her spasming body slowly downward, so that she approached the earth in a steady descent instead of a rock-hard plummet. All the while, the dizziness only intensified. The windy air filled with a low bass hum. By the time she regained control of her eyes, she saw the dim glow of her pendant fluctuating on its own, and then she saw a sea of green tree tops screaming at her.

Rainbow Dash held her breath. She covered her face with her forelimbs. Her body barreled into branch after branch of sharp leaves and needles. Grunting, she bore the multiple slaps to her torso and skimmed her way downward until her nostrils smelled the dank earth. At the last second, she spun around and absorbed the impact with the soil through her side.

A loud gasp escaped her lips. She toppled. She rolled. She finally came to a tumbling stop against a mound of wet dirt. There, she curled into a blue ball and clutched the glowing pendant about her neck. A practiced hiss came out of her lips as she weathered the waves of dizziness coming out of her.

She had been through this before. She had been in worst spots when it hit. She simply had to keep calm, keep breathing, and wait it out. The world spun around her. There was no up or down, only her mind in the center of a great spinning chaos. She tore her goggles off, plopped them on the ground, and covered her clenched eyelids with a pair of hooves. She was afraid to open her eyes, for she knew the entire world would look nothing but gray.

Finally, after several hyperventilating minutes, the dizziness faded away. Rainbow Dash didn't need to see to know that the pendant had stopped glowing. All she cared was that she had found the earth again, and it was warm and blessing to the touch. She cuddled the muddy ground like a foal would nuzzle up to her mother's side, and finally... finally her breaths returned to a normal pace.

All in all, it wasn't so bad.

She sat up and opened her bleary eyes. She reeled; she was still dizzy. But the nausea was gone, and she realized she could move if she wanted to. First, though, she had to pick up her goggles. When she grabbed them and lifted them to her face, she briefly saw her reflection and immediately wished she hadn't.

Her eyes were different: red specks against yellow marbles.

She blinked. Just like that, her ruby pupils and white cornea returned. Rainbow's nostrils flared. Everything was back to normal, or at least as normal as she could afford them to be.

She slid the goggles up but let them stay on her brow. After all, she knew that it'd be a good few hours before she felt healthy enough to fly again. She had done this dance far too many times to expect otherwise.

Sighing, she broke into a wobbly trot, shaking off the last threads of dizziness as she scaled up the mountainside on hoof. Her only regret was that the day's perfect flight had been interrupted. There was still the next day, Rainbow Dash reasoned. It was a palpable enough thought to make her smile, and her pace quickened.

Twinkling

View Online

Rainbow Dash's muscles ached. She mentally cursed herself for allowing exhaustion to take over. All her life, she had become acquainted with flapping her wings and propelling herself everywhere through the air. With meager shame, she realized that she desperately needed to put her earthen limbs through more of a workout. With the trek ahead of her, now was as good a time as ever to become familiar with her gift for galloping.

Still, her pace was a slow, even gait. She was attempting to master endurance moreso than speed. In a steady trot, she ascended a steep hilltop. She passed through the brown bodies of fur trees. Twigs snapped underneath as she scaled loose rocks and ducked under passing branches.

Her dizziness had almost entirely dissipated, and yet she wasn't about to take wing. Experience had taught her that after such “episodes” it was wise to wait a space of two hours before attempting to fly again.

By the time she reached the top of the forested hill, a deep red glow penetrated the trees. She skidded to a stop, her heart beating, for she briefly feared that her pendant was shimmering again. However, as she came upon a break in the trees, she realized it was something else entirely.

The sun was setting behind her, and the shadow of the mountain swimming over the eastern landscape cast miles upon miles of low lying forests with a purple haze. It was as if a blanket of pure magic had been tossed across the world. Towards the edge of the horizon, where the sun was most distant from the waking world, a thin line of cool blue tones prophesied the arrival of night. If Rainbow Dash was to face west and then twirl one hundred and eighty degrees back towards her boundless destination, she'd be greeted with half a spectrum's worth of melting colors.

The dark shadow against the eastern horizon was still there, but it appeared no closer to her perspective. She wondered over just how immensely huge the structure must have been. From the distant angle, Rainbow Dash assumed that perhaps it could have been a massive butte. There was no telling just how tall the structure was, but the fact that it was noticeable from several miles away made her ponder...

Certainly it had to have been on the map. Rainbow Dash squatted down and reached into her saddlebag. She was halfway through unscrolling the parchment when something dimmed in her peripheral vision.

She tilted her gaze up, blinking. She saw the bands of purple shadows washing over the valley below. To her better judgment, Rainbow knew that it was merely the shadows of the mountain range to the west as the sun dipped beyond the crest of the world. Still, she couldn't help but feel mesmerized, enjoying the poetic notion that she was watching the very edge of night stretching over the world in real time.

Rainbow Dash knew she had only so little light left before she could look at the map without the aid of her pendant. Still, she simply sat in place on the side of the mountain—like a young filly would attend a puppet show—and gazed as the world was slowly swallowed into blissful twilight. The stars broke out overhead. The world was awash in a pale glow. If she shouted into the blossoming void, Rainbow wondered if her voice would echo all the way to the four corners of the earth.

The moon rose, and it was still not full. Rainbow Dash judged it would be just a day or two. She wondered if her voice still had any use other than yelling. Her mouth became briefly dry, so she chose to gaze away from the bright orb in the sky, and once again she was at peace.

Rainbow Dash never saw herself as a mare who appreciated beauty. But, perhaps, it was never too late to start. She sat there, staring into the edge of night, not bothering to count the passing hours. Sleep came upon her like a phantom, and she couldn't remember when the twinkling stars ended and her rolling eyes began.

Trail

View Online

By late the next morning, the sun was glaring in Rainbow Dash's eyes, but she hardly noticed. She was too busy squatting by the side of the road, staring point-blank at a series of shallow ravines cut into the earthen path. She sat in the center of a great yawning valley, just before the earth rose once again into hilly prominence.

There was no mistaking it. She was seeing wagon trails.

Her goggled vision wandered carefully over every line of detail. She counted the impressions of four wheels. Then—judging by their complexities—she added another four. She judged that two wagons had been pulled along that path within a day's time. Judging from the angle of the impressions, she imagined that the caravan had been heading uphill, into the dense forest along the edge of the eastward mountains.

Just how many ponies were in the group? She couldn't judge. But she was intrigued nevertheless by the nature of their hoofprints. Most if not all of the ponies had been wearing horseshoes—but not just any ordinary kind. They were heavily spiked, suggesting that they hailed from a landscape replete with moist, soft earth that needed to be pierced with cleats in order to provide solid balance.

Rainbow Dash stood up straight and craned her neck. From her low position, she gazed at the rising earth and the crest of the hills beyond. She saw a low cloud of heavy mist, and beyond that a gray haze that surrounded the large, shadowy structure still looming on the horizon.

The expert weather flier in her speculated that the mountain ranges divided the wind currents so that most of the moisture was being deposited east of where she was positioned. And where there was an abundance of moisture, there was typically civilization.

That's how she ultimately concluded that the tracks suggested that the wagoneers were returning home instead of heading away from it. In just a few hours of flight, she imagined she could very well be chatting with these strangers.

She took a running start, flapped her wings, and lifted off. No less than thirty minutes into flight, she saw something beneath her that caught her eyes. Circling down, she once again landed and took a measure of her surroundings. At some point—perhaps during the previous night—the wagons had come to a stop, parking at forty-five degress with one another. What was more, there was a charred spot in the center of the camp, suggesting where a fire had been made. Whoever these ponies were, they couldn't be described as very clean. They had left several scraps and litter and other less favorable belongings under the shade of a few leaf-bare trees.

Then something stood out among the rest of the detritus. Rainbow Dash's eyes instantly twitched. Shifting about on her hooves, she trotted over, bent low, and got a good look.

There was a brown bag lying besides the grass line—half hidden in the dirt from the spray of the wagon wheels spinning into motion. As soon as she touched the folded material and shifted it around in her hoof, she knew.

It was leather.

Rainbow Dash bit her lip. She had seen leather before. She had heard several ponies speak of cultures that used it. But never had she seen the tanned flesh of a creature discarded so flippantly against the earth, like errant garbage. Rainbow Dash had seen countless mountains, lakes, and streams blur by her during her weeks of flight. Nothing made her feel so much far from home than that single bag.

A sigh shook through her. She glanced once more up the trail leading towards the final ridge of mountains before the mist and the hazy structure beyond. She knew the wagoneers had to be somewhere in that dense foliage, but suddenly she wasn't certain if she wanted to make contact.

But something urged her forward anyways, something akin to the spark that made her fly face-first into a phalanx of hissing quarry eels. Rainbow Dash gave her flank a little shake, and was momentarily releaved to feel the shifting weight of the hatchet in her saddlebag.

Tightening her goggles, Rainbow Dash lifted herself up and bulleted west, ready to face whoever was prepared—or unprepared—for her.

Ponies

View Online

The edge of night was lingering overhead when Rainbow Dash caught up with them. They had come to a stop at a flat clearing of dry soil along the eastern edge of a mountain. Several tall trees towered above, stretching crooked branches over their manes like skeletal wings. Parking their two wagons at sharp angles with one another, the equine figures worked to set up camp for the evening.

There were fourteen of them total. It was a full caravan, and each individual was clad in thin strips of dark-brown armor. Some of them were hooded. Others wore metal leg-plates that matched the silver cleats of their horseshoes. If anything, they all looked appropriately geared for contending with all sorts of unimaginable wildlife. Judging from the unkempt nature of their lengthy coathairs, Rainbow Dash assumed that they had been journeying for a long, long time across the mountainous landscape.

Rainbow hid, perched quietly above the group. From where she sat on a rocky outcropping, she stared forty feet down at the scene. Her ears twitched. It had been weeks since she last heard pony voices. Being privy to such a busy conversation of muttering equines was suddenly an alarming sensation. There was not a single horn or set of wings to be seen among them, so that she wondered if they had even had it in them to suspect a sentient creature eavesdropping from above.

It wasn't as if she could make out entirely what they were saying. She heard something about a two day trip, about a deep river that needed traversing, about one of the pony's and his penchant for snoring in sleep—followed by a burst of laughter. The ponies' voices were saturated with a thick accent that Rainbow had never heard before. She briefly contemplated how remarkable it was that she could understand them even remotely after having traversed so much wilderness.

But as the minutes wore on, and the world above became darker, she grew less and less patient with these darkly-clad strangers. They had very little interesting to talk about. Their wagon supplies were filled with seemingly superfluous junk. Before her eyes, she witnessed as several burly members of the group fumbled goofily to start a fire. For the life of her, Rainbow couldn't understand how so many adult ponies could appear so tactless. As their frustration and ire grew into the advent of night, Rainbow Dash yawned, stood up, and flexed her wings to take off for the east horizon, ditching them.

She stopped, suddenly, upon spotting one particular pony's graceful gait. She squinted and lifted her goggles as she watched the figure march quietly away from the rest of the group struggling to build a fire. Once he reached the fringes of the camp, he slumped to his haunches, sighed, and reached for his brown hood. Once the article was lowered, the air lit up with a shade of gold. A young pony sat, running a hand through a short patch of silken-blonde hair that ended just behind his ears. With a look of supreme boredom, he glanced lethargically his party's way and exhaled slowly. Below Rainbow Dash, his lithe body appeared to melt into the shadows of his place, his golden head serving as a final beacon of the day.

Rainbow blinked. She glanced from him to the rest of the group, then to him again. Slowly, a smirk crossed her lips. Instead of flying away, she reached back for her saddlebag...

Flint

View Online

“What's taking so blasted long, Stonehoof?” A tall stallion in brown gear stood behind his squatting companion. “The moon's almost out! We won't survive the night if you don't get that fire started!”

“Don't blame me!” Stonehoof hissed, his face grimacing and sweating as he fought endlessly to make sparks between two sticks. “Blame Turnip Red for dropping these sticks into the stream!”

“Blame me, eh?” A red-maned stallion charged up, snarling, only to be held back by two companions. “You're the one who knocked me off the wagon, Stonehoof!”

“The least either of you could have done,” grumbled another pony, “Was fetched some new materials along the way here. This mountain is too bouldery to offer anything.”

“Why are we in such a blasted hurry?!” Stonehoof muttered and fought with the stubborn task in front of him. “It's not like Windthrow will be gone by the time we get there!”

“You know that every day counts in this delivery!” The tall stallion uttered. He lowered his hood so that several threads of gray mane hair streamed from his thin neck. “The more we delay here trying to rest our worthless legs, the more those villagers have to contend with the unthinkable!”

“I swear to the Sun Goddess!” Stonehoof growled, his eyes twitching. “I've never had so much trouble in my life! If only we had some decent—”

Four blue hooves slammed into the ground before him.

Stonehoof fell back on his spine, his legs curled like a dead cockroach's. Several more ponies gasped and pulled glinting blades out from forelimb sheathes. The tall, gray stallion merely squinted at the sight.

Rainbow Dash stood among them. She had something in her mouth. With a smirk, she spat it out so that it rested at Stonehoof's tail.

Stonehoof sat up, blinking down at some dry flint and steel. He glanced up at Rainbow Dash in mixed relief and awe.

All around the camp, ponies murmured.

“Great heavens...”

“A pegasus...”

“Where did she come from?”

“I've always heard about them, but never before have I seen one...”

“Are those wings real...?”

Rainbow Dash merely smiled. Her eyes scanned the crowd. Finally, she saw the small stallion towards the rear of the group. The pony with a blonde mane caught her eyesight, then looked away. Rainbow Dash's attention was gathered by the gray figure of the tall, elder stallion marching towards her.

“It seems as if you have something that can help us in our time of need. Remarkable timing, stranger,” he said. “What's your name?”

“I'm crazy awesome,” Rainbow Dash spoke out loud. “Who are you?”

Chuckles broke through the crowd. Several wandering ponies shared smirks and watched as their leader stepped before the blue traveler.

“I am Fulltrot, leader of this caravan,” the gray stallion said. “We're on a trip to the village of Windthrow, east of here, to deliver some very important supplies. We're already behind by a day's journey, on account of some inclement weather we encountered.”

“Rain falls where it wants to,” Rainbow Dash said, then gave a wink. “At least when there are no pegasi around.”

More chuckles. The elder, however, was more curious than amused.

“How young are you, traveler?” He paced in front of her, his eyes narrow. “You sound no more than twenty winters.”

“I'm old enough to know a party that's screwed when I see it.” Rainbow Dash pointed a hoof at the unlit campfire. “If you don't get that blazing, you might as well kiss getting to Windthunk on time goodbye.”

“Windthrow.”

“Whatever.”

“And, no doubt, you would like some payment for lending your resources,” Fulltrot exclaimed, gesturing at the flint and steel.

“Hmmmm...” Rainbow Dash licked her lips and gazed across the camp towards the wagons. “I sure wouldn't mind a change of menu from the crumbs of bread I've been eating for a solid week.” She glanced back at the elder and smirked. “If I can afford it.”

His eyes were briefly resting on her goldent pendant with the ruby lightning bolt. Slowly, he nodded. “Yes. Yes, I do believe you can.” The stallion turned towards the group, whistled shrilly, and waved a hoof as he spoke, “Alright, stallions! We finally have the means for starting a fire! So no more lazing or slacking about! Let's get a meal prepared so we can rest sooner for tomorrow morning's journey!”

As Ironhoof sparked a fire to life easily with Rainbow Dash's ingredients, the many ponies wandered every which way to gather whatever dry leaves and twigs they could find. A dull, crimson light swam across the clearing, and Rainbow once again saw the golden mane of the lithe stallion to the rear. He was trotting briskly towards a cluster of dry bushes when two other figures roughly bumped into him.

“Where do you think you're going, Sun Plate?”

“Yeah, Sun Plate, what gives?”

The short-haired pony doubled back from their brutish contact, cleared his throat, and rasped forth, “What does it look like I'm doing? We need to start a fire—”

“Don't you mean WE need to start a fire?”

“Yeah!” The other large stallion chuckled. “You're on cooking duty, remember?”

Sun Plate groaned. “Again?” His voice cracked as he gestured towards the wagons. “I was stuck doing that the last three nights in a row!”

“And if you don't fly right, your face will be stuck in the side of the mountain!”

“Now get a move on, you stupid colt!”

“Heheheh...”

Sun Plate sighed, rolled his eyes, and marched in a lurching fashion towards the wagon. He glanced over his shoulder briefly to see Rainbow Dash's gaze catching him, and immediately he pretended to ignore her.

As the toasty aura of the campfire grew warmer and warmer, Rainbow Dash looked away from the wagons and smiled at Fulltrot. “So, Mister Tall Dark and Pale...” Her teeth showed in an excited grin. “What vittles ya got?”

Taste

View Online

“Are there lots of pegasi like you in the realm of the Sun Goddess?” One of the many stallions leaned closer to the fire so that his face lit up in the night. He and his companions gazed eagerly at Rainbow Dash from where they sat in the center of the camp. “I was told that there were so many winged ponies to the west that they could summon hurricanes by their sheer flight paths!”

“Eh... we pegasi can do pretty cool things,” Rainbow Dash said. She sat on her haunches before the fire, bathed in the mesmerized gazes of so many earth ponies squatting around her. The burning wood crackled and spat ashes beneath her rasping voice, “But we're not in the business of starting hurricanes. Now tornadoes we've been known to do! Especially when it comes to gathering moisture for making rain.”

“Wow, even the rain is monitored where you live...” Another stallion remarked as his brown-garbed companions murmured in awe. “If we had pegasi here who could change the weather, it'd make life easier.”

Another stallion leaned in. “We'd also be out of a job.” He gestured towards the wagon.

Several ponies chuckled while the first stallion rolled his eyes. “Still, the magic of flight is an amazing thing.”

“It can also be a wicked awesome thing.” Rainbow Dash smirked and flexed her wings. “Especially when you know how to use it right...” Her voice trailed off as she saw a familiar blonde sight.

Sun Plate was marching towards the group. He had a tray clamped in his teeth. He laid it down before the many ponies. Once his mouth was free, he muttered in a tiny voice. “There. Freshly cut. Remember, equal shares...”

“Who are you, our mom, Sun Plate?”

“Hahahaha.”

“Heheh—”

“The boy's wise,” Fulltrot said, marching his elder frame into the amber glow as he sat down close to Rainbow Dash. “You should all listen to him. If we don't conserve our food supplies, we'll faint before we get to Windthrow.”

“Right. Enough talk. I'm famished!” Ironhoof said as he trotted by, scooped up a morsel from the tray, and began nibbling on it. The other ponies muttered under their breaths and took their shares as the tray was passed around.

Iron Plate didn't look remotely hungry, in spite of having just served the material. He ran a hoof through his short, golden threads, then glanced across the fire. Upon seeing Rainbow's receiving glance, he once more made himself scarce.

“It must be a great sky city.”

Rainbow Dash snapped out of it. She gazed aside. “Huh?”

“Where you come from,” Fulltrot continued. “There must be a great city in the sky for so many pegasi to be situated in one place. I've been in this world long enough to know that pegasi like to flock together, which is why we rarely see any of your kind this far out.”

Rainbow Dash smirked. “Well, I guess I'm just the one pegasus who felt like stretching her wings a bit more.”

“Stratopolis, perhaps?”

“Hmm? What?”

“The name of your city?”

Rainbow Dash giggled. “Ahem. No. Stratopolis is a myth. There's a reason why that city supposedly 'floated away into nothingness.' It simply never existed to begin with.”

“Nice to know that pegasi have a penchant for storytelling as much as earth ponies.”

“Yeah, if you say so.” Rainbow Dash yawned and leaned back as the tray of food was passed around towards them. “I come from a place called Cloudsdale.”

“Hmmm... Cloudsdale...”

“It's a large city. I imagine you would have... heard of it...” Rainbow Dash was distracted. She stared down at the tray as it reached Fulltrot. The morsels were thin strips of black material. She watched steadily as ponies around her casually took the stringy bits of food and shoved it between their teeth while engaging in normal conversation.

Fulltrot stared at her, taking in her reaction.

Rainbow Dash cleared her throat and tried to keep her smile from breaking. “You... You ponies have a nifty kind of a diet around here...” She gulped.

“So you're Equestrian.”

Rainbow Dash glanced at Fulltrot once more, her brow furrowed

Fulltrot paused the tray being passed between them. “I've been near the borders of the Sun Goddess' land. I know that eating meat around there is more than just taboo, it's even a crime in some parts... yes?”

“Erm... I guess you could say that, yes...” Rainbow Dash briefly lurched, clenching her jaw as if trying to hold her bile in.

“Out here, so far from the Goddess' glory, ponies have to work harder to eke resources from the world. It must come as a major shock to a pegasus such as yourself.”

“Uhhh... eheh... kind of...”

“We're not cannibals,” Fulltrot said with a calm smile. “If that makes you feel any better.”

“Oh. Yeesh. I didn't even... think of that.” Rainbow Dash gulped and stared at Fulltrot. “Though, I can't help but wonder just... uhm... what it is...”

“Let's just say,” Red Turnip spoke from a few spaces away, “There are some cows who talk less than others.”

The many stallions chuckled. Rainbow Dash seemed hardly amused.

Fulltrot saw it. “Do not worry. You've been helpful to this caravan, and it is only right that we paid you our respects.” He cleared his voice and threw it across the camp. “Sun Plate?”

The young pony glanced over from the wagons. “Sir?”

“Go into my personal supply. I think there should be some celery in the green container.”

“But... I thought... you were saving that for your return dinner with your family—”

“And they'll understand when it was necessary for me to show hospitality to a pony who deserved it. Swiftly, Sun Plate, if you could.”

The pony took a deep breath and nodded. Awkwardly, he shifted through the materials in the rear of the wagon and acquired the green edibles.

“The further you fly from Equestria...” Fulltrot's voice stole Rainbow's attention again. “...the more you'll find ponies whose way of life will shock you, maybe even disgust you. And not all creatures you meet will be so willing to accommodate for your sensibilities.”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash chuckled. “You say that as if I'm not used to traveling around.”

Fulltrot merely stared at her.

She bit her lip and her ears momentarily deflated. Staring into the cosmos and shadows of mountains somehow didn't make her feel this intimidated.

“I see before me a pony who's terribly young, and yet so terribly far from home. And as old as I am, I've never met a soul who would willfully fly herself away from the realm of the Sun Goddess. All I'm saying is that it makes me wonder. Did you really come all this way to sit down at a camp and be appalled by tanned beef?”

Sun Plate suddenly walked up, lying a plate of celery stalks at Rainbow Dash's hooves. Rainbow stared down at them. As Sun Plate left, she looked back up at Fulltrot.

“Believe it or not...” She smiled gently. “Even for somepony my age, I know that there's more than food that a pegasus lives off of.”

“And that brings me to another point of curiosity.” Fulltrot smiled gently. “Does such a pegasus come this far for a change of taste, or because Equestria no longer has that which used to fill her?”

Rainbow Dash blinked at that. She had no response. So, instead, she quietly filled her mouth with celery, her gaze falling into the fire.

Vast

View Online

“The Grand Choke, they call it,” said Red Turnip as his face gazed over the crackling embers of the campfire. “All ponies living west of it know that it was once the home to an ancient race of equines. What ponies east of the Grand Choke name the place, nopony knows, because no single living thing has been known to cross it. It is a grand dessert, full of indescribably large creatures and beasts that could swallow a grown stallion whole.”

Rainbow Dash and the many members of the caravan sat, listening as the full spread of night descended above. Ironhoof and several others had already given into slumber. Fulltrot had donned a pair of spectacles and was writing something in a tiny journal about the day's progress. Across the way, Gold Plate was examining several packs of supplies.

“There's a village just lying to the west of the Grand Choke, and the ponies who live there are said to not surpass forty winters. It's as if a pestilence is carried westward on the sandy winds,” Red Turnip uttered, his eyes flaring as he related these unsavory details. “Why they stay there is anypony's guess. Traders describe them as a somber clan of equines. Quite possibly, they're the descendants of the ancient civilization that once called the Grand Choke home, and they stay in such a nasty place as part of some time-honored duty. But what could be worth guarding in that arid wasteland? Could it be treasure? A magical tome with the key to immortal life? Every adventurer who's attempted piercing that landscape has not come back alive. Those who are wiser and wish to keep their lives intact know to travel far south and skirt the edges of the Grand Choke to get to the Great Sea beyond. But with each passing day, the borders of the Grand Choke stretch wider and wider. If somepony doesn't go into the heart of that dessert and steal what dark essence empowers it, then maybe—in the far distant future—even these lands will be covered in arid blight.”

Several ponies murmured after the end of Red's utterance.

Ironhoof suddenly revealed that he wasn't as asleep as the others had assumed. “That is the most epic sample of balderdash I've had the poor fortune of being exposed to.”

Several chuckles.

Red Turnip munched on a last piece of meat and smirked at him. “That's because you don't know how to stretch your ears to something worth being awestruck about. I've been to the edge of the Grand Choke. It is not a pleasant place. I'm thankful to return home to the Slopelands on a yearly basis. There are things far east of here—at a grand distance from the Sun Goddess—that only wishes to consume the souls of a mortal wanderer.”

“You speak as if there's nothing here worth being frightened about.” Ironhoof turned over where he was lying and squinted through the fire's aura. “Grand plumes of smoke coming from the inside of a forbidden mountain. Rumbling noises of living things in the deep. There is more lying in weight beneath the surface of our homelands than we would please ourselves to know.”

“Then how is it you sleep at night, Ironhoof?”

“You don't shut up long enough for me to find out, Red.”

Several more chuckles.

Rainbow Dash's lips curved slightly. She heard a voice from behind.

“They dramatize about travel because they've only done so little of it.”

Rainbow Dash turned and blinked at Fulltrot. “Huh?”

The elder paused in scribbling in his journal. “None of them have seen much of the world. Not really. I've traveled far more than all of these brazen colts combined, and even I don't find much worth sharing. The way I see it, you can't convey the glory of this vast world through words anymore than you can through gestures. Ponies have to truly see the diversity of the realms beyond the Slopelands for themselves. Those who've only barely pierced such immensity must make up for it with stories.”

Rainbow Dash smiled. “But stories can be fun.”

“To give into imagination has an undeniable touch of foalish excitement.” Fulltrot nodded. “But once you've been everywhere—I mean truly been everywhere—exhaustion encompasses any and all enthusiasm.”

“Wanna tell them that?” Rainbow Dash motioned towards the group. “I think it'd burst their bubble.”

“So long as they expect this world to surprise them, it makes them do their job better. Otherwise, they'd be exactly where I would wish to be.”

“Where's that?”

“Home, child.” Fulltrot gazed at her. “Some of us are sane, you know.”

She didn't directly respond to that.

Fulltrot didn't expect her to. He next said, “I imagine you need a secure place to retire for the evening.”

“Not a bad idea.”

“You're welcome to stay by our fire. You helped build it, after all.”

“What about your caravan?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Where will you be headed in the morning?”

“Oh, you needn't concern yourself with our journey,” Fulltrot said. “Our proceedings would seem rather dull to your standards.”

“You don't know who you're talking to.” Rainbow Dash smiled. “I live to improve dull things.”

He squinted at her. His aged lips curved slightly. “Very well. If you're so inclined, we'll be picking up an hour before sunrise. If it doesn't interrupt your journey, we'll be heading due east towards Windthrow.”

“Heading east, huh?” Rainbow Dash looked across the fire-lit camp.

She saw Iron Plate yawning, his body stretching in a less-than-graceful manner. He glanced aside at Rainbow Dash, furrowed his brow, and immediately turned towards the wagons.

Rainbow Dash took a breath and glanced at Fulltrot again. She spoke above the murmuring ponies in the background. “I can totally do 'east.'”

Delicious

View Online

The moon was bright, luminous, and pale. However, it still hadn't reached its full phase.

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. Sitting on a high branch several feet above the sleeping caravan of ponies, she leaned back against the main trunk of the tree and ran a hoof up to her golden pendant. She felt the glossy contours of the ruby lightning bolt just beneath the nape of her neck.

Her ears twitched, as if expecting to hear a voice murmuring through the winds of the night at any moment. Silence reigned, solacing the brief spike in her heartbeat. She clenched and unclenched her jaw, as if still reeling from the bizarre act of having talked out loud to so many ponies just an hour or two before.

Rainbow Dash couldn't sleep. There was no point in pretending that she could. She had sped so much over the world that the rise and fall of the Sun had become just as inconsequential as all the other fine details of the landscape she blurred past. In fact, if she could do away with slumber, she would. It served only to cramp her style. Not only that, but on the few occasions that she gave into sleep, all that awaited her was a realm of gray layers, the forboding curtains of dreams.

It was easy to pass the nocturnal, insomniac tedium when she was alone, when all she had to commune with were the stars. But here, in the wake of hearing so many ponies talk and tell fantastic stories of the world, she could hardly sit still without wanting to take off and spin laps around the forest. It were chance meetings akin to this one that reminded Rainbow Dash, deep down, that there was no way to shake the fact that she was a social pony. Her eastward flight had introduced her to solitude, and it wasn't so terrible a sensation as long as it was her only sensation.

So it was with undeniably relief that she detected a sign of life rustling beneath her. Rainbow Dash craned her neck. In the shadows below, a figure was trotting lightly through the underbush. There was the faintest glint of starlight reflecting off an amber coat. It didn't take Rainbow Dash long to figure out who owned the lithe limbs and petite body.

“You really shouldn't let them treat you like that,” Rainbow Dash said with a smirk.

The figure stopped dead in his tracks, followed by a sharp gasp. A pair of eyes reflected the moonlight like silver goggles below. “Do pegasi ever sleep?”

“Only when we feel like it.” Rainbow Dash blinked. She saw a thousand mid-afternoon snapshots from her past, and all of them laced with the hazy fog of a nap taken above the rooftops of a bright and happy home. She blinked again, and everything was once more blissfully dark. “I haven't felt like it in a while. I'm too busy flying. What about you?”

“What about me?” Gold Plate's cracking voice stammered.

“Are you taking a running start? You gotta have wings if you wanna fly off the mountain's edge.”

“Wow,” the young stallion grunted. “You Celestians are really full of it.”

“Equestrians,” Rainbow Dash corrected. “And I'd rather be full of it than be spilling out all over the place.” She glanced down further from the branch. Seriously. Isn't it late for a stroll?”

“I was just returning to camp.”

“Returning from what?”

“What do you think?”

“Ohhhhhh... Heheheh...” Rainbow Dash chuckled. “Guess I'm not the only one who was full of it.”

“Whatever. I'm going back to camp...” He started trotting away.

Rainbow Dash yawned and leaned back on her branch. “I still think you shouldn't let them treat you like crud.”

His hooves spun in the dirt as his figure glanced up to face her. “Hey, this caravan depends on me! I only take their smack cuz if I left them, they'd all starve or dehydrate or even worse!”

“Seems like a rather selfless task you've got. Do they ever thank you?”

“Why do you care?”

Rainbow Dash glanced aside. A sliver of moonlight glinted off her pendant. “Because, where I come from, loyalty is never something that goes unrewarded.”

“Then what are you doing here, so far from home?”

For once, Rainbow Dash was silent.

Gold Plate sighed. “Look, I'm sorry. You were kind enough to give us fire. You don't need me griping...”

“Heh. Who's griping?”

“I just...” Gold Plate's shadow shifted. There was lasting rustle of leaves, and he murmured, “I've got friends back in Windthrow, and they're really depending on this shipment we're making. It bugs me that we've taken so long to get back there. Fulltrot's not the expert guide that he used to be. Time is catching up on him. If this was a trip being made a year ago, we would have been back by now.”

“It doesn't seem like he's gotten much help,” Rainbow Dash said. “He's got a hearty bunch of ponies in his caravan, but they don't seem to put the muscle into it all.”

“It's not that. These shipments... they only help Windthrow for a short time.”

“Help? Help with what?”

Gold Plate didn't answer that. Instead, he glanced up and murmured, “You're a pegasus. Is it true what they say about you being able to make the sky rain?”

“Technically, it's the clouds we make rain. And even then...” Rainbow Dash smiled. “...it would take waaaaaaaaay more than just one born-and-raised Cloudsalian like me to move water high enough into the sky to rain back down on the world.” She leaned her head aside. “Why you ask?”

“Erm... No reason.” Gold Plate yawned, stretching his limbs. “Nnngh... Well. Gotta be up in two hours for breakfast. Don't want to make the other guys angry on top of being hungry before we pull out.”

“Don't worry. I'm sure you'll be delicious.”

“What? I... You... Ugh!” Gold Plate stomped off, fuming.

Rainbow Dash chuckled. As the pony wandered off, and she once again sat alone in the treetops, she found her smile fading away under a sudden cascade of shadows, as if all of the many miles behind her were bunching up onto her shoulders. The sheer weight drove her breath out in a long sigh, and she once again found her hoof gently caressing the cold metall frame of the pendant around her neck.

The stars took their sweet time dying out.

Survey

View Online

“I don't really like her hovering around like this,” Ironhoof muttered as he marched along.

“She can totally hear you, Ironhoof,” Red Turnip said.

“Am I the only one bothered by a pegasus flying over us like a winged halo?” Ironhoof glanced back at the two dozen other ponies marching with leather saddlebags full of heavy equipment. It was morningtime. The bright golden sun glittered down through the tree tops as the caravan wove their way down a mountainside clustered with forest. Ironhoof in particular was pulling one of the wagons as he flared his nostrils in the spring air. “Just where does a pony get of sportin' a mane that fruity anyways? Are all equines from the west so crazy looking?”

“Only the ones who make you look bad for trying to start a fire.”

“Hey, shut up.”

The caravan was awash in chuckling voices. Fulltrot wove in and out of the solid line of travelers. He carried very little on his body, so that he could easily reach the front or rear of the group in a blink in order to observe the trek's progress. He walked with disinterest past Ironhoof and the other chattering stallions. As he brushed past Gold Plate, he gave the young pony a side-glance. Gold Plate, struggling to hold up barely half the weight of the other equines, sweated and winced visibly in the nonstop march. Upon the elder's glance, he did his best to hide any sign of buckling. Once Fulltrot trotted out of visual range, Gold Plate let out a huge breath as his shoulders sagged.

Meanwhile, Ironhoof was still rambling. “It's a bad sign, I'm telling you. Her presence here doesn't bode well. Remember that last time, two years ago, when we had a random traveler join our caravan? We got washed out by a flash flood!”

“This is a pegasus, Ironhoof. The least of our concerns should be inclement weather.”

“But what if she's cursed?! You see that golden necklace that she wears! Perhaps she pilfered that from a forsaken chamber of pony souls!”

“You know, I can—like—totally hear you, right?” Rainbow Dash flew low enough for the caravan to see her smirk.

Ironhoof briefly tripped, nearly being run over by his own wagon. Several ponies around him chuckled as he blushed and glared at the blue blur of Rainbow Dash soaring overhead.

Rainbow Dash skimmed over the crowd, lifted up, and bounced from branch to branch as she grazed the roof of the forest. She paused on a particularly large tree, staring out at the landscape ahead of them. On the horizon was the large structure, still billowing from its gray mass with smoke. Below it, the mountains gave way to a rolling valley of lush green trees and shimmering blue streams.

Squinting, Rainbow Dash got a decent survey of the terrain. Her wings twitched upon seeing something. She glanced down and judged the direction that the caravan was heading. In a determined breath, she dove and flew among the line of marching ponies.

“Hey, where's your boss?”

“Huh?” Gold Plate could barely breathe.

Rainbow Dash hovered alongside the blond stallion. “What's your deal, dude? It looks like you just ran a thousand miles.”

“Never mind that. What do you wanna see Fulltrot for?”

“Cuz, if you think you're exhausted now, just wait until this afternoon.”

“I don't get it...”

“We're taking the long way to get to our destination.”

“How would you know that? You're not from around here!”

“Let's just say that I've learned a thing or two about how the earth works during my flight here.”

“If you think you can convince him to take a detour, be my guest,” Gold Plate murmured. He pointed ahead with his head. “He's at the front of the caravan.”

“Thanks.”

“For what?”

“Your permission.” Rainbow Dash gave a wink and was gone.

Gold Plate sighed. He briefly stumbled on a tree root, bumping into Red Turnip.

“Hey! Watch it, pipsqueak.”

“Mmm... s-sorry...”

Traverse

View Online

“I've been travelling these lands for as long as I've been able to gallop,” Fulltrot said as he stood at the crest of a hill jutting just above the forest. “I was mapping the rivers below us before your parents were even born, I'm willing to bet.” He turned and squinted at the blue pegasus. “Do you mean to tell me that there's a quicker path to Windthrow that I've suddenly overlooked?”

“Lemme ask you this, old timer.” Rainbow Dash hovered above him. Her neck pendant glinted in the sunlight as she turned and pointed northeast. “If you were to cross that part of the river up there, just south of the rapids, would the land on the other side offer you a far quicker path to your destination?”

“If we could all fly like you, then certainly we would cross there,” Fulltrot said with a nod. His caravan was lingering down in the woods below them, waiting for this tiny conversation to run its course. “But earth ponies must learn to take advantage of the few, meager opportunities this land allows us. There's a portion of the river a mile south that's shallow enough for us to cross. We've traversed that spot for decades.”

“Right. I'm telling you right now.” Rainbow Dash gestured northeast once again. “There's a spot up there that'll take you to where you need to go faster.”

“You mean to say that there's an even shallower spot to cross the river?”

“Something like that.”

“And what if I take your word for it and it sets my caravan back? You've been quite helpful, traveller. But I hope you understand my reticence. You are, after all, still a stranger.”

“Hey...” Rainbow Dash touched down in front of him and flexed her wings. “I give you my word. You can cross there. One way or another, I'm gonna get you to where you need to go by nightfall.”

Some of the ponies down below heard that utterance. They murmured and shifted nervously in their brown armor. Fulltrot squinted curiously at Rainbow. “By nightfall... You certainly are bold.”

“I couldn't stand to look at myself in the mirror if I wasn't.”

“I'm inclined to make my own judgments in this situation, ma'am,” Fulltrot said while pacing about her. “But still, how am I to trust you? I've barely known you for a day. I can say the same for my entire caravan.”

“Ask yourself this...” Rainbow Dash smirked. “Has anything nearly as awesome as me stumbled upon your troupe in all your years of running the same, boring path?”

Fulltrot's expression was blank. “I fail to see how that pertains to anything, traveller.”

“Trust me.” She lifted up, winked, and darted towards the northern stretch of river. “If there's one thing I don't do, it's give up on loyalty.”

“And since when were you loyalty to me or my caravan?”

“Since you turned out to be pretty cool guys!” She shouted from where she flew. “Now are you following me or what?”

Fulltrot took a deep breath. From behind him, Ironhoof marched up.

“Sir, it's almost noon. Are we going to continue on the path?” He glanced over the elder's head to see Rainbow Dash soaring northward. “Where is she headed, exactly?”

“I think we're about to find out.” Fulltrot eventually murmured. He turned and marched downhill. “Gather the ponies and tell them to follow my lead.”

“We're going where she's going?!” Ironhoof exclaimed. “Sir, she's a stranger! A crazy one to boot! Who knows what could have brought her this far from her homeland—”

“Conviction, Ironhoof.”

“Huh? What was that, boss?”

“Pay attention. You just may find out.”

Whoops

View Online

When Gold Plate marched out of the treeline, he trotted directly into a cloud of grumbling voices and angry grunts. Blinking, he glanced up and lowered his brown hood down with a hoof. He saw the entire front end of the caravan stalled at a deep stretch of rippling water. Gold Plate had hardly paid attention, but he suddenly realized that the caravan had met the river at a spot that they weren't accustomed to crossing. The brook indeed looked too terribly deep, stretching over thirty feet to the other side of the valley that led towards Windthrow. What was more, he wasn't the only one who observed this.

“Look at this!” Ironhoof growled, shaking an incredulous hoof. “She led us to an impasse!”

“You've gotta be kidding me,” added Red Turnip.

“Why did we follow this blue pegasus?” another stallion uttered.

“Fulltrot, was this your idea?”

“It's going to take hours to head south and find a passable spot!”

“By the Sun Goddess! We'll never make it to Windthrow on time!”

“We were late enough as it was...”

Gold Plate bit his lip. As a shadow blurred overhead, he gazed up into the sky.

In spite of everypony's griping, Rainbow Dash was flying tranquil loops about the scene. She whistled to herself and scanned the location with calm, ruby eyes.

Fulltrot, in the meantime, was clearing his throat and marching up to the top of a smooth boulder beside the lake. Closer to the ears of Rainbow Dash, he cast the caravan a tired glance and murmured to the winds, “Traveller, I do hope you have an explanation for this. My stallions have grown restless. I was not the only one to have put my trust in you, it seems.”

“Oh ye of little pizazz...” Rainbow Dash smirked. Stifling a giggle, she hovered directly above the deep river just south of churning rapids. “The best part is yet to come. When I give you the signal, you and your ponies should go on ahead and cross.”

“And just how do you expect us to do that?!” Ironhoof barked, frowning viciously as several stallions behind him voiced their mutual disapproval. “Unless you've got a couple of seaponies stowed away in your saddlebag, I don't see how a single pegasus is gonna get us to the other side!”

“Well, it's a good thing I'm a single pegasus. Why would you need a whole squadron of me?” Rainbow Dash remarked. “We're not trying to cross an ocean, now are we?”

“Uhhh...”

“What is she going on about?”

“Shhh!” Fulltrot hissed at his workers. He turned and gazed up at Rainbow once more. “We could surely use with some miraculous Equestrian magic right about now.”

“How many times do I have to tell you?” Rainbow Dash slipped her goggles over her eyes, magnifying a winking expression through the noonday light. “I'm awesome. Leave 'miraculous' for your early arrival in Windthrow tonight!”

Gold Plate did a double-take, not so much because of that statement but for the fact that he could have sworn the wink was aimed at him. He stood in the shadows of Red Turnip in the others, watching nervously.

“Traveller, if you would care to explain yourself—” Fulltrot began.

But Rainbow Dash was already flying high in the air. She lifted up in a backflip, let her wings go limp, stalled, and plummeted straight back down. As she fell earthward, she spun her body into a vicious corkscrew. At the last second, she pulled up, skimmed the waters, and lifted in a curved arch. Slowly at first, then faster and faster with each revolution, she spun a counter-clock-wise cyclone above the river. Her body soon became a sapphire blur. Wind picked up, kicking the leather hoods and cowls off the delivery stallions trying their best to watch by riverside. Then, when the unnatural gales were just starting to become unbearable, the rippling noises of the river died out.

Upon a second glance, the ponies realized—to their breathless amazement—that the brook had died out before them, and a moist but decidedly clean path had been formed across the body of water. They murmured in shock and looked up to see the cyclone building into a mesmerizing water spout. From the center of this tantalizing phenomenon, Rainbow Dash's raspy voice shouted.

“Now! Move it! Move it! Move it!”

Fulltrot was already smiling. The wrinkles in his facial features smoothed as he spun and shouted at his cohorts. “You heard her, stallions! Make for the other side! Don't give her any longer to wear herself out!”

Ironhoof and Red Turnip exchanged surprised glances. When Fulltrot shouted a second time, they kicked dirt up and galloped across the muddy expanse, dragging equipment with them. In quick order, all two dozen-plus ponies ran one after the other until they were safely on the east side, and undeniably dry. Gold Plate took up the rear, panting for fear that the river would close up on him at any second. He briefly stumbled, only to be helped by the guiding hoof of Fulltrot. Both young and old ponies were across, and they were greeted by a loud series of ecstatic cheers.

That was the signal that Rainbow Dash needed, and she began slowing her spin of the cyclone. In a swift cascade, the crystal blue waters refilled the expanse, and the river gradually became whole once again.

“Whew! That was incredible!”

“Did you see that?! That's pegasus miracle-work right there!”

“Hah! You heard her! 'Awesome' is the most appropriate word I've ever heard!”

“My stars! Windthrow is just beyond the last ridge! We'll make record time!”

“Heheh!” Red Turnip laughed loudly, slapping Ironhoof in the side and grinning. “What do you say to that, ya cantering fool? How's that for an impasse?”

“Pfft... So?” Ironhoof frowned at the others. “So she knows one really nifty trick.”

Just as he uttered that, Rainbow Dash finished her cyclonic flight. All of the last bits of water fell to the earth, all except for one. She donated it to Ironhoof with a flyby, her wings blowing at his incredibly soaked mane.

“Whoops!” She chuckled as she darted once more into the air.

Ironhoof blinked, drenched from mane to tail. “Okay. So make that two tricks.”

“Snkkkt-Hah hah hah hah!” Red Turnip guffawed.

Several more ponies rolled and bellowed with joy. One of the wagons nearly teetered over as the entire caravan shook with hilarity. Even Fulltrot managed a smirk as he patted Ironhoof's soaked shoulder and trotted towards the front of the group to reform ranks.

In the meantime, Gold Plate was blinking. Just as his lips started to curve, he looked up and saw Rainbow Dash flying low. Rainbow was glittering all over from a myriad of water droplets clinging to her coat and hair. She gave her prismatic mane a wild toss, flapped her wings majestically in the sun, and soared towards the horizon to scout ahead of the group. As she flew over the tree tops, her toned muscles stood out against the green haze of fluttering leaves.

Gold Plate took a deep breath. As the caravan regrouped and resumed its unimpeded march east, he raised his hood over his head in time to shadow a slight blush to his orange cheeks.

Mists

View Online

“Have you seen Ursa Majors?” Red Turnip asked.

“Well, I've seen an Ursa Minor, if that counts,” Rainbow Dash said as she flapped her wings over the marching caravan. “And along the way here, I could have sworn I saw some wicked awesome -looking Timberwolves.”

The stallions murmured among themselves. A group of wagon-pulling ponies that had otherwise ignored Rainbow Dash earlier was suddenly captivated by her presence. “Have you seen any mountains along your journey?” another one asked.

“Heh. Yeah.” Rainbow Dash folded her front limbs and rolled her eyes in mid-flight. “I've seen my fair share of mountains, alright. I even flew into one of them, poked my head around, and ran into a bunch of ugly quarry eels.”

“Quarry eels?!”

“You mean to say you've chanced upon those creatures and actually survived?!”

“Pfft! She boasts!” Ironhoof remarked with a smirk. “I've known several ponies who've encountered monsters twice as ghastly and yet survived!”

“He's got a point!” Rainbow Dash spun circles in the air, exclaiming, “Why, I'm willing to bet his mother has run into several giant eels. After all, he's here, isn't he?”

“Yeah, I—” Ironhoof did a double-take. “Hey!”

The many stallions around the scene laughed. Even Fulltrot and Gold Plate had curved lips as Rainbow Dash flew overhead, drawing in more of the chuckles.

“If you came from Equestria, then you must have encountered several unicorns,” Red Turnip spoke. “Is it true that a non-unicorn nose bleeds whenever a magical horn nearby projects energy?”

“If that was true, I would have died from passing out years ago!”

“You mean you actually knew unicorns?” Another stallion exclaimed. “As friends?”

Rainbow Dash paused in mid-air, hovering. Her crossed arms covered the glinting surface of her golden pendant. “A couple,” she said, nodding. “Yeah.”

“Even... Even the Sun Goddess?” Red Turnip's voice rose again. “Did you ever actually meet her?”

At that, any sign of Rainbow Dash's smirk dissolved. She cleared her throat and flew ahead. “Yeah. Her too.”

“That must have been really incredible—”

“Why's it so misty up ahead?” Rainbow Dash ignored him, instead choosing to gesture at the smoggy weather hovering above a dense layer of treetops. The large structure was definitely closer, but the bleak atmosphere obstinately refused to reveal any details. “I'm a weather flier by trade; this isn't exactly natural.” She sniffed the air and made a face. “Nor is it pleasant. Ick...”

“This is the last hurdle,” Fulltrot said. “It always comes down to this as we approach Windthrow.” The elder turned and barked at the solid line of ponies. “Keep together, everyone! The air here is thick with smog! Do not spread apart so far that you cannot see the one before or ahead of you. At every few intervals, I shall call out for roll. We are almost home, ponies. Let us not let all our distance go to waste now.”

Gold Plate took a deep breath. Trotting past him, Red Turnip nudged the coltish pony.

“What, you scared, pipsqueak?” Red Turnip grinned.

Gold Plate frowned. “Not at all!” He shifted the weight on his bucklind shoulders and shuffled ahead. “I've marched over this path dozens of times!”

“Yeah...” Ironhoof suppressed a snicker as he trudged along. “In your momma's womb, maybe.”

A few stallions chuckled. Gold Plate rolled his eyes. Adjusting the hood over his golden head, he glanced up at the foreboding mists, shuddered, and moved along.

Fangs

View Online

The world had become a gray, misty tunnel for Gold Plate, afforded depth soley from the echoes of caravan ponies trotting ahead and behind him. He trudged along, his eyes glued to the mulch and muddied earth passing below. Every now and then, Fulltrot's voice would shout, and he and several other stallions would bark back in answer. With everypony accounted for, the group proceeded to pierce the hazy forest, undaunted by the solemn shadows encompassing them more and more eerily.

When Rainbow Dash's wings fluttered above Gold Plate, they positively gave him a start.

“How come you've always got your head hanging low?” Rainbow Dash asked.

Gold Plate caught his breath, groaned, and spoke in a cracking voice, “Because if I lift it up too high, I might smack my nose into a branch on account of this fog.”

“No, I don't mean just here.” Rainbow Dash briefly touched down and trotted alongside him. “As long as I've been flying around you guys, you're always looking down in the bridle.”

Gold Plate glared at her. “You've only been hanging with us for a day.”

Rainbow smirked. “If there's anything I've learned about earth ponies: whatever you see them doing for a day pretty much sums up what they do their whole lives.”

“You do realize that sounds horribly prejudiced,” Gold Plate grumbled.

“There you go again!”

“There I go doing what again?”

“You just don't talk like the other ponies,” Rainbow said, stifling a yawn as her wings flicked lonesomely at the misty air. “They're all grunting and insulting each other. You, on the other hoof, kind of sound like a bookworm.”

“Where in the hay did you get that idea?”

“Mmmm... Experience.” Rainbow smiled. “I knew a pony once who used to talk all fancy and stuff. Before she met me, she was surrounded by tons of other ponies, and she thought that just because she could carry her own and fit in, that all those strangers were somehow her friends. Uh uh. It turned out that life wasn't that simple.”

“I have no problem fitting in,” Gold Plate grunted, sweating as he struggled to keep the heavy equipment balanced on his spine. The air above them parted as their warm breaths briefly broke the fog. “If you should be worried about anypony making friends, it's you!”

“Oh ho ho really?” Rainbow Dash remarked, looking humored.

“You're the only girl here!” Gold Plate said. He cleared his throat and added, “When was the last time you were hanging out with so many stallions instead of mares?”

“Hmmm...” Rainbow Dash hovered, scratching her chin in thought.

“Well?”

“I'm trying to remember the last time that I threw up.”

“Exactly!” Gold Plate smiled victoriously, only to trip on a random tree root sticking out of the mists. He stumbled awkwardly. Rainbow leaned a hoof in, but he practically batted it away. “I'm fine! Ahem—I can take care of myself! All stallions do! Just because I get bumped around a little by the others is no big deal! Guys like me know how to pick themselves back up!”

“Oh, I'm not about to question that,” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “It just seems like you're the only one dealing with crap while all the others are just shrugging it off their backs, and with less sweat too. Heheheh...”

“Grrr...” Gold Plate's face grew red.

“Hey. Chillax. I'm only shooting the breeze. Forests are boring, especially forests that you can't see in.”

“I'm just tired of everypony treating me like I'm a little foal,” Gold Plate muttered, his eyes once again sweeping the ground. “This is exactly what I want to be doing in my life.”

“Oh really?”

“Yeah really! Hmph...” Gold Plate's nostrils flared. “I grew up with everypony around me telling me to do things that I didn't want to do. I didn't want them to boss me around. I don't care if the other stallions think I don't belong here with this caravan, I've got something to prove. After all, what matters in the end is that I'm loyal to myself. Even a crazy pegasus like you would agree with that.”

Rainbow Dash said nothing.

“Well?!”

“Loyalty isn't all that special when it's spent alone.”

Gold Plate blinked. He looked up curiously at Rainbow Dash. Fulltrot gave another shout. Ponies responded, but something was off this time. Suddenly, the caravan was halted. Rainbow Dash appeared equally surprised.

“What... What's going on?” Gold Plate murmured.

Fulltrot came marching by. “Ironhoof? Ironhoof?!”

The line of stallions shifted nervously, turning about and exchanging worried glances.

“Ironhoof! Say your name!” Fulltrot repeated, his aged face creased with worry.

“I heard him the last time!” Red Turnip's voice spoke up from beyond a wall of fog. “That was nearly three minutes ago!”

“Ironhoof?!”

“Hey, Ironhoof!”

“Where are you, dude?”

“Everypony!” Fulltrot's voice rose above the crowd. “Stop speaking all at once! Let's not panic! I need order and—most of all—silence.”

Gold Plate was biting his lip nervously. He jolted at the sound of Rainbow Dash whispering in his ear.

“I don't like this. I'm checking it out.” She flapped off into the misty woods surrounding them.

“Huh?!” Gold Plate hissed, his voice briefly rising in pitch. “Are you crazy?! Ironhoof just disappeared—”

“Shh!” Fulltrot frowned.

Gold Plate scrunched down low, silent, his ears drooping. He gazed nervously around—as did every other pony. The air was deathly still surrounding the caravan. In the distance, the gentle murmur of flowing water rippled, splashed, and was silent again.

Red Turnip shuffled into view, his face pale. There was another stirring sound. He turned and looked towards Fulltrot. “Did... Did you just hear—”

Just then, a thick, serpentine neck full of orange scales burst its way out of the fog and tore through the caravan. Yelling bodies went tumbling every which way. Gold Plate was knocked to the ground, the breath escaping his body in a muffled shriek. When he opened his wincing eyes, he froze, his gaze fixated on a glinting pair of sharp fangs flying straight for Fulltrot.

Hydra

View Online

Gold Plate flinched. He watched in horror as Fulltrot fell to his spine. The elder bucked and panted and struggled to kick away at the ravaging jaws of a reptilian snout bearing down on him.

“Everypony!” Gold Plate shouted to the misty air, grimacing. “There's a giant monster attracking Fulltrot!”

No sooner was this uttered when the beast found itself being impaled by an interrupting prismatic pegasus.

“Hrggghhh!” Rainbow Dash snarled. Gold Plate saw her ruby eyes burning across the fog as she flung her forelimbs around the creature's serpentine throat. “Not... Today...!”

The eel-like creature thrashed and hissed, trying in aggravated futility to toss Rainbow Dash loose. Just then, three large shadows loomed just beyond the nearby trees.

“Look out!” Red Turnip's voice shouted from the sea of collapsed stallions.

“I see 'em!” Rainbow Dash violently twisted her wings. She flung the creature's neck around in time for its face to bear the impact of three more snouts identical to it. Four snake-like craniums collapsed against each other, filling the air with the sickly sound of rattling skulls. All four heads shook dizzily, then snarled after the blue pegasus. They lunged, one after another, snapping the air behind her darting tail with serrated jaws.

Rainbow Dash soared towards the top of the trees, disappearing beyond the haze. All four snakes chased after her, rising up, revealing themselves to be anything but pythons. The four necks were attached to a hulking orange torso with a thashing tail. Stomping over the caravan, the gigantic abomination leapt into the woods, where it disappeared into a hidden cacophony of growling noises, gnashing fangs, and snapping branches.

Gold Plate—summoning a sane breath—galloped over and helped a wincing Fulltrot back to his hooves. “What... What is that thing?”

“Nnngh... a h-hydra,” Fullfrot wheezed. “This smog is worse than I thought. To think it's blanketed our homeland for so long that monstrosities such as that have moved in...”

“What are we going to do?”

“What we came to do,” Fulltrot said. “Deliver the equipment to Windthrow and hope to stave off the smoke from the mountain a little longer.”

“No, I mean about Rainbow Dash!”

Fulltrot's lips curved ever so slighty. “My child, do you actually think that pegasus needs any help?”

Gold Plate fidgeted. A blue figure suddenly plummeted to the earth behind him. He and several ponies spun gasping, watching.

“Aughh... Dang it..” Rainbow Dash sat up, rubbing her posterior. “I really REALLY hate landing on my butt.”

Three giant snouts lunged at her from the mists.

“Waaugh!” She jumped up, hovered over their strikes, kicked the left one away, and grabbed hard onto the one on the right. “You!” She growled and wrestled its jaws shut. “You're the one! I can smell him on you!”

The hydra head merely hissed and jabbed its chin into her. She took the blow directly to her pendant.

“Daaaah!” She shrieked, and for the tinieist moment her voice took on an ethereal quality. She trembled, her body overwhelmed with a sudden dizziness. When she reopened her eyes, they were briefly red-on-yellow specks. A flickering twitch to her vision: the fire immediately flew to her lungs as she yelled and spun to face the hydra-head dead-on. Suddenly, the ruby bolt of her pendant glowed brightly, blinding the one cranium of the creature entirely.

The hydra's head winced, whimpered, and fell limply to the ground. As soon as it landed, Rainbow Dash perched atop his crown. Her pendant no longer glowing, she planted both of her hooves tightly against the monster's eyelids.

The other three heads hovered around, hissed, and lunged down at her.

“Stop!” she shouted at them, frowning. Her hooves squirmed against the one head's eyes with emphasis. “Or—I swear—I'll poke them out! You'll be spending the rest of your lives dragging around a blind brother! How much do you plan to eat with THAT kind of a handicap?”

The three skulls paused just inches from devouring her. They glared, several forked tongues darting in and out of their mouths.

The stallions of the caravan slowly stood up. They gathered at a reasonable distance from this tense scene in the middle of the misty forest.

“They...” Gold Plate thought aloud. “They actually have thinking brains—?”

“Shhh!” Fulltrot uttered harshly. He stared patiently at what was unfolding.

“Now that I've got all of your attention...” Rainbow Dash slapper her hoof across the crown of the head beneath her. The creature groaned in response. She leaned down and growled, “Cough him up!”

The hydra-head snorted.

“I mean it! Do it now, before I get angry!”

There was a guttural hissing sound, then a gurgling noise. Opening its maw wide, the hydra-head coughed, sputtered, and spat up an equine figure covered in slime.

“Snnnkt-gaaaaah!” Ironhoof rolled over, sputtering and panting for breath. He was covered frome mane to tail in green ooze and half-digested gunk. “Nnnngh—Jeeeez, I don't wanna be doing that again!”

“Yo! Dude!” Red Turnip scampered over. So did several other ponies. The air filled with murmuring voices as many of Ironhoof's comrades gathered by his side.

Rainbow Dash smirked proudly. “Whoah!” she rasped as the head hoisted up from underneath her. She hovered at an even level with the four skulls, staring the entirety of the creature down. Satisfied that it wasn't trying to move, she glanced down at Gold Plate. “Hey! That stuff you're carrying! Got any meat left in it?”

Gold Plate glanced at Rainbow Dash, at the hydra, then at Rainbow Dash again. “You can't be serious—”

“Hoof it over!” Rainbow Dash motioned. “Or else this thing is gonna keep nibbling on ponies like us for the next month!”

Gold Plate fidgeted. Reluctantly, he reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a chunk of tanned red jerky. He tossed it up at Rainbow Dash.

The pegasus grabbed the unsavory material. Rather then hold it any second longer, she immediately tossed it to the quartet of fangs in front of her.

All four heads snatched it at once, pulling it into stringy quarters. The hydras dined on the substance, gulped it down, and gave Rainbow Dash on last glare before slowly turning around and marching off into the misty woods.

“You better not let me catch you trying to swallow anypony ever again!” Rainbow Dash called after them, her wings flapping hard as punctuation. “Or I'll tie your necks in a knot so tight, not even your mom could pull you loose!”

“Ummmghnng... Ugh...” Ironhoof spat and moaned in the thundering exit of the wretched beast.

“Hey there, slugger,” Red Turnip uttered as he squatted beside the stallion. “Speak to us.”

“I've seen the light, and it was disgusting.”

“Well, at least you smell better than usual.”

“Heh. Any chance you can toss me back?”

Arrival

View Online

“Seriously, Ironhoof, you smell like my older sister's garbage pale at the end of the month.”

“Will you choke on a horseshoe already, Red?!” Ironhoof grumbled, batting flies off of him as he marched along with the caravan.

Red Turnip and several other stallions chuckled. “Awwww, come on, dude. We're glad that you haven't croaked and all. Just—seriously—did that monster have to put you in his nastiest stomach ever?”

“All I want to do...” Ironhoof seethed with each step he took up the hilly incline. “...is get back home for the first time in weeks and take a nice long bath.”

“A bath? Wouldn't that kill ya?”

“Nnngh...”

“Hah hah hah...”

The earth ponies marched onward, their faces alive with smiles and bright eyes. The group had just narrowly escaped death, and there was an undeniable spirit of enthusiam hovering above them... literally.

Gold Plate tilted his gaze up towards Rainbow Dash's shadow. He was the only pony who wasn't snickering at Ironhoof's expense. Watching the pegasus dip up and down through the misty reaches of the forest, he momentarily cleared his throat.

That caught Rainbow Dash's attention. Smirking, she coasted down until she was hovering just a few feet above the coltish stallion. “Yessss?”

Gold Plate grumbled.

“What was that?” Rainbow Dash raised a hoof over her ear.

“Thank you, for saving Ironhoof,” Gold Plate managed.

Rainbow Dash blinked at that. “Funny.”

“Hmm? How so?”

“I really didn't expect any of you guys to actually thank me for what I did.” Rainbow Dash winked. “Kind of breaks the surly, gruff exterior you're all working so hard to maintain.”

“Meh.” Gold Plate gazed ahead. “It seems only polite. You've done so much for this caravan.”

“Oh, is this a caravan? Jee, I hadn't noticed?” Rainbow Dash hung upside down and “backstroked” through the air beside him. “I've been too busy smacking around hydras to notice a group of adults bumbling to get a delivery done on their lonesome.”

“Aaaaaand there you go,” Gold Plate sighed.

“There I go where?”

Gold Plate smirked bitterly at Rainbow. “No matter how selfless or heroic you may be, one way or another you fall back to being a goofy, childish, self-centered braggart.”

“Hey! Not true!” Rainbow Dash's teeth showed. “I am SO not 'goofy!'”

“Don't you think you'll get in over your head at this rate?” Gold Plate exclaimed. “Like, when was the last time you fought a Hiperbeam?”

“Hydra.”

“Whatever. When?”

“Mmmmm...” Rainbow Dash flew upright and scratched her chin. “That was the first time, come to think of it.”

“I knew it!”

“Did you, now?”

“What you did was brave, yes,” Gold Plate nodded. “Daring, sure?”

“Dashing?”

“Don't push it.”

“Heeheehee...”

“But you could have seriously hurt yourself!” Gold Plate's face grew briefly long. “Who's to know if you try something that wild in the future and it ends up killing you?”

“Heh. I didn't know that you cared.”

“I don't,” Gold Plate said with a frown. “But if there's anything that Fulltrot has taught me in all the months I've worked for him, it's that ponies with nothing to lose have everything to give, even if it means themselves.”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “Is that why a pony like you is constantly sending himself on journeys so far from home?”

“And how about you?” Gold Plate swiftly returned.

Rainbow Dash merely bit her lip. At that moment, Fulltrot's voice called out from ahead of the group.

“Alas! Everypony, relax! For we have arrived...”

Rainbow Dash hovered upwards. Before her and the caravan, the mists parted, revealing a jagged cleft in earth about half-a-mile wide. Built along the steep, upper cliffs of this large embankment, just south of the large smoky structure looming to the north, was an elaborate wooden village built upon a complex series of wooden platforms, lattices, and struts. Mills turned, water wheels spun from thin waterfalls, and smoke rose from multiple chimneys as the rustic brown dwelling hung like a hazy shadow against the mountainside. It was the first civilized hub of any sort that Rainbow Dash had seen for weeks, and she was legitimately impressed.

“Windthrow, dear stallions,” Fulltrot continued, then motioned with his hoof as he trotted up a long stretch of winding, wooden platforms towards the heart of town. “We are home.”

Windthrow

View Online

The first thing that overwhelmed Rainbow Dash was the smell. It wasn't a rancid smell, nor was it something entirely inviting. Everytime her nostrils flared, Rainbow Dash felt as though she was marching into the jaws of a furious dragon. A heavy scent of ash and burning soot hung over the rooftops of the village as she and the caravan entered the central district of Windthrow.

Here, the wooden lattices and platforms gave way for a solid bed of rock and cobblestone, marking where the oldest sections of the city had been literally carved into the face of the mountain. Rainbow Dash wasn't even sure yet if she could mentally call the structure a mountain. Everytime she glanced up, her vision was either obscured by dark fog or distracted by a myriad of bustling details.

The moment the caravan arrived in the center of town, the village exploded with excitement. Earth ponies of all trots of life stopped whatever they were doing to greet Fulltrot and his band of stallion cohorts. Mares stopped sweeping storefronts. Old workhorses and traders marched out to the entrances of blacksmiths and saw mills. Elder ponies glanced from porches and patios while dozens of families peered from tall windows.

The buildings were wooden edifices held aloft by brass and bronze frameworks. Ever structure had a chimney fused with a series of steam pipes, and there was not one single solitary second when a dense smog wasn't being funneled up into the atmosphere. Rainbow Dash felt uneasy at first, but soon realized that she was breathing as easily in those streets as she would have been in the open air during any part of her journey. Before she had a chance to ponder about this, she was interrupted by loud shrieks and bursts of laughter.

She spun around in time to see mares, fillies, colts, and all sorts of villagers galloping up to the group. One by one, members of the caravan dropped their equipment and took the time to embraced their loved ones. After several months of deliveries, the stallions were being reunited with their families. In spite of how gloomy the atmosphere of Windthrow was, Rainbow Dash couldn't help but feel that the spirits of the ponies were remarkably bright.

Pausing under the grinding gears of a wooden windmill, she watched as Red Turnip smiled and nuzzled a mare two decades older than him. After greeting his mother, he exchanged words with three ponies who looked to be his siblings. A few spaces away, a young mare was rushing towards Ironhoof. Ironhoof grinned wide and spread his forelimbs out for a hug. Upon a close sniff of the returning stallion, however, the young wife groaned and gave him a stern lecture while his comrades chuckled at his expense. As for Gold Plate...

Rainbow Dash squinted.

Gold Plate stood by the wagons, dutifully unloading them one package at a time. While the rest of the caravan lost themselves in communing with their families, Gold Plate didn't stop working for one second. He was the only wanderer who was still alone; no single stallion or mare rushed over to greet him. His young face hung in a solemn expression, and if he noticed Rainbow Dash glancing at him through his peripheral vision, he made no show of it.

Rainbow had the impulse to trot over there, when she heard gasping and murmuring voices to her side. She spun to look. Immediately, a band of young colts and fillies jumped back, startled. Their little faces peaked out from the sides of buildings and the wooden rails of catwalks. Rainbow slowly looked across the entirety of the suspended city, and in so doing she spotted more and more young ponies half her age staring at her—some of the adults as well. Their eyes were plastered on her hair, her saddlebag, her gold pendant, and—most of all—her wings.

“I don't get it,” Rainbow Dash murmured aloud. “What's their deal?”

“You're the first pegasus they've ever seen,” Fulltrot said, marching by.

“Oh yeah?” Rainbow blinked at him. “Since when?”

“Since ever, child,” Fulltrot said, cleared his throat, and spoke loudly in a voice of humble address. “Grandfather Hushtail! Your humble and loyal servant Fulltrot, at your service...”

Curious, Rainbow Dash looked towards a large building at the far end of the central district. Everypony around her quieted down and marched out of the street to make room for an important elder figure being escorted towards the center of town.

Hushtail

View Online

“It has been many a year since your punctuality has surprised me, old friend,” Hushtail said to Fulltrot, his gray mane hair parting over a pair of sleepy, blue eyes. His frail features wobbled between the supporting frame of two young mares, yet he did his best to stand tall with pride and dignity. “Today you arrive with our keys to salvation, and already I feel as if I am witnessing the arrival of a young stranger. Tell me, have we gone back ten years without my knowing?”

“Hardly, Grandfather Hushtail,” Fulltrot said, still bowing.

“Please, friend, save such stiff reverance for the Hall of Communion,” Hushtail murmured. He trotted slowly, shakily down the central street of Windthrow, eying the reuniting stallions and family members. “I am happy to see that every pony has returned safely. If only last year's trip was so fortunate. Bellstrafe was a resourceful young stallion. I still dream of his voice echoing across the Council Chambers.”

“We all do well to honor his memory, Hushtail,” Fulltrot said. “And I am sure he would be proud that we've suffered no casulties during this run. That said...” Fulltrot side-stepped and gestured towards the prismatic figure next to him. “Our safety is greatly owed to a most benevolent stranger.”

“Uhhhhhh...” Rainbow Dash was gazing at a swirling windmill overhead. She blinked and glanced at the two elders. “Oh. Wait, you're talking about me, aren't you? Ahem. Hi there.”

“A pegasus...” Hushtail remarked, wobbling slightly. The mares next to him came together to hold him up. He took a wheezing breath, stood up straight, and approached the traveller. “I am one of the few who still remembers your kind. Long ago, several of your kind inhabited the emerald mountains to the south of here. Alas, those hills have since lost their lustre with the coming of the smog. I do say, miss those winged ponies greatly.”

“Yeah. It gets kind of boring without a pegasus around, doesn't it?” Rainbow Dash said with a nod. “Story of my life.” At a few coughing sounds and uncomfortable exhales, she bit her lip and blurted, “But! Thanks a lot for... uh... the thought, old dude... mmmm... sir.”

“Hmmm...” Hushtail gave a wrinkly smile. “She is a pegasus, alright.”

“She's a hero,” Fulltrot insisted. “If it weren't for her unexpected arrival, we would have frozen overnight, taken an extrananeous detour, and have been devoured by a hydra—all in the span of twenty-four hours.”

“All of these things, and she intervened?” Hushtail remarked.

“Indeed, Grandfather Hushtail. She's the sole reason that your stallions stand before you now, safe and alive.”

“Eh... it was nothing,” Rainbow Dash stretched her limbs and stifled a yawn. “It was either hang out with these cool bros, or fly over a bunch of boring mountains.”

A shimmer of light reflected into Hushtail's eyes. He squinted, regarding the golden pendant around Rainbow Dash's neck. “Hmmm... are you Equestrian?”

Rainbow Dash blinked at that. She eyed Hushtail warily, as if he was soaring at her from a mile away. “Maaaaaaaybe...”

“What is your name, young one?”

“Rainbow Dash, sir,” she remarked, flipping her colorful mane back in the process. “I wouldn't suggest saying it yourself. Wouldn't want you having a heart attack or something.”

Fulltrot rolled his eyes, then smiled at his superior. “Her neighborly assistance, however, comes at a price, provided a pony doesn't mind paying with his ears.”

“Hey! I'm a weather flier! I'm—like—totally non profit!”

“If you knew exactly what contributions mean to the village of Windthrow, young one,” Hushtail spoke, “Then perhaps you would be less jocular about the merit of such actions.” He gazed at both Fulltrot and Rainbow Dash at the same time. “Come. Sit with me. I would very much like to hear of this journey of yours and how such a remarkable traveller assisted in a time of need.”

“Awwww really, you don't have to gush all over me and stuff,” Rainbow Dash said with a toss of the hoof. “I just did what any of you dudes would have done... uhm... if you had wings.”

“When the village's Grandfather extends an invitation,” Fulltrot spoke to Rainbow Dash, “He offers with the full extent of his heart. It would be a cold thing to refuse or ignore such a gesture.”

“But, like I'm not exactly sit-around-and-talk-about-stuff material,” Rainbow Dash said in a slightly whining tone.

“We would also extend a hearty meal to the guest,” Hushtail added.

“Oh! Food! Well, alright then!” Rainbow Dash's wings flicked as she marched past Hushtail towards the large building at the end of the district. “Let's get started with the sitting-around and stuff, shall we?”

Hushtail let loose a breathy chuckle and gazed Fulltrot's way. “Over six decades, and pegasi are still the same, no matter where they hail from.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“It's a comforting familiarty, old friend. Something I haven't felt in a long time. Come. You, more than any pony, deserves a good rest.”

Wintergate

View Online

“Mmmph... Horseapples!” Rainbow Dash managed to say between deep bites of greenery. “This lettuce is good—mmfff...” She gulped and smirked over the round wooden table. “You gotta tell me: what do you put into the stuff?”

“Lettuce,” Hushtail simply replied. He, Fulltrot, and the prismatic outsider sat on a wooden balcony. The elder's house in Windthrow overlooked a stretch of vertical rockface roaring with waterfalls. “Equestrian diet is not exactly something we excel in providing I do hope a vegetable—any vegetable—is to your liking.”

“Sure as heck beats the same old bread I've been munching on for weeks at at time!” She smiled, her cheeks full inbetween savage gulps. “Hmmm... Still, though—I can't imagine you guys surviving entirely on meat.”

“I'm rather surprised you've been willing to sit with us in spite of the fact,” Hushtail said. He and Fulltrot had identical bowls with noodles and brown, stringy substances. “We've had some guests from the west before, and they didn't even want to talk to us after they found out the way of Weathergate.”

“Weather-what?” Rainbow Dash made a face.

“It's what the local population calls the region Windthrow's located in,” Fulltrot explained. “If you—a traveller—are coming from Equestria, then you're entering the westernmost fringe of the landscape. It's a very narrow strip of hilly valleys and jagged mountains dividing the Sea of Song to the west from the deserts of the Grand Choke to the east.”

“Sounds kind of boring.” Rainbow Dash gulped, then smiled nervously. “No offense.”

“You wouldn't be the first outsider to think so,” Hushtail remarked, his wrinkly face smiling gently . “Most ponies from the southern coastal cities don't bother staying any longer than a day in Windthrow. Aside from being a very remote town, this village caters only to local miners. There's very little opportunity for other Weathergaters to move in here.”

“Several generations of families have all lived and died along these mountainous slopes,” Fulltrot said. “All working on the same task.”

Rainbow Dash finished her bowl of greenery and sat back, gazing at them curiously. “And just what task is that?”

“The mountain that stretches above us.” Fulltrot gestured beyond the balcony's edge. “It is no normal structure.”

Rainbow Dash smirked. “I kind of figured as much. It looks like no other mountain I've ever seen.”

“Nopony knows the reason why, but it provides a special type of ore that can't be found in any of the surrounding rock bodies,” Fulltrot said. “The nature of the rock minerals found within makes it easily malleable and useful in creating various alloys.”

“Over seven centuries ago, our forebearers stumbled upon this mountain,” Hushtail explained in a hushed voice. His weary eyes glistened with aged respect and reverence at the thought. “We have been extracting minerals from it ever since. I have no doubt that the rock supply could support further descendants of ours for another three hundred years. We are all very fortunate to have such a happy, peaceful place to live. Only...” The elder winced, as if regretting ever having started such a thought.

Rainbow Dash gazed at him, at Fulltrot. “The smog...” She murmured aloud. “That really isn't natural, is it? It's not like any smoke I've smelled before. And the way it keeps going—at this altitude and at this time of the year—it's pretty dang weird if you ask me.” She rested both forelimbs on the table. “Does anypony know just what's going on?”

“We've been far more concerned with getting the equipment we need to deal with the fog,” Fulltrot said.

Rainbow Dash squinted. “Just what kind of equipment is this—?”

Hushtail suddenly spoke, “The inclement weather began twenty-odd years ago. At first, we thought it was a fire. Then, as all the forests remained in one piece below us, we feared that some thermal part of the mountain had been exposed by our mining. But there isn't a single hint of ash or heat or any other indication of a fiery origin to this anomaly. Regardless, that hasn't stopped the viscous soup from increasing, to the point that we find it hard to trot across our lofty town safely. What's more...”

“Yeah?” Rainbow Dash asked.

Hushtail sighed hard, his features shaking. “With the increase in smog... there have been... incidents.”

“What kind of incidents?”

“A new population of horrible and disgusting winged creatures,” Fulltrot spoke up, gathering Rainbow's attention. “They were merely a nuisance at first, raiding supplies and gnawing away at wooden structures in the heart of town. But, as the years grew by, and the fog became thicker—so did the resolve of the avian abominations.”

“Like... in what way?” Rainbow Dash's jaw clenched. “What have they been doing?”

Hushtail's face was long as he gazed through the table between them. “We've lost a dozen of our own kind in the last five years.”

“No frickin' way...” Rainbow Dash muttered. “They've been attacking villagers?”

“Quite violently at times,” Fulltrot said. “They're rather unpredictable.”

“Have you tried—I dunno—fighting back?”

“We have so few tools at our disposal,” Hushtail spoke in a weary tone. “And we are far from the populous regions of Weathergate. We can only survive on our own devices, and those are things equipped to break stone not feathers... erm... no offense.”

“None taken. I know you're not talking about me.” Rainbow Dash looked at Fulltrot. “So, is that what this equipment is? You've been loading up on weapons to take out these suckers?”

“Not exactly,” Fulltrot said.

“Oh?”

“We've done our fair share of combating these monstrosities,” the stallion said. “But no matter how many of them we eliminate, their numbers simply increase. In the time we've taken to deal with them, we discovered that they seem to thrive off of this strange fog. Luckily, we encountered a group of wandering minotaurs years ago who were establishing a mining colony far to the north of us, and they knew of a traveling group of unicorn profiteers selling all sorts of enchanted stones. Among the magical supply was a special crystal that could manipulate weather phenomena at a short range. After a careful experimentation, we found that these crystals could be used to drive away the fog. However, the magical effect wears down. We discovered this, and we knew we'd have to refill our stock if we were to keep the creatures at bay.”

“So, I initiated a trade agreement with the minotaurs,” Hushtail said with the barest hint of a proud smile. “My good associate Fulltrot would lead a caravan to their colony in the north. In exchange for the rocks they got from the unicorn tradeponies, we'd give them samples of our mined resources. They'd give their mining resources to the unicorns who gave them the enchanted stones. So you can see, traveler, out here—in the middle of mountainous nowhere—we've established for ourselves a fine circle of coexistence. Just thirty years ago, such interaction would have been unheard of for Windthrow residents.”

“Still, it really stinks that you haven't found a solution to knock out these evil pests,” Rainbow Dash said in a blunt tone. “Mr Fulltrot, haven't you—like—at least tried to hang out at the minotaurs' colony long enough to see these unicorns up close and ask them face to face if they could—I dunno—send somepony up here to try and fight off the fog for good?”

“I've tried many times to meet unicorns and other magical ponies,” Fulltrot said with a nod. “I've been unsuccessful as of yet.”

“Besides, we've learned long ago not to rely on the magic of unicorns,” Hushtail explained. “I once sent my son, Sladesteed, to the Wintergate capital of Blissview down south, and nopony on the magical council was willing to help him. Unlike Equestria, traveler, the practice of mana in Wintergate is far too often weighed in money, none of which we have in great abundance.”

“But you do have these minerals that the minotaurs need,” Rainbow Dash said. “I guess you guys decided that you needed all the help you could get.”

“It's not been an easy process,” Hushtail said solemnly. “With each pony we've lost over the years, I think hard about the decisions I've made. But I remain resolute. Windthrow has never fallen to any outside power in over half a millennium. I'm not about to let a flock of surly monsters make us defend our home with any less gusto.”

“Yeah... I can see that...” Rainbow Dash remarked, nodding. Her gaze briefly focused on the waterfalls cascading outside.

“Still, traveler, enough of us,” Hushtail said with a gray grin. He leaned forward. “I would love to hear more about the land you hail from.”

“Oh... Eh heh...” Rainbow Dash fidgeted with her hooves on the table's edge. “The west is not all it's cracked up to be.”

“Humor an old pony,” Hushtail remarked. “It's been a long time since I've seen one of your kind.”

“It's getting night soon, and the moon will be out.” Rainbow Dash murmured aloud, her eyes tilting up towards the foggy expanse stretching along the height of the mountain. “I kind of have some place to be.”

“Stay in our village for a few days. We will give you supplies for whatever journey you have ahead.”

“Wow, that's pretty darn nice of you,” Rainbow Dash said with a smile. “What would I owe you guys?”

Hushtail merely smiled.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes, groaned, and stood up. “Alright, you win. Equestria 101 it is. Still, I hope you don't mind if I flex my limbs a bit.”

“Sounds perfectly fine.” Hushtail tried moving. Fulltrot had to help him up to his hooves. “We can take a walk while we converse.”

“Mind if I hover? I do my best talking when I hover.”

Sladesteed

View Online

“And every rain season, Cloudsdale enlists the help of a completely different town to gather water for the coming precipitation,” Rainbow Dash said, flying at a slow drift. “All of the village's pegasi are required by Equestrian law to assist in funneling a reservoir's worth of moisture into a waterspout that will then be absorbed by the rain factories in the floating city.”

“What a remarkable industry,” Hushtail remarked. His wobbling legs carried him slowly behind Rainbow Dash as the two strolled alongside a wooden railing overlooking the gorge below Windthrow. “If pegasi have been capable of anything, it's been in employing an outstanding methodology. I've known many a unicorn to have lived through life without using his or her horn once. Winged ponies, on the other hoof, appear more than willing to utilize the full gifts that nature has given them.”

“Yeah...” Rainbow Dash stretched her limbs and cracked her neck joints. “Ahhh... We are pretty awesome. Heh. Every ten years or so, rather than dredge water up from another village, Cloudsdale sends its finest fliers to the waters beyond Blue Valley to carry an even larger supply of water in anticipation of the regular dry season. When I was really young, one of my dreams was to make that journey... to be among the few, proud fliers to have made such a delivery.”

“And did you, traveler?”

Rainbow Dash exhaled She gazed up at the dimming fog as night descended on the lofty, wooden town. “Turns out I ended up flying a much longer distance. About four times as long as the trip to Blue Valley and back.”

Hushtail nodded, his gray mane fluttering in a mountain breeze. “Undoubtedly by now you would have earned Cloudsdale's approval to perform the ten year ritual.”

“Yeah. Maybe.”

“Though I imagine your credentials are fabulous enough,” Hushtail said. He pointed an aged hoof at her neck. “Seeing as how you bear one of the Six Stones.”

Rainbow Dash jerked in mid-air. Slowly, she pivoted around and squinted down at him. “Six... stones...?”

“Come now, traveler,” Hushtail said with a knowing grin. “We live in a large world. Wintergate is not nearly as far from Equestria as you might think. I grew up being told of the Six Stones of Nightmare's Bane. However, I'm old enough to remember the illustrations that came with that tale.”

“You don't say...”

“I won't presume to question you over why you're bearing it. But the fact that you're all this distance from the Home of the Sun Goddess leads me to wonder.” His eyes narrowed. “Has something terrible happened to the harmony of your homeland.”

“My homeland's fine,” Rainbow Dash uttered bluntly. Her lips briefly formed something akin to a frown. “What's the big deal about a stupid stone, anyways?”

“If that be the case, then surely you could take it off. It looks terribly heavy.”

Rainbow Dash said nothing. She merely bit her lip.

At that time, a series of hoofsteps echoed across the wooden platforms a few feet away. Rainbow Dash turned to see several stallions covered in soot, their limbs clad in black canvas and leather. Several sacks full of mining tools and luminescent stones hung from their saddlebags.

“Sladesteed!” Hushtail exclaimed and marched with remarkable enthusiam towards the group. “You are back from your labors! What remarkable timing! Fulltrot's caravan has returned. What's more, we have a most splending guest in our presence.”

Everypony, upon seeing Hushtail, stopped and bowed their heads in reverence. All except one pony, that is. A young stallion with a light-brown coat and a blonde mane merely grunted, “I have very little time for rejoicing or socializing, father. I have to make sure that the minerals carried from the mountain exceed last month's quota. We are, after all, falling behind in supplying the southern trade route. If we wish for next month's merchants to plan visiting us for next year, somepony is going to need to lose a lot of sleep to make that happen.”

“Son, I understand that you are greatly pressed to finish your tasks,” Hushtail uttered. “But you must not forget that you are both my heir and my representative. It is the polite, Windthrow way to pay respects to outsiders—”

“That's just it, father! Everypony it an outsider to us!” Sladesteed grunted, his chestnut eyes brightly lit up. “But that doesn't have to be the case! If we went out and hired ponies from the southern villages with the sole purpose of employing them in the mines, we would increase profit and trade all at once! We need to get our names known beyond the lengths of these jagged cliffs!”

“I respect your opinion, Sladesteed. But I don't think now is the time for—”

“It's never the time, father!” Sladesteed hissed, giving Rainbow Dash a lethargic glance. “I don't care how many guests we have. There's work to be done, and on account of your stubborness it falls on my shoulders and mine alone! Now if you'll excuse me, I need to check on today's progress...”

Sladesteed thundered away. His many associates fidgeted awkwardly before breaking up to mingle with their families and the returned caravan.

Hushtail sighed and turned to look up at Rainbow Dash. “I am truly, terribly sorry for that. My son and I do not see eye to eye like we used to. It bothers me that it has to show so openly, especially when I'm in the middle of conversing with a pegasus visitor such as you.”

“Hey, don't sweat it, pops,” Rainbow Dash said, though she glanced nervously over her shoulder the entire time. “I hate to be rude too, but I was actually needing to go and... uhm... be alone for a little bit.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah. This will be the first night that the moon's been full in weeks.”

“What significance is that, pray tell?” Hushtail blinked awkwardly. “Do pegasi rely on the lunar cycle? I feel horrible for being so forgetful...”

Rainbow Dash smiled and waved a hoof. “It's okay. I'm sure we can pick up this conversation tomorrow.” She felt the weight of the pendant around her neck and further murmured, “I'd like to learn more about your village and these nasty creatures you're tackling with.”

“I wish I could provide you with something less macabre to discuss.”

“Hey, we'll work on that too. Uhhhmm... So yeah! See ya!” She ascended through the fog in a blur. Out of range of his eyesight, she gave a deep sigh, and climbed towards the top of the troposphere.

Luna

View Online

It took several minutes of flying, of bursting through the frigid heights above the mountain tops, but somewhere above the smog and mists Rainbow Dash had found a cloud. She sat down on it, her body bathed in a pale, luminous glow. Taking deep breaths, she stared up at the full moon. The entire object shone in a perfect circle, stabbing her ruby eyes through the dead fabric of night.

It had felt like only a few days since the last time she did this, but Rainbow Dash knew better. No matter how much landscape had blurred beneath her, the moon remained stagnant, constantly shadowing her as her nights bled into weeks and then into months.

However, in spite of her hesitation, she had not skipped an appointment once. She was too loyal to do otherwise. So, with calm precision, she raised a hoof to the ruby lightning bolt hanging from her pendant and ran her limb across the cold surface until it lit up with a dim glow.

The magical fire from within the necklace burned brighter, intensifying in variable degree to the amount of moonlight it was progressively absorbing. Soon, a vibrant beam of energy shot out of Rainbow Dash's neckpiece, strobing in time with an ethereal voice that filled the cold space above the cloud with noise and enchantment.

“Rainbow Dash. Doth thou hear us?”

Rainbow inhaled hard, then managed a tranquil smile as she spoke to the winds, “Sure thing, your highness. What? Did you expect to me to leave you hanging?”

“We do not understand. Hath we committed a crime that deserveth execution by a noose?”

“Ehh... heh heh. It's just an expression, Princess. You do remember what I said last time about how you should be talking to your guards more?”

“Verily, we do recall. Albeit, thy Princess hath dealt with many responsibilities as of late, which hath made casual socialization most difficult.”

“Awwww. Well, that sucks.” Rainbow Dash winced at her own words. “Ahem. Pardon me, your Highness.” She gulped and smirked into the glow of her pendant. “So... uh... like, how's Equestria... and stuff?”

“Equestria is safe in our hooves. Though it hath taken many trials and tribulations, we hath come close to mastering the revolutions of both the Sun and Moon. Our beloved sister maintaineth meditation over the chaos rift. No single pony hath suffered since the day you departed for your journey.”

“Well, that sure is super,” Rainbow Dash said. She gulped and added, “And Ponyville? How's... How's Candy Mane taking care of the weather since I've been gone?”

“We are most sorry to confess that we are not familiar with the royal subject known as 'Candy Mane'. Regardless, Rainbow Dash, thou need not give into fear. Ponyville remaineth the jewel of Equestria's beautiful country. Our sister and we hath even erected a temple over the chaos rift. So long as Celestia upholdeth her duties, no harm shalt come to thy beloved village.”

“Well, that's good to know...”

“Thy questions are art well respected, though they suffer an unnecessary repetition from the last time we conversed. Tell us, Rainbow Dash, what hath though discovered in your journeys?”

“Ohhhh... Y'know...” Rainbow Dash laid back and kicked at a few white fluffs of moonlit clouds. “Same old, same old.”

“The entire world is old. Wouldst thou be more specific?”

“Well, if it'll humor you, then sure!” Rainbow Dash stifled a yawn and droned, “Past Dream Valley, there was a bunch of marshlands. Then there were mountains. Then there were more mountains. Then there were even more mountains...”

“Hath thou, by chance, encountered Stone Clefts of Wintergait?”

Rainbow Dash's brow furrowed as she scanned the right edge of a map in her mind. “Lemme guess... it's two tall clefts of mountainous stone jutting up into the clouds?”

“Affirmative. They are as old as time itself, rivaling even our sister's years in antiquity. We imagine they must be an astounding sight for a mortal's eyes such as thine own.”

“Oh. Heh. Yeah.” Rainbow Dash chuckled and waved a hoof in the air. “I saw those rocks.”

“Hadst thou?”

“Oh yeah. Several days ago.”

“Remarkable. Then thou must be well beyond the western ridges of Wintergait.”

“Yeah, that's just what the ponies call it around here.”

“Thou hath met local equines?”

“Yup. They eat meat. Isn't that totally gross?”

“Thou art bound to discover several diverse cultures in thy trek, Rainbow Dash. It is not unbecoming of many of them to disgust thee in their customes. Be forewarned: several nations residing beyond the reach of our sister's glory may very well be hostile.”

“Yeah, well, these ponies couldn't hurt a fly if they wanted to,” Rainbow Dash said in a muttering tone. “Heck, I had to do just about everything to keep them from dying along the way back home to their mountain village.”

“Wouldst thou clarify?”

“It's a bunch of earth ponies, and they can barely build a fire, cross a stream or fight off hydras on their own.”

“Thou hadst engaged with hydras?”

“Oh. Totally. Made one vomit up a stallion too. It was cool.”

“Thy adventures are most intriguing, Rainbow Dash. We art proud to be bequeathed with your knowledge.”

“Yeah, well, you're welcome and all that jazz. Say...” Rainbow Dash stood up and held her hoof over the glowing pendant as she spoke, “How's Apple Bloom?”

“Apple Bloom?”

“Yeah,” Rainbow Dash uttered breathily. “I can't help but worry about the little scamp.”

“We hath visited her on several occasions. She appeareth to be doing well in her studies. Granted, she hath stepped up to do more work on her family's farmland. We assumeth thou wouldst be happy to know that her entire family is prospering with the latest harvest.”

Rainbow Dash exhaled long and hard. She smiled gently into the moonlight. “Yeah. I'm happy to know that.” She gulped and glanced down at the cloud. “What about her friends?”

“Her unicorn companion, Sweetie Belle, hath moved back to Canterlot to be with her mother and father. The last time we took notice, she had brought her pegasus acquaintance along with her for an extended stay.”

“Oh-ho really?!” Rainbow Dash snickered. “Scootaloo's gonna be bored stiff in Canterlot. Yeesh, what I wouldn't pay to see that.” She laughed again, exhaled, and said, “And Spike? Is he still at the library?”

“Indeed. On occasion, he volunteers to assist our sister in meditation. It would seem that he hath become a very important figure in Ponyville. Many unicorns visit the town just to speak with him.”

“Well, that's kind of cool. I always figured he could do with some attention after everything...” Rainbow Dash murmured.

“Celestia believeth Spike to be a prodigy of sorcery. It wouldst appear that purple dragons possess an innate ability to channel mana. Once she hath mastered her meditative duties, she wouldst endeavor to make Spike her pupil.”

Rainbow Dash's nostrils flared upon hearing that. In a low voice, she muttered, “You don't say.”

“Wouldst thou wish to ask our sister about the matter? She is available for summoning, Rainbow Dash, if thou wouldst share audience with the Princess.”

Quite deliberately, Rainbow Dash changed the subject. “I've had another one of the fainting spells.”

The voice was slightly slow to respond. “Hadst thou recovered?”

“Well, yeah. It was over and done with in a blink, but it took me several hours before I could fly again.”

“Hadst thou been assaulted with any greater severity or frequency?”

“No. Not really.” She bit her lip at the thought. “The sucky part is that it comes without any warning.”

“Thou hath kept the Element of Loyalty on thy body at all times?”

“Oh. Yeah. Absolutely!”

“Then our enchantment maintaineth thine countenance still. We art pleased to hear of thine good health. We can only hope that it lasts throughout the extent of thine journey.”

Rainbow Dash fidgeted, glancing down at her hooves resting atop the cloudbank. “It's... It's only gonna happen more often, isn't it?”

The voice replied swiftly, “Our estimation hath not changed since thine departure.”

“Yeah. I guess it hasn't.” She took a deep breath. “Well, so long as I keep the clouds beneath me half the time, I'll at least have something soft to fall on if worse comes to worst.”

“We fear that thine humor is loss to us.”

“Heh. Wouldn't be the first time, your highness.” Rainbow Dash openly yawned. “Unngh... I'd better go. I have—what—two more nights to talk to you, right?”

“That is correct.”

“I'll let you know how things go next evening. These silly ponies have a bunch of crap to deal with, and I kind of wanna learn more.”

“We art intrigued. Wouldst thou have a reason to tarry along the fringes of Wintergait?”

“Huh? Could you say that a tad bit unprincessified, your highness?”

“We only mean to remind thee that there is a great deal of landscape left between where thou art and the end of thy journey. No single mortal truly comprehendeth the distance we mean to imply.”

“Hey. I know! Really, I do,” Rainbow Dash uttered with a shrug. “I'm trying not to get too stressed. I'm just... y'know... wingin' it. Heheheh.”

“If thou insist. We wish thee a pleasant sleep, Rainbow Dash.”

“Bah. Sleep is for royalty,” Rainbow Dash raspberried into the air, giggled, and swung her hoof across the ruby bolt in finality. “Stay frosty, your highness.”

“But we doth not feel any cold—”

The glow of the necklace faded. Rainbow Dash was once more alone with the cold whisper of the high altitude breeze. She exhaled long and hard, her blue wings fluttering. She shifted the weight of the saddlebag on her spine, feeling the rolling weight of the apple inside the canvas material.

She remembered something the Princess had said, and a tranquil smile came to her face.

“'Doing well in her studies.' Heh. Well that's not so bad.”

She stretched her neck, cracking the joints within. As she did so, she caught a break in the smog below her. The towering rock structure that Windthrow clung to stood tall, majestic, and mysterious. The moonlight tried stabbing through the misty vapors surrounding the structure, but could barely pass through.

So Rainbow Dash decided to take an extra step herself. Holding her breath, she flexed her limbs, dove off the cloud, and soared her way towards the top of the awkward mountain.

Dizzier

View Online

The summit of the structure appeared sooner than Rainbow Dash had expected. No matter how far she flew or how many sights she saw, the world always appeared smaller and smaller to her from the first glance.

She circled down slowly, descending in a cyclonic fashion. Her ruby eyes carefully scanned the edges of the tall mountain. The peak was remarkably flat, with pale stone reflecting the edges of the bright moonlight. The center of the structure was hidden beyond the folds of billowing smoke. If she wished to perform a good study of the thing, she had to get closer.

She touched down on the southern edge, hundreds of feet directly above the village of Windthrow. Her hooves came to a scraping stop, and as soon as she was standing on the peak she felt a bizarre vibration dancing up her hooves. Curiously, she trotted slowly forward, parting the mists with her sweeping muzzle. Even with the smog at its thickest, she couldn't smell a single thing. If she closed her eyes, she wouldn't know the difference, even if the night was as clear as spring water.

“Explain to me what freaky creatures would like about this,” Rainbow Dash murmured aloud. As soon as she said that, she felt her heart skip a beat, for she suddenly remembered the words of Hushtail and Fulltrot. Her ears twitched as she gazed back and forth through the soupy mixture. Every sudden shadow and burst of air held malevolent weight to it.

Her nostrils flared. For better or for worse, the more anxious she felt, the more she was drawn forward into the mess. She marched boldly against the vapors, feeling the fissures in the mountaintop grow more and more complex beneath her. Then, as her pace took her nearly one hundred feet into the smoke, she saw black-against-black shapes. Blinking, she lowered her cranium and more closely scanned the rock. She realized she was coming upon a vent in the surface of the stone summit. Holding her breath, she listened carefully and heard—or thought she heard—a pattern, a venting stammer to the mist being funneled out of the top of the structure.

The stone surface suddenly flew against Rainbow Dash's face. She was collapsing before she knew it. A breath of air escaped her lungs in a grunt. As soon as she attempted pulling herself back up, a wave of dizziness overwhelmed her. She clenched her eyes shut and reeled as the world spun all around her.

“Nnnngh... For the love of hay...” She sputtered and clasped two hooves over her pendant. “Not again! I j-just got done talking to Luna, for crying out loud...”

Rainbow Dash lay on her side, curling her limbs up and shivering as she felt like she was plummeting hundreds of miles up and down all at once. Her eyes stopped rolling in the back of their sockets just long enough for her to open them and see the smoke billowing all around. She thought she saw brown things streaking by, like the edges of leather wings as quick as comets.

“Not... a good pl-place to be...” She hissed. The streaks doubled, tripled. She couldn't tell if they were just her imagination, but she wasn't about to wait around long enough to tell. “Unnnngh... Dang, I hate this.” She seethed. Slowly turning around, she crawled herself towards the edge of the summit. By the time she made it to the cliffside, the dizziness had left her. She wasn't about to fly any long distances in her condition, not until the nausea faded. Still, if she was going to be vulnerable anyplace, she'd rather be vulnerable where there were other ponies around.

With a defeated sigh, she stood up, flex her wings, and calmly glided straight down towards the familiar brown shape of Windthrow below.

Fairer

View Online

The wooden streets of Windthrow had cleared by the time Gold Plate unloaded the last of several metal poles. He hoofed the stalks towards a group of neighborhood guard ponies who trotted towards the far corners of the suspended village with the items in their grasp. At marked places, the Wintergaters erected the poles and planted glowing unicorn crystal on top. A dim silver glow bathed the fringes of the place. Slowly, the fog that had for so long seeped down the sides of the mountains began to clear, retreating from the burning mana of the delivered rocks that had been freshly raised.

A brief cheer echoed among the ponies within sight of the much awaited clearing. After sharing several proud, victorious glances, the guards of Windthrow began their nightly patrol. Clad in leather cloaks with polearms fastened to their sides, they marched determinedly about the edges of the miners' high altitude home.

Gold Plate exhaled long and hard. Under the scattering bands of fog-laden moonlight, he dropped down from the delivery wragon and began tying shut the canvas bags that had carried the enchanted crystals to the caravan's home.

No sooner had he started doing this when a shrieking blue comet fell from the sky, slamming offensively into an alleyway full of loose barrels and garbage crates.

“Yiiiiaaaaaaaaaaaugh—Ungh!”

Gold Plate twitched and glanced aside. There was a loud clatter of hoofsteps as half-a-dozen guardponies rushed over, brandishing their polearms in fright. “What is it?! The creatures?! Are we being attacked?”

“Nnnngh—I'm... dangittoCelestia'smane—I'm all right! Ooof...” Rainbow Dash clumsily pulled her reeling, bruised body out of the alleyway. She stood, fuming, brushing flakes of wood and debris off her limbs. “Friggin' city of wood, I swear. Don't you guys—like—ever stop and think if it's worth all the splinters?”

The ponies all relaxed with a sigh. They chuckled, then smirked in the traveller's direction.

“You okay, Equestrian? You look a little loopy-eyed.”

“Hey! I'm cool—DAH!” Rainbow Dash tripped over a barrel, winced, and slumped herself up against a wall of varnished oak. “Just having an argument with gravity. Isaac Neighton's overhyped, if you ask me.”

The guard ponies marched off, laughing amongst themselves.

“Hahahaha.”

“What a quack!”

“Who would have thought pegasi were so ditzy!”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. She was about to burn them with a comeback when—

“Hey! Her ditziness saved all of your older brothers' sorry flanks!” Gold Plate barked. “So would it kill you to be a little bit grateful?”

“Depends. Would it kill her to do a barrel roll?”

“Ha! Who ever heard of a dizzy flying pony.”

As they left, Gold Plate sighed, hanging his head.

“Ya know...” Rainbow Dash stealthily swallowed back a gulp of rising bile and maintained composure enough to smile. “I always figured that earth ponies were full of it. But I didn't know that some of them have it for breakfast in the morning. Heheheh...”

“I'm sorry.”

Rainbow Dash squinted. “The heck are you sorry for? You're not the one who fell off the jerk train tonight.”

“They wouldn't have continued poking fun at you if I didn't say anything,” Gold Plate mumbled, digging his hoof into the street. “I... have that sort of a reputation around here.”

“I don't get it, but whatever. Thanks for sticking up to me, for what it's worth.”

“You're lousy at expressing gratitude.”

“Yeah, well, you're lousy at accepting it.”

“Guess that makes us even.” Gold Plate wandered over. Reaching into his vest, he produced a canteen of water and hoofed it to Rainbow. “Here. It'll make you feel better.”

Rainbow Dash eagerly took the container. “And what makes you think I feel anything but awesome right now?”

“Were you purposefully aiming for the alleyway or did it just jump out at you?”

“Hey! I've flown into tons of towns before! It's a hobby of mine! At least half of them were a lot bouncier than this one! What the heck kind of trees do you earth ponies chop to make this thing? Iron birch?”

“Heeheehee,” Gold Plate giggled. “Maybe the ponies were right. Maybe you are ditzy.” He glanced aside and ran a hoof through his short blond mane. “We could sure use whatever you grew off of in this kind of a place.”

“Is that so?” Rainbow Dash gazed sideways at him. She slowly unscrewed the canteen. “Maybe then you wouldn't be doing double duty.”

“Huh?”

“Last time I checked, everypony who was in Fulltrot's caravan has gone inside their homes to hang out with their families. Everypony but you.”

“Huh...”

“Didn't you say you had friends in this place?” Rainbow Dash remarked, raising the canteen to her lips. “Surely there's somepony you miss, somepony you'd like to hang out with.”

Gold Plate took a deep breath, gazing solemnly at the wooden panels beneath them. “I'm fine. Besides, I like it when I'm doing work. I like it even better than sleeping.”

“That's kind of weird, don't you think?”

“What's it matter to you?” Gold Plate's voice cracked as he glared back at her.

Rainbow Dash blinked, shrugged, and sipped from the canteen. After a liberal gulp, she exhaled and said, “I just don't like seeing lonely ponies.”

“Why?”

“Because it makes me think of how sad it is,” Rainbow Dash murmured, “That a sane stallion or mare would go through life doing stuff that they hate, trying to make themselves think otherwise.”

Gold Plate gulped and reached back for his canteen. “You presume too much.”

“If you insist,” Rainbow Dash hoofed the canteen back, but at a low angle that forced Gold Plate to catch her sharp gaze. “So when are you going to tell me your name?”

Gold Plate blinked at her. “Huh?”

“Your name.”

“You already know it!” Gold Plate stammered, nervously taking the container from Rainbow Dash while clearing his throat. “It's 'Gold Plate.'”

“No, I mean your real name.” Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes were stabbing.

Gold Plate avoided the look yet again. “You're nuttier than you think, traveller. You know that?”

“I know a lot of things, but that's not the point.” Rainbow Dash spoke, “You may be able to fool a wagonload of dense, marble-headed stallions but you can't fool me. You and this 'tough as nails' routine comes across as waaaaay cheesy, especially when all you do is let these creeps walk all over you. So are you gonna tell me or what?”

Gold Plate's face fell. The pony's eyes closed sadly. Upon the next breath, the Wintergater's body deflated with a relaxed exhale, and the voice that came out was decidedly higher than Rainbow Dash had ever heard it before.

“'Gold Petals',” she muttered. “My name is 'Gold Petals.'”

Petals

View Online

“Yeesh, no wonder you were hiding it,” Rainbow Dash said with a smirk. “If your real name was any more girly, you'd spit perfume every time you opened your mouth.”

Gold Petals frowned. “It isn't funny!”

“I didn't say it was!”

“Then why are you laughing?”

“Cuz I don't get it!” Rainbow Dash stifled her chuckles long enough to look straight at the short-haired young mare. “What's the big deal? What are you trying to prove? Lemme guess, mares aren't allowed to partake in delivery caravans?”

“As a matter of fact, no, we're not.” Gold Petals shifted uncomfortably in her leather gear. Her voice was higher and more relaxed, but the glaring frown was as trademark as ever. “I've come a long way getting to where I'm at now, and though I may be on the short end of the stick when it comes to peer respect—you're right—these bozos are too dense to know any better. So, I get to do what I want to do. And if you so much as think of spilling the beans to them—”

“Whoah whoah whoah!” Rainbow Dash waved her hooves. “Who in the hay said that I was gonna rat you out?”

Gold Petals blinked at her. “I thought you were—”

“I was just curious, girl! I could have gone on without making you 'fess up if I wanted to. Where I come from, mares aren't told they can't do stuff because of who or what they are. If you ask me, I think it stinks that you have to go flank-over-elbow to do something you feel proud of.”

“For what it's worth...” Gold Petals grumbled.

Rainbow Dash glanced at her curiously. “So... you don't enjoy working with the caravan?”

“Well, it's okay and all, but...”

“But what?”

Gold Petals sighed. “I'd rather do that than stick around here...”

“What's wrong about this town? Aside from all the splinters you must get from living here, it looks pretty boss.”

“Maybe on the outside it does,” Gold Petals said with a grunt. “But a mare who lives here is stuck living her life inside.”

“You're serious?” Rainbow Dash sported an incredulous smirk. “I thought all the dudes did all the mining. Why do the mares have to avoid sunlight as well?”

“This place is old. It's built on tradition, and that tradition is old as well. A little too old if you ask me.”

“Ever thought of just moving away?”

“And ditch all the ponies I know and love?!” Gold Petals briefly sneered. “Heck no!” She sighed again and stared off into the mists beyond the crystals' glow. “Still, there are some who would like that...”

“How much is 'some'?”

Gold Petals bit her lip. “More than Hushtail knows, I'm willing to bet.”

“I had a chat with Hushtail?”

“Did you really?”

“Uhm... Okay. So I sat around and ate lettuce while he rambled on and on about boring stuff. But he struck me as a tender-hearted... uh... old guy. He really feels a lot for this town and the crap you guys have been through. I can't imagine him turning a blind eye to so many of his own citizens if all they wanted to do was get up and leave.”

“You fly around a lot,” Gold Petals said to her. “You strike me as a pony who is never in one place for too long.”

“What's your point?”

“My point is, you don't understand old ponies!” Gold Petals grumbled. “You have no idea just how clueless they are! There're a lot of Wintergaters in this town who would much rather leave all the mines, high altitudes, and nasty night creatures behind and go living in the southern coastal cities.”

“Are you one of them?”

“What did I just tell you earlier?”

“That you had a really girly name.”

“No, it—Unnngh...” Gold Petals face-hoofed. “Mmmmngh... One of these days, something big is gonna happen, and this town that I love is gonna flip upside down from how crazy the ponies react to it.”

“Hushtail doesn't have many years left, does he?”

“I wouldn't be too concerned about Hushtail,” Gold Petals muttered. “Sladesteed, on the other hoof...”

“Hushtail's son?” Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “What about him—”

Just at that moment, there was a shouting voice from the far end of the platform. “Up high! Up high! From the southwest!”

“They're coming!”

Gold Petals gasped. “Oh jeez! Oh jeez!” Clearing her throat, she wrapped her leather hood back up and galloped off. “No more talk!” she exclaimed in a lower voice.

“I don't get it?!” Rainbow Dash squawked after her. “Who's coming?”

She shot a panicked look back. “Who do you think?!”

Creatures

View Online

Windthrow was alive with the rattling cacophony of dozens of pony hooves trampling over the wooden lattices. The windows of buildings briefly opened as families glanced out into the misty madness, only to slam them shut and barricade them desperately from the inside. Squeaking sounds filled the air as small metallic ballistas armed with razor-sharp barbs were wheeled out onto the outermost platforms. Clad in leather armor, several Wintergaters clung to their weapons and stared out into the mists from the protective glow of the silver mana crystals.

For a moment, all was silent, save for the nervous breaths of multiple ponies forming an anxious chorus. Phalanx after phalanx of young stallions held their ground, doing their best not to quiver in their horseshoes. Gold Petals was among them. She ran to a stop beside a ballista team and held her polearm up at the ready. Gulping, her eyes darted from underneath her hood as she looked for any sign of darting shadows from beyond the fog.

The moonlight gave the dense air an otherworldly quality. A dim blue aura bathed the elevated township, obscuring the night sky above and the deathly heights below. As the seconds wore into minutes, only the wind moved, and even that was the barest of alterations to the ever-frozen moment.

“False... f-false alarm,” one stallion muttered. He stood back, sighing with relief as he leaned on the ballista controls. “Figures that some idiot got spooked and made the rest of the guards freak out.”

“Shhh!” Gold Petals hissed, struggling to keep her voice low. “For all we know, they could just be stalking us!”

“Oh please.” He spun around and smirked at her. “Don't even pretend that the winged brutes are capable of patience—”

A brown shape hurled itself out of the seeping clouds and swept the stallion off his hooves. His voice turned into a scream as several spindle-thin limbs hoisted him into the air, released, and sent him—flailing—through a wooden pile of crates. As the splinters flew, Gold Petals found herself ducking more and more shadows. An entire swarm of leathery bodies were slicing their way through the mists and dipping into the streets and platforms of Windthrow. The air filled with their horrible banshee cries, punctuated by the random shouts of ponies fighting back the sudden onslaught.

Gold Petals squatted low, panting hard. She gazed up in time to see a stallion backing up, swinging his polearm high. He managed to knock one creature off-course, only for a second one to dive low and sweep him off his hooves. He fell back through a series of barrels just as a brown flank of skin took the entirety of Gold's eyesight.

“Unngh!” She shrieked, a little too high for her liking. She fell back from the horrid weight of something against her chest. Upon landing, she was looking up into a flat, angular face with no eyes and a horizontal slit of a mouth full of serrated biscupids. Long, spidery limbs stuck out of the thin body of the ray-like monstrosity. Gold Petals smelled the scent of copper blood and bile; the creature was biting down at her.

Grunting, she lifted the length of her polearm in time to block the creature's lunge. Its thin, razor sharp teeth nibbled and tore into the body of the wooden weapon. With her mouth, she clamped onto the side of her polearm and yanked to the left. The creature was flung off by its grip. It smashed through a railing, impaled by a piece of plywood, and fell—shrieking—into the depths of the valley below.

Breathing hard, Gold Petals stood up. She reeled from the sheer force of three creatures flying directly overhead. Struggling, she raised her hood for a good look. She saw the creatures flying straight for a silver crystal erected on a metal pole. They shrieked painfully from the proximity of the fog-clearing magic. Sacrificing their bodies, they joined together and hurled themselves into the burning light. They succeeded in knocking the crystal completely off the side of Windthrow so that it fell ineffectually into the depths below. Immediately, the smoke and fog of the mountain filled the gap remaining.

Gold Petals gnashed her teeth. She spun and saw several ponies engaged in fruitless battles all across the elevated urbanscape. One by one, while the defenders were established, groups of creatures were sweeping in to tackle the sources of magic.

“Hey!” Gold Petals shouted. “Hey!” She shouted again, standing on her rear hooves and waving two forelimbs wildly. “Pay attention! Look! They're going after the crystals! Protect the crystals!”

“Nnnngh!” One guard was struggling with one of the giant, bat-like monstrosities just a few feet from her.

“Hey!” Gold Petals ran towards him. “Let's work together! We gotta keep them away from—”

“Back to Tartarus, you friggin', flying rats!” The guard yanked a dagger out of a hoof's sheathe and made a jab at the creature. A giant spidery-leg poked him in the eye. “Aaugh!” He fell back, and his tail-hairs got entangled in the controls of one of the ballistas. The launcher spun around, yanked to the side, and fell to the platform. As soon as it did, the giant barb was fired. It skated across the wooden floor, spraying sparks, and barreling Gold Petals way.

“Aaaugh!” Gold Petals dove to the side just as the projectile flew into a wagon full of garbage. Half of the contents flew in a dense spray into the mare. She absorbed most of the blow, but the wave of junk was too much. She tripped, teetered, and plummeted hard into a length of wooden railing. With a sickening crack, the wooden fence gave way, and she fell.

Gasping, she flung two hooves up and caught the edge of the platform. The sweating earth pony dangled—barely—from the edge of Windthrow. Swirling mists and brown bodies spun around her. Below, a foggy crevice yawned hungrily like a glowing blue maw.

“Nnnngh!” Gold Petals struggled to pull herself up. Her ears rang with the shouts of ponies and crashing wood. Something lit up her peripheral vision. She watched despondently as another mana crystal—pole and all—was being flung over the edge, lighting up the otherwise impermeable depths below. “Oh blessed Sun Goddess, help me...”

Just as she said that, a pair of brown creatures touched down on the platform just above her. With drooling mouths, the eyeless things leered at the pony and prepared to stab with their spindle-legs.

Gold Petals' eyes narrowed as her face tensed.

In a blink, something had flattened the two screeching creatures into painful contortions. Four blue hooves were mercilessly trampling them with the sickening crunch of bone. They were kicked limply over the edge, so that they plunged past Gold Petals.

“Wh-what?!” She breathed. Then that breath turned into a scream as she slipped from the platform and fell to her death. “Aaaaaaah!”

The world stopped flying past her, for a pair of teeth was yanking her up by the hood of her outfit and back onto safe hoofing She teetered, until a pegasus held her steady. She looked up and blinked.

“Rainbow...?”

“You really gotta watch out who you pray to.” Rainbow Dash winked at her.

“You came here... j-just to save me?!”

“Pffft! As if!” Rainbow Dash rolled her ruby eyes. She turned and bravely faced the carnage, scraping her front hooves along the floor with emphasis. “I came here so I could look awesome—”

Just then, three shrieking creatures mercilessly tackled her.

“Daaah!”

Combat

View Online

Rainbow Dash flew sideways across a platform, bounced off a building front, and skidded to a stop in the middle of a vacant market bazaar.

“Unnngh...” She winced, stirred, then got up to her hooves with a smirk. “Well, that wasn't so bad.”

Two creatures dove down and whalloped her upside the head.

“Ow!” Rainbow Dash seethed. “Alright, ya melon fudges! Have it your way!” She jumped behind a stack of barrels, pivoted, and bucked them hard into the air.

As three more creatures came down to strike at Rainbow Dash, they were pummeled in midair by her improvised projectiles. They fell onto the wooden platforms, twitching and thrashing, until a group of Wintergaters galloped over and opportunistically stabbed them to death with polearms.

“That's how you do it!” Rainbow Dash shouted with a smile. “You can all thank me for dinner later!”

“Rainbow!” Gold Petals shouted from a distance.

“What?” Rainbow Dash turned around. “It's you guys who like eating meat, not—WHOAH!”

A rather large monster was flying straight into her. It plowed into her chest and shoved her through the lengths of Windthrow, whizzing past several ponies in a heated battle with the attacking swarm. Rainbow Dash gnashed her teeth and wrestled with the thing's spidery legs. Its thin slit of a mouth drooled and snapped at her, ultimately clamping onto the edge of her golden pendant. Rainbow Dash let loose a pained growl as her eyes swam dizzily. With a snarl, she headbutted the monster off her pendant, flung her neck to the side, and bit hard onto its wing. The creature let out a banshee cry and spun from the weight of Rainbow Dash's jaws. Soon, the two conjoined combatants smashed into the body of a wooden shed in the residential section of the village.

Dust and debris settled over the scene. The distant shouts of various earth ponies echoed through the mists. After several seconds of nothing...

The creature burst back out, then floundered on the ground. Its wing was bleeding and it struggled in futility to stand upright. One of its legs was missing. Just as it lurched towards the edge of the town...

Rainbow Dash dove out of the shed with a dismembered leg in her grasp. She swung the thick, branch-like thing across the abomination's skull several times before gripping the creature's body with her front hooves and stabbing down. Rainbow shoved the spindle-like leg down the creature's throat like a hot pin through butter. With a sickening sound of gurgling breath, the monster choked on its own limb and fell to the floor.

“Ptooie!” Rainbow Dash spat and rubbed her lips. “Tastes like a a deflated balloon. I dunno how Fulltrot and the others do it.” She paused, sniffing, making a face. “The heck smells so bad?”

Just a few feet away from her, Ironhoof marched out of an apartment flat with a nightcap on. “I'm telling you, honey,” he shouted into the house while trotting out. “I've no idea what all the noise is! And I think it's a really stupid excuse for us to have stopped—” He paused, wide-eyed, upon seeing Rainbow Dash and the mutilated creature. “Well then, there it goes.”

“Watch it!” Rainbow Dash shoved him—grunting—to the floor as several more creatures dove down. They knocked over a glowing crystal, spun back, and formed a circle around Rainbow Dash and Ironhoof.

The first of them made a lunge for the stallion, shrieking. Ironhoof curled up into a ball and cried. Rainbow Dash skidded in the way, absorbed the full dive of the creature, latched onto its wing with her teeth, spun all the way around, and flung the monster like a club into its partners.

The creatures flew everywhere like dying fish. As soon as they started thrashing about, another thick group of monsters flew down to take their place. Suddenly, a polearm was being thrust into the spine of one of them. Gold Petals was rushing in, gripping the spear in her teeth and shoving it into the flesh of the invader. No sooner was she impaling the thing when its siblings viciously knocked her aside with their wings.

“Unngh!” Gold Petals flew back, only to be caught in Rainbow Dash's hooves.

“Welcome to the dance-off,” Rainbow Dash mused.

“Not sure I wanted an invite,” Gold Petals stood on four hooves, then sniffed. “What smells so bad?”

“Destiny.”

“You're really full of it.”

“Hahahaha...”

Gold Petals gulped as she and Rainbow Dash and Ironhoof were being surrounded by winged cretins. “We're... We're all gonna die, aren't we?”

“Yeah. Isn't it cool?” She looked over. “Lemme borrow that.” She grabbed Gold Petal's polearm. With the use of her teeth and forelimb, she snapped the thing in half. “Here...” She tossed the barbed tip Gold's way. “You get the easy one.”

“Jee, thanks.”

“If for some reason you live through this and I don't,” Rainbow Dash's eyes briefly flickered red-on-yellow as her pendant glowed a little dimly from within. “Have somepony put my ashes into a bunch of fireworks. I heard that a famous stallion once had that done for him. Ever read Fillies and Loathing in Las Pegasus?”

“I've got bigger things to worry about than obscure books.”

“Obscure? Do you know who you're talking to? Even I know this book.”

The creatures produced a collective shriek as they closed in.

“Oh right. These things.” Rainbow Dash gripped her shattered half of the polearm and scraped her hooves against the ground. “You ready to do this?”

“No.”

“Good. Just stay behind me and try not to look more awesome. By the way, I like your mane.”

Gold Petals blinked. “What?”

“Raaaaugh!” Rainbow Dash gave a warcry and leapt violently into the phalanx of leathery bodies.

Volley

View Online

Rainbow Dash tackled one creature, flung it into another, headbutted a third, bucked a fourth, and galloped muderously into a flank of charging monstrocities.

“Rrrrgh!” She ducked one creature's lunge, spun about, stabbed her half of the polearm into a second, then hoisted it's twitching body so that it slammed across two more. As soon as she spat the wooden splinter out of her mouth, she spun and bucked all of the tumbling creatures over the edge of the platform. “Hah!” She reared her hooves victoriously. “How's that for a slice of bananabread—Ow!” She hissed as a monster leapt up and stabbed her backside with several spidery legs.

“Rainbow!” Gold Plate shouted. She stared with wild eyes while driving back a circle of drooling creatures.

“I'm alright!” Rainbow Dash grunted and struggled under the creature. She was flung forward by its weight into a heavy wall of leathery attackers. “Wait! Scratch that! I'm not alright! Ohhhhhh that hurts. Ow! Ow ow ow ow ow ow!” Seething, she clamped her hooves onto the platform, spread her wings wide, and spun in a circular fashion. “Nnnngh-Gaaaah!”

The one attacker was flung off her flank while several more reeled from the spinning impact of her wings.

Rainbow Dash panted, limped, and leaned against a loose stack of barrels. As she dealt with the throbbing pain, she tiredly gazed at an angry line of creatures diving down at her. Just then, she made a face. Rainbow's nostrils flared a few times as she sniffed the air.

Before the monsters could land a single blow, a very angry stallion was charging in and tossing a wooden crate full of rusted horseshoes at the lot of them.

“Grrrr!” Ironhoof knocked several of them into the walls of the cacophonous battle scene. “I didn't march all the way here to spend my first night at home playing pinata with scum-sucking tartarus spawn in the middle of the night!”

“You ever thought of breathing on them?” Rainbow Dash wheezed.

“Guys!” Gold Petals rushed up, leaning on her polearm and pointing up at another incoming swarm with her hoof. “There's more of them coming!”

Ironhoof glared at her. “What's with your voice, kid? Did one of them bite you where the sun doesn't shine?”

Growling, Gold Petals didn't bother changing the pitch in her retort. “What do those things look like? Your wife?”

“Hahahaha!” Rainbow Dash guffawed.

Ironhoof slapped her backside. “Don't encourage him, Equestrian!”

“Owwwwww...” Rainbow Dash winced and hissed towards the mists. “I am so killing you right after I kill them.”

“Get in line behind my wife.”

“I mean it, guys! What are we going to do?”

“Get in line behind his wife.”

“No, about the creatures!”

“You ask any more redundant questions, then I'd say we toss you at them.”

“Some help you are, Equestrian.”

“Fine... FINE!” Rainbow Dash stepped ahead of the two, wincing. “Okay, here's the plan. Ironhoof, you start a fire. Gold Pe—er, Plate, you get another polearm to make a tourch—”

“A torch?!” Ironhoof gasped.

“You featherbrain, we're in a city made of wood!” Gold Petals added.

“Oh, right.” Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes blinked at the incoming swarm. “Guess we're dead, then.”

Shrieking, the final band of attacking monsters dove low, their legs and fangs slicing through the air. Gold Petals and Ironhoof ducked, covering their heads in fright. Frowning, Rainbow Dash shaddowed them. She summoned all her strength and stretched her legs up ominously to face the aerial charge.

“Let's see what you got, ya gutless flying bagpipes!”

No sooner had she shouted this, but a huge wave of arrows and barbs flew from the center of town and impaled half of the creatures in midair. The remaining monsters squawked in surprise and banked off to the side.

Rainbow Dash, Gold Petals, and Ironhoof flashed a look to their right. A solid line of Windthrow miners had arrived at the scene with crossbows and barb-launchers in mid-discharge. Standing beside them was Hushtail's son, Sladesteed, and he was shouting at the top of his lungs.

“Send them back into the mists!”

The earth ponies shouted a battle cry and let loose another volley. Several more creatures plummeted bloodily to the platforms as the remaining few who could still fly darted off for the moonlit haze of night.

Finally, the chaos and noise of the evening dwindled, only to be followed by a loud roar of cheering earth ponies. The citizens of Windthrow celebrated their brief victory, before eventually gathering around Sladesteed to assist in tending to the wounded.

“This is getting out of hoof,” Sladesteed muttered to his fellow workers. He wiped sweat and soot off his brow as he frowned into the foggy distance surrounding the village. “If my workers and I had gotten word of this just a little bit later, we wouldn't have come in time to provide backup. I don't know how much more of these attacks our village can stand. Father has to be convinced to change things...”

Several weary ponies around him murmured and nodded in approval.

“Let's form a triage for the wounded.” Sladesteed glanced Rainbow's way. He squinted. “Outsider,” he spoke in a solid tone. “Your assistance is appreciated, but I fear we'll need more than just a single pegasus' timely intervention if we are to stave off these monsters once and for all.”

“Hey. More than happy to help. Nice crossbows, by the way.”

“Yes, they most certainly are.” Sladesteed sniffed the air. “Blast. Is it enough that they attack us so heartlessly but we must deal with the stench of their decaying carcasses as well?”

“Nah, that's just Ironhoof here.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“That's it.” Ironhoof bumped his way past Rainbow Dash and limped down the street, groaning, “I'm going home.”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash smiled and reeled dizzily. “All in... a day's work...”

“Rainbow...” Gold Petals walked up to her and murmured hushedly, “I think you need to sit down.”

“Why? Sitting down is for pansies.”

“I mean it! I think you've got a lot of blood loss?”

“The heck are you talking about?” Rainbow Dash blinked. Something warm and wet dribbled down her face. Her eyes shot up in time to catch a thin curtain of crimson trickling down her coat from multiple bite and stab wounds. “Oh, hey. Check that out.”

She then collapsed in a dry heap, unconscious.

Gold Petals could only gasp.

Can't

View Online

“Rainbow Dash?”

She played with tiny, fluffs of clouds. They bounced between her hooves in the glistening morning sun.

“Rainbow Dash...?”

Her ears perked up. With a gasp, she shot up and glanced down from her perch in the sky.

Five colorful figures stared up at her. The pink one was bouncing up and down, waving. The orange stood in the back, chuckling.

“Rainbow Dash!”

She smirked wide. Tossing her mane back, she flexed her wings and dove off the cloud. She squinted her eyes against the gnawing wind as she soared earthward, spiraling once or twice for show.

When she landed, blades of glass and flower petals lifted up around her. She chuckled and looked ahead of her... then blinked as a dull expression fell across her face.

There was nopony to be seen throughout the rolling landscape.

“Rainbow Dash?”

She spun around.

Gold Petals stood. Not a scrap of leather was to be seen on her. She smiled, her short blond mane hair fluttering in the breeze. “Can you really do anything?” she asked.

She smiled back. She was about to give a laughable quip, when she felt a cold sensation pouring over her limbs. Glancing down, she gasped. Her hooves had turned gray. Part of her mane hair dangled in her peripheral vision, and it too was colorless.

“Rainbow Dash...”

She spun, gasping.

Princess Celestia stood. Her face was grave as she slowly turned to stone from tail to mane. “You can't do anything.”

She backtrotted, her lips quivering. She bumped into Gold Petals' body, but felt something warm and wet. Glancing back, she had to look down to see the horrific sight. Gold Petals corpse was being gnawed on by several leathery creatures. They all glanced up and hissed in crimson hunger.

Before she could react, she felt thunderous pain wracking her skull. She moaned, screamed, and fell to her knees. A pair of hooves flew up to her forehead, but were powerless to stop the two mishapen horns ripping out of her skull.

“Aaaaaugh!”

There was a fright flash of light from behind, and she felt her entire body pelted by a sea of shattered stone and gravel.

Pendant

View Online

“Nnnngh—Gaah!” Rainbow Dash's eyes flew wide open, and they weren't hers.

Gold Petals gasped. In the light of a dim candle, she pressed the pegasus until she was lying back down on her cot. “Calm down! You were out for—like—ten hours—”

“Scrkk... Burning... It burns...” Rainbow Dash gnashed her teeth and thrashed about the tiny wooden room. “Nngh... What's... What's wrong with my—” She flung her hoof up to her throat. She gasped. Her neck was bare. “Where?! Where is it?!”

“You looked so uncomfortable in your sleep. I took the liberty of removing the pendant—”

“Are you friggin' crazy?!” Rainbow Dash sat up, snarling like a beast. “Where is it?! What did you do with it?!”

“I-I—”

“Tell me!”

Gold Petals pointed nervously. “It's right there on the end table—”

Rainbow Dash lunged for it. She knocked a stool and a stack of bandages over in her effort. Panting heavily, she grabbed the golden neckpiece and flung it over her head, fumbling to clasp it in the back.

“Here, allow me—” Gold reached.

“I got it!” Rainbow snapped. Seething, she concentrated and finally fitted the item on. Once she felt its familiar weight, she let out a huge breath of relief and slumped back against the nearby wall. She sweated, trying to calm herself down as the liquid seconds dripped by.

Gold Petals fidgeted, fighting back a slew of shivers. Biting her lip, she bravely murmured, “Your eyes. They were... different, just a moment ago.”

“I don't know what you're talking about...”

“They were red, but a different kind of red. And the whites had turned yellow—”

“You saw nothing.”

“But—”

“You didn't see anything!” Rainbow Dash snarled. “I know I kid about a lot of stuff, but I sure as heck ain't kidding about this!”

The tiny room echoed slightly with that outburst. Soon everything quieted until all Rainbow could hear was the panting sound of her own voice. With a groan, she sat up and ran a hoof through her mane hair, pausing to revel in the flat feel of her brow.

“Look, I'm sorry. You've obviously done a lot to take care of me since—Owww...” She winced slightly as she ran a hoof over a series of bandages plastered to her spine. “Ahem. So, like, thank you and all. But there's something you must know in case I'm crazy enough to hang out in this shindig any longer.” She gulped and stared Gold Petals directly in the face, all the while tugging on the edges of her ruby-studded pendant. “This must never... EVER be taken off of me. You got it? I don't care how many crazy frickin' bats from nightmareville decide to stab me, this thing stays on my neck at all times. Do you understand?”

Gold Petals hung her head.

Rainbow Dash stared at her. For a moment, she thought she saw a flash of lavender color in the corner of her eyes. So she clenched them shut, seethed, and reopened them... satisfied to see everything returning back to its dismal, Windthrow normality.

“Seriously. Thanks for everything. It's just that... well... I can be in a worse state than being gnawed at by flying suitcases. And, for that matter, I—” She paused in the middle of her awkward speech, her ears twitching. “What... What's all the commotion about?”

Gold Petals gazed out the tiny shack's door. Several ponies were hurriedly martching past the frame, collectively heading towards the loud and crowded center of town.

“Well?” Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “Patron god of crossdressers got your tongue?”

“Mmmm...” Gold Petals meekly stirred before saying, “It's Sladesteed.”

“What about him?”

“You've been out a long time, and he's called together an emergency meeting.”

Meeting

View Online

“We cannot survive these attacks much longer!” Sladesteed proclaimed loudly before the gathered assembly of Windthrow earth ponies.

Hundreds of citizens gathered in the wooden downtown courtyard, seated on random barrels, supply crates, wagons, and whatever else could serve as seats. The sparse debris from the previous night's battle still littered the platforms in places. To the far side, several ponies in bandages sat in lethargic slumps next to their families and loved ones.

“Even with all of the enchanted crystals that our ever-faithful Fulltrot brings from the minotaurs to the north...” Sladesteed gestured towards the stallion in question. “Windthrow simply isn't strong enough to endure the relentless assaults of these vile creatures! I care for the stability of this town! I care for its citizens whose lives have been entrusted to me by my rightful heir to the head seat of the council! Day in and day out, I struggle to dredge up more resources from the mines! But my labors and the hard work of my fellow ponies just isn't enough to stop the inevitable! This mist is overrunning our town! Sooner than later, we will be forced to relocate—or else we will all become the victims of these winged monstrocities!”

Several ponies murmured in mixed consternation and agreement. Leather-garbed bodies shifted about as the citizens gave each other worried glances.

Fulltrot stood up straight, his aged voice forcing the crowd into silence. “I still think that an evacuation of Windthrow is the last resort! We may still yet be able to contact the unicorns who provide the minotaurs with these crystals! If I can just bridge communication and win ourselves an uninterrupted supply of the enchanted objects, we may be able to rid ourselves of these creatures for good!”

“And just what assurance can you give us of this, Fulltrot?” Sladesteed exclaimed with a frown. “Just last night, five of our finest citizens were bruised and injured from the latest attack. We were lucky that none died this time, but it's happened in the past! And what's to say that it won't happen again... and again... and yet again while we wait for a goal that—however noble—is hypothetical at best?!”

Fulltrot had to struggle to speak above the ensuing outburst of angry voices. “Your father and your father's father and your countless ancestors before him have all lived and died for the sake of maintaining the integrity of this village!” He frowned and pointed at the young stallion. “Protecting this town means more than surviving a swarm of horrific beasts! It means serving as the backbone of Wintergate's industrial supply!”

“My most esteemed Fulltrot,” Sladesteed uttered firmly. “There will be no Windthrow worthy of maintaining if all of the ponies who live therein fall victim to malevolent circumstance! We citizens are strong and courageous by our own hooves alone. Even if Windthrow was to fall, I am more concerned with the souls that have worked so hard to make it what it is today!”

“And if your concern was legitimate, my wise and goodly son...” Hushtail's voice rose from the sidelines. Everypony murmured anxiously and gazed over to see him arriving with the help of two old mares. He stared firmly at Sladesteed, his nostrils flaring. “...then you would have adhered to the hierarchy that has sustained order in Windthrow for so long. You should have asked for my permission before establishing this rather unorthodox council.”

“Just for what?” Sladesteed boldly trotted towards his father while his many peers gazed in stunned silence. “For you to delay with your inane rituals and unnecessary attention to pretense? Father, ponies are dying! Every day you delay making a bold decision in a new direction is another day this village suffers for it. Your faithful citizens can no longer afford such senility.”

There were several gasping voices.

Hushtail glared at his son. “Do you forget who you are talking to, colt?”

“Not in the least!” Sladesteed rested back on his haunches and waved his forearms before the crowd. “Do you see these hooves?! These hooves have washed themselves in the blood of your brothers and sisters! It's been I—and not your village elder—who has been forced to deal with the carnage of our misfortune up close! I know what it is that we are dealing with! I know the loss that strikes grief into the heart of each and every one of you, day in and day out, as you fight to keep your feelings in under the necessity of inane traditions and self-denial!”

Several families shuddered and nuzzled each other close as Sladesteed's speech went on. Old mares wept and elder stallions gazed into the spaces of empty seats beside them.

“So forgive me for my rudeness, father!” Sladesteed glared at the old, gray pony. “Forgive me if I have held my tongue for so long in the wake of so much death and absurdity! But the time has come for me to grow up, to no longer let the shadow of your rule blind all of us to the danger that we now face!” He pointed up towards the summit above the fog-laden village. “But so long as our new enemy nests atop the mountain, we must reevaluate why we are here, and consider finding a new home!”

“They're not nesting atop the mountain!”

All the ponies gasped and spun to look towards the edge of the courtyart.

Rainbow Dash stood next to Gold Petals. Upon the receiving glance of the entire village, she winced and chuckled. “Eh heh... that is to say... uhm...” She ran a hoof over her bandaged neck, gulped, and said. “I didn't see any nests when I was up there. Cuz... like... I totally had a look just minutes before those crazy bat-things did their damage.”

Sladesteed's eyes narrowed. Hushtail blinked confusedly. And Fulltrot...

“Perhaps...” Fulltrot was suddenly smiling. He glanced wisely at Sladesteed and Hushtail before trotting a few steps in Rainbow's direction. “...the outsider should have her say.”

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash did a double-take.

Fulltrot stood proudly beside her. “An objective opinion may be just what this village needs in regards to this most troublesome matter. Already, our leader and his heir appear to have come to an impasse. I say we hear what the Equestrian has to say!”

At that, the first of several smiles began to form across the crowd of earth pony faces. Hooves stomped and voices cried out enthusiastically.

Gold Petals bit her lip and hid beneath the shadow of her hood.

As for Rainbow Dash, she was glaring at Fulltrot. “Just what are you trying to do here?” She whispered aside at him. “I was only observing things. I didn't ask to become Susan B Anpony.”

“Are you a believer in fate, Equestrian?” Fulltrot murmured back.

“Fate's boring. You're boring.”

He smiled. “Then I know just the pony who's in the right place and the right time to spark hope in this crowd.” He gestured towards the sea of faces pointed her way. “Go on. Speak what's on your mind.”

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and stepped towards the crowd. “Yeah, this will be super,” she grumbled.

Enthusiasm

View Online

“So, like, uhm... have you ever really needed to grind your hooves? Like really bad? Because they get such sharp edges from trotting around so much that when you try to cure an itch that won't go away, you accidentally start scratching yourself real bad? And you think 'Ow, jeez, if only I had put a file to these hooves of mine, I may not be making scars on myself.' It's almost as annoying as when the winter hits and you start molting. Cuz is there really any easy way to sweep feathers... off the... bedroom floor...?” Rainbow Dash's words trailed off. She gulped.

The entire crowd of Windthrow ponies was staring at her blankly.

“Ahem.” She cleared her throat and shifted nervously where she sat next to Fulltrot. “What I'm trying to get at, I think, is an anthology.”

“Analogy,” Fulltrot corrected in a whispery voice.

“Right! One of those!” Rainbow Dash smiled sheepishly. “You see, this village could really go with a chance to... uh... to grind its hooves! Cuz everypony is so on edge and so freaked out about these monsters and crud that just about any little thing is capable of throwing you guys off your rocker! I mean, sure, yeah, it helps to be virulent.”

“Vigilant.”

“Why aren't you talking?” Rainbow Dash hissed.

Fulltrot smiled. “You're doing fine.”

“Nnngh...” Rainbow turned towards the crowd once again. “It helps to be vir—... vigilant. But at the same time you shouldn't forget that you're a bunch of big, strong ponies with a lot of weight to throw around and these winged chumps don't know what's coming to them!”

“Unnngh...” Sladesteed facehoofed. “This is a waste of time...”

“Exactly!” Rainbow Dash smiled. She turned to see Fulltrot's frown. “No. NO!” She spun and barked at Sladesteed from afar. “It's not a waste of time! Hear me out—”

“Ponies have died trying to ward off those creatures from the top of the mountain,” Sladesteed said, glaring across the crowd at her. “I can't see what a pegasus from Equestria could possibly know about what we've been through.”

“And I'm telling you!” Rainbow's voice cracked as she spoke louder. “They're NOT on the top of the mountain! There's nothing on the top of the mountain but the mountain!” Several citizens glanced at one another and murmured as she went along, “I was there, alright? I was there and... like... all I saw were a bunch of fissures venting steam up into the air!”

“Fissures...?” Hushtail spoke up.

“Yeah! They were cracks. Too tiny for even those horrible bat things to fly through. If I didn't know better, I'd say that the super-evil mists were coming from inside the mountain itself!”

“From inside the mountain?!” Sladesteed made a face. “Preposterous! That's impossible!”

“Well...” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “You tell me! You're mining inside that giant chunk of rock all the time, aren't ya?”

Sladesteed merely frowned at her. His nostrils flared and he motioned towards his closest cohorts. “Come on, brothers. I should have known better than to have called this meeting. Nothing's ever going to change, so might as well spend our time doing something constructive. Quickly now! If we don't gather enough minerals, the trade parties will abandon us for another year!”

Rainbow Dash blinked confusedly as Sladesteed and a large group of ponies marched away. Slowly, the crowd began to dissipate.

“Well, that's certainly rude,” Gold Petals muttered in a low voice.

Rainbow Dash gazed aside at her. “What are you still doing here? Come to tell me that it was a good speech?”

“No. It sucked big time,” she replied. “Still, I can't help but think that Sladesteed got up on the wrong side of the stables this morning.”

“Yeah, what's up with that?”

“He's a headstrong stallion,” Fulltrot remarked, gazing at the work ponies trudging their way towards the mineshafts in the side of the mountain. “He knows as well as any villager in Windthrow that Hushtail's days are numbered. It's not that the young pony is starved for power. He just takes his responsibilities a little to closely to heart.”

“And that is a heart that has hardened over the years,” Hushtail added as he marched over towards Rainbow Dash. “I am most sorry, Equestrian, for the awkwardness of that scene. It goes without saying that my son and I haven't seen eye to eye in a long time.”

“Well, he's concerned for a lot of good reasons,” Rainbow Dash said. “Sounds like things in this village has been pretty grim. How many other ponies have wanted to relocate, I wonder?”

Instead of answering that, Hushtail leaned forward and asked, “Is it true? There were no nests atop the mountain summit?”

“None that I could see, sir,” Rainbow Dash replied. “Though, I didn't really get the best look-see. Maybe I can fly up there again.”

“No matter what you may or may not find, I doubt that'll be the crux of the issue,” Fulltrot said. “Even assuming that the creatures have dwindled in numbers overnight, if our village doesn't have solidarity in the defense effort, we can start mourning the fate of Windthrow already.”

“I don't think I get you...”

“My son has done nothing but stir up doubt and fear,” Hushtail gravely said. “I applaud his attention to seriousness, but I fear that his anxiety has gotten the best of him. He may not have a proper assessment of his own charisma, but his words are putting a damper on the spirit of this village.”

“Well, sorry that my... uh... 'outsider enthusiasm' wasn't enough to tip the boat,” Rainbow Dash said, casting a glare at Fulltrot.

“I just wish that I could reach out to him somehow,” Hushtail muttered. “Alas, I am getting along in my years, and I don't know how many chances I have left.”

Rainbow Dash glanced over at Gold Petals. Gold Petals squinted curiously from beneath her hood. With determined breath, Rainbow Dash smirked at the two elders. “Perhaps, then, this is a chance that I should be taking up.” And she trotted at a brisk pace towards the mineshaft.

Mines

View Online

The first thing Rainbow Dash observed was how low the ceilings of the tunnels were. On several occasions, she had to crouch low in her walk, even going so far as to fold her wings in or else she'd brush the rocky walls of the place with her feathers. With her body retracted to size of an earth pony, she still found it a difficult process to navigate the shafts. Every corridor she trotted down was filled to the brim with sweaty, leather-clad workers busily drilling or hammering away at the stony interior of the mountain.

The tunnels were undeniably labyrinthine, but Rainbow Dash never got lost. The Wintergaters had established a legible series of detailed signs. And whenever she got a little confused as to the next passageway to choose, a pony was swift to volunteer information.

Rainbow Dash couldn't help but feel pleased with the degree to which the citizens of Windthrow practiced good manners. Considering all of the hardships that they faced on a regular basis, she was amazed that they remained in such positive spirits. Sladesteed, of course, was a different matter altogether, and he was presently the goal of her descent.

“Who? Master Sladesteed?” A pony responded to Rainbow's latest inquiry and pointed down a steep, dimly lit corridor with his pickaxe. “You can find him thattaways, by the secondary ore reserves.”

“Thanks a bunch!” Rainbow Dash shouted above the whur of steam-powered machinery. She crouch-walked her way down the passage. The air was getting warmer the further she pierced the heart of the mountain. The way before her was lit by a lantern, grew dim, and then was illuminated by yet another strung lantern before all light could vanish. This sort of monotonous pattern continued for a remarkably extended length, until Rainbow Dash reached a large cavern geometrically carved out of the belly of the earth.

She glanced around, her pegasus sensibilities put off by the looming presence of a rocky ceiling everywhere all at once. She swallowed hard for courage and adjusted the pendant around her neck just as she took a step forward.

Suddenly, something dark darted across the ground before her.

Gazing down, she blinked, then smiled. “Huh... Will you look at that...?”

It was a mole, a very large one at that. Rainbow Dash had never seen a species quite like it. It waddled harmlessly across the dirt-speckled floor, sniffing around blindly for morsels of food.

“Well, aren't you a curious little guy?” she murmured aloud.

The mole stopped in place. It tilted its eyeless skull up and wriggled several pale feelers at her. Just then, a bright metal pole skewered it bloodily down the center.

“Daaah!” Rainbow Dash jumped back, flinching.

At the far end of the pole was a goggled earth pony. Lifting the twitching body of the mammal up for a closer look, Sladesteed lowered his headpiece and gazed at the dying thing closely. He blinked and glanced over at Rainbow Dash.

“Hmmm. Sorry for startling you, Equestrian.”

“Oh... Uhm. No pr-problem!” Rainbow Dash smiled nervously and gulped. “I'm perfectly fine!”

“Uh huh.” Sladesteed passed the skewered mole to another work pony who dropped the corpse into a burlap bag along with several more like it. “It's more than minerals that we get from these tunnels. They're oftentimes a source of food as well. I'm sure you can understand...”

“Uh. Sure. Mole Alfredo. Sounds tasty.”

“You don't need to be pretentious for my behalf.”

“Good,” Rainbow Dash sighed heavily. “Cuz I think it's frickin' icky.”

“Don't know how you westerners manage it,” Sladesteed spoke while shuffling over towards a wooden table full of mining plans and rough subterranean maps. “Here in the land of Wintergate, ponies know to take advantage of everything nature gives to us. We have our own belief in harmony, and it's all about survival.”

Rainbow Dash found herself absent-mindedly stroking the golden body of her pendant. “I... uhm... know a thing or two about surviving.”

“I bet.” He murmured without looking at her. His hooves stretched out another map as he said, “And what about diplomacy?”

Rainbow Dash randomly belched. “Excuse me, what?”

“Right, then.” Sladesteed cast her a sideways glance. “Just what are you doing here? Because if my father sent you, then you might as well turn your colorful tail and go back up to the surface.”

“Actually, I came here on my lonesome.”

“Did you now?”

“Uh huh.”

“What's on your mind?”

“Smoke is on my mind,” Rainbow Dash said, walking by several piles of equipment while working ponies shuffled from station to station behind her. “Or, more to the point, where the smoke comes from.”

“We incorporate several steam-powered devices in our mining, but if you took notice along your way down here, we do a fine job of funneling the exhaust to locations around the entrance.”

“Yeah. I saw those pipes and stuff. But I'm not trying to say that you guys are the ones responsible for this otherworldly smog.” Rainbow Dash stood beside him. “You're down in these tunnels a lot. Could you have seen something—anything—that might suggest where the crap comes from?”

“I don't see what it matters. We've found no evidence of where the creatures place their nests. If we did—I assure you—we'd have dealt with them swiftly a long time ago.”

Rainbow Dash glanced over to where the bag full of dead moles was lying. “Yeah. I kind of guessed that was the case. Uhm... Still, though.” She looked at him. “With all the time you have on your hooves to drill into these rocks like crazed dentists, have you ever taken the time and opportunity to explore the rest of the underground and see if maybe the creatures are hiding away in this place?”

“I could write a book on how many times I've tried exploring the inside of this mountain.”

“Yeesh. Well, as much as I hate reading, think you can run some of that by me?”

“I can do you something better,” Sladesteed said as she swept up a saddlebag of equipment, fitted it overhimself, and motioned towards a dark corridor on the far end of the cavern. “Here. Walk with me.”

“What for?”

“Do you want to see or don't you?”

“See what?”

“That's what you should walk with me for.”

Rainbow Dash sighed. “Fine. Whatever. Just promise me you'll take it easy on the moles for a while.”

“First thing's first,” he said.

She blinked. “Huh?” She winced as a yellow hard hat was slapped over her head. Her eyes thinned boredly. “Sure. Okay.”

Expanse

View Online

“As long as Windthrow has been around, ponies have been digging into this mountain,” Sladesteed spoke as he led Rainbow Dash deeper into the dimly lit tunnels. “In my life, I made it my goal to explore every hidden pocket of minerals this part of the earth holds for us. As a result, I've increased the volume of our excavations by nearly twenty percent. That's a huge extension from the combined work of all of my ancestors.”

“Bet you feel proud,” Rainbow Dash said. She briefly tripped on a pile of loose rocks, stumbled, and regained her balance in enough time to look cool. “Ahem. So why all of the extra effort, if I may ask?”

“Windthrow exists on the shoulders of ponies who have come before me. I know very well that once I am gone, further generations will depend upon what I've done to keep this community strong and prosperous. To that extent, I've had these tunnels dug as deeply and to as many parts of the mountain as possible.”

“Why do you not sound so excited to admit that?” Rainbow Dash said.

“Because working this deep in the earth has given me several opportunities to think, far more intensely than those who were in my place decades and centuries sooner,” Sladesteed said as he led the way into a large, expansive cavern. “And I know that no matter how much effort I've made to secure this village's interests, all I'm doing is sealing it to a fate colder than what my forebearers left for me.”

“Yeah?”

“It hasn't taken monsters flying in at night to threaten this village,” Sladesteed explained. “Windthrow has been losing its population gradually over the last thirty years. There are more ponies dying than being born. Furthermore, all opportunities we have to change things—to increase the profit and integrity of this community—has been dashed to oblivion for the sake of silly tradition.”

“I'm guessing you blame your father for this.”

“You've been in his company long enough, Equestrian,” Sladesteed spoke. “You don't need me to explain to you how old-fashioned he is.”

“Yeah, but—”

“He means well for the village, in theory. But in his attempts to keep Windthrow pure and unblemished in his eyes, he's inadvertently signed its death warrant. On top of that, he puts so much on my shoulders and expects me to come up with a miracle. I'd like for this city to prosper, but I can't turn a blind eye to what his very own citizens want.”

“And what's that?”

“They want more than what Windthrow has committed to for the past three decades. They want change. They want to incorporate culture from the rest of Wintergate. They want—”

“To grow up?”

“Precisely.”

“I'm sure your father has his reasons. I mean, it's not like old ponies are completely blind to the interests of the younger population.”

“You're a rather young and exuberant pegasus, outsider. I can't blame you for overlooking an obvious truth. Sometimes, when we get a certain age, all we ever do is die.”

Rainbow Dash made a face. “Now that doesn't sound at all—”

“We're here,” Sladesteed said.

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash said, but suddenly found herself blinking to take in a huge open space. “Whoah...”

Sladesteed led Rainbow Dash through a hole the size of two earth ponies. On the other side, a gigantic vertical chamber stretched beyond the lengths of the nearby lanterns. Gazing straight up, Rainbow Dash saw a gigantic expanse of black space and exposed limestone. Stalactites hung in the far corners of the interior just beyond sight. Every hoofstep and breath echoed immensely, as if resonating with the hollow heart of the mountain.

“My ambitious digging revealed this chamber to us,” Sladesteed said. “It goes on for much greater lengths than you think. One year, I spent the better part of three months exploring how far the expanse went. So consider that before you go flying to have a look for yourself. Also consider how dangerous and unstable the ceiling is. I know you're trying to gather answers on my father's behalf, outsider. But I don't want you hurting yourself in your fervor to uncover truths to the mists and these monsters.”

“Yeah, but I only want—”

“I imagined that the monsters could somehow be coming from inside this place, which is why I had Fulltrot gather a large supply of poison from the minotaurs three years ago. Then, after evacuating everypony from the mines, I placed a full batch of the deadly gases here and let them loose throughout this chamber. After two weeks, I returned with a team of explorers and found several dead mammals, insects, and amphibians collapsed all over the place. But there were no dead monsters. Wherever the invaders from, it's either not in the heart of the mountain or not in the mountain at all. The fact of the matter is that nopony in Windthrow knows where they come from, and I doubt they ever will.”

“Alright. I'll buy that.” Rainbow Dash nodded, adjusting her hard hat. “Still, though. That doesn't mean we can't stop—”

“Searching?” Sladesteed gazed steadily at her. “Equestrian, all my father and other ponies do is search, guess, and speculate. And all the while, more ponies die. It's not our place to understand the monsters. If anything, it would only help to destroy them. Unfortunately, after several years of trial and error, we haven't come close to accomplishing either. That leads me to one recourse and one recourse alone. We most relocate. Windthrow must pack up and take its business elsewhere. We can only spend one decade—two at best—before we dwindle into nothingness in these mines, whittled away to mere fossils of all our ancestors have attempted to accomplish. If you have any doubt of this whatsoever, then don't speak with my father. Don't even speak with me. Speak with the citizens of Windthrow themselves, and get a view of the big picture. This village's days are numbered. The damnable fog has moved in to draw a funeral veil over this mountain, and it's high time that we paid heed to such.”

Rainbow Dash said nothing. She fidgeted awkwardly and gazed into the rockface of the cavern around them as Sladesteed marched slowly back the way he came. He paused and glanced back at her.

“If you don't believe me, then I won't stop you from looking around for yourself. I assure you, there are no creatures to be found down here. You know the way back from which we came. If I don't hear from you in an hour, I'll send somepony to fetch you or else come myself.”

With that, he was gone.

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. She thought about his words, the cold tone in his voice, and could only roll her eyes. Just then, from the corner of her vision, she could have sworn she witnessed something pale. Glancing over at what had been in her peripheral, she squinted her eyes and marched towards a curious tunnel on the other side of the expanse.

Rainbow

View Online

The tunnel was dimmer than the rest of the cavern. As the walls closed in, the line of hanging lanterns stopped, and Rainbow Dash found herself trotting into pitch black. There was nothing to see beyond a few feet of distance, and yet Rainbow Dash felt as if she was being drawn forward. Her hooves tingled with each shuffling step. Her ears twitched, as if listening for a dim, otherworldly hum to start ringing in the distance.

Undaunted by the shadows, Rainbow Dash raised a hoof to her pendant and murmured a few words. A dim glow emanated from the ruby lightning bolt, casting a crimson aura across the claustrophobic rock walls before her. The surfaces were pale, like polished granite, and they rolled and spun like frozen sea waves or the inside of a nautilus' shell.

Rainbow Dash found herself weaving left and then weaving right as she travelled the length of this bizarre corridor. There was something curiously enticing about the trek, no matter how ominous it should have felt. Rainbow Dash couldn't shake the sensation that the trip was perfectly natural, almost like flying east.

At last, she came upon an opening. What she saw froze her in her tracks. The winding corridor came to an utterly flat stop. A perfect wall of ivory-white stone stood before her. It was a sharp contrast to the dark, grimy, soot-stained mines that she had taken to get there.

The air was terribly thin there. Rainbow Dash felt a sudden chill as she heard her lonesome breath dancing off the polished rock. If somepony had told her that she was in the deepest, most secret heart of the world, she somehow wouldn't have doubted it.

Slowly, Rainbow Dash marched past overturned bits of mining equipment and wooden carts in order to approach the flat wall. A crimson spotlight from her pendant tightened on a stretch of the immaculate barricade. Her eyes swam across the surface. At first, she didn't understand what was the point, for there was no blemish to be seen along the body of the stone. Then, upon a third examination, Rainbow Dash saw something—an image etched into the white granite. She could have sworn she had scanned that part of the rock already, and yet there before her hung an emblem as plain as day. It was a very simplistic formation, illustrated seemingly in two parts.

The left side was an omega symbol. The right side was a sphere that was partially transposed over the left image. Howbeit, bordering the circle to the right of where it intersected the left symbol was a sporadic series of squiggly lines.

Rainbow Dash was oblivious to the meaning of the dual characters, but a part of her shuddered at the implications of the right symbol's borders.

“Are those... solar bands?” she murmured aloud.

Never would Rainbow Dash have predicted that she would be so enthralled by such seemingly random lines. Perhaps it wasn't so much that she was enthralled, but some essence of her soul was obligated to peer closely at the shapes.

As a matter of fact, the longer she looked at the character on the left, the less it started looking like an omega symbol, and the more it started resembling a hoofprint. Without realizing it, her left forelimb was rising up to that particular spot of the polished stone.

The closer it got, a bright pulse of ruby light emanated from her pendant, and she could have sworn she saw a hint of lavender color to the edge of her peripheral vision.

Gasping, Rainbow Dash stumbled back. She felt her heart beating, as if coming down from the crest of performing a sonic rainboom. There were very few moments in her life when Rainbow Dash could count having been legitimately frightened by something, and ever since her journey east she had counted fear as the most frivolous emotion of all.

And yet she couldn't contain her thunderous pulse just then. A shiver ran through her body, and she was gazing too hard at the pale wall to even register the aura of lamplight coming up from behind.

“It's quite fascinating, isn't it?” an elder voice said.

Rainbow Dash spun around...

Wall

View Online

Fulltrot stood before Rainbow Dash. Around his backside, there hung a saddlepiece fitted with dim lanterns that cast an amber shine on the dead-end tunnel. With a calm smile, he trotted past her and approached the wall of bright, polished granite.

“There's nothing else in the mountain like it,” he said, stroking a hoof gently across the material. “It's made out an immaculate substance. If you strike a pick-axe strongly against it, your tool might break, but thre wouldn't be a single scratch left on the material. It makes you wonder if the Sun Goddess herself if capable of making a mark.”

All Rainbow Dash could ask was, “Where the hay did you come from?”

“Oh please, Equestrian,” Fulltrot truckled pleasantly. “Hushtail's son may be full of words of pretense and boasting, but he is hardly the only pony patient enough... or old enough to have memorized these deep passageways.” He turned to gaze at her. “I'm guessing he didn't bother to send you down this particular corridor.”

Rainbow Dash fidgeted. “Uhm, no. I... er... came here myself.” She cleared her throat. “That... uh... that doesn't get me in deep trouble or nothing, does it?”

“Hardly. I've always admired the pegasus spirit of exploration and daring. I couldn't possibly admonish you for taking a personal sojourn here.”

“Well, okay.” Rainbow Dash nodded. She turned to look at the white wall again. “Just what is this thing anyways?”

“If I had a solid answer to you, I would have told you about it as soon as we met,” Fulltrot said. “It is a most remarkable fine, would you think?”

“I dunno...” Rainbow Dash scratched her head through her mane. “It's really, really weird... but there isn't much to it.” She blinked, then squinted at him. “Could it... could it be the source of all the smoke and crud that's covering the village?”

Fulltrot took a deep breath. “If it was, I do not see how. There is nothing along the surface of this structure that suggests a spot for gas or vapors to flow through. It's quite likely that this is a piece of something that occupies the heart of the mountain. No matter how far the corridors above have brought us, Equestrian, we aren't actually that deep into the earth.”

“Somepony should get—I dunno—an egghead unicorn to come here and take a look at the thing.”

“Alas, I have done the best I can to reach that mark halfway,” Fulltrot said. “I have spoken to many outsiders that I find along the caravan's regular journey north to the camp of the minotaurs, including the minotaurs themselves. I've been given no proper explanation. I feel the only way to find a true answer is to come in contact with the historical archivists of Wintergate.”

“Why haven't you, then?”

Fulltrot sighed. “Because if I do anything to distract myself from the task of constantly delivering those enchanted crystals, then the invading creatures would double in number and even more citizens of Windthrow would perish. I am—for lack of a better term—at the end of my leash.”

“Couldn't you—I dunno—make a plea to either Hushtail or Sladesteed?”

“Perhaps by now you have gotten a proper picture of my predicament, Equestrian,” Fulltrot said as he paced along the length of the wall. “I have worked all my life to ensure the safety of this village. Now, in these latest and most grave years, I feel like I can do next to nothing. Any chance of progress whatsoever is stilted by this village's grandfather, as well as his constant conflict with the aspirations of his son. If either one of them was to stop arguing and be reasonable, I have no doubt that some progress would be made.”

“Sounds like a real nasty situation you're all in,” Rainbow Dash grunted. “If you don't mind my saying.”

“I don't mind what you have to say or do at all, outsider,” Fulltrot said. “If nothing else, your presence bodes well for this town. There has been so much nonsense and confusion and hopelessness, I think what my fellow villagers need best is pegasus willpower from the outside. I can see it already, but your being here is making things happen. Hushtail is more awake and lucid than ever. And as for Sladesteed... I think he might become aware of the notches in his stubbornness. All of this, of course, is saying nothing of your incredible resolve, bravery, and penchant for saving my fellow ponies from peril.”

“Look, Fulltrot... sir...” Rainbow Dash sighed and gazed at the floor. “I didn't come here to do anything special. I was just passing through—”

Fulltrot chuckled. “And since when did 'just passing through' constitute for making a trip deep into the heart of a mountain that you could very easily have flown past?”

“I mean it!” Rainbow Dash frowned. “I shouldn't even be stopping here! The business of Windthrow is—like—none of mine!”

“You mean to say that you don't care at all about any single one of us?”

“Why should I?” Rainbow Dash made to march completely out of the chamber. “I know where my loyalties lie—!”

“It was simply her, wasn't it?”

Rainbow Dash stopped in her tracks with a scuffle of hooves. She turned around and squinted at him. “What are you talking about?” She broke into a nervous chuckle. “I haven't met any mares since I got here!”

The elder pony merely stared at her.

Rainbow Dash blinked. She winced and felt her ears drooping. “How... How long have you known—?”

“For as long as she has worked for me. The young stallions in my employ are far too absorbed with themselves to ever bother taking notice, but I've always been able to see through her disguise. I don't entirely know what she seeks to gain with her charade, but I've made it my responsibility to watch out for her as long as it takes for her to achieve her goals, whatever they may be.”

“Wow. That's... that's pretty swell of you.”

“I don't see why I would do otherwise,” Fulltrot said. “We've worked together for three years, now. She is like a daughter to me.” He chuckled and smiled. “Or a son, if you were. I imagine a pegasus like you can find her spirit as indomitable and inspiring as your own.”

“Yeah, well... she's done an amazing job convincing everypony that she's 'Gold Plate' all this time,” Rainbow Dash said. “I just... wanna see her get what she wants in life too. And if that involves figuring out what's up with these monsters that are attacking the ponies she cares for, then I guess I'm kind of sort of motivated.” She gulped and gazed pensively at Fulltrot. “Does that explain to you why I'm here?”

Fulltrot gazed firmly at her. “It does,” he said. “If that's the explanation you want me to accept.”

Rainbow Dash blinked.

“Still, I worry for her the most... as well as all the other young ponies of this village,” Fulltrot murmured in a somber tone as he paced across the far length of the room. “While nothing is ever answered, down here or on the surface, they only stand to have their lives dashed to bits by these horrid monstrosities. I'm rather reticent to say it, but it makes every proposal that Sladesteed has look incredibly appealing. I too would like to see these villagers live newer and better lives... even if that means having to experience those lives elsewhere.”

Rainbow Dash exhaled slowly, gazing at the floor. “Well, I don't know how I can lend anymore help than I already have. I'm just one pegasus, and that's a crapload of mist you're dealing with up top. Maybe I can fly out to some unicorn settlement and ask if they know anything about the creatures, or this wall here. Heck, maybe they know something about the two symbols on the surface.”

“Symbols?” Fulltrot remarked. “What, perchance, are you referring to?”

“The characters!” Rainbow Dash gestured towards the white rock. “The illustration that's right alongside the—” She froze, blinking.

Both emblems were gone. The ivory surface of the wall was blank.

Hypothetically

View Online

“Do you like my new tag?” Red Turnip asked.

Ironhoof gazed tiredly from where he was sharpening his horseshoes. “What?”

“My tag,” Red Turnip remarked with a grin. He sat alongside the wooden railings of Windthrow's platforms. After polishing a shiny brass namepiece in the center of his leather armor, he proudly uttered, “It's an alternative to the one I wore during our last trek. I think it'll bring us good luck.”

Ironhoof snorted. “I think it sucks.”

“You think everything sucks. That's why you don't get paid as much as Fulltrot.”

“Red, YOU don't get paid as much as Fulltrot either!”

“Yeah, but at least I don't have a wife who hates my guts!”

“You don't have a wife, period!”

“Yeah... well... uhm...” Red Turnip fidgeted, frowned, and kicked a few flakes of wood out into the misty air of the mountainside. “Nice job becoming bat fodder last night.”

“Hey, I held my own. Besides, I was half-awake.”

“Yeah, more like half-dead. I heard the pegasus had to save your sorry flank again.”

“So what if she did?” Ironhoof murmured, gazing quietly at the metal shoes he was scraping to a sturdy edge. “As least she knew what she was doing. I think we jumped on her mane a little too quickly. If she was around town more often, heck, maybe those creatures would finally let us be.”

“Did you come to this assessment before or after she pulled you out of hydra's throat?”

“Knock it off, dude,” Ironhoof groaned. “I'm not the only one who's been off his game as of late. The way I see it, all of us could use some help. It just stinks having to admit it.”

“One pegasus isn't enough to drive away those freaky monsters. If that was the case, I'm sure a little bit of colorful flame and pyrotechnics would have sent them packing years ago.”

“It's just that they keep coming!” Ironhoof exclaimed with a frown. A gust of air blew at his mane as he and Red Turnip sat outside the hustle and bustle of Windthrow. “It's like wherever they hail from, it's gotta be some sort of bottomless pit! And don't tell me that this dang farm is something natural, cuz it ain't!” He gazed up at the mists just a spit's length from the glowing crystals. “I don't think all of the unicorn stones in the world will be enough to clear the air back to the way it used to be.”

“Say, Ironhoof...” Red Turnip shuffled closer towards him and whispered in a low breath. “You remember that village that we keep stopping by to the northwest.”

“You gotta be a lot more specific than that, Red.”

“You know the one! With the windmill and the creek and the wheat fields—”

“Oh yes. 'Sparkill Havens' or some nonsense...”

“It's got a remarkable cluster of mineral deposits along the hilltops to the west, don't you think?”

“Maybe...” Ironhoof murmured. In the ensuing silence, he paused, then squinted curiously at his companion. “Wait, are you thinking what I think you're thinking...?”

“All it would take is one expeditition to dig in there, determine the quality of the rock, and then see if the land has any claim to it,” Red Turnip remarked. “You don't think I'd make that horrible of a neighbor, do you?”

“It depends on how much you open your mouth, quite frankly.” Ironhoof sighed and leaned back. “Red... I don't like what I'm hearing...”

“Don't tell me you haven't thought of it...”

“My great-great-great-grandfather one tried leaving the village. He nearly died from malaria in the southern swamps where he set up a new home. I've always thought about that story that's been hoofed down to me. Moving out of Windthrow is just too troublesome, Red. I've got a household—a family to take care of. You know I can't be thinking all about my own well-being, and neither can you!”

“My mom and siblings are sick and tired of every other night turning into a battle!” Red Turnip uttered hoarsely. He frowned as he continued, “I'd rather brave malaria than these dang creatures again and again and again. I know it must be tough setting up a new place, but have you ever thought of what's keeping us here? I mean... what's really keeping us?”

“I try not to...”

“It helps to have an open mind, Ironhoof, even if it's an empty one.”

“Open your own brain and let's see what spills out,” Ironhoof said with an angry grunt. After a few seconds, he inhaled deeply and muttered, “But Hushtail hasn't been all too reasonable lately. If he could at least... I dunno... give us an assessment of how terribly this village has actually fallen, I might at least be able to make a better career choice. If all of Fulltrot's expeditions are failing to put an end to the creatures, then maybe I should be going back to the mines. Heck, I should bring my wife down there with me. It's probaly safer there than on the surface.”

“All I know is that something's gotta change,” Red Turnip said, and his expression was a painful one. “Because I really don't know what I'll do if one of my little brothers or sisters bites the dust. This town has cost enough as it is. I'm almost afraid to imagine what it could claim from us in the future.”

“Well, it's nice to see that Sladesteed isn't completely full of it, at least,” said the voice of Rainbow Dash.

Both stallions bolted in their seats. They turned to see the blue pegasus marching up and removing a hard hat from her skull.

“Hey. Where's... uhm... Gold Plate?”

“What, you hungry?” Red Turnip remarked, then chuckled. “Oh, that's right! You don't meat. Heheheh!”

“Go toss yourself off the side, Red,” Ironhoof grumbled. He gazed up at Rainbow Dash. “The little squirt's off doing goddess-knows-what in the town market. Why? Something the matter?”

“I'm beginning to think that asking that sort of question in this town is kind of beating a dead... well... you know...” Rainbow Dash trotted past them. “Sniff you two marsupials later.”

“Pffft...” Red Turnip rolled his eyes once she was gone. “Friggin' pegasi. I swear, they think with their feathers.”

“She heard that,” Ironhoof muttered.

“No she didn't.”

“I heard that!” Rainbow Dash called from beyond.

“No you didn't!” Red Turnip barked.

Ironhoof smirked for the first time that day.

Bucket

View Online

It had been nearly a day, but there was still debris left over from the last entanglement with the invading creatures. While all the citizens of Windthrow were busy chatting, haggling, trading, and carrying on with their own little businesses, one pony was left to clean up what remained of the mess.

Gold Petals sighed as she grabbed several chunks of loose wood and tossed them into a wagon behind her. A splintery pile of junk had formed in the back of the cart. She added to this refuse slowly, lethargically, as if begging for time to slow down around her.

She came upon a large, overturned bucket. Reaching for it, she paused. Gold Plate looked up and gazed across the central courtyard of Windthrow. Across the way, an old mare and an old stallion were trotting side by side, carrying saddlebags full of mining wares. They chatted with a local blacksmith, their faces shadowed and serious.

A deep breath came out of Gold Petals. She sat back on her haunched, pulled her hood down, and ran a hoof through her short blonde threads. She briefly looked like a pony three times her years, and equally as dull.

“Are they your parents or something?”

Gold Petals jumped back onto her hooves with a gasp. She winced, rolled her eyes, and growled over her shoulder. “You really gotta stop doing that.”

“Can't help it.” Rainbow Dash hovered down behind her. “I think in three dimensions.”

“Uh huh...”

“Nothing against earth ponies. If the sky was made of turnips, I'm sure they'd think beyond two dimensions as well—”

“Did you find out anything from your trip to the mine?”

“Only that it's a mine and it's deep and there's this weird—” Rainbow Dash paused, gulped, and said, “I met Fulltrot there.”

“Funny.” Gold Plate turned her flank to the wooden bucket. “I thought you went down there to talk to Sladesteed.”

“Well. Y-yeah. I kinda did...”

“And what became of that?”

“He pretty much blew a lot of hot air. I guess it comes in handy way deep in the mines. Heh.” Rainbow Dash smirked tiredly into the shadows of the nearby alleyway. “So, like. Seriously. Are they your parents?”

“Mmmf...” Gold Petals picked a few shredded pieces of rope and tossed them into the cart.

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “Well?”

“Yeah...” Gold Petals muttered. “For what it's worth.”

Rainbow Dash leaned her head curiously to the side. “That's a weird thing to say. I thought earth ponies were crazy-respectful of their folks and stuff.”

“Aren't all ponies?”

“I never knew my parents,” Rainbow Dash said. “But that's kind of typical for pegasi. It's hard to make a homestead in the clouds. And... heh...” She winked at Gold Petals playfully. “When you can fly, it's a lot easier to get away with one night hovers.”

“Guess that explains a lot about you.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “What's that supposed to me?”

Gold Petals merely paced around the cart. “I figure that I don't need a family. I can take care of myself. Besides, who needs a bunch of old horses that will just make you feel bad?”

Rainbow Dash looked thoughtfully at her. “Did you guys have a falling out?”

“That assumes I was anywhere high to fall from to begin with,” Gold Petals murmured. She frowned Rainbow Dash's way. “Why do souls in this world have to be all bothersome and judgmental of other souls?”

“Cuz if we bothered and judged ourselves all the time, we'd get bored really quick?”

“Is that all you ever think about? What's boring versus what's exciting?”

“If it helps me to think about it all the time, then sure!” Rainbow Dash said. “What gets you going on your own road so long, even if it's just your own road and nopony else's?”

“I'm not like you.”

“That's kind of why I asked the question, don't you think?”

Gold Petals shifted where she stood. She gazed lonesomely at the two ponies across the courtyard. “It's not like they don't know I'm here, that I still work for Fulltrot. I guess a part of me just hopes that someday they'll come to their senses, that they'll accept me for who I am... for what I am...”

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth, but paused. She bit her lip briefly, feeling the weight of her saddlebag, and a certain golden delicious fruit that she had left inside there days ago. Clearing her throat, she decided to say, “Well, Sladesteed doesn't know anything about where the creatures are coming from, and there certainly aren't any of them inside the caves. Hushtail doesn't seem to want to try and learn more about these monsters. And poor Fulltrot is caught in the center, too weak and too old to properly do anything his wisdom tells him to.”

“Yeah...?” Gold Petals squinted at her. “Care to tell me something I don't know?”

“Is there any reason to?” Rainbow Dash said, her wings flexing. “This town just doesn't know how to pick itself up. I've never been to a place where so many ponies are so split on what to do or where to go that they instead decide to hang out exactly where they are and let the parasprites hit the fan. It's crazy. It's like you ponies are going nowhere. And, no matter what I try or do, I don't think there's any hope in this craziness changing—”

“You're leaving?”

Rainbow Dash blinked at Gold Petals.

She looked at her intently. Her expression was long. “You're leaving, aren't you?”

“Look, I didn't say that—”

“But you're thinking it,” Gold Petals declared. She pointed. “You haven't even taken your saddlebag off since you got here. Don't tell me it's as important as that gold pendant around your neck.”

“I just... I just don't think that...” Rainbow Dash found herself at a loss for words. She avoided Gold Petals' gaze for a while, exhaled deeply, and said in a low voice. “There's nothing for me here. This town, these ponies—you're all spectacular and stuff, but you're not the ponies I'm loyal to.”

“Then why tell me this?” Gold Petals asked sharply. “Why'd you come here to see me?”

“Because...” Rainbow Dash shifted where she stood. She heard Gold Petals' footsteps coming closer, and she made an even greater effort to look away. “Well... uhm... you t-took care of me and stuff, y'know, after those monsters banged me up good.”

Gold Petals was two breaths' distance at this point. “Is that the only reason?” she asked. It was a breathy tone, neither angry nor kind.

Rainbow Dash bit her lip. She tilted her head towards Gold Petals' slightly. If she moved a single inch, their necks would make contact. “Yeah...” She eventually said. “That's the only reason.”

The air was quiet for a moment. The mists parted ways and were filled in once more.

When Gold Petals spoke, it was in a low voice, like the hanging of her head. “You know how you said that there's nothing for you here?”

Rainbow finally looked at her. “Yeah?”

Gold Petals glanced up, and her lip quivered. “Is there anything for you anywhere, Rainbow Dash?”

She hesitated responding. Before the moment could become too stretched, there was a rattling noise to their flanks. Rainbow Dash and Gold Petals turned and squinted into the alleyway.

“What the...”

“Where'd that come from?”

“I... I think something's under that bucket.”

“What bucket—?”

With a shrieking noise, the wooden container exploded. A lone, bruised creature erupted into the air of Windthrow, streaking straight towards Rainbow Dash's skull.

Swept

View Online

“Gaaah!” Rainbow Dash grunted as she took the full brunt of the diving creature in her forelimbs. She was flung back hard onto the wooden platforms of Windthrow with a thrashing, stabbing monster at the end of her hooves. “Noo good, blood sucking, bird brained, near-sighted, tarantula huffing, sonuva—“

“Roll!” Gold Petals' voice shouted.

Rainbow Dash gave her a crooked glance from beyond the monster's flailing limbs. “The heck?!”

Gold Petals pointed, her eyes wide. “Roll! Roll!”

Rainbow Dash looked to her left. A pile of sharp wooden splinters remained of the bucket. “Oh. Awesome! Raaaaugh!” She flung her body to the left. She and the creature barreled across the floor until she pressed its weight hard onto the sharp shards of debris.

The creature let loose a hideous shriek. In its pain, it disentangled itself from Rainbow Dash and thrashed across the alleyway of Windthrow, bleeding.

Gold Petals rushed over to Rainbow Dash's side. “Are you okay?!”

“Better than okay,” Rainbow Dash snarled and batted her away as she stood up. “Pissed!”

The monster flapped its wings and jumped upright. All of the citizens of Windthrow were alerted by that point. Stallions and mares and foals gasped in fright at the bleeding thing in the misty daylight. It spun about, hissing at every living thing collectively.

“Hey!” Rainbow Dash snarled and charged the invader. “Right here, gorgeous! If you wanna dance, you'd better know how to shimmy—”

The creature's left wing uppercutted Rainbow Dash.

“Ooof!” Rainbow Dash flew through Gold Petals cart, collapsing in a pile of debris.

“Nnngh!” Gold Petals gripped a wooden club in her teeth and slammed the weight of it across the creature's hide.

The monster reeled, rolled through piles of dust, and flapped spasmatically in the middle of the street. By that time, four stallions in leather armor had galloped up. Flanking them was none other than Sladesteed. With bright eyes, he pointed and shouted at his guards. “Quick! Kill it! Don't give it a chance to fly away!”

“Wait!”

Several ponies glanced over.

Hushtail stood, trembling in the midst of two servants. He weakly trotted forward and stammered, “Capture it alive! Don't kill it!”

“Father, are you crazy?!” Sladesteed shouted above the murmur of the crowd. His fellow ponies stirred nervously by his side. “This thing is the spawn of Tartarus!” He turned towards his cohorts once more. “Slay it immediately—!”

“If we don't go about this reasonably,” Hushtail growled “We won't ever put a stop to this mayhem!”

“Father, there's never going to be a stop to it no matter what we do!”

“Why must you constantly challenged my wisdom—?!”

“Aaaaugh!” Rainbow Dash burst loudly out of the remains of the cart. “For the love of cider, shut up! You two are worse than a flying squadron of bat monkey spiders anyday!” She yanked a wheel off the wagon, spun her body, and flung the thing like a disc at the monster. “Haaaugh—Your mother!”

The twirling wheel flew past the creature, for it had dodged at the last second. It flew through the air and sliced its way straight over Rainbow Dash's billowing mane.

The pegasus gasped and spun around. Her eyes widened as she saw the beast's trajectory.

It flew over the crowd, spiraled past Sladesteed and his comrades, and jabbed its legs down just in time to reach into the dense forest of ponies... and sweep a shrieking foal up off his hooves.

“Unnngh—Aaaah! Mommy!” the little colt wailed as he was swept into the dense mists beyond the village's wailing.

A mare reached out for him, sobbing hysterically. Before she could plunge off into the mountainside, none other than Red Turnip held her down.

“Somepony! Anypony!” Red Turnip shouted, his face flung between anger and sheer horror. “Help! It's snatched my bro! That stupid demon filth's got my little brother!”

Hushtail's face went pale. A shudder of despair swam through the crowd. Once it reached, Gold Petals, she was nearly in tears. With a quivering lip, she looked over and murmured, “Rainbow...?”

The pegasus was already gone, her blue wings slicing a path directly after the leathery foalnapper.

Chase

View Online

Rainbow Dash squinted. Only at full speed did she realize how painful it was to soar directly into the mists. She gnashed her teeth and briefly climbed up. With a twirl, she flung her forelimbs back to her saddlebag and whipped out her goggles. She slapped them over her head, spun about, and barreled through the clouds, unimpeded.

Her shielded eyes darted left and right, desperately searching for a break in the mists. It occurred to her then that the monsters were indicative of the fog, and thus it would be folly to think that they'd leave a trail in the dense floating clouds.

“Dang it...”

She hissed. She seethed. She looked every which way as she glided blindly forward.

“Dang it dang it dang it dang it dang it! Think! Where could it have—?”

Rainbow Dash's heart skipped. She heard a shrill cry. It was the colt. Somewhere beyond the billowing clouds, the foal's wailing cries of horror were loud enough to reach her through the wind.

“Hold on!” Rainbow Dash yelled and pulled up high. “I'm coming! Keep shouting so I can hear you!”

The colt kept screaming, whether or not he had heard Rainbow's command. The blue pegasus climbed skyward, breaking through the top of the cloud. The uninterrupted rays of the sun came at a sharp angle. It was late into the afternoon, and judging from the burning horizon to her left, Rainbow Dash judged that she was flying north.

And the creature...

Rainbow Dash gasped.

She could see a leathery speck far below, breaking barely over the forested mountains that flanked the northern face of the huge structure that Windthrow clung to. Its unearthly wings flapped viciously. Meanwhile, a tiny brown shape flailed in the thing's arachnid limbs.

“Let him go, ya filthy creep!” Rainbow Dash's teeth gritted from behind billowing lips as she went into a hard dive. The wind whistled past her ears. Her mane threatened to tear off from the sheer force of the plummet. “Nnnnnngh...!” Rainbow Dash came within four hundred feet of the monster... three hundred... two hundred....

The creature twitched in midair, as if invisibly sensing Rainbow's presence. With a loud shriek, it dove low and sliced through the branches and leaves of several trees.

Rainbow Dash dipped down and threaded through the forest after it. Twigs and pine cones and specks of bark went flying. An overturned tree lay in their wake. The creature flew over it. Rainbow Dash threaded under, twirled past a mound of dirt, picked up a loose branch, and prepared to clobber the monster from behind.

“Get ready to kiss the ground, ya kid-plucker—”

There was a flicker of lavender in the edges of Rainbow's vision, and her entire world spun.

“Unnngh!” She gasped and spun wildly in mid-flight. She dropped the branch altogether and clung her throbbing skull. Panting, she could barely focus on the chase altogether as every sense in her body went dizzy. “Nnngh... No! For the love of oats, not now!”

The creature ahead of her blurred into three, then four, then back to one again. All the while, it was gaining distance, flying further and further out of reach. The colt in the spidery clutches sobbed and pleaded for mercy.

“Aaaaugh!” Rainbow Dash snarled. The lenses of her goggles fogged. She felt like she was at the bottom of a centrifuge. It was pure torture simply beating her wings. “Hnnngh—Come on! Stop it! Stop—Haaaaugh!” In desperation, she kicked off a tree, flexed her muscles, and propelled herself forward like a cannon.

The world screamed cyclonically about her dizzy spell. There was a swirl of branches, a flash of leather, then the strobe of a tiny foal's teary eyes.

Rainbow Dash slammed hard into the side of a tree.

“Ooof!”

The foal disappeared from view, replaced by the merciless texture of the earth.

Rainbow bounced off the forest floor, rolled several feet, plunged off a mound of rocks, and came to a thudding stop on the northern edge of a cliff.

“Ughhhh...” She hissed through her teeth and clutched her head. The world was a streak of light, swimming all around her. She couldn't tell which way was up. She only knew that she had failed, and it wasn't something she could help. Her urge to sob was overcome only by an urge to vomit. Bravely, she fought back both impulses and forced her twitching eyes open.

White turned to yellow and to red again. Her ruby irises spun to a stop as the madness settled. In the foggy glance she had of the horizon, a tiny leather dot was skimming its way over the hills and banking northeast towards a craggy line of mountains.

Panting, Rainbow Dash forced herself up. Her legs wobbled. Her belly drooped low to the earth. She felt like she would implode at any second. A whimper came from her mouth. It swiftly turned into a snarl, and then into a yell. It felt like tearing herself through her very own flesh, but she managed to take off yet again. Her flight through the dizziness was an awkward thing, but it was flight nonetheless. With her goggled gaze locked northeast, she flew as fast as she could after her distant target.

Endurance

View Online

The colt-carrying creature was a never-ending speck along the northern horizon. Rainbow Dash knew this, for she had been staring at it for hours.

Her pursuit of the monster was resolute. Not for one second did she take her goggled eyes off the thing. Mountains and forests and rivers blurred underneath her, and the sun was slowly melting into the west. Fairly soon, the cold blanket of night would envelop the world, and Rainbow would have little to no chance of tracking the creature anymore. She had to do something about that. She had to catch up with the thing.

Her dizziness had eventually cleared, but its impact on her flight was undeniable. Rainbow Dash had allowed herself to fall horribly behind. The energy had been sapped from her wings. Her body throbbed from a deep pain. Every nerve in her being was complaining over her refusal to stop and relax like with previous episodes.

But if she stopped for one second, if she allowed this monster to disappear into the hills of the north, then Red Turnip's little brother may never see his family again. He may never see anything again. Rainbow Dash wondered if this was what happened to the poor souls that the villagers of Windthrow were incapable of observing. Every “death” and “tragedy” was simply a creature sweeping one of the helpless earth ponies away to a grim fate. But just where did that fate lie? Was this thing taking the colt to its nest? To some infernal pit? To the end of the world?

The creature simply did not stop. Rainbow Dash refused to believe that it had some sort of inherent intelligence, that it was simply distracting her for the sake of distracting her. For that matter, hardly any of that mattered A colt's life was at stake, and Rainbow Dash couldn't stop to guess what was right or wrong, smart or dumb about her chase. She simply had to continue the chase...

Gliding over mountain tops and skimming the roofs of forests, the monster flew ever-northward. Rainbow Dash found the path of pursuit easy, since the creature was apparently intent on following a specific range of hills that ran north from the source of Windthrow itself. This is what made Rainbow assume that the destination was going to be a pit or a valley of some sort. Gradually, the hills sloped down and down, so that the landscape was becoming increasingly flatter. What's more, the trees were beginning to vanish as the topography favored wide plains of grass and moss.

Rainbow Dash could only grit her teeth. If somehow she was going to be introduced to wherever these creatures came from, there was a good chance she would come out that day as the first Equestrian in millennia to eat meat.

Boost

View Online

Rainbow Dash was gnashing her teeth.

She had taken her goggles off, exposing her tearing eyes to the wind.

The reason she had done this was because the moonlight was causing a horrible glint on her lenses. And as she was flying at one particular angle to catch up with the creature, it was obscuring her vision.

So now, with the fall of night and darkness looming all around, she was resorting to a naked stare into the northern heights of Wintergate. She had to. There was no other choice. Just half a kilometer ahead, blazing towards the northern edge of the world, was the creature with the colt in tow.

Rainbow Dash's wings were aching. Her body was numb and her stomach felt like it was going to cave in at any second. She couldn't stop now. She had gained some distance. In less than an hour, she estimated, she would either tackle the creature... or collapse from exhaustion.

She did her best not to doubt herself. She refused to think, only to fly, rocketing after the infernal creature in the purple haze of the sleeping world.

It was precisely at that moment that a loud hum filled the air. The sky around Rainbow Dash danced with light, making it hard for her to keep focus on her target. She cursed under her breath as her pendant strobed beneath the glowing moon, and a familiar voice drifted magically out of it.

“Rainbow Dash, we wish thee a fine evening.”

“Your Highness,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “This isn't exactly a good time.”

“Hmmm. Doth a tone of great frustration lace thy voice? Wouldst thou care to elaborate on your turmoil?”

“Seriously, Princess,” Rainbow Dash tried shouting. It came out as a wheeze. She was startled at how weary she was suddenly feeling. “I'm in a bit of a bind at the moment. Every time I use my lungs to breathe, I'm keeping myself from flying faster.”

“There presseth upon thee a necessity to fly with great speed? To what degree of importance is this?”

“What's it matter?! Look, your Majesty, I'd love to talk. But I gotta catch you another night or—”

“We may be able to assist thee in momentary acceleration.”

“Huh?!” Rainbow Dash's dry eyes twitched. She struggled to keep her target in sight as her entire face paled over. “You can?! How the heck?!”

“We know little of this 'heck' that thou mentioneth, but it matters little. The Element of Loyalty is an essential component of thy speed and versatility, correct?”

“Uhhhhh... Yeah?”

“Then if we imbue your pendant with our magical essence, then thy natural gift of speed might be improved for a short spell.”

“Hey! Uh, sure! I dunno what 'imbue' means, but that could really, really help me out at this moment.”

“There is only one problem.”

“Hah. Yeah. What's that?”

“It will cut our conversation short, for we will no longer possess the power to speak with you across distances until another evening.”

“Your Majesty, I love chattin' with ya. I really do. But right now, I could a little less of your gab and a little more of your pew pew.”

“We shall pretend that we understand thy vernacular. Commencing with the energy transference.”

“I'll—like—totally talk to you tomorrow night and stuff.”

“We shall hold thee to it.” The voice was drowned out as the pendant's glow intensified.

Rainbow Dash held her breath. She found it hard to keep squinting and focusing on her target as a bright strobe emanated from her neckpiece. The air around her started to glimmer with an effluent purple aura. Soon, her wings started to hurt. For fear of losing feathers, she briefly stopped flapping... and then realized that she didn't need to beat her wings. She was coasting straight forward like a glider, being pushed by translucent currents of lunar magic.

“Whoah...” She gasped as her glide accelerated more and more, whistling her like a rocket straight north. “Whoah whoah whoah whoah—Hah hah hah!” She smiled devilishly and finally strapped her goggles back on. “Now we're cooking!”

Tangled

View Online

Princess Luna's long-distance spell pushed Rainbow Dash faster than her mind and body could compensate for. Not only was she catching up on the monster, but in a matter of seconds she would be overtaking it. She clenched her teeth and straightened her body as the glowing pendant throttled her towards the leathery target's rear. She feared that she might split the air with an unnatural thunder, or else illuminate the clouds around them with her pendant's glow. Whatever the case, the monster made no sign of detecting Rainbow's presence.

Rainbow Dash's face was moist with sweat. Her goggles pressed hard into her face. Above, the stars of night began to blur as she reached peak velocity. She could already feel the energy in her pendant fading, and she realized that it was either now or never.

She came up to just above the monster. She held her breath and glided down. She stretched her forelimbs eagerly, spotting the poor, dangling body of the kidnapped colt just within reach. Then she saw nothing but teeth.

Rainbow gasped, for the monster had spun completely around and launched itself at her. The two collided hard in mid-air. The creature angled its wings and caught a gust of air. It used the heavy currents to uppercut Rainbow with its body. Rainbow merely absorbed the blow and grabbed ahold of the monster's body with four limbs. Her weight tugged awkwardly at the thing, and two souls plummeted towards the mountains.

A horizontal row of teeth shimmered in the moonlight as it lunged and snapped towards Rainbow's face. Rainbow dodged each thrust, all the while dishing out heavy hoof-strikes to the creature's flat excuse for a forehead. The monster cried and jerked left and right, attempting to fling Rainbow off. Its weight was already offset by the colt's body dangling below.

After nearly losing her grip, a flicker of righteous anger drew across Rainbow's eyes. She jabbed her neck forward and literally bit into the right wing of the creature. She didn't draw blood, but she held the monster's wing down. From the awkward lunge of her weight, the two fliers twirled earthward like a spinning comet.

Then, suddenly, the free-fall tripled in momentum. Rainbow Dash became aware of a shrieking body being flung into the dark haze of the world below. The colt had just awoken from his stupor, and just in time to be dropped like a tiny bag of bricks into the earth below.

Rainbow gasped and dove towards the falling foal. She lurched in midair, for the creature's arachnid legs were grabbing her from behind. She hissed, twisted, and bucked her rear legs hard into the creature's face. The monster flew off of her, and Rainbow plummeted.

The colt disappeared. All was fog and screaming. Seething through her teeth, Rainbow Dash ripped her goggles off and flung it into the purple atmosphere. With tearing eyes, she scoured the yawning forests below. There was a blacker-than-black dot that was becoming smaller below her. It was the source of the screams.

Rainbow bulleted towards it. She clung her wings to her side. Her body stretched out as she became a veritable torpedo, slicing her way through the air to catch up with the collapsing colt. On either side of her, mountains rose. The stars disappeared. Trees shot up and branches and branches swallowed her and—

“Hnnnngh-Gotcha!” Rainbow Dash flung her forelimbs out into the darkness.

A tiny body clutched to her, whimpering, for the ground was less than a second away—

“Haaaugh!” Rainbow Dash twirled her wings out. They nearly tore at the sockets, but they shredded into the wind at just the right angle to turn Rainbow Dash upside down.

She spiraled, flung her shoulders to the earth, and glided over a river of dead leaves and pine needles while clutching the gasping foal safely to her chest. Half a breath later, she hit a mound of earth and the two of them went airborne. After another breathless lunge, they slammed into the earth again—once more with Rainbow Dash absorbing the blow—and skimmed to a grinding stop against a series of dead trunks.

Rainbow Dash hung numbly under a chorus of trembling breaths. The foal clung to her tightly, murmuring unintelligible things. Rainbow's twitching eyes remained locked on the northern horizon. She saw the lone dot of the creature flying on alone, undaunted, without its prey. She saw it coast over a plume of rising smoke just beyond the next star-lit hill. And then she saw nothing.

For she had finally passed out.

Spotty

View Online

Rainbow Dash was flying. She had to be.

She heard the rustle of wind. She felt bands of sunlight gliding warmly over her face. The air was crisp and sweet. She smelled fruit.

Fruit...

Rainbow's eyes flew open.

Branches were shifting jaggedly above her. A bright morning Sun was rising slowly over a forest's treeline.

She shot up with a gasp, then heard a higher pitched voice mimicking her. She glanced towards her side and saw a trembling foal letting got of her. He gulped and stammered.

“You w-were out for s-so long. I tried moving you. I heard voices. I was afraid we might be seen.”

Rainbow Dash blinked at him. She looked at her surroundings. They were at the edge of a forest of short, shrubbery trees. A rise in craggy landscape was just to the east, beyond which was a column of smoke. She judged that he must have dragged her at least twenty feet by the time she woke up.

“Ughh...” She rubbed her forehead with an aching hoof. “I swear, this has gotta be some stupid record.”

“Record...?”

“If I wanted to fall unconscious this many times, I should have flown west instead,” she grumbled. “So what if it was all Zebra desert?”

“What's... a zebra?”

“Never mind.” Rainbow got up. “I just gotta—Owwww.” She clutched her ribs, seething.

“Are... Are you okay, miss—”

“Usually I'm awesome,” Rainbow Dash muttered. She winced and groaned. “Today, though, I'm just awesome and in pieces.” With a shuddering breath, she gazed all around them once more. “The creature? Where did...?”

“Just beyond that hill,” the colt pointed, trembling. “It took off right after you t-tackled it hours ago.” He gulped and hugged himself. “Thanks... f-for saving me...”

“Don't mention it, kid,” Rainbow Dash said with a sigh. “I saw that nasty thing sweep you up to goddess-knows-where and I thought it wasn't cool.” She got up, reeling with a brief dizziness as she adjusted the pendant and saddlebag on her being. “Hmmrph.... Who knew those little brown stains with wings could fly so frickin' fast. Must be packing engine thrusters inside those little rubbery bodies of theirs.”

The foal said nothing. He shifted about in the grass.

Rainbow Dash looked at him. “Heh, bet you're hungry, huh?” Her eyes twitched as she felt a gigantic pain coursing through her. “Heck. I'm hungry!” She realized just then and there that she hadn't eaten in over a day. “Let's see if we can solve both, huh?” She fiddle with her saddlebag, reaching past her hatchet, her map, the green book. “Awwww crud.” The canvas container that had held her reserves of bread had been reduced to crumbs. With a sad sigh, she reached even further for the polished apple.

She stopped, however, upon remembering the scent of fruit she woke up to. She flashed a look straight up. There were several green and yellow objects hanging off the branches directly above.

“Pears!” She grinned wide. “Wicked!” She flew up and snatched several off the limbs of the tree. Settling down with a flap of her wings, she could see the colt squirming with an intense appetite. “Whoah there, kid. Lemme be your taste tester first, okay?” She sniffed the fruit, cleaned it off her forelimb, and took a tiny bite. She shifted the morsel around in her mouth, tonguing it. It didn't taste bitter or alarming in any fashion. “Hmmph...” She gulped her bite and handed the rest of the fruit to the young foal. “Seems okay to me. Eat your heart out... or just this pear, heh.”

“What...” He bit his lip and gazed worriedly at the fruit. “What if it still is poisoned?”

“Then it'll save us a long trip home.” Rainbow Dash took a deep bite out of her own fruit and relished in the edible mush sliding down her throat. “Mmmmph... Ahhhhh yeah. That does the trick.” She took a few more bites, gulped, and said, “So what's your name, kid?”

“Uhm... Rockspot,” he said bashfully. “But all my friends call me 'Spotty'.”

“Well, Spotty,” she smiled in between bites. “I'm Rainbow Dash. And I totally won't hold it against you if you wanna name one or two of your kids after me, not like I'm making it an obligation after totally risking life and limb to save your scrawny hide or nothing.”

“Uhhhh...”

“Eat all the pears you like. Then we should be heading back before your family decides to sell your bed to charity or something.”

“It's strange...”

“What? Me saving foals? I used to do it in my sleep. It made ponies where I used to live feel weird.”

“No. We're just... we're really lucky,” Rockspot said. “After all of the bad stuff that happened last night, we both ended up by a bunch of fruit trees.”

“Yeah, funny how the land decides to randomly provide for you—” Rainbow Dash stopped in mid sentence, blinking curiously.

Rockspot nearly dropped the fruit in fright. He cowered by her side. “Wh-What is it?”

Rainbow Dash was staring at the treeline. Along the edge of the forest, several trees had been chopped at the base. Several stumps lay amidst a seat of wood chips and the dried scraps of devoured pears. Leading up to the bouldery hill to the northeast was a series of heavy hoofsteps, along with the tell-tale sign of dragged equipment.

Rainbow found herself staring at the plume of smoke rising over the crest of earth. “Didn't you just say, Spotty, that the monster flew thattaway?”

Rockspot gulped and nodded. “Yeah. Just over there. Why?”

Rainbow Dash juggled the one pear in her hoof, all the while squinting. “I think we're not alone here...”

Quarry

View Online

“Please, Miss Dash!” Rockspot whimpered, his eyes watery. “Don't leave me!”

“I'm not frickin' leaving you!” Rainbow Dash hissed. She slid down the hill towards the little colt who was tugging on her tail hairs. She steadied her forelimbs atop his shoulders. “I'm just having a look-see! That's all! You see that hill? I'm not going past it. I won't even leave your sight. I just gotta see what's on the other side.”

“But... But...” He trembled and bit his lip. Half-eaten pears littered the grass around his tiny, quivering hooves. “But what if there're more monsters? What if they eat you?”

“Then they won't have the appetite to try and take a bite out of you.”

“Miss Dash!”

“Heh—Seriously, kid.” Rainbow Dash winked and ruffled his mane. “Would I make the world any less cool by disappearing?” She smiled. “Besides, I did not fly all this way after your blank flank just to become bat food. Now sit your butt right here under the shade of these trees and don't move a muscle. I'll be back in—like—ten minutes tops.”

“Okay...” He gulped and slid back into the shadows. “Whatever you do, Miss Dash, don't hurt yourself.”

“If I do, it only means I've learned something.” She turned from him and galloped up the hill of craggy earth. As soon as she reached the edge, she paused and looked back.

From a distance, she could still make out Rockspot's trembling figure just along the shadowy edge of pear trees. She could spot her at a moment's notice, but that's because she knew what to look for. She guessed that he was perfectly safe from a random stranger's eyes, and that helped her feel better.

Steeling herself, shed turned around and crept—slowly now—towards the very top of the hill. Her vision filled with the rising plume of smoke. The air lost its crispness, filling instead with hints of sulfur, burning wood, and...

“Is... Is that gun powder?” she murmured.

Rainbow Dash reached the peak. She squatted low, her muzzle plowing through the gass as she peaked over.

A large quarry stretched below her. It was a remarkbly deep and wide pit, something that had undoubtedly taken years to carve unnaturally from the earth. Swiftly, her ruby eyes found just who was responsible for such excavation.

They stood ten feet tall and no less. Their upper bodies were thick, intimidating, and muscular. Their lower halves impossibly held the weight of their torsos, all the while their hooves dug deeply into the earth as they carried heavy loads of equipment to and from the black, wood-framed entrance to a tunnel that ate into the south wall of the quarry.

“Minotaurs...” Rainbow Dash murmured. Her brow furrowed as she hid herself further in the high grass. “Could these... Could these be the dudes that Fulltrot and his buddies trade with?”

As she thought aloud, her eyes wandered even further across the camp. There were tents spread all across the encampment. Between the number of canvas huts and the quantity of equipment, Rainbow Dash guessed that there must have been well over forty of the bipedal creatures spread across the compound.

It was a dreary location as well, hardly a place suitable for passerbys wanting to perform free trade. Rainbow Dash couldn't help but wonder what could have possessed Fulltrot's caravan to ever stop by this location to begin with.

“Perhaps the unicorns directed them here...”

Rainbow Dash rubbed her chin as her squinting eyes fell over the loads of wooden boxes. She saw countless piles of digging equipment, coiled ropes, and dislodged rock. What she couldn't see—however—was even the barest hint of the much sought-after crystals that Fulltrot trekked across the land for.

“Maybe the unicorns are late in their delivery...”

Rainbow Dash felt a frown crossing her lips. Even she knew that she wasn't believing her own words as she formed them. Something wasn't feeling right about any of this. The deeper she gazed into the dark entrance to the southern tunnel, the more she started to feel a great sense of unease. But that wasn't all she was feeling.

Her eyes twitched, and she felt as though a bright flash of lavender was strobing in the distance. She winced, feeling the tiniest of dizzy spells coming and going. With a blink, she stared at the centermost portion of the camp. What she saw next forced a gasp out of her lungs.

Inside a wooden container, there was a single creature. Its wings were worn, and its leathery body had several bruises. Rainbow Das knew better than to assume things, but every fibre in her being was telling her that the creature was none other than the one monster she had tangled with just hours before. No sooner had she made this hawk-eyed observation... but a large minotaur with a scarred complexion marched up towards the creature in the rattling cage. The minotaur snorted and spoke a few grunting words to a pair of associates before reaching into his belt and pulling loose a silver strip of metal.

As soon as Rainbow Dash saw the strip, she went dizzy again. A flicker of lavender danced I her peripheral vision, and she clutched the pendant around her neck... seething.

The spell ended as swiftly as it had begun. Breathing more evenly, she gazed upon the scene once again. She had to squint harder to see...

The creature was gone. The minotaur was sliding the silver strip back into his belt. He marched away with his companions, making for the tunnel to the south end of the quarry. An empty cage rested behind them.

“What in the tap-dancing heck...?” Rainbow Dash murmured. She ran a hoof through her mane, her face twisted in a puzzled expression. None of this was making sense. She had to know more. However, she had more than just herself to look out for.

Gazing back at where she had left Rockspot, she forced herself into heavy, concentrated thought. Her brow furrowed painfully from the exertion. Suddenly, though, she brightened. She reached into her saddlebag and pulled loose a few of the brown blankets she had brought with her for the journey. She then glanced back towards the quarry full of smoke and minotaurs.

A slow and mischievous smile crossed her lips.

Sneaky

View Online

Several minotaurs glanced up, blinking curiously from where they stood at the sloped entrance to the quarry. Shuffling spears into their grip, they marched towards the incoming stranger.

“Not so fast,” one the guards said. His voice was low and gruff, and it resonated from the deep core of his muscular chest. “State your business, pony.”

“Business of Windthrow,” Rainbow Dash said. She was clad from head to tail in canvas blankets, resembling the manner in which Fulltrot's fellow Wintergaters garbed themselves in leather armor. “I've come to check on whether or not the delivery has been made.”

The minotaurs looked at each other quizzically. They glanced back at Rainbow Dash, studying her. The “cloak” covered her wings and prismatic mane. She looked just like any usual earth pony from Windthrow.

“What delivery?” one of the minotaurs grunted.

“The light crystals of course,” Rainbow Dash said, trying to keep the inflection in her voice pleasant and... earth-ponyish. “Y'know, the white glowy things that keep the monsters from attacking our village in the mountains down south.”

One minotaur stepped forward until he was leering down at the disguised pegasus. “If this is about the latest shipment, why isn't Fulltrot himself here to perform the delivery?”

“I was sent ahead as a scout.”

“He's never sent a scout before.”

“He's never been injured before.”

The minotaurs muttered amidst each other. The one at the front of the group gave Rainbow a curious glance. “He's been injured? Since when?”

“Since he was smacked hard upside the head by one of those stupid bat thingies that come out of the farm. Look, dudes, I'm from a neighboring village, and only so much was explained to me. Hushtail doesn't like any other ponies leading the caravan. He'd send his son, Sladesteed, but Sladesteed's too frickin' busy with the mines as it is. So, the idea now is to wait until Fulltrot recovers and then send the caravan out under his experienced lead.”

“You don't say?” The minotaur snorted. “That could delay things for a while.”

“Right. Which is why they sent me. I've got a lot of bits to spare, and I was tasked with putting down an initial payment to see that you don't give the crystals to any other buyers before Fulltrot belatedly arrives. So, in the interest of our... uh... mutual earnings, would you mind letting me see if the unicorns have dropped off the crystals yet or not?”

The minotaurs exchanged glances yet again. The tallest of the group sighed and said, “We'll have to see if it's alright by Thunderhorn.”

“Oh! But of course!” Rainbow Dash chuckled. “Thunderhorn! I hear he's really... big.”

“Most certainly he is, pony.”

“Oh. Well, fancy that. So... uhm... like...” Rainbow Dash stirred where she stood. “Can I go see him and stuff?”

“He's deep in the quarry right now. Follow me, and I'll take you to his overseer post. Then we'll fetch him so you can conduct business.” That said, the minotaur swiveled about on his staff and marched with a weary lurch towards the center of the quarry.

Quietly, Rainbow Dash followed him. She kept a cautious distance, all the while glancing behind and to the sides of her path. The air of the quarry was alive with the constant hammering and breaking of rocks. Minotaurs could be seen laboring every which way Rainbow looked. The further she walked after the distant guard, the hotter the air felt, as if something steamy was billowing out from the cave's mouth to the south.

Something stirred under her cloaks, and it wasn't her wings. A tiny voice broke the air around Rainbow Dash in a muffled fashion. “This 'Thunderhorn' sounds scary. Is it too late to go back?”

“Shhh!” Rainbow hissed. Her ruby eyes darted around from beneath the hood that her blanket-cloak had formed above her head. “Can the foalish whining, Spotty!” she whispered hoarsely. “I gotta figure something out.”

“I don't like this at all,” Rockspot's voice nevertheless stammered. His tiny body stirred in the saddlebag beneath Rainbow's cloak. “I don't understand what you're trying to figure out.”

“Me neither,” Rainbow Dash smiled nervously as she made sure the guard ahead of them wasn't listening. “I don't usually do this sneaking sort of thing.”

“Then why are you doing it?”

“Would you rather we just fly in and start busting minotaur heads?”

“I'd rather we just go home and see my Mommy...”

“And we will, kid. I promise you. If things go bad, I'll spread my wings and have us out of his quarry in a flash. But before we do, I gotta understand what these creatures have to do with the monsters.”

“You mean there are monsters here?” Rockspot squeaked and stirred all the more under the blanket.

Rainbow Dash steadied him with her feathers and hissed, “Yes. But I gotta know for sure. Cuz if my hunch is right—and I rarely have hunches—then Fulltrot and his fellow ponies are being screwed over by these guys.”

“They are?”

“Yeah, Spotty.” Rainbow gulped as she trotted up towards a wooden building beside which the guard was coming to a stop. “I'm starting to think there are no unicorns delivering these crystals in the first place.”

Leaky

View Online

“You mean to say we've been horn-swaggled?” Rockspot asked.

“Shh!” Rainbow Dash hissed, for a rather large minotaur with a scarred face was marching ominously towards the wooden shed where Rainbow stood beside the guard. As his hoofsteps resonated through the floor of the quarry, the tiny foal under Rainbow's cloak squeaked for one last time and was silent.

“She claims that she's from Windthrow, Thunderhorn,” the guard said as he bowed before the tall, muscular biped. “She asks to see the supply of mana crystals.”

“I just wanna be sure they're available for when the next caravan arrives,” Rainbow said with a nervous smile.

Thunderhorn looked Rainbow Dash all over. His one good eye narrowed as his nostrils snorted. “Why didn't Fulltrot himself come?”

“She said that he's recovering from an injury—” The guard began.

Thunderhorn punched him in the gut, forcing him to wheeze. “I asked her, not you, oaf!”

“Yeah... Uhm...” Rainbow Dash stared at the minotaur's brawny knuckles and thick arms. “Fulltrot can't make it for a few weeks. That's why I was sent. Our village really, really needs those crystals, on account of the horrible bat-things and all. What are the odds that I could have some set aside so that we—”

“The crystals won't arrive for another few days, Wintergater,” Thunderhorn grunted.

Rainbow Dash blinked. She glanced between the wheezing guard and the towering minotaur overseer. “But I thought that—”

“The unicorns are late in their delivery.” Thunderhorn sneered. “The crystals aren't here. Go back home. They'll be here when Fulltrot is ready to lead the caravan again. You have my word.”

“If I could just—”

Thunderhorn marched away, shouting orders at several laboring minotaurs around the quarry.

Rainbow Dash exhaled, her nostrils flaring. “Well, if that wasn't a big, steaming pile of suck.”

“Do all pegasi talk like you?” Rockspot murmured. Rainbow Dash thwapped him through the cloak with her tail. “Ow!” He went quiet.

Rainbow Dash looked carefully over the landscape. She saw the dark tunnel leading into the cave along the south end of the quarry. She eyed the smoke billowing out of it. If she listened very closely, she could hear the faintest hint of yelping voices. They didn't sound like minotaurs, or winged creatures.

“Hey, uhm...” Rainbow Dash glanced over at the guard who was still recovering from Thunderhorn's fist. “I know I gotta go and all, but I need to take a leak.”

Wincing, he looked over at her. “A leak?”

“Yeah. A lady leak.”

He squinted.

“A lady pony leak.” She cleared her throat. “Like, big time.”

The minotaur sighed. He pointed at a pile of lumber, behind which several flies were buzzing. “Over there. Hold your nose in. You'll regret it otherwise.”

“Thanks... uhm... handsome! Good luck with your rock banging!” Rainbow Dash waved the minotaur off. He walked away as she made to trot towards the lumber pile. Once he was gone, she dashed in a blue blur towards a supply shed much closer to the mouth of the cave.

“Augh!” Rockspot's voice whimpered. “What's happening now?” he whispered. “Why are we moving so fast?”

“Quick detour, Spotty.”

“What kind of a detour?”

“One that's worth plugging your nose during.” Rainbow Dash waited for an opportunity. While there was a break in the crowd of laboring minotaurs, she stealthily made her way to the mouth of the cave, and snaked her way deep inside.

Cell

View Online

The air was tight. Rainbow Dash found herself battling a series of shallow breaths the further she snuck into the cave. Her movement was sporadic, only affording a quick dash from one cluster of equipment to the next as she endeavored to avoid being seen by the many minotaurs. Rainbow Dash didn't fear having to fight any of them, a contest she would surely lose. She knew that she could easily outfly them in a snap. However, she didn't want to mess up this one opportunity she had to figure out just what the minotaurs were up to.

She figured that Fulltrot and the other Windthrow ponies never bothered to venture into this cavern. Hushtail's villagers were simple, trusting equines. They likely dealt with the minotaurs at face value. It would have been very easy for Thunderhorn and his cohorts to take advantage of the Wintergaters' naivete. To what purpose, Rainbow Dash couldn't guess. She only knew that back in Equestria, minotaurs had proven to be less than trustworthy.

“Are we being followed?” Rockspot's breathy voice murmured from under the cloak.

“Shhh!” Rainbow Dash hissed, trying to concentrate on the path ahead. The sound of her clopping hooves was easily masked by the roar of digging equipment and steam-operated machines throughout the tunnel. She came within five feet of a minotaur at one point, swiftly darting past him as she made her way even deeper into the tunnel. The further she went, and the darker the cavern got, the greater the enormity of the tunnel appeared to her. She figured that the minotaurs had shredded the hole of rock open in the south side of the quarry. However, if she didn't know better, she'd guess that the extraordinary length of this chamber had been forged by something far more powerful than the minotaurs. Even from her current vantage point, she couldn't see where the tunnel ended. It was a massive corridor too, at least forty feet tall and eighty feet across.

“Are they building a mineshaft or a parasprite collider?!”

“A what?” Rockspot whimpered.

Rainbow Dash sighed. “Never mind. This thing is leading way too deep. I don't see any signs of the magic crystals or—” She paused in mid-speech, squinting across the way.

“What is it, Miss Dash?”

“I'm... not sure,” Rainbow Dash stammered. She peered over a box of crates at the opposite wall of the tunnel from her. The corridor so far had been a straight horizontal cut into the earth. The walls were slim and immaculate, save for one spot that featured a doorframe. A caged lid to a shallow partition lingered within the edge of a torch's light. “There's some sort of... cell across the way.”

“Cell?”

Rainbow Dash gulped. “I'm hearing voices from it.” Indeed, her ears were twitching, for a series of breathy conversations were emanating from the chamber on the opposite end of the tunnel. What was more, they sounded higher in pitch than the towering minotaurs laboring and sweating across the lengths of the tunnel. “Hmmm... I wonder.”

“What?”

“Can it, Spotty,” she grunted, glancing left and right. “We're cutting across the way.” She waited patiently as three minotaurs walked by, carrying over their shoulders a series of heavy metal tubes. Once they were gone, she held her breath, crouched low, and darted across the lit lengths of the tunnel like a cloaked weasel. She shimmied over to the wall on the far side and crouched behind a stack of rusted tools. Another minotaur walked by. Rainbow Dash waited and waited. Once the area was clear, she slid over towards the door, held her breath, stood up on her hind limbs, and peered inside.

Several faces gasped as soon as hers appeared from beyond the bars. A group of soot-stained, emaciated earth ponies bounced back from the doorframe and stood—trembling—within the space of a claustrophobic prison cell.

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Well, snap.” She lowered her hood, glanced behind her, and leaned into the bars of the door. “Pssst... Hey there, guys. How's it hoofin'?”

“Who in the blazes are you?!” a stallion exclaimed.

“I'm on the outside looking in, which is the least I can say about you dudes. What gives? These minotaurs have you as prisoners?”

“As slaves,” a mare spoke. Like the majority of the prisoners, she was well over Rainbow Dash's age. “They make us do menial labor as they dig up this blasted passageway to the machine.”

“Machine?!” Rainbow Dash made a face. She glanced behind her once more and replied, “The heck are you talking about? I thought these minotaurs were just digging up rocks!”

“We don't know what they want. All we know is that we're here and there are six more working deeper into the tunnel,” another pony explained. “They barely feed us, and they beat us up when we don't have the energy to work. If we don't get out of here, we'll die!”

“Hey. Dying isn't cool. Lemme see if I can get you out.”

“They'll see you if you continue to stand there!” A stallion hissed. “Don't let yourself get caught too!”

“Hey, chillax! This isn't my first time sneaking around a tunnel full of minotaurs!”

“Really?”

“Well, no. But everything's easier if I choose to believe so.” Rainbow Dash squatted and removed her cloak. Rockspot gasped and clung to her from where he sat in her saddlebag. “Easy there, squirt,” she patted his head, then glanced up at the door. “I'll get the lock broken, get myself inside, and then we can plot something out.”

“I don't get it! Who are they?” Rockspot nervously exclaimed.

“Ponies who need our help.”

“But—”

“No buts about it. Hoof me my hatchet.”

Rockspot reached into the other side of the saddlebag and pulled the metal blade out. Rainbow Dash took the handle of it in her mouth. She paused, glanced for nearby minotaurs, and then leaned forward. With a few expert swings, she hacked and whacked at the lock on the wooden door. Surprisingly, it didn't take very long. The door swung loose. She dove in and shut it behind her just as a pair of minotaurs walked by at about twenty feet's distance.

“Hopefully they won't notice long enough for us to plan an escape,” Rainbow said, her voice echoing across the small chamber. The air was foul with pony sweat and refuse. She ignored it as she faced the group. “Just how many ponies are we talking about here—?”

“You're a pegasus!” One of them gasped.

“Heh. Yeah, well, not everypony's perfect.”

“You could have flown out of here and saved yourself at anytime!”

“Hey! That's not how I roll, okay?” She briefly frowned. “I came here because—”

“Wait, you came here?” Another gawked at her. “Does that mean they know we're still alive?”

“Does who know?” Rainbow Dash made a face. “As far as I know, I'm doing this freelance!”

“We thought that Hushtail had sent for us!” A mare exclaimed, close to tears. “We had hoped they had figured out that the monsters were taking us here—”

“Whoa whoah whoah—Hold the lettuce!” Rainbow Dash waved her forelimbs, squinting across the dark cell. “You mean you guys are all from Windthrow? The monsters took you here?” She plopped breathlessly down on her haunches. “Hushtail and Sladesteed told me that ponies were killed!”

“Some of us were,” an elder pony said, his head hanging gravely along his companions. “But most of us have been brought here over the past decade to perform slave labor. We don't know where the monsters go to once they've dropped us off. It's almost as if they disappear into nothingness.”

Rainbow Dash felt a dizzy sensation as she remembered the silver strip in Thunderhorn's grip when she first spied upon the quarry. “Yeah... Fancy that.”

“You mean you're all from my village?” Rockspot spoke up.

“Who... Who's that?” A mare pointed.

“He's why I'm here.” Rainbow Dash said. “One of the monsters swept him up and carried him north over the mountain range. I chased him all night. We're both lucky he didn't end up with one of you dudes or else I might never have found this place—”

“Rockspot?” A voice said from the shadows.

Rainbow Dash and the young colt glanced up.

An aged stallion with a messy, brown mane wandered out of the shadows. His limbs were malnourished, and his cheeks were hollow. However, upon the sight of the foal, his eyes lit up.

“Is that you?”

The colt blinked curiously at him.

“Oh Rockspot!” The stallion stumbled over and reached his forelimbs out. “It is you! It is you—”

“Whoah there, buddy!” Rainbow Dash held him back with a frown. “Let's not get too friendly. Just who are you?”

He merely blinked at her. Fidgeting, he knelt low and smiled into Rockspot's eyes. “When you were just four, I gave you silver horseshoes for Hearth's Warming. You were so proud to show them off. We walked around the village, and the fog was actually clear for a day. You saw the stars for the first time. You started crying, and you didn't know why. I explained the cosmos to you, and that's when you told me you wanted to become an astronomer.”

Rockspot blinked, and suddenly his eyes went wide. “Daddy?”

The old stallion sniffled, his lips curving. “You look so strong, Rockspot. I was scared I'd never see your cutsie-nera.”

“Daddy!” Rockspot struggled, squirmed, but ultimately plopped out of Rainbow's saddlebag. He scurried across the room and threw himself into the stallion's forelimbs. “You're alive! Mommy said you were dead! Red Turnip wouldn't believe it...”

“I'm here, son. I'm so sorry I couldn't be with you these last two years.”

Rockspot sniffled and nuzzled the stallion's cheek. “I'm so happy you're alive. I'm so glad Miss Dash found you!”

The stallion gulped and held the foal close. “I'm glad too, son.” He smiled and glanced over at Rainbow Dash with teary eyes.

Rainbow blinked. She felt a hoof tapping her shoulder. She turned around... and saw a horn. “Uhhh...”

“You...” A pale unicorn with a limp shuffled exhaustedly towards her. “You're not... from around Wintergate, are you?”

“Can't say that I am, buddy.” Rainbow Dash looked him over. “And something tells me you're not from Windthrow like the rest of these poor saps.”

The unicorn slowly shook his head. Coughing, he winced and said, “My name is Astral. I'm from the College of Southstone. Nearly twelve years ago, I was part of a band of unicorns charged with transporting mystical artifacts across Wintergate. Halfway to our destination, we were raided by these minotaurs.”

Rainbow Dash's eyes darted briefly around the room. “Where are the other unicorns?”

“Two of my cohorts are part of the labor team in the tunnels right now,” Astral said. “The three of us are the last survivors. The rest died over the last decade of imprisonment.”

Rainbow's ears drooped. “Yeesh. I'm really sorry to hear that.”

“Tell me, did you see the chaos strips?”

Rainbow's coat hairs stood on end. “Chaos... strips...?”

“I suspect the minotaurs have perverted them with dark energy,” Astral said. “Undoubtedly they've been using them to send the monsters all over this part of Wintergate.”

“Did...” Rainbow Dash's eyes narrowed. “Did you say the minotaurs are the ones sending the monsters?”

“Yes. Isn't it obvious?”

Rainbow Dash glanced over her shoulder. She stared at all of the haggard, life-sapped ponies huddled around the tearful reunion of Rockspot and his father.

She turned back to look at the unicorn. “Listen, Asteroids—”

“Astral.”

“Whatever.” She swallowed a lump down her throat and said, “Tell me all that you know.”

Pull

View Online

“If there's one thing minotaurs are obsessed with, it's ancient architecture,” Astral said. “No matter what geographical region you're from, you're bound to find minotaurs digging into the ground in packs. They're convinced that there are structures hidden beneath the natural surface of the world.”

“Structures?” Rainbow Dash remarked, all the while keeping guard at the cell's wooden door. “Like what kind of structures?”

“Things of intelligent design,” the frail unicorn remarked. He struggled to stay upright as he murmured, “Labyrinths, machinery, dungeons, weapons—things that belong to ages before history was written. They have a veritably spiritual need to find these supposed relics, even if there's very little evidence leading to their existence.”

“So it goes without saying that they'll sacrifice anything to get what they want,” Rainbow Dash muttered. She motioned towards Rockspot's dad and the other ponies. “Even if what they want sucks for ponies like us.”

“They've threatened over and over again to take our lives,” Astral said. He gulped and stared sadly at the floor. “They've made true with their word on several occasions. I've lost many friends...”

“Well, you're not gonna lose anymore,” Rainbow Dash said with a snarl. “Not if I have something to do about it.”

“You seem to be a courageous type,” Astral spoke. “But you're just one pegasus.”

“Yeah. Stinks to be the minotaurs. They're gonna need a few tanks before they can call it even.”

“Don't be coy.” Astral frowned. “Even if you could buck two dozen of them across the head, it doesn't guarantee all of our safety. If we're to get out of here, we need a plan.”

Rainbow Dash groaned. “Ughhhh... But I did so much planning just to get here!”

Astral glanced at her flimsy blanket of a disguise. “Yes.” He cleared his throat. “I can see that...”

“Perhaps if she made a distraction?” Rockspot's father spoke up. “Something out of the blue that will throw all of the minotaurs into a frenzy? After all, there're still six more of us at the Machine.”

“Just what 'Machine' is this?” Rainbow Dash made a face. “Does this have something to do with the minotaurs and their fetish for weird underground stuff?”

“I've only seen parts of it the last few times I worked down the tunnel,” Astral said. “I have no idea what it is. Probably some leftover contraption from proto-Wintergate. It doesn't matter. It's important to the minotaurs, and they're working us to death over it.”

“Then maybe I should do something to drag all of the minotaurs out of the tunnel,” Rainbow Dash said. “Then I can get you guys out, fetch the six, and find us a way out.” She looked at the group. “Is there another exist besides the quarry?”

“There are several service shafts along the way. The minotaurs themselves built vertical escape routes in the event of a cave-in,” Rockspot's father said with a shuddering breath. “They may be cruel creatures, but they're not stupid.”

“Cool beans. Here's what we'll do!” Rainbow Dash grinned at the group. “I'll go and pull off a wicked crazy distraction at the quarry. When the minotaurs run out, I'll fly back here, yank the door open, and then we'll head down the tunnel. The minotaurs won't even remotely expect that. Then we'll grab the other six of you guys, find a hatch—”

“And then what?” A mare asked in a hoarse breath.

Rainbow Dash blinked. “We... uhm... gallop?”

Another stallion muttered, “I don't think this is a good idea. Those minotaurs will sick the monsters on us in a flash. We wouldn't make it to the nearest village.”

“Hey.” Rainbow Dash looked at Astral. “You said something about...” She bit her lip, then uttered, “Ch-chaos strips?”

“Yes.”

“What do?”

“Huh?”

“Tell me all about them, ya horn-head.”

“Oh.” Astral cleared his throat. “They're leftover relics from the Chaos Wars, when Discord ravaged the world.”

Rainbow Dash sighed. “You don't say...?”

Astral nodded. “They were used to summon abominations that Discord had crafted in the nether. Rumor is that it's made out of his special, regenerative bone. It emulates how the great Lord of Chaos was capable of creating matter out of seemingly-nothing. He was merely reaching into an alternate dimension of discordant energies. The chaos strips function in the same way, but each one of them is enscribed with the ability to only summon one thing.”

“In this case, ugly-as-tartarus bat creature thingies.”

“Erm... That's a poetic way to put it,” Astral remarked. “Regardless, there are always two strips and—”

“Two strips?”

“Yes. It's how they maintain equilibrium. If a single one of them is destroyed, then he other one replicates another. The only way to eliminate them from this realm of harmony is to shatter them both.”

“I'm guessing this Thunderhorn guy has them both?”

“Most likely he just has one,” Astral said. “If he's smart, he would have given the second strip to another worker or overseer. If you want to ensure that the creatures don't attack us, you have to fetch both of them.”

“Well, that sounds like fun,” Rainbow Dash grunted. “Alright, so, lemme get this straight. I gotta get both chaos strips, make a distraction, fly back here, free you guys, and get us down the tunnel before any minotaur discovers either me or the mess I've made of the door's lock right here.”

“Mmm...” Astral winced. “Yes...”

“Whew! And I thought my morning was gonna be boring!” Rainbow Dash cracked her joints and approached the door. “Well, guess I'm off to continue doing my one-pony-sneaking-mission.”

“Wait!” One of the ponies exclaimed. “How will we know that it's okay to run out of here?”

“Duh! I'll have come back!”

“At least give us a signal of some sort.”

“Pfft!” Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Just listen to my voice.” She whipped her cloak back onto her blue features. “Seriously, you ever heard another pony whose voice cracks half as much as mine?”

For some reason, that was enough for the many prisoners to nod in agreement.

“Miss Dash!” Rockspot called out.

She paused before the door. “Yeah, squirt?”

He smiled, his cheeks red. “Thanks for being so awesome.”

“Save it for when I've ruined the minotaur's day, huh?” Rainbow Dash shoved against the door. “And I'm off! Nnnngh... Nnnnngh! Nnnngh—Horsefeathers! Why won't this thing—?”

“You... uhm...” Astral fidgeted. “You have to pull.”

“Oh. Uhm. I knew that. Ahem. I'm off!”

Valve

View Online

“Okay. I forgot how much I hate sneaking,” Rainbow Dash grunted. It had been twenty minutes since she parted ways from the prisoners. She spent the entirety of the time worming her way around the furthest edges of the quarry. There were so many minotaurs out in the open that she couldn't find a safe route down the center without being seen. “I wonder if they'd hate me if I flew off to another part of Wintergate and brought an entire army of earth ponies with me?” She glanced at the horizon. Her brow furrowed. “Yeah. No more stupid thoughts. Thanks.”

She sighed. She perched atop a wooden shack overlooking the east side of the dig site. From her vantage point, she could see Thunderhorn frowning and shaking his fist at two lackeys. He didn't look entirely happy about something. Rainbow Dash assumed that it must have been her sudden and inexplicable disappearance.

“I am taking an awfully long 'leak,'” she said with a smirk. She squinted her ruby eyes and scanned the landscape. “Better think of something soon. They'll be spotting the broken lock to the prison cell any moment.”

Her gaze fell over digging equipment, large machinery, metal crates full of rubble, piles of gravel, and finally a large wooden building. She narrowed her eyes even harder. She could spot several thick iron pipes snaking their way in and out of the far sides of the structure. Half of them ran up out of the quarry and towards a distant water source. The other half ran into the cave itself.

“Huh. Wonder why I didn't see those before?” she muttered. She scratched her chin with a hoof, glanced at the pipes once more, and smiled. “Bet the minotaurs could use a bath.” She chuckled slightly. With a flutter of her wings, she lifted off and flew in zig-zagged patterns behind the blind sides of various obstructions. Gradually, she made it over to the wooden structure. Once there—”Ugh!” She groaned, pushing and pushing at the door. “Frickin' figures it's locked! Why is it that I'm always—?” She paused, blinking. A severe blush blazed across her cheeks. With a sigh, she stepped back... and pulled the door easily open. “I swear, this was what they taught the last year of flight camp before I dropped out.”

Once inside, Rainbow Dash discovered a complex maze of pipes, valves, and copper joints. The entire room billowed with hissing steam. She could hear the tell-tale rush of heavy currents of water roaring through the tubes. The very foundation of the building vibrated from the high pressure of the pipes and pumps and bypasses.

“I'd give two bits just to know what all this stuff does...” She trotted through the tight interior of pipes, pipes, and more pipes. She frowned. “Dang it! Why can't they just have a sign saying 'Please don't hit this cuz it'll spill the most?'”

She eventually came upon two pipes. She gazed at them both, one after another. “Hmmmmm... Buck it. Let's just start turning things.”

She gripped tightly to a valve. Snarling, she put her weight into turning it. Just then, a swath of daylight fell over her.

“Halt right there!”

“Just a second!” Rainbow Dash groaned, twisting the valve. “I just gotta get this thing turned and—” She found herself caught in the body of a horned shadow. “...Aw Luna crackers.”

Smack

View Online

“You!” A brown minotaur with twitchy gray eyes pointed his spear at the pegasus from across the claustrophobic, wooden shack. “You're trying to sabotage the water pumps!”

“Uhhh...” Rainbow Dash's eyes blinked back at him from beneath the “hood” of her cloak. “No I'm not.”

“Yes you are!”

“I'm pretty sure I'm not.”

“Then why are your hooves on the secondary backup valve?!”

“Um...” Rainbow Dash blinked at the round metal object she was gripping. “Is that what this is?”

“Of course!”

“Well, then, where's the main pressure valve?”

“Over to the right.”

“Ah! Well, thank you—”

“Nnngh—No!” The air sang with razor sharp metal as the guard thrust the spear right under Rainbow's muzzle. “Hooves down on the floor!” He snarled and glared down at her from his intimidating height. “I'm not letting you sabotage the mining operation's water supply on my watch!”

“Who said I was going to sabotage the mining operation's water supply?”

“Why else would you be here?”

“Any reason but that!”

“Why should I believe you?”

“Uhm... Duh? I'm a pony? 'Peace, love, tolerance', all that fruity jazz?”

“You're an insolent trespasser, and I'm reporting you to Overseer Thunderhorn!”

“You don't even know what that word means.”

“What, 'Thunderhorn?'”

“No. 'Insolent.'”

“'An adjective that describes someone of rude and brazen qualities.'”

“...Huh. And here I thought it was something diabetic ponies took.”

“Don't move a muscle—”

“Cuz where I come from, ponies drink sarsaparilla all the time, and if it's not kidney stones—oh brother—it's something else—”

“Will you shut up already?!”

“Hey, I have a right to speak my mind! Even if it's empty!”

“You're under arrest! Don't pretend to know anything about rights!”

“Is that the way things work around here?”

“I'm quite familiar with Thunderhorn's methods of security.”

“Really?” Rainbow Dash pointed behind the minotaur's shoulder. “Maybe you should ask him for a refresher course.”

“I'm not falling for that.”

“For what?”

“An attempt to make me turn around.”

“What's to attempt? Farthorn's standing right behind you!”

“'Thunderhorn!' And if he was in this room, don't you think he'd be saying something loud and angrily by now?”

“I doubt it, what with the scorpion that stung him in the lips.”

“I don't know what you're talking about.”

“He's totally swelling like a sea anemone right now!”

“Is he really?” The minotaur glanced over his shoulder—

Rainbow Dash shot across the room, twirled her body, and bucked both legs across his chest.

With a cry, the minotaur collapsed against the wooden shack's doorframe.

“Hah!” Rainbow Dash hovered above him with a smirk. “Leave it to minotaur not to smell bullcrap when it's shoveled to him—Aw heck!” She ducked at the last millisecond. The tossed spare sliced through her mane, cutting loose a few prismatic threads. “Fuuuuu—”

“I'm gonna rip you a new hay hole!” The minotaur snarled, getting back on his hooves.

“Heeheehee!” Rainbow Dash clutched her tummy in mid-air. “'Hay hole!' I like that! Mind if I borrow that?” She lost all breath from her lungs as she was forced into a constricting armbar. “Snnnkt—How about a cup of sugar instead?”

“I'm delivering you to Thunderhorn in pieces!”

“Hccckt—Yeah...” Rainbow Dash hissed through gnashing teeth. “About that...” From where she dangled, Rainbow twirled her tail-hairs like a whip and slapped it straight up into the minotaur's crotch.

“Gaaaah!” The creature stumbled.

“Nnnnngh!” Rainbow Dash flung her wings straight out from underneath her cloak. She offset her balance, forcing the already-teetering minotaur to fall into an unwitting somersault.

“Ooof!” He rolled onto the ground, dizzy.

“Boo-yaa!” Rainbow Dash jumped up to her hooves and leered at him. “That'll teach you to write checks that your horns can't cash—”

He reached up and backhanded her viciously.

“Daaah!” She flew back and slammed hard into a wooden wall.

He got up, frowning with flaring nostrils.

Rainbow winced, shook the stars out of her eyes, and reached up for her cloak.

Shouting, he charged her at full force.

Rainbow Dash flung the cloak off her, flew to the side, and flung the blanket full-on into the minotaur's face. Blinded, he stumbled awkwardly into the wall behind her. “Toro! Haha!” She grinned. “Get it? Because you're a—”

He tore the blanket off and glared at her.

“Aw crap,” she said, sweating.

He reached down into a pile of loose, rusted valves. Grunting, he flung them like murderous discs.

She held her breath and flew every-which way, dodging each successive throw with agile grace. After the last valve was tossed, she did a barrel-roll, snatched the handle of the object in her tail-hairs, spun her body around, and flung the thing back.

Glaring icily, the minotaur caught it in his naked teeth, bit his jaw down, and snapped the valve in half. He snorted and cracked his knuckles.

Rainbow Dash hovered, blinking at him. “Yeah, I'm out.” She turned to fly away—only to feel him pulling her back by her tail hairs.

“I'm going to turn you into glue, pony!” He hissed, pulling her closer towards him.

“Nnnngh!” She flapped and flapped her wings, trying to fly out of his grip. “If I had a bit for everytime I—” She was forced into another choke-hold. The veins in her eyes showed as she growled, “Dang it! Will you friggin' lemme finish a catch phrase for once?!” With her last breath, she bucked her hooves viciously, uppercutting him.

“Aaaugh!” The minotaur spun from the blow, teetered, tripped over the piece of a valve, and fell face-forward into the mess of pipes. The air rang loudly, then filled with a high-pitched hiss. “Nnnngh... Nnnngh... Darn it...!” He grunted and groaned.

Rainbow Dash craned her neck to find out why. From ceiling level, she saw that the minotaur had fallen with his horns embedding into the thickest of the pipes. Several of the tubes around him were buckling, spitting loose rivets, coming apart at the joints. The air filled with steam as multiple dials along a pump console started tilting into the red.

“I'm stuck!” The minotaur shouted, struggling and buckling. “You blasted, equine filth! Help get me loose!”

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash looked at the vibrating pipes. “Uhhhhh...” She looked at the rattling, engorged pumps growing hotter and hotter. “Yeah, I don't think so.” She flew out in a blur.

“Curse you, you blue cloudstain! Curse you—” His voice was drowned out by a rising cacophony of exploding pipes.

In the meantime, Rainbow Dash had flown clear out of the shack. Several minotaurs gasped and shouted at the sight of her. She paid them no mind and flew directly towards the center of the quarry. Barely ten seconds had passed when a enormous explosion went off behind her. The shockwave from the bursting pipes pushed everybody to the ground, including Rainbow. She grinded into a sea of gravel, wincing. Propping herself up, she looked up in the air and saw the screaming body of a steam-scalded guard sailing like a missile. He eventually landed with a groan in a pile of sawdust up ahead.

“Hah!” Rainbow Dash grinned wide as several clumps of wooden and metal debris fell around her. “How's that for insolence, ya walking bag of methane?!” She turned and smiled over her shoulder. “Hahahah—”

From where the pump had exploded, a fifteen foot tall wave of solid water was soaring straight towards Rainbow's way.

“—Aaaah!”

Flood

View Online

Astral and the prisoners gasped as the entire floor of the prison cell jolted. Rockspot trembled and clung to his father. Outside, through the wooden bars of the door, shouting minotaurs were running hurriedly towards the front of the cave as the entire tunnel shook around them.

“What... What did she do?!” Stammered a Windthrow mare.

“Did she have gunpowder?!” Another exclaimed.

“Calm down, everypony,” Astral said. “I'm sure she's doing everything in her power to get the minotaurs out of here. Take look for yourself! The tunnel's practically—”

Just then, the door flung open and a frazzled, sweating Rainbow Dash stood in the frame.

“H-hi guys!” She grinned wide and shook a hoof. “Don't fear! I've come to—”

A wave of water hit her.

“Daaah!” She fell over, rolling through a two foot-current of rushing liquid. The sloshing wave rose higher and higher as it bathed every square inch of the tunnel floor, eventually pouring into the prison cell itself.

The ponies backtrotted, gasping. Several exchanged worried looks.

“What in the Sun Goddess' name...?!”

“THIS was your distraction?!”

“I swear, she's doomed us all!”

“I have not—” Rainbow Dash sputtered and coughed out some liquid. “—doomed us all! We're still going with the same plan as before! Only now, we gotta...” She glanced down at the flowing water around her hooves. “Y'know... do it a little quicker.”

“Easier for you to say! You've got wings!”

“Will you stop complaining?!” Rockspot's father shouted at the others. “She's the only pony who's bothered to risk her neck by coming this far! Let's get out now that she's given us a chance!”

“Yes,” Astral nodded fervently. “If this hasn't distracted the minotaurs, I don't know what will. Hurry, everypony! We make for the far end of the tunnel!”

“Here, son...” Rockspot's father squatted down so that the foal could hop onto his backside. “Grab ahold. Don't let go.”

“I won't, daddy. Is Miss Dash coming with us?”

“Heck yeah!” Rainbow Dash held the door open as the ponies filed out. There were easily two dozen of them in total. It was a thick group, and their bodies shivered with fear and panic. “There's no party like a prison break party! Ha ha ha!” Out of earshot of Rockspot, she turned and whispered to Astral. “There're only six of you left, right?”

“Correct!” Astral said, already leading the group hurriedly downt he corridor. “They have to be further down the tunnels!”

“Great!” Rainbow Dash soared past him. “I'll fly ahead and scout out for any remaining minotaurs—”

“You got the chaos strips from Thunderhorn, right?”

Rainbow Dash flew into a metal crane. She winced in-midair, then kicked and thrashed at the equipment. “Dang it all to Nightmare Moon's bridle stains! Nnnnngh!” She spun and blurred like a rocket towards the mouth of the cave. “I knew I friggin' forgot something!”

“Be quick about it!” Astral shouted, using his weak magic to fend off the water rushing behind the group as they waded desperately into the darkness. “I don't have the strength to protect the group all by my lonesome!”

“Right! I'm the heroine of the hour! Got it!” Rainbow Dash's voice echoed back. As she flew back into the sunlight over the roaring waves of water, she snarled to herself. “Darn it, darn it, darn it! I swear! My life's turned into some stupid story written by an idiot in fast-forward! Nnnngh!” With a murderous growl, she flew into the fray of the quarry.

Thunderhorn

View Online

Thunderhorn was not having a good day. He stood atop the roof to a wooden supply shed as raging rapids of muddied water flooded the quarry all around him. Just thirty feet away, a gigantic geyser of channeled liquid was being thrown violently into the air from where the metal pump had once resided. He snarled and shouted to several workers hurriedly wading past him.

“Somebody get down there and twist the lateral valves! We have to cut off the incoming supply of water from the lake up north!”

“Sir!” Another minotaur shouted. He clung to the body of the shed below, trying his best not to be swept away by the currents. “Half of us are still trying to sandbag off the tunnel—”

“Never mind that! The tunnel runs too deep to be completely flooded, and it's too late to save the equipment at the mouth of the corridor! We must put all effort into stopping the water flow!”

“Who caused all of this?! I just don't understand—”

“I don't pay you to understand! I pay you to do what I say!”

“Then you must be rich enough to pay for new teeth!” A voice said above.

Thunderhorn turned and looked skyward. “Huh?”

“Hi there!” Rainbow Dash soared down with two swinging hooves.

“Ooof!” Thunderhorn took the diving buck across the face. He spun twice, flailed, and fell into the waters.

The minotaur below gasped. “A flying pony! How dare you strike the overseer?!”

“Yeah. You're useless. Stop talking.” Rainbow Dash kicked a plank of wood loose from the shed so that it smacked the minotaur's skull. He fell back and was carried away by the currents of flood water. Without delay, Rainbow Dash flew down and perched herself atop Thunderhorn's squirming body. “Strips. Strips. Strips. Dang it—why's your belt gotta have so many pockets? Urp!” Her eyes crossed.

Thunderhorn's hand had reached backwards to grip her by the throat. Blindly, he flung her against the wooden shack.

“Augh!” She landed against it and fell leg-deep in the waters.

Thunderhorn stood up, gnashing his teeth and wiping blood from his chin. “Such insolence!”

“Seriously...” Rainbow wheezed. “What's with you minotaurs and that stupid word?”

“It was you who caused all this, wasn't it?!” He stood up straight, his strong body like a breaker against the churning waters billowing past his knees. “Did you really think you could fly here and destroy the work of fifty sturdy minotaurs all on your lonesome?”

“Yeah, why not?”

“I'll be wearing your teeth as a necklace tonight!”

“That's the worst pickup line I've ever heard.”

“Raaaugh!” Thunderhorn charged straight towards her.

“Oh please. We can do this all day.” Rainbow Dash shot up before he could grab her. “Hah!” She stared down at him from a tall hover. “You couldn't hit the broad side of a—”

He struck the shed, and utterly demolished it. The wooden structure exploded in a sea of splinters as he stood there, snarling up at her.

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Yeah. I'm not getting anywhere near THAT.” She glanced all around the flooded quarry. “Uhhhh... Be right back.” She zoomed off.

“Coward!” Thunderhorn shook his fist. “Typical pony! Leave it to a flying manure bag to not have a single ounce of courage in her body—”

Rainbow Dash flew up behind him, swinging a metal beam across the back of his skull. “I'm back!” He fell flatly into the water with a splash. She hovered down and planted the beam over his chin, holding it firmly in place with two hooves as she reached for the belt with her forward half. “Now to get what I came for...” She gripped the belt in her teeth, pulled hard, and snapped it off him. “Mmmmf... There. That wasn't so hard—”

Thunderhorn snapped the beam in two with his teeth, then gripped her tail-hairs in his jaws.

“Oh, ow. Yeah, that hurts. Ow. Ow!” Rainbow Dash squealed. As she was tugged back, she lost grip of the belt. She watched it plop uselessly into the floodwaters before she was pulled into a vicious body-hug.

“Hah! Stupid cretin!” Thunderhorn gripped her skull from behind as water splashed all around them, dousing Rainbow Dash's coat and mane and saddlebag. The minotaur applied the pressure, straining at her neck muscles. “Is this the first time you've faced death?”

“That depends!” She hissed and squirmed in his grasp. “Is this the first time you had a decent bath?!”

“I'm going to mount your head for all the slaves to see.”

“Well, that's one way to inspire somepony!” She wriggled her two lower legs free “Hey Butthorn! What's big and limp and bruised all over?”

“If you think that you can delay the inevitable by—”

She slammed both of her hooves into his crotch.

He wheezed, winced, but still kept her hold on her. “Hah! I'm made of stronger stuff than that, you stupid horse—”

She bucked him in the crotch again. And again. And again and again and again. Thunderous claps filled the air, sending rivulets of chaos surging through the currents around them. Thunderhorn's eyes gradually rolled back in his skull with each traumatic blow, until he squeaked something unintelligibly high-pitched and finally let go of Rainbow Dash.

She flew out of his body with a grasp and dog-paddled through the currents. “Whew...! And that's why no self-respecting idiot picks a fight with a quadruped!” She smirked over her shoulder. “Good luck making little minotaurs the day you go back home to the 'Bluffs of Thunder' or whatever the heck you stupid walking cows hail from!”

Thunderhorn merely curled into a ball as the waters raged around him.

In the meantime, Rainbow Dash flapped her wings and skimmed over the waves. “Come on. Come on. Come on...” She scanned the currents with her ruby eyes, and gasped upon spotting the belt. “Ah-HA!” She flew in and snatched I up with her teeth. The moment she did so, her eyes flickered from white to yellow and back. “Unnngh...” She reeled momentarily, almost falling deep into the water as the dizziness came and went. “Mmmf... Whew...” She felt the weight of the chaos metal inside the thing. Rather than risk opening it and becoming more dizzy, she spun around and made for the mouth of the mining tunnel. As she did so, an explosion went off behind her. She glanced back and gawked at the sight of the geyser of water doubling in intensity. Minotaurs were rushing all around it, desperate to stop the source of the flood.

With no time to waste, Rainbow Dash held the belt tight in her jaws and flew swiftly towards the tunnel where the prisoners were fleeing even deeper.

Behind her, Thunderhorn finally stood up. Two minotaurs rushed up to his side.

“Overseer! Are you alright?”

“What did that wretched pony do to you?”

“Never mind th—” Thunderhorn tried to say. Legs-crossed, he cleared his throat and regained the deepness in his voice. “Never mind that.” He glared towards the mineshaft at the south end of the quarry. “We must give pursuit.”

“But sir! The quarry! It's ruined enough as it is! Shouldn't we stop the flood—”

“She has my belt! Everything will be for nothing if she gets away with it!” Thunderhorn shouted. He glanced all around, and pointed towards a pile of equipment. “There! Follow me, brothers. This isn't over.” With his companions in tow, he waded across the quarry.

Plank

View Online

“This is too much water!” One of the escaped prisoners stammered as she and several others followed Astral down the deepening corridor. “This is way too much water!”

Astral struggled to stay upright as he waded through the thick currents surging past them. “Let's just keep up the pace! Don't stop for anything!” Panting, he glanced up at a wooden catwalk lining the cavern's wall at the height of twenty feet. “There has to be a plank that can take us up to someplace safer eventually—”

“I think I hear someone coming!” Another pony shouted.

The group shuddered, shrieking in random bursts.

“Everypony calm down!” Astral shouted to his Windthrow companions. “Whatever you do, don't slow down for anything!”

“You can slow down for this.” A leather belt was dropped over Astral's shoulders.

He paused in the flooding waters to blink at the thing. He glanced up. “Did you meet any resistance?”

“I met an idiot who didn't know a losing fight when it bit him,” Rainbow Dash said. “Why you guys all wet?”

Rockspot's father shouted above the rapids. “We couldn't find a way to get onto the platform above!”

“Lemme fix that!” Rainbow Dash shouted. Blurring towards the ceiling, she swung her rear legs and kicked the support beams holding the catwalk to the top of the cave. A section of the platform shook, rattled, and fell loose. With a splash, it formed a steep ramp ascending to the lattice work that stretched the length of the corridor. “There! All aboard the bridge to... somewhere drier than here!”

One by one, the ponies gladly scaled the inclined plank and continued their gallop on the wooden platform. Astral was a little too weak to ascend on his own, so he received a boost from Rainbow Dash. Once on top, he took a deep breath, strapped the belt around his neck, and said, “Your arrival is most miraculous. I'm not sure how many more months any of us could have lasted in this dreadful place.”

“Well once we find one of those escape hatches to the surface, we can make for the nearest town and drop the weight of all of Wintergate's wrath on these bozos.”

“Would now be a bad time to tell you that Wintergate is populated by pacifists?”

“And yet you eat meat?”

“Hurry!” The stallion carrying Rockspot said. “I think I hear voices up ahead! The other ponies must be nearby!”

“Say, what's your name, dude?” Rainbow Dash shouted as she flew alongside the sprinting group. “Cuz I'm gonna have an aneuyrism if I call you 'Rockspot's Dad' twelve more times by day's end!”

“Red Turnip Senior!” He replied, glancing back with a smirk. “Spotty here says you've already met my oldest son!”

“Awwwwww,” Rainbow Dash pouted. “I flooded a quarry and fought a minotaur boss just to learn that?”

“Daddy! Look!” Rockspot pointed ahead. “Unicorns!”

“Huh?”

The entire group gasped and skidded to a stop, shaking the entire platform. Straight ahead, three unicorns and two other ponies stood at spearpoint with saddlebags full of gravel. A pair of minotaurs towered over them. Glancing over, the two overseers gawked at the group.

“How did you get free?”

“Never mind that!” The other minotaur flung his spear. “Gut 'em!”

All of the prisoners ducked and shrieked. Rainbow Dash was already spiraling at the pair of bipeds. She snatched the first thrown spear in mid-air, twirled, and grabbed the second thrown one in her teeth. Frowning, she landed between the two minotaurs, swept one's feet out from under him with one spear, and turned to spit the pole in her teeth out at the other.

The minotaur took it straight to the face. He reeled backwards and toppled over the edge of the railing before falling into the floodwaters below with a shriek.

Rainbow Dash turned around—only to be uppercutted by the other minotaur's fist. She fell back as he leapt on her. The two wrestled and struggled on the platform. Once gaining the upper hand, the minotaur rammed his horns down at her skull. She dodged the blow. His horns pierced into the platform on either side of her.

“Darn it all!” She shouted. “Just how many frickin' minotaurs do I have to punch in the groin today?!” That said, she slammed her hooves between the minotaur's legs.

He wheezed immediately and went limp. At that moment, Red Turnip Sr and four other prisoners galloped forward and rammed his body off the platform. As the victorious splash sounded off below, they helped Rainbow back to her hooves.

“Isn't she awesome, daddy?” Rockspot beamed from where he gripped to his father's back.

“Heh...” Red Turnip smiled. “I like how you bull-tackle the walking bull, Miss Dash.”

“Yeah. Too bad he can't say the same about me dashing his rainbow-maker—”

Two spears embedded into the railing beside them. The ponies gasped and looked down.

Using the flowing floodwaters as a stream, a hastily assembled pontoon boat of wooden planks was rushing towards the escapees from below. A very angry Thunderhorn was chucking spears along with three snarling cohorts.

“Friends!” Astral shouted to the five reunited laborers. “We can't wait here!”

“They're going to overtake us!” another unicorn exclaimed as more spears.

“Miss Dash!” Rockspot squeaked, trembling. “What are we gonna do—”

“Raaaaaaaugh!” Rainbow shouted at her wit's end and dove off the platform with a flurry of wings. “What is it with this day?!”

“You!” Thunderhorn shook a fist. “Give me back my strips or I will tear you to—”

Rainbow Dash answered with two rear hooves drop-kicking across his skull. “Eat a buffalo biscuit, ya udder sucker!” She ruthlessly took on three burly minotaurs at once. “Go! Go! I'll hold them off!” She shouted to the group above.

The prisoners nervously galloped ahead.

“She's as impulsive as a bucket of parasprites!” one pony exclaimed.

Astral nodded, looking back wearily before following up the rear of the group. “To our good fortune, you're right...”

Pontoon

View Online

As Thunderhorn got up, shaking the stars out of his eyes, he glanced up to see Rainbow Dash ducking the spear-chucks of his three companions before returning with a barrage of lightning-fast hoof-bucks. Snarling, he stood on his end of the pontoon boat, reached into a leather bag, and produced one of many iron-wrought explosives. Lighting the fuse, he shouted to his cohorts. “Get down!”

The three minotaurs complied. Rainbow Dash found herself hovering in mid-air, suddenly fighting nothing.

“Huh? Ooof!” She gasped as a black metal ball flew into her chest. She slammed into a wall beside the boat and the flowing water. “What the—” Her eyes lit up, reflecting the fuse as it burned into the body of the explosive.

Flame erupted, then disappeared in a sea of shrapnel and blasted earth. A smoking hole formed in the wall of the tunnel. The minotaurs began pumping their fists and cheering, when a blue blur soared out from the smoke cloud and smacked two of them across the heads. They collapsed across the deck of the pontoon boat as an angry Rainbow Dash with singed tail hair squatted on the edge.

“Not cool,” she grunted.

“Blast it!” Thunderhorn grabbed another bomb. “Why won't you die?!”

Rainbow Dash knocked his third companion aside and grabbled with his grip of the explosive. “Ever thought of trying harder?!” She bit him on the nose.

“Augh!” He yelped and swung his skull to the left. His right horn smacked her across the head.

Rainbow Dash flew into the grip of one of the minotaurs just as he was getting up. He choked her from behind, crushing her to his ribs. She wheezed and struggled, then flung her wings in desperation. In a screaming streak, she rocketed straight upwards and slammed the both of them into the ceiling of the tunnel. Rainbow Dash fell free, but the minotaur hung there—danglingly comically from where his horns had embedded in the top of the corridor.

“Nnngh!” Thundhorn was tossing another lit bomb.

Rainbow Dash dove down before the explosive reached her. The hanging minotaur was less fortunate. “Aaaaah—!” The ceiling gave way as his singed body fell with a groan to the waters below.

In the meantime, Rainbow Dash landed hard on the stern of the boat. Her jolting weight knocked the entire craft off-balance. Thunderhorn collapsed across his leather bag, spilling tiny rolling black bombs all across the deck. His two cohorts stabbed and thrusted as Rainbow Dash with their spears. She ducked and dodged the swings as best as she could.

Just then, several wooden planks fell from above. The minotaurs took two to the shoulders and glanced up.

Astral and several other ponies had paused at a bridge above the rushing currents. Collectively, they tossed various pieces of junk and debris down at the fight.

“You leave her alone!”

“Pick on someone your own IQ size!”

“That'll teach you to mess with ponies!”

“Hey!” One of the minotaurs shook a fist at the escaped prisoners overhead. “When we're done with her, we're gonna make a doormat out of your coats—” A two-by-four landed smack-dab in his face. “Ooof!” He stumbled back, only for Rainbow Dash to fly up and grip the wooden board from behind, digging it into his sputtering lips. Gritting her teeth, she wrenched her hold of the board and spun his body so that he smacked his spear stupidly into his companion.

“Whoah!” The other minotaur fell into the waters while the ponies cheered above.

By this time, Thunderhorn was getting up. He had another bomb lit and was approaching Rainbow Dash from behind—

“Miss Dash!” Rockspot's voice squeaked from above. “Behind you!”

Rainbow gasped, she flicked her tail back so that the prismatic fibers wrapped around Thunderhorn's wrist. She kicked off the shoulders of the minotaur lackey so that he collapsed on the side of the boat. The resulting boost flew her upwards so that she tugged at Thunderhorn's arm. He spun around dizzily, and when he finished, he realized he no longer had the bomb in his grasp.

Rainbow Dash glanced down. Her ruby eyes widened at the sight of the bomb landing—smoking—in the center of its many rolling siblings across the boat.

“Everypony!” Red Turnip Sr. was already shouting from above. “Run!” The group galloped forward on the platforms.

Rainbow Dash was flying after them in a blur.

The last minotaur was diving frantically into the waves while Thunderhorn stared lethargically at the bomb's fuse disappearing. “I really, really hate ponies.”

His voice was swallowed up by the explosion, as was his body. A wall of water, flame, and pure madness erupted across the entire corridor, churning after Rainbow Dash.

Escape

View Online

“Daddy!” Rockspot shrieked.

“Hold tight, son!” Red Turnip Sr. shouted as he galloped down the vibrating plank. The platform shook from the wooden support struts above as the fire thunderously gained on the group of fleeing ponies.

“It's going to overtake us!” A mare shouted above the heated tumult. “What'll we do—?”

“Well, since you can't grow wings!” Rainbow Dash yanked her up and hoisted another pony by his waist. “Astral!” She shouted across the galloping crowd from where she flew. “You and your horned buddies use your telekinesis to give the old prisoners a boost!”

“Miss Dash! You can't be serious!” Astral stammered in mid-run. “We barely have enough strength to run ourselves!”

“Look, either you help me save these lives or I'm kicking your flanks from here to Ragneighrock!”

“Uhhhh...” Astral blanced behind him at the flames and collapsing tunnel. “Okay!” He whistled to his companions. His face tensed in mid-gallop as he extended a field of translucent telekinesis.

Before they could fall to the wave of chaos behind htem, several elder ponies felt themselves being lifted up by magical clouds. With Rainbow Dash leading the charge, the entire group surged ahead towards a junction in the tunnel.

“Which way?!” Rainbow Dash shouted.

“I don't know!” Astral struggled to shout above his magical strain. “We've never been this deep!”

“But I thought you said—”

A mare shrieked. The wall of burning debris and boiling water was almost upon them.

Rainbow Dash looked every which way. Her eyes settled upon a thin corridor down below. “There!”

“How do we get down—”

“Jump!” Rainbow Dash darted down.

Landing in a thin stream of water, she shoved the two ponies under her hooves into the tunnel. She darted back up to the platform and grabbed two of the unicorns. As she carried them down, several more ponies floated to the tunnel floor safely. The rest jumped frantically, only to be caught by the others below before rushing into the corridor. At last, Rainbow Dash caught Astral. Red Turnip Sr. landed beside her and shouted something. But Rainbow couldn't hear from the noise suddenly surrounding them.

She and Astral looked up with a gasp. The tunnel was collapsing. Burning chunks of debris and muddied water formed a solid wall of death. Rainbow Dash plopped Astral to the ground. As Red dragged him away, Rainbow spun and bucked her legs viciously against the wooden frame holding the mouth of the thin corridor in place. She kicked over and over again. Rockspot's voice shrieked in the background. The smoldering debris was yards away from engulfing her.

“Haaaaugh!” She gave herself a boost with a flap of her wings and snapped the support pillars into splinters. The mouth of the cave fell, acting as a last second barricade to the wall of destruction right as it caught up with them.

Rainbow Dash flew herself to the floor, gripping onto something as the entire, tiny corridor shook. Pebbles and specks of granite fell over her mane in the darkness. Just as she feared the barricade would give, a gentle glow lit the tiny passage. She looked over her shoulder to see Astral and his three unicorn companions encasing the wall in telekinetic shielding. Several breathless ponies watched from a distance huddled against the dank length of the corridor.

Soon, the rumbling subsided, and a deep quiet filled the underground chamber. Rainbow Dash stood up and dusted herself off.

“Well, I'm guessing those minotaurs aren't digging the scene anymore. Heheheh...” She glanced over at the group. “You see? Cuz this is all underground and I totally wrecked their day?” They looked at her in a deadpan. “No? I didn't think so.” She cleared her throat and marched over towards Astral. “This is... uh... this is all of us, right?”

“Good timing,” he said, still trying to catch his breath. “You finished with the headcount, red?”

“Yup,” Red Turnip said with a nod. “Twenty-nine of us, plus our rescuer of the hour.” He smiled wearily as he nuzzled Rockspot on his shoulders. “We're all safe and sound.”

“Relatively speaking,” an old pony remarked. “Where in Tartarus re we now?”

“We're safe is where we are!” Rainbow Dash said. “Or would you rather be on the other side of that wall with all the burning and the drowning and the crushing?”

“I very much doubt it would behoove us to dig back the way which we came,” Astral said. He shifted the weight of Thunderhorn's belt and uttered, “Undoubtedly there is nothing but water and debris in the main corridor.”

“No sweat!” Rainbow Dash pointed down the dark throat of the thin chamber they were presently in. “We'll just spelunk our way until we find one of those vertical shafts that can take us to the top! We're free from the minotaurs, so let's make a game out of things! Pretend we're hiking uphill! Heck, I know a few songs that we... could.... sing...” Her voice trailed off as she squinted at Astral's expression. “Why so glum?”

He chewed on his lip. “Just like you, I was worried about us getting to safety from all that madness.” He gulped hard. “But, I'm afraid, the only place that had access to those escape routes was the main chamber we just escaped from.”

A solemn murmur hung over the crowd. The many prisoners looked at each other nervously.

Rainbow Dash shifted where she stood. “Well... uhm...” She cracked her joints and trudged down the corridor all the same. “Who wants to break into song first?”

Element

View Online

“Explain this to me,” one of the many escaped prisoners murmured across the tight corridor. The passage was dimly lit by the four unicorns spread throughout the slowly-but-firmly trotting group. “If we're shut off from the only plausible escape route behind us, then what is the point in moving forward?”

“Because we have the ability to move forward,” Astral flatly said. His face strained with the effort he took to continuously cast his light spell. He was having a difficult time walking straight. His eyes were thin with exhaustion. Nevertheless, he kept speaking, “Minotaurs aren't like diamond dogs. They dig with an express purpose. It's quite possible that there may be an avenue of escape for us down this lengthy corridor.”

“And if there isn't?”

“It certainly promises a great deal more than anything we could have found by digging into the debris behind us! Face it: attempting to return the way we came would have invited a flash flood throughout this entire passageway. It's best that we keep moving and see what it is we may discover.”

“Is that an idea you came up with or Miss buck-and-run?” another pony grumbled.

“Hey!” Rainbow Dash barked from where she led the group far ahead. “I'm not so bad at thinking, y'know!” She shrugged. “I just tend to move my wings faster than my brain.”

“Give her some credit,” Red Turnip said. On his back, Rockspot snoozed in a slump, exhausted from all of the previous bedlam. “If she didn't blaze in here and risk her neck for us, we would still be in the minotaurs' clutches.”

“I'm beginning to wonder if that would be a better thing,” another pony grumbled. His voice was joined by a series of unenthusiastic but agreeable murmurs.

“Okay, so this isn't exactly a pretty situation!” Rainbow Dash spun around and trotted backwards, facing the twenty-nine equines trotting directly after her. “But I promise you! I'm gonna get you guys home safely! I've been in worse straits! Trust me, we're hardly screwed here!”

The ponies merely exchanged nervous glances.

In the meantime, Rainbow Dash trotted sideways and trotted close to Astral. “Uhm...” She cleared her throat and whispered, “Just how screwed are we here?”

Astral's horn dimmed briefly as he leaned back towards her. “None of us have been sent to labor down here: not even my unicorn cohorts. I'm judging that this is the deepest that the minotaurs have ever dug, and it's obvious they didn't want even their slaves to see what they were excavating.”

“What do you suppose that means?”

“Whatever they were searching for in these depths, they may very well have found it.”

“Is that where we're headed, then?” Rainbow Dash asked. “The treasure of the minotaurs' eye?”

“You could always scout ahead and take a look for yourself.”

“You're cool and all, Astral, but I don't feel quite right with leaving the entire group alone so soon.”

“Our enemies are sealed off from us,” he said, then shifted the leather belt on his shoulders for emphasis. “What's more, you've acquired the chaos strips. So we shouldn't have any monsters to contend with.”

“Still, I wanna hang around with you guys. Just in case,” she murmured, staring ahead.

Astral gazed quietly at her. He looked at the pendant around her neck. Looking ahead once more, he spoke, “So where are the other five?”

Rainbow nearly tripped over her own hooves. “The other five what-now?”

“The Elements of Harmony, of course.”

Rainbow Dash gulped. She glanced at the walls of the place. “What would a Wintergate unicorn know about the Elements of Harmony?”

“Plenty. Magicians from all four corners of the world know the pendants of the Sky Goddeses by heart. If there was no Harmony in this world, Chaos would rule. If there was total Chaos, there'd be no way to tap into magic. It's important for us to keep track of the Six Elements, you see.”

“Uh huh...” Rainbow Dash droned. “Perhaps it's just an uncanny resemblance.”

“Then, perhaps, if it is so unremarkable an heirloom, you could remove it and relax your neck muscles for a bit?”

Rainbow Dash said nothing.

Astral focused and intensified the light at the tip of his horn. He cast a firm glow across the upcoming lengths of the tunnel. “I can't pretend to know anything about you, Miss Dash, but I know one thing. I'm glad to have lived through all of this miserable imprisonment just to meet you. If we have the bearer of the Element of Loyalty on our side, then I'm certain we are bound to make it out of this predicament safely.

She was still silent.

He raised an eyebrow and glanced sideways at her. “After all, you could very easily have abandoned us—complete and total strangers—upon our first meeting.”

“I just want each and every one of you to get out safely,” she blurted.

“And why is that?”

She exhaled sharply. “Just 'cuz'...” There was a distant look in her eyes, almost glossy. She blinked, and suddenly halted in her tracks.

The other ponies stirred curiously.

Red Turnip Senior craned his neck to get a better look. “What is it? What do you see?”

“A chamber,” Rainbow Dash murmured. “A very large one.” She flapped her wings and soared towards the gaping mouth to a large interior within the earth. “You guys wait right here! I'll be back in a jiffy!”

“Careful!” Astral called after her. “You don't know what could be ahead! Even a brave pegasus should practice caution—” He lingered in mid-speech, blinking.

Rainbow Dash had rubbed a hoof over the ruby “lightning-bolt” of her pendant. A magical glow shone over the walls around her. She made for the large cavern like a glimmering beacon.

Astral blinked, and his lips pursed open. “Fascinating...”

“What is it, Astral?” a fellow unicorn remarked.

“I don't think she's a bearer of the Element of Loyalty after all,” he said.

“No?”

He slowly shook his head with a gentle smile. “I think she's the Element itself.”

Stream

View Online

The red glow from Rainbow's pendant was swallowed by an immense darkness as she emerged from the thin corridor. She realized that the chamber was not only large, but it was naturally formed. The minotaurs only dug a path straight to it.

She felt a coldness settling about the place. She shivered slightly, gazing all around as her pendant's glow wafted across the vast cavern. There was no telling which was was north or south. As much as she could imagine, a pegasus could fly in any direction down there and not find anything.

“Hmmm...” She clenched her jaw and hovered, dead still. “This has gotta lead somewhere. What's the point of the tunnel that brought us here if not to—”

She stopped in mid-speech upon hearing something. It was the sound of trickling water, almost like an entire stream was bubbling beneath her.

Gazing down, she aimed the pendant towards the earth's core. Its rosy light glittered off a solid body of water. It was an underground river—amazingly wide and deep—and it was leading towards the right of the corridor exit. She realized that she wasn't the first to discover it, for upon closer inspection she spotted an abandoned camp full of mining tools, wooden boxes, metal supplies, and even a dock. The pier stretched twenty feet into the river, and two large boats made of oak planks were moored to the thing.

“Heh... Well, that's ubertastical.” She smirked.

“What is it, Miss Dash?” Astral's voice called from the corridor's exit. “What do you see?”

“You guys can come out now!” She shouted back. “It's safe! Also, you won't believe what I've found!”

Slowly, the group trotted down the steep hill of rock until all twenty-nine of them were gathered beneath Rainbow's hovering feature.

“Unless it's a buffet table of roasted squirrel, I'm not sure I'm gonna be impressed,” Red Turnip Sr remarked.

“Huh? What?” Rocktrot woke with an adorable yawn. “Is it breakfast time?”

“No, son, it's inexplicable underground river time.”

“Oh.” The foal blinked from atop his dad's spine. “Well, that's cool too.”

“Undoubtedly the minotaurs left these boats behind,” Astral said. “We can definitely make use out of the tools and maybe dig our way out of here—”

“Dude! Is the horn the only part of your head that's bright?!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed with a heavy shrug. “We should make use out of their boats instead!”

The unicorns glanced at each other. One of them looked up. “What for?”

“Think about it!” Rainbow Dash pointed. “Those things are made of oak! That's some heavy lumber to be carrying all the way down here just to go hunting for crawfish!”

“You think there's something way down there?” Red Turnip Sr pointed down the flowing river. “Another camp, perhaps?”

“Seems stupid of them to dig so deep without making another route out of this place!” Rainbow Dash said with a grin.

“What are you proposing we do?” Astral asked.

“What else?” She toutched down on the pier and started undoing the ropes that moored the boats in place. “How are your sea legs?”

Boats

View Online

The group split into two, and each took to a separate boat. The oaken craft were sturdy, and yet sleek. They glided down the underground river at a swift pace, illuminating their way with the combination of unicorn horns and lit torches swiped from the minotaur camp. The large width of the stream and the tall height of the cavern made judging the actual speed of the journey practically indeterminable. Overall, it was a relatively relaxing experience, and the ponies took advantage of the moment by breathing evenly and shaking loose the paranoid jitters from the previous hours of panicked escape. The Windthrow mares and stallions talked with one another, reveling in the dark chapter of their lives being over and anticipating what happiness waited for them in their home village. There was still an overlying cloud of uncertainty, a fear that the minotaurs weren't quite done chasing them, or that this stream was heading towards a dead-end.

Regardless, as the hours went on, and they marveled at just how incredibly long the river was, they worked together as a group. They kept the boats from drifting far apart. They called to one another to point out and avoid obstacles: rocks and stalagmites and debris. The entire time, Rainbow Dash was a constant aid to both groups. She darted back and forth like a winged corridor, giving one group a set of supplies taken from the minotaur camp, giving the other group some of the stolen food, making sure all of the torches were well-lit. All the while, she did her best to liven the situation, making a joke here or there at the minotaurs' expense. Several ponies actually managed to chuckle, and the dim ride became less grim.

“She was like this at home, Daddy,” Rockspot said as he sat in a tiny seat next to Red Turnip Senior. “Some of Red's friends told me that she helped the guards fight a bunch of the monsters when they attacked the village at night.”

“Well, she seems to be a very brave pony, Spotty,” Red said with a smirk.

“I wonder if all pegasi are like Miss Dash?”

Rainbow Dash touched down and hoofed several ponies in the boat some supplies. “Only the sexy ones, kid.”

Rockspot's face scrunched up. “What do you mean?”

“You'll find out about eight or nine years from now,” she said with a wink.

Red Turnip Sr. laughed. “I bet you're pretty popular in Equestria.”

“I may have egged a rich house or two.”

“But fought minotaurs and monsters and caused flash floods?”

“Let's say I'm still working on my portfolio,” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. She grabbed a canvas bag and called across the cavern, her voice echoing over the waters. “Hey Astral! I got those tools you asked for!” She nodded towards the ponies in Red's boat. “Be right back.”

“Heh, take your time, Miss Dash.”

Rainbow flew up, flapped her wings, and glided easily to the other boat. She landed lightly at the very rear of the craft, squatting beside a lonesome Astral.

“Still don't know what you want with all of these metal knick-knacks, dude,” she remarked, digging her hooves through the bag full of metal junk. “I'd be catching some Z's if I were you. I could have sworn you were gonna pass out several hours ago, what with how weak you were from the minotaurs forcing you to do stuff telekinetically. Did you eat any of the food that we found?”

Astral said nothing. He sat in a slump, his eyes nervously shifting across the waters around them.

Rainbow Dash saw his expression. “Hey, buddy.” She leaned forward and squinted in his face. “You alright? You look as though your horn weighs a hundred tons all of the sudden.”

He gulped and squirmed in his seat. He slowly turned to look at Rainbow. When he spoke, it was in a low, unsteady voice. “Miss Dash, on the two separate occasions that you did battle with Thunderhorn, did he state anything in the midst of his anger as to why he was so vehemently chasing you?”

“Hmmmm...” Rainbow Dash rubbed her chin and stared up at the slowly passing ceiling of stalactites. “Whelp, it's all a blur, but I figure it was something along the lines of 'Hey you horrible sack of glue, I'm going to kill you and stuff, grrrrr-grrrr.'” She shrugged. “I didn't pay attention, really. I was too busy smacking him in the face every time he opened his mouth.”

Astral merely shuddered and stared down at the leather strap that he had been carrying the whole time.

“Hey...” Rainbow Dash hoarsely uttered. “Why the long face? I mean, besides you being an equine like me and the rest of the gang and all...”

He bit his lip. He opened the pouch of the leather belt.

Rainbow Dash winced slightly. She braved the dizziness as Astral pulled the silver chaos strip out. Exhaling, she remarked, “Yeah, okay. So I see the chaos strip that Thunderhorn had. What's your point?”

He gazed at her. He merely held the strip in silence.

Rainbow blinked. “Wait... Where's the second one?”

His lips quivered. “I was terribly afraid that I would have to ask you the same.”

Rainbow Dash went pale. She glanced at the rest of the ponies in the group. She now understood why Astral had been so reserved and quiet. “But... But...” She looked at the belt. “There isn't another pocket somewhere in that thing where the second one could be hidden?”

“No, Miss Dash. I've spent the last several hours checking.”

“Then... Then...” Rainbow Dash started to hyperventilate. “M-maybe the thing fell out of his belt while we were fighting! Maybe it got crushed in the tunnel! Or—”

“There's really no way to tell, I'm sure,” Astral remarked. “But the fact of the matter is, we only have one strip now.”

“What's that mean, exactly?” Rainbow Dash remarked, the coat hairs on her neck rising on end. “We could be attacked by monsters at any time?”

“That would definitely be the case if Thunderhorn's minotaurs still possess the other strip,” Astral said. “But the fact of the matter is we haven't been attacked.”

“It's not like they could have forgotten about us, right?”

“There's no limit to the range of chaos strips, so the length of our flight would be no excuse either.”

“Then what gives?” Rainbow Dash's voice cracked. “I mean—I'm not complaining, but how come we're not bat-freak food by this point?”

Astral shuddered. “It is a mystery to me, Rainbow Dash. And please do not think that I am admonishing you in lieu of this discovery. You have done so much to make sure that we've come this far and survived. But until we know more about this, I don't think it would be wise to tell the other ponies.”

“Why not?”

“Sadly, your charisma isn't infectious to every member of our group. If they found out about the missing strip, panic would spread, and I doubt even you could put them all at ease.”

“Then what do we do?”

Astral sighed and slipped the strip back into the bag. “We persist. We survive. And, what's more.” He gazed solemnly up at the passing roof to the large corridor. “We find a way out of here.”

Rainbow Dash sighed and slumped against the edge of the boat. She stared down at her lethargic reflection in the rippling waters. “What I wouldn't give to reverse time and bear the Element of Smartness instead...”

Structure

View Online

The first thing Rainbow Dash heard was the rippling of water.

Her eyes opened. The ceiling of jagged rock was flowing by faster above her. She hadn't even realized she had fallen asleep.

With a groan, she sat up, rubbing her head. The boat rocked slightly and several ponies were muttering.

“I'm glad you've come to,” Astral's voice said. He was sitting next to her at the rear of the boat. “I was tempted to wake you earlier, but I felt that your rest was supremely important, considering the unknown trials ahead.”

“Well, that's one way to make a filly feel useful,” she grunted, cracked her neck, and stretched her forward limbs. “Nnnngh... How long have I been out?”

“In my estimation...” Astral thought aloud, “Perhaps six hours.”

“Yeesh. I almost feel like a neglectful moron!” Rainbow Dash said. She blinked. She took in the sight of the quick currents. “How come we're moving so fast?”

“We seem to be coming to an impasse. I think the current splits up ahead.”

“Like a liquid fork in the road?” Rainbow Dash sighed and flexed her wings. “No wonder everypony looks so nervous. Any... y'know... monsters while I've been 'away?'”

“Fortunately, no.”

“I'd hope you would wake me up for that.”

“Indeed,” Astral said with a nod. “By the way, who is 'Gold Petals?'”

“Uhhh...” Rainbow Dash squinted at him. “Why do you ask? Did Rockspot say something?”

Astral pointed across the river at the other boat coasting parallel to him. “I truly doubt I would have heard him from this distance.”

“Oh. Right.” Rainbow Dash blinked. A redness came to her cheeks. “Ahem...” She ran a hoof through her mane, fidgeting. “Just... uhm... just how much was I talking in my sleep?”

“It was a very short monologue,” Astral said with a placid smile. “You need not worry.”

“Yeah, well, any chance you'll be a cool unicorn and not tell other ponies about it?”

“You're a very heroic pegasus, Miss Dash,” Astral said, then nodded. “But also a very secretive one. Your words are safe with me.”

She exhaled sharply. “Well, that's swell to know.”

“And where is this 'Ponyville' you would like to show 'Gold Petals' someday?”

“Snnnkt!” Rainbow Dash hissed. “Look, can we just—I dunno—drop it?”

“My apologies,” he stated. “I'm just a little concerned for you is all.”

“Yeah, well, don't be,” she grunted.

“You're very integral to our escape here,” he said. “It would hardly be beneficial for us to endure the rest of this trip on our own.”

“Well, thank the friggin' stars that you don't have to.” She smiled proudly. “Cuz I'm staying by your guys' side no matter what.”

“I have no doubt that we can depends on your resolve. I am merely concerned with your potential.”

Her ruby eyes narrowed. “The heck is that supposed to mean?”

“Tell me, Miss Dash, do you remember falling asleep?”

“Well, I—” She looked around. Her ears twitched to the sound of rippling water. “Uhhh...” She blushed again. “No. Not exactly.”

He said, “That's because you did not fall asleep, not naturally. I dare say—you had a dizzy spell.”

“I did?”

“It frightened every pony in the boat. If it wasn't for my expert abilities in feeling your pulse, we would have imagined you dead.”

“Well, thank goodness that wasn't the case, huh?” Rainbow Dash shrugged with a chuckle. “Look, I crash all the time. Where I come from, ponies used to call me 'Rainbow Doze.' I'm like a king lion, or something...”

“And does a lion's eyes turn yellow before rolling back in his head?”

“Uhh...”

“Or does he grasp his forehead and moan in pain—”

“Look, stop worrying about me, okay?!” She suddenly snapped, forcing several of the ponies in the boat to look her way. “I'm telling you I'm fine—so I'm fine! Trust me, it's only a waste of time to worry about my well-being!”

At the end of her exclamation, there was a slight, rosy glow across the lengths of the boat. Astral looked down. Rainbow followed his gaze, and saw that her pendant was ever so slightly shimmering. Quietly, she planted two hooves over the necklace and sat in silence.

Astral quietly looked back at her. “You've given so much time and effort to protect us, Miss Dash.” His eyes curved sympathetically. “Won't you let other ponies take care of you?”

Her nostrils merely flared. She gazed into the rippling currents, too stubborn to speak.

Suddenly, a commotion rose from the other boat. Several of the prisoners stood up and gawked, craning their necks for a better look of what was before them. Red Turnip Sr's voice could be heard from yards away.

“Whoah! What in Tartarus is that thing?! Get a load of its size!”

Rainbow Dash turned around. She blinked, and flapped her wings so that she broke into a hover between the boats.

The river wasn't splitting apart. Instead, it was leading straight into a solid wall. But it wasn't porous rock or jagged stone. A solid, immaculate wall of silver metal stretched before the two groups, forming a solid barricade just beyond a gravel “shore” of pebbles atop of which multiple minotaur tools had been left from a prior expedition.

Whispers and murmurs of awe filled the air.

Astral's eyes twitched at the shiny structure seemingly peaking out from under the subterranean wall. “Have you ever seen anything like this?!”

Rainbow Dash gazed at the metal, and a shiver ran down her spine. “Uhm... actually, I kind of sort of have...”

Opening

View Online

Rainbow Dash swooped down over the two groups of ponies as they joined at the shoor, mooring their boats along the gravel beach.

“I can't see any other way out!” she exclaimed. “I think the rest of the water is—like—funneling through some tiny cracks in the walls. But, as far as we're concerned, the river stops here.”

“Then all of this travel was for nothing?!” a mare hysterically exclaimed.

“We should have tried burrowing our way back to the main minotaur corridor hours ago!” a stallion added.

The many escapees filled the subterranean cavern with worry and murmur. Eventually, Red Turnip Sr. whistled loudly and waved his hooves. “Hey!” he barked. “Settle down, everypony!”

“Yeah!” Rockspot's voice squeaked from the edge of a boat where he was perched. “What my dad said!”

“I've got this, Spotty,” Red replied, then glanced at the rest of the group. “Thanks to the minotaur camp we looted along the way here, we've got enough food to last us several days. Between twenty-four earth ponies, four unicorns, and a pegasus—I'm more than sure that we can think up a way out of here!”

“Yeah?! Involving what?” an old pony squawked. “A machine made out of four horns, two wings, and one hundred sixteen hooves?! We're surrounded by solid rock and Goddess-knows-what THAT wall is made out of!”

As the group grumbled and moaned, Astral was pacing along the wall, staring at the many fractured tools and shattered pieces of minotaur design. “It looks to me as though the minotaurs were trying feverishly to chisel into the surface of this strange metal.” He paused, squinting at the unblemished surface. “I don't think they even made a single dent.”

“Like that helps us any!” a mare squeaked. “We don't even have enough tools to dig our way into normal rock!”

“Perhaps digging isn't the key,” one of the unicorns said. “If we can find a structural part of the cavern that's weaker than the rest, maybe we can disassemble it with a thermal magic spell.”

“And bring the whole of the earth's surface crumbling down on us?!” a stallion shouted. “I don't think so! Leave it to a unicorn to think with his horn first and his guts last!”

“Hey!” Red Turnip Sr. growled in the stallion's face. “He's only trying to help, just like Miss Dash! What have you or any of our friends done this whole trip other than complain?!”

“I don't know about you, Red, but I would have been happy to have died at the minotaurs hands rather than deep in the center of the earth!”

“That can be arranged, you know!”

“Oh yeah?!”

Red and the other stallion came close to butting heads. The rest of the prisoners crowded around them, trying to pull the two apart. Rockspot was shouting desperately from his perch while the unicorns were attempting to keep enough light shining on the noisy debacle.

Astral sighed. He turned from the bedlam to gaze at the wall once more, but was surprised to see Rainbow standing closely before it. “Miss Dash...?” He cocked his head to the side, noticing a bright ruby glow wafting over the wall from where she stood.

Rainbow Dash was leaning so close to the shiny surface of the structure that her breath was beginning to codense over the strange metal. Her pendant was glowing more and more intensely as she studied a tiny section of the material.

Astral trotted up to her side. “You said you've seen this sort of a thing before?”

“Yes,” she said quietly with a nod. In spite of the ruckus and tense scene behind her, she was oddly calm, even meditative. “In another part of Wintergate—beneath Windthrow, actually.” She looked at the familiar pattern of a hoofprint on the left blended over a shimmering sun on the right. She glanced at Astral. “I'm guessing you don't see the symbol.”

“Symbol?” Astral's brow furrowed. “What symbol?”

“The hoofprint and the celestial crest.”

Astral slowly shook his head, speaking under the commotion behind them. “Sounds like you're describing hieroglyphics of some sort. But I can't see anything, Miss Dash. Do you?”

“And how,” she murmured. She raised a hoof. She felt a wave of dizziness overcome her. Astral tried to support her, but she gently brushed him off. “No. No, I think I can...”

“You can what?”

She said nothing. She merely raised her hoof to the wall, contacting where the left print was. As soon as she did so, the glow of her pendant flickered in a bright strobe. She saw the solar bands of the crest on the right lighting up one swirl after another, and then the symbol vanished. Rainbow Dash blinked.

Astral gazed in a curious stupor. “What... What just happened—”

The cavern shook suddenly. The scuffle behind them came to a stop as the many escapees turned and gawked at the wall.

The metal surface rippled, and then slid open like a mechanical door. A low humming sound filled the air above the underground lake. A massive entrance had appeared, through which a gigantic chamber could barely be seen from beyond the shadows.

“What in the sun goddess' name?” Astral stammered, staring up, up, up at the impossibly high ceiling just beyond the open compartment. “Is... Is it another cave? A temple?”

“Certainly isn't a squash court,” Rainbow Dash murmured. She looked at everypony, grinned helplessly, and took a step into the gigantic hollow. As soon as her hoof made contact, several grooves formed in the metal surface of the interior. The lines lit up as if from within, and slowly a silver glow rose throughout the insides, illuminating an impossibly large corridor full of immaculate pillars, ceiling struts, and walkways. The place looked like it had been carved out of solid marvel and melted over with liquid metal. What was more, in the far distance, coming alive with the unnatural light, the shapes of gears and machine parts became noticeable.

“What... What is this place, daddy?” Rockspot said with a tremble.

“I dunno, son,” Red Turnip said, gazing wide-eyed at the sight. He gulped and looked at Rainbow Dash.

Everypony was looking at Rainbow Dash.

She glanced back at them, and smiled awkwardly. “So, uhm. Anyone for open house?”

Interior

View Online

Astral's jaw was agape. He stood stock-still in the center of the gigantic, metal domain. The rest of the escapees around him trotted limply about the corridor leading down the center of the impossibly huge interior.

All the while, Rainbow Dash flapped her wings and hovered nonchalantly overhead. “Huh,” she uttered. “Well this place is cozy.” She flew forward. “Let's see what's in this direction.”

“Wait!” Astral hissed at her. He waved his forelimbs wildly. “You can't possibly insist that we trek through this... this... this ancient place!”

“What's so ancient about it?”

“It's buried in the center of a mountain, Miss Dash!” Astral's left eyebrow twitched as he stammered, “There's incredibly huge machinery and pillars made out of metal that escape any record I've ever read! I mean... I mean this could very well be a forgotten wonder of the world!”

“Cool. I wonder if there's anything to eat.”

“Miss Dash!”

“Nnngh—What?!” She glared back at him. “You're really cramping my style here.”

“Huh?”

“I wanna check this corridor out,” she pointed ahead of them both. “Maybe we can march through this place.”

“To what end?!” Astral squeaked. “There's no telling what sort of unspeakable danger could be awaiting us!”

“Hey, if you wanna go back the way which we all came—which is nowhere—be my guest!” Rainbow Dash chuckled slightly. “I dunno about you, but I see a road ahead. Sure, it's a cold, dim, freakishly clean road flanked by metal columns—but hey... it's at least a road. Besides...” She smirked slyly. “If there was something so big and bad about this place, how come it opened to my touch?”

“Why DID it open to your touch?”

She shrugged. “I dunno. Magic?”

Astral stirred his hooves atop the glowing seams in the metal floor. “And this light! What could possibly be empowering it?”

“Magic?”

“Miss Dash!” Astral frowned. “You cannot explain every phenomenon on earth with 'magic!'”

“Ewww, seriously, bro?” Rainbow Dash gave him a pathetic look. “You're a unicorn; are you even listening to yourself?”

“I mean it!”

“Explaining it all as magic's worked for me throughout the years. I don't question something awesoime when it's given to me.” She turned and looked at the rest of the ponies. “How about you guys?! Wanna go back into the cave of darkness, water, and uncomfortable boat seats?”

There was a loud, resounding “NO!” from the entire group.

“See?” She pointed back at them with a blue hoof. “They're not too freaked out by this place.”

“But... But...”

“Hop along, Astral!” She giggled. “It'll be fun!” She flew smack-dab into a gigantic cog that groaned loudly, spilling dust across the floor. “Owwww... Eh heh. Well, mostly fun. Hey, what does this lever do?”

“Don't!” Astral winced violently.

“Hahahahaha...” Rainbow Dash winked. “You're so easy to mess with. Remember, that horn's on the top of your head and not on the bottom where you sit for a reason. Now relax and stay within sight. I'm gonna have a little look-see.”

“Miss Dash—” He called out with an outstretched hoof.

She flew ahead in a sapphiric blur.

He groaned and fell on his haunches, his voice echoing in the large chamber. “I swear, nature made the brain the lightest part of the pegasus.”

“Yeah, well...” Red Turnip Senior marched past him. “More room for the spirit, eh, buddy?”

“Oooh! Daddy!” Rockspot bounced atop Red's spine as he pointed at the mysterious heights of the gigantic chamber. “It's like a giant music box!”

“I know, kiddo! But let's wait till we're home before we make music.”

“Heeheehee...”

Astral sighed as the rest of the ponies marched slowly and curiously past him. “Perhaps this is simply an opportunity to know more about the makings of this world.” As he said this, the door that led them inside closed automatically with a thunderous clap. He bit his lip, sweated, and galloped swiftly to catch up with the group.

Old

View Online

Everywhere Rainbow Dash flew, the metal chamber opened up even more. She had to pace herself, or else she'd be drawn into flying too far away from the group of escapees. Every corridor she peered down, the interior held more and more winding passageways full of silver-plated pillars, shiny platforms, and mysterious pieces of machinery.

The place was massive; that couldn't be emphasized enough. Rainbow Dash felt as if she would have far less locations to visit if she was floating in the very heart of Cloudsdale. Not only was the labyrinthine place immense, but it was clean, pristine, immaculate, hardly indicative of a location that was so old and abandoned.

At least, she assumed the place was abandoned. Astral wasn't the only one who felt as though the place showed hints of intelligent design. At every turn, the interior resembled a huge, royal palace. And yet, at every other turn, gigantic gears and levers and conveyor systems rested in perpetual silence.

Rainbow Dash couldn't pretend to guess what the machinery's purpose was. As curious as she was, she wasn't about to find out. She kept remembering that she wasn't the only pony there, the only soul turned breathless by the sights of that awesome place. There was no telling what would happen if she moved a single switch or lever. The twenty-nine escapees needed her. What was more, they needed to pass through this area safely.

But where were they all headed? Rainbow Dash paused briefly in her flight, hovering above the multiple platforms and walkways. She hadn't realized it until a good hour into the trek, but she was being drawn towards a distant part of the place. It was different than when she flew ever eastward in her normal, everyday journey. This was something that was beyond instinctual, something that was pulling at the very fiber of her being.

She gazed down at her pendant. She saw a dim glow at the heart of the ruby lightning bolt. Then, looking down at the platforms, she saw how the seams and grooves in the wall shimmered noticeably around her. The place was incredibly dark on the inside, at least until her presence graced it. Afterwards, the group got plenty of illumination. She never thought about questioning the reason why, but she never felt the reason to. Rainbow Dash had been filled with a great sense of ease upon reaching that place. She didn't fear in the least for the well-being of her fellow ponies. Until an instinct made her feel differently, she wasn't about to panic.

She flew ahead of the group, dashing left and right, checking each corridor before ultimately choosing a passage that was safe—that she somehow knew was without danger. This process of travel continued for a very long time. Hours crept by. The group paused on more than one occasion to collect their breaths, as well as their senses.

“Just how old is this place?” a mare remarked.

“By the Sun Goddess! I can't imagine!” said a stallion. “Somehow I wouldn't doubt if it's as old as Creation!”

“But that's impossible,” another stallion exclaimed. “The Creation of the world was a divine event. The gods and goddesses of old wouldn't have left this place to be forgotten! Obviously, this was built by some later civilization...”

“It could be possible,” a unicorn spoke up. “The world is likely a log older than most Wintergate historians imagine. The only living souls capable of understanding the lengths of time are the alicorn goddesses of Equestria.”

A few ponies looked up at their blue, winged chaperone from afar. They then exchanged glances.

“Why does this place light up for her? Is it because of that thing she wears?”

“You don't suppose she was always meant to come to this place from the beginning?”

“Why would she bring us with her?”

“You... You don't think she means to sacrifice us, do you?”

“Don't be absurd! If we meant so little to her, she would have done away with us earlier! Besides, her only sin is thinking with her gut more than her brain from time to time.”

“I just don't like this situation,” a mare said. “We're in a deep, frightening place that's far too grand and old for any of us to comprehend, and yet she's the only one with a chip on her shoulder.”

“You mean she's the only one who's so courageous?” Red Turnip Sr. remarked, shuffling over to sit with the group. “If you ask me, none of us should begin freaking out until Miss Dash does.”

“Why are you defending her so much, Red? This entire time, you've been practically worshipping her.”

He smiled back at the group. “She brought my son to me. She freed us from our imprisonment. She's filled my entire life with hope and joy. Until I see something break that pattern, I'm standing by her side to the bitter end.”

“Besides...” Astral also joined the group, levitating the last bit of minotaur rations over so that they could have a bite to eat. “Where she is, there's light. I have the feeling that whatever this place is, it was meant for her to find it. There's no safer place in Wintergate to be than by her side.”

“I hope you're right,” a stallion remarked. “I hope this isn't just blind faith.”

Astral nodded, took a bite out of some preserved meat, and swallowed. “I've never been more blind than I am now.”

“Don't you find that alarming?”

“Hmmph...” He swallowed another morsel. “On the contary.” He smiled and gazed up at Rainbow's hovering figure. “I find it rather... liberating. Like I've sprouted wings of my own...”

Shimmering

View Online

Several pale, heavy arches swam over Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes. She gazed up at them as she glided gently forward, only flapping her wings when she occasionally needed to. She led the group slowly through the ever-expansive heart of the underground structure. A thin platform of glowing metal served as their walkway. On either side was a horrendous drop into unfathomable depths. Metal-laced ravines went on beyond sight, adding to the insane vastness of the place.

“Judging from how long we have traveled and at our current speed,” Astral exclaimed from beneath Rainbow's flying figure. “I imagine we've covered no less than four miles through this place.”

“Is there any place that frickin' big?” Rainbow Dash asked. “In the world, that is?”

“Not in any of the history books I've read,” Astral replied. “And, as if you haven't guessed, I'm quite learned.”

“Who would want to build something so big?” Rainbow Dash gazed up at the high ceiling that glowed as she flew along. “I haven't seen any living rooms or nothing: just a bunch of giant corridors and ugly looking machines.” She blinked down at Astral. “Could this be a power plant of some sort?”

“Industrial machines have only existed on this continent for the past three hundred years. It's entirely possible that a prehistoric civilization fashioned mechanisms far more advanced than what's been recorded. But I sincerely doubt that this is a 'power plant,' as you would call it. There's no evidence of a distribution of fuel.”

“Otherwise, there'd be nothing to get the machines moving, right?”

“Exactly.”

“Heh.” Rainbow Dash looked ahead of her slow flight. “I knew I wasn't completely dumb.”

“You're a lot sharper than yourself credit for, Miss Dash.”

“Is this the same unicorn who was about to bite my head off for leading this group into this place to begin with?”

“Consider that the sin of a doubting stallion,” Astral said with a slight bow. “You've not led us astray. Though, I would very much like to know where this corridor is leading us. Surely you are just as immeasurably curious.”

“Yeah, I guess.” Rainbow Dash glanced down at her dimly glowing pendant. She sighed. “So much time has passed by. I suppose it's night already, huh?”

“Miss Dash, I wouldn't doubt it if two days have passed since you freed us from our captors.”

“Two days...” She winced and gazed up at the ceiling. “Ugh. Luna's going to kill me.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Rainbow Dash cleared her throat. “Erm. Nothing. So... uhm...” She smiled down at Astral. “None of those ugly bat-creatures have attacked us. I suppose that's a good sign.”

“Yes. That, or the minotaurs in possession of the second chaos strip aren't able to reach us in here.”

“Would it have something to do with the metal surface of this place?”

“Just about anything is capable of possessing an enchantment,” Astral said. “Given enough time and concentration. If the civilization who built this practiced sorcery, it's quite possible that they created an anti-mana shield when they constructed the walls.”

“Heh. Lucky us, right?”

“In more ways than one,” Astral said with a nod. “Tell me, Miss Dash. Did the Sun Goddess bequeath you the Element of Loyalty personally? Or did it somehow come to you, as if it was your destiny to possess the pendant?”

Rainbow Dash said nothing. She merely bit her lip and flew ahead.

Astral continued, “Because there's an old legend that Wintergaters used to hold dear. It said that on the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars would aid in the escape of the Mare of the Moon, and the only thing keeping eternal night from bathing the landscape would be the legendary Elements of Harmony. Well, almost a year ago to date, the Mare in the Moon vanished. Ever since, rumor spread far and wide of the Equestrian Moon Princess having returned to earth to once again bless the land with her immortal wisdom.”

“Seems like everywhere I friggin' go,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “I'm always running into eggheads.”

“Miss Dash,” Astral said with a smile. “I know that you are entitled to your privacy. But you cannot hide what's in plain sight. You are the wielder of the Element of Loyalty. The power that went into such an item as you wear around your neck is absolutely astronomical. Without the six pieces of Harmony, this world cannot exist. The rest of the ponies behind us: they can only guess why this place responds to you so. But I happen to know. You're in possession of something that's far more powerful than any of us have ever had the grace to witness. And what's more, I don't think it's all just the pendant that you bear. There's more to it than that, isn't there?”

“How about I get us out of this stupid maze...” Rainbow Dash smiled bitterly down at him. “And then you can spend your precious time doing the college professor thing.”

“Still, it begs the question,” Astral thought aloud as Rainbow Dash flew a little higher. “If just one Element was brought to a place like this, and it's already had this kind of an effect, what would happen if the other five graced this location? Could the machinery come alive? Could the entire facility light up?”

“I don't think you'll ever have to worry about that,” Rainbow Dash muttered. Her prismatic tail drooped behind her. “None of the other Elements will ever see this place.”

“And why's that? Are they being used elsewhere?”

“No,” Rainbow Dash said. “There's only one.”

“One what?” Astral said. When Rainbow Dash didn't answer, his eyes went wide and he came to a hoof-scuffling stop. “There's only one Element?” His jaw dropped. “Since... S-Since when?”

“Since...” Rainbow Dash shuddered in mid-air. Suddenly, she flinched. She turned and squinted down a narrow passageway that opened up into a gaping, metal chasm. “What in the hay...?”

Astral barely snapped out of his shocked stupor to crane his neck and share her gaze. “What is it that you see?”

“Something bright.... something glowing...” Rainbow Dash gazed at the shimmering sight from afar. She licked her lips and smiled devilishly. “I'm gonna go check it out!”

As she zipped away, Astral reached a hoof out in protest. “Miss Dash! Wait! It could be dangerous!”

“Heehee! Yeah? So?!”

Flame

View Online

The corridor opened up to a long, long platform stretching across a gaping chasm. For several hundred feet above and below, numerous spiraling, silver-reinforced floors stretched just beyond the immediate glow of the ancient facility. On the far side of the ten-foot-wide bridge was another corridor leading off into darkness. In the center of the platform, glowing brightly, was a plume of billowing red flame floating a few inches above a golden pedestal.

“Miss Dash!” Astral called out. “Don't go too far ahead! My fellow unicorns and I can't summon as bright a light as you!”

“Where's she going?” Red asked.

“I don't know,” Astral replied as he trotted nervously onto the first few feet of the long bridge. “It's like something's gotten into her.”

Red chuckled. “You just now noticed?”

“Miss Dash!”

“Hold up!” Rainbow flew down and perched just before the golden pedestal. Her ruby eyes reflected the floating fire as her jaw hung in open wonder. “Come and check this thing out...”

The air around the pedestal was just as cool as the rest of the interior. The flame appeared to be giving off no heat. There wasn't any smoke, or any sign of a substance being burnt to begin with. The closer Rainbow's muzzle drifted towards the phenomenon, her skin didn't so much as twitch. If she closed her eyes, she'd have no clue that there was a billowing torch anywhere remotely near her.

While the rest of the group waited behind, Astral cross the bridge until he galloped up to Rainbow Dash in the middle. “Miss Dash,” he panted. “Is this some kind of detour? Not all of us have wings. If we're to cross this chasm, I think it'd be best if you guarded us in case any of us was to fall—”

“It's not even making a crackling sound or anything,” Rainbow Dash murmured. “It's just... floating here on its own.”

“Erm, yes, I see it,” Astral said with a nervous shift of his leg muscles. “It's quite remarkable. However, it has nothing to do with our swift and safe exit from this immeasurably large place. Maybe, once we're home free, I'll return here with an expedition to more properly study—”

“There's no heat!” Rainbow Dash lifted a hoof. “I wonder if would be cool to the touch—”

“Miss Dash!” Astral blocked her hoof with his. He stared at her with a furrowed brow. “Since when did you have such a rabid interest in random magic?”

“This isn't so random,” she said to him. “I... I dunno, but I feel...”

“You feel what?”

She gulped. She looked at the thing. “I feel like I'm facing east...”

Astral's eyes narrowed. He looked worriedly at the group behind them, then back at their guide. “Miss Dash, you're... you're not making any sense...”

“No...” She slowly shook her head. “I guess I'm not.” Her nostrils flared as she turned to look at him. “Astral, you've read a crapload of stuff in your life, right?”

“Most certainly.”

“Have you... erm...” She bit her lip briefly, fidgeting, as if she was on the verge of relating a bitter secret. Eventually, she muttered, “Have you ever heard of the Midnight Armory?”

Astral's eyes twitched. His face paled with surprise as he almost reeled from the name. “Why... Why yes. Yes I have heard of it. Ahem.” He glanced back at the distant, watching group and spoke in a hushed tone, as if afraid that they could somehow hear this conversation. “But that name is a secret to all ponies except those with a Master's Degree in Sorcery.”

“So you know about it?”

“Well, y-yes, but none of my associates do,” he said. “They're technically understudies. They won't be told until they can balance the Harmonic Spells. Then it will be their secret to keep within the orders of sorcery for as long as they live. That's been a tradition in all cultures since the dawn of time.” He cleared his throat and leaned in. “Might I ask, Miss Dash, how it is that you know about it?”

“Hey, I'm a pegasus,” Rainbow Dash said with a tired yet smug grin. “I have plenty of 'little birds' to tell me stuff.”

Astral looked at her. He looked at the flame, then at her dimly glowing pendant. Finally, he took in the entirety of the grand place and said, “Miss Dash, what's really going on here? I think we all have the right to know.”

“I wonder if they have stuff like this in the Midnight Armory,” she remarked.

“That hardly answers my question.”

“I'm not here to find answers,” Rainbow Dash murmured, lifting her hoof parallel to the pedestal's flame. “I'm just here to exist.”

“Couldn't you do that back home in Equestria?”

Rainbow's eyes were briefly moist. “No. No I can't....”

Astral gave her a sympathetic look. “Maybe if you told us what you were searching for, we could help you once we're out of this place, if even in a fraction of the way you've helped us...”

“I just wonder if it's cold or not...” Her hoof stretched.

“Miss Dash, no—!”

Her hoof made contact. The flame billowed, burst, and disappeared. In its place, a rapid glow flew through Rainbow Dash's body. Her head flew back. Her eyes grew wide, flickered red on yellow, and then rolled back.

“Miss Dash!” Red's voice shouted from afar while Rockspot gasped.

Rainbow fell and collapsed on the platform in a series of spasms. As Astral struggled to hold her thrashing limbs in place, she saw a splash of lavender colors flooding over her vision.

And then she saw nothing.

Gray

View Online

“Get off there and put 'em up!” she shouted, rearing her front limbs threateningly. “Come on! Let's go!”

“Hey,” he shrugged with devilish nonchalance. “I'm here to deliver a message.”

“I've got a message for you too!” she grunted.

He stood up and glared at her, his red pupils swimming in a yellow sea. “Listen closely,” he said. “This is important.” In a blur, he was floating around her, smirking as he dictated. “A weighty choice is yours to make. The right selection or a big mistake. If a wrong choice you choose to pursue the foundations of home will crumble without you.”

She blinked quizzically, unsure of the game he was playing. But soon everything became truly, horrifically real. He stood before her, and with a snap of his talons he opened a portal through which she saw the fate of her place of birth. The city in the sky was buckling, imploding. Soon its immaculate columns were falling chaotically, sending panicked pegasi flying across the sea of dissolving clouds.

“Clousdale...” she mumbled incoherently. “Crumble... without me...?” Her heart began beating a mile-per minute. Her vision blurred, and everything she cherished and loved collapsed in an instant. “No!” she shouted unashamedly, like a little foal.

There was another snap. A package appeared, levitating in front of her.

“That box contains your wings,” he said. She felt his presence curling up around her, and then a claw tracing the edges of her scalp. All the while, her eyes were locked helplessly on the container. “You can take them and leave the game or you can carry on aimlessly wandering this maze.”

She was hyperventilating. For over a year, she had made several close friends. In a dozen solid months, not a single one of them had abandoned her, or had ridiculed her—in spite of all of her egotism, pranks, and overtly braggart ways. She was lucky, she realized, to not be alone.

But still, they were just five friends. Just how well did that weigh against the entire dying population of Cloudsdale?

“Your choice,” he added in a low voice, and then was gone.

She didn't pay him anymore attention. She saw hundreds of thousands of pegasi being crushed to a pulp as their city collapsed around them. She hadn't realized the decision she had made until she saw the maze disappearing below her. She was flying, soaring, speeding towards the northern horizon. There was no need for friends, not so long as there were lives worth saving. A loyal existence was a lonely one, after all. It hardly dawned on her that all the colors had gone. Everything was gray, neutral, dispassionte and necessary. She could fly through those blank horizons forever.

So she did.

Lavender

View Online

“Mmmfff...” Rainbow Dash's lips quivered. She turned her head over, and it brushed up against a pony's flank. “Nnngh...” She stirred again, and felt several limbs converging on her. “Grrgghh... Let me go!” She mumbled at first, and then was yelling. “I don't need you guys! Leave me alone!” She flew up before her eyes opened.

She looked down and saw several Wintergaters collapsing from her explosive liftoff. They struggled to get back up to their hooves as Astral and Red Turnip Sr walked up to her hovering position.

“Well, that's gratitude for ya,” Red said with a smirk.

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash blinked. “What?” She looked around. She was inside the giant underground structure. It was bright—brighter than earlier. Everypony was on the other side of the bridge. In the center, the pedestal was empty. “How... How long had I been out?”

“I'm guessing three hours,” Astral said in a low voice. “You gave us quite a scare, Miss Dash.”

“I...” She bit her lip, trembling in mid-air. “Yeah... Yeah, I guess I did.” She gulped. “Sorry...”

Astral raised an eyebrow. “You touched that flame. You risked your very own safety. By nearly killing yourself, you risked the safety of us all! Are you really, truly sorry?”

“Look,” she touched down with a sigh, folding her wings beside herself. “I can't explain why I did what I did. But if I knew better, I wouldn't have done it. Still, I'm sure that doesn't make the last three hours any less crappy.” She gazed sincerely at the ponies. “I apologize, everypony. It was very stupid of me to have done that. Even if I didn't understand everything, it's no excuse for me doing what I did. I'll... I'll try to be less of an idiot from now on.”

“Miss Dash?” Rockspoot appeared, trembling, behind his father's legs.

“Yeah, Spotty?”

“What's wrong with your eyes?”

Rainbow Dash blinked. She held a hoof up to her face and blinked several times.

“Oh... Uhm...” Rockspot made a face. “Now they're back to normal.”

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash gulped. “Okaaaay...” She shuddered, briefly touching the surface of her pendant before swiveling around. “Well, onwards and upwards, I guess.”

“That's it?!” Red exclaimed. “You're just gonna pretend like you didn't fall into a horrible coma for several hours?”

“Well, I'm up now, aren't I?” Rainbow Dash said, trotting through the gawking crowd. “I'm a heck of a lot more useful now that I'm not a vegetable. So, what are we waiting for? Let's continue this bodacious hike!”

“Miss Dash,” Astral said softly. “I don't know if you've noticed, but something's changed. As soon as you touched the flame, it flew into the Element of Loyalty. I saw it with my very own eyes. On top of that, this section of the structure around you has started to glow brighter, as if your influence on this place has intensified.”

“Nonsense,” she spat. “This place is just a stupid maze.” She shuddered and glared ahead. “Seriously, you guys. All I want—all I really want—is to get you guys through this labyrinth.”

“What for?”

She gulped. “Just 'cuz...”

“Could you at least take a moment to rest?” a random pony asked.

“Yeah,” a mare joined in. “You're no good to us if you're still a little loopy from that magical craziness.”

“It's not craziness!” Rainbow Dash growled. “I'm totally fine! I'll dig up a way out of here! Just as soon as I get my bearings—” She stopped in mid-trot, blinking widely.

“Miss Dash?” Rockspot asked in a nervous little voice.

“Is something amiss?” Astral asked.

“Uhhh...” Rainbow Dash squinted.

Before her, she saw a lavender glow. It was a winding stream—solid and undeniably bright—and it was running a path before her, dipping into corridors and veering into adjacent hallways. Rainbow Dash didn't have a way to explain it, but she somehow knew that the lavender light was leading her towards the right direction. Everytime she doubted it, her heart would beat a little harder, and she felt the weight of her pendant intensifying.

“Do... Do you guys see that?” Rainbow asked.

“See what, Miss Dash?”

She gulped. “Never mind,” she murmured and flew forward. “Follow me.”

“Follow you where?”

“Just trust me!” As she soared after the lavender glow, she smirked back at the group. “I think I now know a way out of here!”

Retrace

View Online

The group could barely keep up with Rainbow Dash. Astral, naturally, was the one in charge of alerting her of this.

“Miss Dash! Please! For the love of all Wintergate!” He panted as he came around a bend through which she just flew. “You're going to lose everypony at this rate! What's so important about—?”

“Right in here!” Rainbow Dash was hovering, pointing, grinning like mad. A large, cylindrical chamber stretched before them. It appeared like a dead end. Regardless: “This is our way out!”

Astral stood, squinting and hyperventilating. “Are you so certain?”

Rainbow spun and looked at the chamber. It was laced in every corner with glowing clusters of lavender energy. She was almost blinded by the sheer brilliance. Of course, all of this would take an extraordinary effort to explain to the unicorn.

“I've never been so certain of anything before in my life!” she said. “Where're the others?”

Astral's ears drooped as he bore a lethargic expression. “They are just now catching up...”

Indeed, right at that moment, Red Turnip Sr skirted around the corner with Rockspot clinging to his neck. “Where'd she run off to—Oh. Uhm... The heck?!”

“I believe... er... she wants us to enter this room—”

“All aboard, ponies!” Rainbow Dash said through glinting teeth. She flew backwards into the chamber as if she was backstroking across a rippling lake. “There's no time to waste!”

One of the mares—breathless—exclaimed, “What's gotten into her now?”

“Is she just gonna faint again?” a stallion remarked.

“Uh uh!” Rainbow Dash shook her head and crossed her heart with her right forelimb. “I swear on the grave of Commander Hurricane!”

Red and Rockspot blinked quizically, as did the rest of the ponies. They all looked at Astral.

He smiled nervously. “That's... That's the most important swear in traditional pegasus culture.”

“Works for me,” Red said with a tired smirk. He motioned at the group. “Come on, fillies and gentlecolts. We've got Commander Hurricane's word that this is a safe passage.”

“Commander Hurricane died centuries ago!”

“Probably because she stood in one place for too long. Now let's go.”

The group murmured in uncertainty, but they trotted forward regardless. Soon, all twenty-nine of them plus Rockspot and Rainbow Dash were situated in the chamber. They stood there in as much confusion as had blanketed them on the outside.

“Uhm...” a unicorn bit his lip and gazed up at a great, unfathomably tall vertical passage above them. “Is there supposed to be a staircase of some sort? I do not understand.”

“Me neither.” Rainbow Dash smirked, glanced around, and saw a flash of lavender. She zoomed towards it, only to find a silver lever. “Hey! Check this out!” She yanked it hard. The world flashed brightly around it. None of the other ponies saw it, of course. However, what they did see was the walls of the chamber blurring down past them.

“Aaah!” A mare leapt and clung to another pony. “What has she done?”

“We're lifting up,” Astral said, his mane hair billowing from the sheer g-forces. The platform beneath them had turned out to be a complex elevator of sorts, and it was soaring up the tall, veritcal corridor at an alarming rate. “By the Sun Goddess...!”

“You know,” Rainbow Dash was pressed to the platform, no longer able to fly. “I really, really wish you'd stop saying that.”

“Each thing in turn, Miss Dash,” Astral said, then gulped. “Would you mind informing us as to our destination?”

“Uhm...” Rainbow Dash stared up into the breezy spectacle. “Up?”

“I know that's a relative concept for pegasi!” Astral exclaimed above the noisy ascent. “But could you be a tiny bit more assuring?”

“It's... not down?”

“Daddy...” Rockspot trembled and leaned up against Red. “I'm scared.”

“Oh, we can't have that, now can we?” Rainbow Dash stood in the center of the group. She squinted upwards as they scaled the passageway faster. “It's all good, Spotty. I see the end in sight!”

“The end!” a stallion shrieked. “We'll be crushed to a pulp!”

“Nah, I'm pretty sure we won't!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.

The group nevertheless shrieked and flinched.

“Good heavens!”

“Goddesses, save us!”

“Aaaah!”

Even Astral winced as the platform surged towards the ceiling, only to slow at the last one hundred meters and come to a vibrating stop. The group held their breath, then exhaled with a cold shudder.

“Hah!” Rainbow Dash grinned wildly. She flexed her wings and started trotting around the circumference of the platform. “Now wasn't that tubular? I'm sure we can repeat it if everypony likes.”

A wailing cloud of disapproval answered her. She merely chuckled and continued squinting at the walls.

“Ahem...” Astral brushed himself off and gazed curiously her way. “Miss Dash, now that we've... ridden that extraordinary flight, do you have a clue as to what you're looking for?”

“I'll know it when I see it,” she said.

Red leaned in. “Will we know it when you see it?”

“Mmmmm... Maybe...” She paced and paced and narrowed her eyes even further. Her head tilted to the left, right, and finally centered on something. “Hah!” Before her, against the polished wall, was the familiar symbols of a hoofprint and a celestial crest. Only, this time, they shimmered to her in bright bands of lavender. “There you are!”

“We don't see anything, Miss Dash.”

“Story of my friggin' life.” She reached forward and pressed her hoof over to the wall. In a blink, the chamber opened up. Everypony gasped as a rush of air kicked at their manes. They shivered slightly, then stared past Rainbow Dash as she marched out of the chamber.

Beyond the passageway was a cave of natural rock. The stone was polished, and it wormed away from the entrance to the ancient interior like the inside of a nautilus shell.

“Where in the hay are we...?” a stallion remarked.

“Wait!” Red Turnip Senior instantly gasped. He marched forward and stood next to Rainbow Dash, his jaw agape as he stared around the rocky cavern just outside the elevator platform. “This place smells familiar...”

“Daddy...?” Rockspot stammered.

“It's okay, son.” Red reached down and patted him assuredly. “I think we're someplace safe.”

“Someplace... safe...” Rainbow Dash blinked. She twitched suddenly. She didn't need a pulse of lavender light to look to her sides this time. She spotted several mining tools and wooden carts lying around outside the unnatural entrance. What was more, they were all of pony design. “Awwwww heck...”

“What?” Astral trotted up beside her as the group slowly exited. “What is it?”

She gulped and stammered, “I know where we are...”

Back

View Online

Gold Petals sighed. That day she stood—as she did every day—beside the caravan cart full of bundled things. She dusted the wheels off and prepared the wagon for the journey that would begin and yet wouldn't. The pile of containers sat in the perpetual fog of Windthrow, waiting for the first word from Hushtail before the trek would begin under Fulltrot's command.

In the last few days, there had been no word from the town's elder or his closest advisors. Gold Petals and the rest of Fulltrot's usual subordinates hovered in perpetual waiting. The last monster attack had depleted them of most of their glowing crystals. The fog was doubling, quadrupling in thickness. The air felt colder as the few Windthrow inhabitants who were brave enough to wander the catwalks did so in a slumped fashion from building to building. Hushtail's silence merely reflected a grand melancholy that had infected the entire mountain village. Ponies refused to leave the patios of their homes. The marketplaces hung in constant abandonment. Guards lethargically anchored themselves to their posts as an air of misery filled their lungs.

Rockspot's disappearance was a nail in the coffin that most ponies had denied existed until then. As soon as he disappeared—and a certain winged savior along with him—all the scant, remaining hope in the city had dwindled. There had been mourning. There had been shouting. Sladesteed shared many brutal, choice words with Hushtail, and Hushtail admonished his very son's brashness with equal fury.

In the end the joy and life within Windthrow had been snuffed out. Many ponies didn't go to work, much less show their faces in public. The community essentially stopped functioning, and there was talk everywhere—literally in every crook, cranny, alleyway, and corner—of something drastic, of a deconstruction, of a departure. Many ponies wanted to leave their home, or else move and make their home elsewhere. Everypony knew it; they just refused to say it. Instead, the village was bathed in constant and miserable silence as Fulltrot—ever faithful and diligent—prepared yet another caravan to journey for the much-needed crystals, though the village was stripped of bits to pay for them as it was.

Gold Petals glanced across the way. She could barely make out the shape of Ironhoof. The large stallion was working on a wagon wheel, grumbling to himself as the spokes of the thing resisted his intricate engineering. He briefly caught Gold Petals' eyes, but said nothing, for beyond him was an even more somber shadow.

Red Turnip Junior leaned against the wooden side of a Windthrow building. He was bundled in the traditional leather of Wintergate hiking gear. However, he didn't move a single muscle. He simply gazed into the mists that collected beyond the edge of town, his eyes matching the gray colorlessness of the world that had consumed his home... and his family.

Gold Petals' nostrils flared. She briefly leaned against her wagon, closing her eyes and shadowing her face beneath the protective cover of her leather hood. Her face tensed, and she began sniffling... when a strange sound pricked at her ears.

Her eyes flashed open. A shuffling noise increased, followed by distant murmurs of alarm. Her heart skipped a beat; she thought it may have been the first monster attack in days. But as the commotion persisted, it was entirely lacking of horror, though still full of shock and surprise.

She looked over to see that Ironhoof was already craning his neck to observe the curious scene. Fulltrot marched out of the shadows, his elderly eyes squinting towards the face of the mountain against which the village hung. Red Turnip barely moved, until he heard the lightest of pitter-pattering hooves. Raising an eyebrow, the young stallion swiveled about and peered across the courtyard of Windthrow.

A large crowd of ponies had gathered, mostly miners. The Windthrow ponies marched in a straight line, bowed in the center. They gazed in wonderment at a series of figures, eventually stopping in their tracks to let the strangers march on through. The further the procession went, the louder the commotion rose until more and more villagers started popping out of their homes and shops and businesses to gawk at the scene.

Leading the line of strangers was a tiny figure. As he came into focus, his bright eyes searched every pony's face, until he found Red Turnip's. “Red!” Rockspot gasped with the widest of smiles.

Ironhoof and Fulltrot spun about. Red Turnip was shuddering, his mouth agape. “Bro...?” He stumbled forward in a numb fashion. “Bro, is it... is it really you?”

“Red!” Rockspot bounced. “Guess what! Guess what! Miss Dash and I found—” The foal gasped as he was suddenly tackled in a huge embrace. “Daaah! Reddddd!”

“Oh Spotty, thank the Sun Goddess!” Red Turnip held him close, nuzzling him dearly as his voice cracked. “I thought you were a goner, little bro! That stupid creep swept you up and... and...”

“But I'm fiiiiine, Red!” Rockspot giggled and nuzzled his emotional brother back. “Miss Dash saved me! And then she brought us here!”

Red Turnip sniffled and squinted at him. “Us...?”

A tall figure stepped out of the mists. “H-hello, son...”

Fulltrot could be heard murmuring something. Several other villagers around him exhaled in shock. Red slowly looked up, and he fell on the haunches at the sight of his father. Red Turnip Senior smiled, his shoulders heaving as he tried to contain his breaths.

“You're as strong as I ever imagined,” the senior said. “Spotty has told me so much, and I'm proud of you.”

“F-father?” The younger stallion murmured, his lip quivering. He reached a hoof up, only to have the elder squat down to hug him closely. That's when Red lost it, and he clutched tightly to his father's shoulder, weeping like a foal. “Father! Oh praise the Goddesses, you're alive!”

“I'm alive, son. And I'm never leaving you again...”

“But I don't understand!” Red hiccuped and whimpered. “How are you not dead?! Where have you been?! What is—”

There was a deep gasp from the far side of the courtyard, followed directly by Rockspot's squeaking voice, “Momma!”

Red Turnip Senior shot up with a gasp. His son nervously disentangled from him as the father looked across the suddenly crowded village. A wide-eyed mare stood with a hoof over her mouth above a bundle of dropped supplies. Several young ponies stood at her side, also gaping. It only took two or three steps on Red Turnip Senior's behalf to show that he was alive, and she was galloping towards him. The two collided with a twirling embrace, falling to their knees and nuzzling each other as quickly as they could dry each other's joyful tears. Red Turnip Junior and the other young ponies clustered around the two, followed by a bouncing and giggling Rockspot.

This wasn't the only reunion to be transpiring so heavenly. All across the courtyard, gasps and shrieks of joy emanated, almost parting the fog with their increasing severity. Hooves shook the wooden platforms as ponies—divided by years of misery and despair—reunited with the “dead.” Families came together. Couples rejoined. Friends and loved ones shook hooves and laughed in merriment.

Gold Petals was watching all of this with wide eyes. Her heart was beating heavily through her chest. Then, there was a sight she didn't expect. She saw several unicorns shuffling through the mists. Astral and his group stood awkwardly in the center of the village, gazing in muted enthusiasm as the prisoners reunited with their families and loved ones. Then, hovering out of the mists right next to them...

“Rainbow Dash...?” Gold Petals stammered. Her grin became as wide as her quivering eyes. “Rainbow!” She galloped across the sea of reuniting ponies. Her hood fell down, revealing her short hair and effeminate features, but she made no attempt to conceal it. She skidded to a stop in front of the pegasus. For a moment there, she looked like she was about to leap with the power of an exploding mountain. “Rainbow, you're...!” She froze in her tracks, blinking. With a clearing of her throat, she bit her lip and sat down on her haunches. “You're, back. You went after Red's little brother, and... You came back...”

“Yeah, well,” Rainbow Dash gave a shrug and slicked her mane. “Figured this town deserved an encore. Boring enough without me, huh?”

“These ponies...” Gold Petals remarked. “I thought all of them were dead. How... How...?”

“What, these ponies?” Rainbow Dash gestured. “Pfft! If they were dead, then just who the heck has been chewing my tail off for the past two days of spelunking?!”

Gold Petals' mouth hung open. She slumped where she sat, slowly shaking her head. “Do you ever... ever stop being awesome?”

Rainbow Dash grinned devilishly. “And since when were you keeping count? Huh?”

Gold Petals gazed back, and a slow redness was forming beneath her coat—

“Well, well.” Fulltrot marched up out of nowhere. He patted Gold Petals' shoulder before standing square before Rainbow Dash. “You are always full of surprises, Miss Dash. Since when could a pegasus bring back the dead?”

“Er, yeah.” Rainbow Dash fidgeted. “I'm a little confused about that myself.”

“Obviously there is much to talk about. For instance, dare I ask exactly where you discovered all of our long lost companions?”

Rainbow Dash gulped. “Erhm... Do you really want to know?”

“Most definitely.”

“The minotaur camp,” she said bluntly.

Fulltrot merely blinked. “Really? That is... most curious.”

“It's most tragic, is what it is,” Astral said.

Fulltrot gazed at him, and his elderly eyes widened upon the sight of the pony's horn. “A unicorn. Good heavens. I've waited for so long to meet your kind in person.”

“I could say the same,” Astral replied. “Though... I did my waiting from behind the cold door of a minotaur prison cell.”

Gold Petals blinked widely. She gave Fulltrot an alarmed look.

Fulltrot's mouth hung agape in confusion. “This... this is most troubling. Exactly how long have you—?”

“Alright, what is up with all of the commotion?!” shouted a familiar, irascible voice from the sidelines. Several of the ponies turned to look...

Coward

View Online

Sladesteed trotted up with several of his mining associates. He adjusted the toolbelt along his upper body and sighed heavily. “Move along, everypony. You're blocking up the courtyard, and it's ten minutes until the second team heads into the mines—” He stopped cold, blinking at the huge cluster of equines, more specifically the colorful few standing directly in the center.

Astral and Rainbow Dash stared back, along with the other unicorns who had escaped the minotaurs' grasp. All around them, families were reuniting tearfully, joyfully. The excitement and noise dumbed down as all of the villagers turned to look at the flabbergasted heir to the elder's chair.

“Who are...?” Sladesteed blinked. “How did they...?”

“It's a flippin' miracle, Sladesteed!” Ironhoof loudly exclaimed. He galloped up and pointed excitedly towards the scene. “Look it! They're alive! The monsters didn't kill them after all!”

“That's...” Sladesteed mumbled, his eyes twitching. “That's unbelievable...”

“I know!” Ironhoof grinned wide. “Quickly! We must tell your father! He will be overjoyed!”

“Why will I be overjoyed?” Hushtail remarked as he was guided down into the courtyard.

Sladesteed turned and gasped across the fog. “Father!”

“Good heavens...” Hushtail stammered as he shrugged loose of his servants and trotted weakly into the gathering. He gawked at so many villagers that he had once thought dead. “How could this be? Have I died and gone to the Great Pasture?”

“It would seem that our Equestrian do-gooder has rounded them up,” Fulltrot said with a smile. “She just returned from a long journey, and she wasn't alone.”

“Hello, elder,” Astral said with a bow of his horn. “I assume you the chief elder of this village.”

“I may have forgotten a lot of things in my years, but there's no denying that!” Hushtail gazed at the stranger. “Do you have an explanation for this, good sir?”

“As well as I can give,” Astral replied. “I am Astral, head of the Archaeological Commission at Southstone College...” He winced slightly. “Well... former head. Most likely I am presumed dead at this point.”

“Dead?” Hushtail squinted at him. “Why would that be?”

“Because for the last few years, I have been held captive by a group of militant minotaurs several miles north of here in a quarry.”

Upon saying that, several ponies gasped in shock. Ironhoof looked at Fulltrot with a gaping expression. Gold Petals bit her lip and gave Rainbow Dash a glance.

Sladesteed's eyes narrowed. “A quarry, you say?”

“I know that this may be extremely alarming,” Astral said. “But the same minotaurs whom you've struck a business deal with all this time have been the ones responsible for the horrible monsters attacking your village. They possess two chaos strips, and have been using the dark sorcery of those artifacts to summon the abominations that have ravaged your lives.”

“To what end?!” Fulltrot exclaimed, a tone of anger rising in his voice. “We've been buying magical crystals from them for years to ward off the creatures.”

Astral looked fixedly at Fulltrot. “Those crystals were in my expedition's possession when my group and I were enslaved by the minotaurs. Since then, they've been distributing the crystals to your caravans while at the same time controlling the very same monsters that you sought to get rid of. On top of that, they've been training the monsters not to kill—but to abduct members of your village and force them to work in the same quarry as my associates and I.”

The commotion within the courtyard rose to a fever pitch. Angry stallions and distraught mares shouted a plethora of questions. Finally, Sladesteed raised his hoof and shouted towards the crowd.

“Quiet! Settle down!” He glared at Astral. “If this is true, how did you escape the minotaurs in the first place?”

“Miss Dash came to our rescue!” said a voice to the side. “First, she chased down the monster that had abducted my youngest son. Then she single-hoofedly guided us out of our imprisonment!”

“Red Turnip...” Fulltrot managed with an aged smile. “It is a blessing to see you once again.”

“I do most certainly feel blessed,” the senior member of the Turnip family replied. He nuzzled his wife and eldest son before marching over. “Rainbow Dash led us into the minotaurs' tunnels, down a subterranean river, and through a labyrinthine structure of ancient design. If it weren't for her, we'd be laboring endlessly at the end of the minotaurs' rope—or even worse.”

“Wait...” Sladesteed made a face. “What do you mean by a 'labyrinthine structure?'”

“All your lives, you've clung to the face of this mountain,” Astral said, gesturing towards the rockface just beyond the mists. “And you never considered to think why it looked so irregular compared to the rest of the Wintergate range?”

“Supposedly minotaurs really dig secret, ancient, shiny, underground stuff,” Rainbow Dash said with a smirk. “Funny how we lost them by going straight through all that crap.”

“Just how did you manage to get through it?” Sladesteed asked.

Rainbow Dash raised a curious eyebrow to that inquiry.

“What matters is that your village and everypony who works here has been suffering a grand deception,” Astral said. He shared a knowing glance with Rainbow Dash before bravely uttering, “Though we came here swiftly under the fear of our lives, we cannot be assured of this village's absolute safety. The minotaurs were dealt a destructive blow at their mining facility. What's more—I fear that they may still be in possession of a chaos strip.”

“You mean...” Gold Petals spoke up, nervously. “They can still send those creepy monsters at us?”

More villagers murmured in fright.

Astral raised his voice, “Do not panic! Listen to me, everypony. What matters is that the truth is now out. The crimes committed by these minotaurs cannot be tolerated. The national council of Wintergate will consider it an act of cruelty. Surely, as soon as I can get word to Southstone, the southern provinces will be properly alerted. Then, every minotaur will be hunted down and punished for what they've done to Windthrow!”

“And while we wait for the Wintergate Millitia to march all the way north and trample our enemies,” Sladesteed said with a frown, “The minotaurs will just send a huge swarm of monsters to raze this village off the face of the mountain!”

“The unicorn is wise, son,” Hushtail said. “I think we should spread news of the minotaurs' treachery and wait for a firm exercise of justice.”

“Oh, of course now you would resort to seeking help from the outside world, father!” Sladesteed snarled at his elder. “Where was your willingness to branch out and seek assistance before?”

“We have a solution in our grasp now,” Hushtail said with a firm frown. “Now that we know what's been done—”

“You could have prevented all this nonsense much, much earlier if you actually tried to think outside the boundaries of tradition!” Sladesteed loudly exclaimed. “Just because an act of daring becomes convenient doesn't legitimize how long it's taken to commit it! If you ask me, the answer to our problems here is as obvious now as it's ever been!”

“And what's that?” Red Turnip Senior asked.

Sladesteed faced the crowd. “We should all evacuate the village. We should all leave Windthrow.”

The ponies reacted in a cacophony of shocked words, glancing at each other with uncertainty.

“Now hold on one moment—” Hushtail raised a hoof.

Sladesteed continued, “We should leave! At any moment, the minotaurs could attack us with those creatures!” He pointed an accusatory hoof at Rainbow Dash. “Who knows how angry they might be about Miss Blue Impulse here having wrecked their mining operation to kingdom come!”

“Hey!” Gold Petals squeaked, struggling briefly to keep her voice lower pitched. “What makes it okay to blame her for what the minotaurs could do—?!”

Fulltrot silenced her with a gentle hoof on her shoulder. He trotted forward and stared at Sladesteed. “It's okay to be scared, Sladesteed. But I don't think packing up everything and leaving our forefathers' town is the solution.”

“You heard him!” Sladesteed gestured towards Astral. “The minotaurs possess a chaos strip! They could use it to wipe us off the mountain at anytime!”

“Yes, but—” Astral started.

“But nothing!” Sladesteed shouted. “Fulltrot,” he turned towards the old stallion. “Why are you taking my father's side? Especially now when the full ugliness of this situation is being exposed to us?!”

“I am not taking anypony's side! I don't believe that this situation warrants abandoning the village. I still feel like there's more that we should know before we leave this home of ours unattended and vulnerable!”

Sladesteed suddenly squinted at the older stallion. “How is it that every time you've gone on those long excursions to the minotaurs, you never once noticed the plight of our fellow ponies or these minotaurs here?”

“Well, I—”

“How could a wise and sagely Wintergater such as you have been fooled so easily by the minotaurs and their deception? All this time, hasn't the trade situation struck you as a little too convenient?”

“Hey...” Ironhoof marched forward with a frown. “The heck are you trying to insinuate, buddy—”

Sladesteed's companions held Ironhoof back while the heir gnashed his teeth and said, “You've made these long trips the focal point of your whole life! Everypony in town respects you and your leadership skills because of it!”

“What I have done,” Fulltrot said with a heavy frown. “...I have done in respect of this town and all of its inhabitants. I do not know where you are going with this, Sladesteed, but I would think about your next few words carefully.”

“And I would think about your family more carefully!” Sladesteed retorted. “What if one of those monsters had nabbed one of your children instead?”

The crowd burst into angry and accusatory shouts, some on Fulltrot's side, others on Sladesteed's. Hushtail tried getting a hoarse word in or two, but was drowned out by the anger and bedlam. Astral and his unicorn cohorts merely fidgeted anxiously.

All the while, Gold Petals was rubbing her two front hooves in a nervous gesture. “This is crazy. What's going on?!” She gulped. “Rainbow Dash, did the minotaurs really do all of these bad things? And if so, who helped them?” There was no reply. She looked up with trembling eyes. “Rainbow...?”

Rainbow Dash was squinting at the scene. Her pendant was glowing ever so slightly, and a flicker of yellow swam across her eyes.

The loud cluster of arguing ponies was glowing with a bright lavender in her vision. The longer she stared at the crowd, the dizzier she was starting to feel. Hushtail and Fulltrot and Astral and Ironhoof blurred into a glowing mosaic of madness.

“Rainbow...?” Gold Petals repeated.

“Somepony is lying...” Rainbow Dash murmured. Suddenly, her eyes widened. “Oh horseapples!”

“What? What is it?”

Instead of answering, Rainbow Dash darted into the crowd. She barreled through several gasping ponies, reached in with her teeth, and ripped at a strip of leather. When she emerged, she flung the belt to the ground. There was a clattering noise, and Rainbow Dash followed it with a shrill whistle.

“Hey! Idiots! Look alive!”

Everypony glanced at her, then gazed down at the wooden floor of the courtyard. A solid breath of shock flew through the crowd.

“The other chaos strip...” Astral stammered. He ran a hoof across his satchel, feeling his own within. He gazed up at Rainbow Dash. “But where? Who?”

“Flippin' duh!” Rainbow pointed across the way.

The ponies all turned to see Sladesteed standing alone, fidgeting, naked without his leather belt.

“Why keep the strip on one side of the mountain when you can have a little death remote on both sides and increase the range?!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “It explains why there's always so much fog around Windthrow! I bet it also explains why the flying bat-cruds carried ponies like Spotty all the way to where the minotaurs were hanging out, cuz that's where the other chaos strip was!”

“Is that how they function?” Fulltrot asked Astral.

The unicorn gulped. “I'm afraid so. There must always be two of them in order to hone in on the discordant realm from which the summoned abominations hail.”

“Summoned...” Hushtail's nostrils flared as he glared over at his son. “...by my own flesh and blood.”

Sladesteed said nothing.

“Care to tell us what the game is, buddy?” Ironhoof said with an emphatic glare.

“Too long...” Sladesteed muttered, his head hanging low. “We've been on this mountain too long...”

Red Turnip Junior walked up beside his father. “Come again?”

Sladesteed frowned viciously at the crowd. “You know, you all really should be thanking me!”

“Thanking you?!” Ironhoof snarled. “You stinkin' traitor! You've been causin' all this stink the whole time!”

“Would you rather us all be dead at the end of minotaur polearms?!” Sladesteed spat. “Yes, I knew about the minotaurs! I knew that they were nasty, horrible, deceiving creatures! But that's because I found this out the hard way—over ten years ago—when they accosted me on my trip to Sparkill Highlands to barter for mining equipment! They told me that they were going to invade the village, seize the mines, and dominate total access to the structure beneath the mountain—unless I was willing to cooperate with them!”

“Cooperate how?!” Fulltrot remarked.

“If they destroyed all of Windthrow—word would spread throughout Wintergate of their presence. They needed a way to keep the mountain secure for their access.”

“With a bunch of horrible, flying monsters?!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.

“It was how they initially planned to attack us!” Sladesteed said. “I begged them, pleaded with them to spare Windthrow. The best opportunity for lenience I got was to bear one of the strips myself. I...” He seethed. “I-I convinced them that a minor attack or two from the monsters would frighten us, send us packing. We'd leave this village under our own volition, and the rest of Wintergate would be none the wiser.”

“Uhhh.. Hate to break it to ya, bright eyes,” Rainbow Dash said with a nervous smirk. She pointed. “But everypony's still here.”

“Not for lack of trying on my behalf!” Sladesteed swiveled around and glared at Hushtail and Fulltrot in turn. “Every stubborn soul in this place had to insist upon tradition! You had to insist upon a set of isolationist values that will someday kill Windthrow off in a drowning whimper long after any monster could ever have its way with this place!”

“You could have told us the truth, my son,” Hushtail said in a cold tone. “You could have been honest...”

“And risk the minotaurs knowing the truth?!” Sladesteed replied. “Their eyes see farther than even these fumbling unicorns give credit. They would have squashed us in an instant!”

“And under the pretense of bullying minotaurs,” Ironhoof growled, “you let them plunder our village and abduct our loved ones over the course of ten long years.” He spat. “You're a coward.”

“I'm alive!” Sladesteed shouted. “You're all alive—thanks to me! And we can all remain alive elsewhere if we just move on from this dark chapter in Windthrow's history and leave!”

“You want off this friggin' mountain?!” Red Turnip Junior snarled. “I'll throw you off myself!” He charged ahead.

“Son! No! Wait—” Red Senior grabbed for him

But Ironhoof was charging too, and soon Sladesteed was at the receiving end of an angry tackle. He put up a good fight, head-butting and bucking the two stallions off of him. Two more ponies joined the fray, and soon the scene collapsed into utter chaos.

“Stop!” Hushtail shouted, gasping for breath. “Do not turn into animals!”

“Don't you see?!” Fulltrot also growled, trying his weak best to reach into the violent squabble. “This is what the minotaurs want!”

“Everypony just calm down!” Gold Petals squeaked. “You're all behaving like a bunch of stupid little—”

“Get off of me!” Sladesteed shouted and bucked Ironhoof heavily.

“Ooof!” Ironhoof flew back, tumbled, and fell towards the discarded chaos strip.

Astral saw it. He gasped heavily. “No! Don't—”

It was too late. Ironhoof rolled over the strip, making close contact with his living hooves. He sat—bewildered--as a deep glow emanated from the tiny artifact.

The mists around the place doubled. The ponies stopped fighting, immediately reeling in fear and anxiety.

“What have you done?!” Sladesteed shouted. “I swear to the Sun Goddess, this is the village of idiots!”

“This is definitely not a good thing,” Astral said as he trotted over besides Rainbow Dash.

“Is...” Gold Petals shivered as distant shrieking noises bellowed in the mists. “Is what I think happening actually happening?”

“Possibly?” Rainbow Dash gulped. “Maybe?” She turned around as a loud, frightened gasp filled the air. The mists parted, and several swooping bodies of leather sailed at her skull. “Awwwwwwwww poop.”

Solution

View Online

Rainbow Dash ducked, yanking Gold Petals down with her. The air rang with shrieks as the leathery monsters swooped down over the ponies' billowing manes. The two turned around to see the monsters dipping violently into the crowd, knocking ponies over onto their flanks and smashing buildingfaces with their spidery limbs.

“Well, this stinks,” Rainbow Dash grunted.

“Rainbow, what'll we do?!” Gold Petals exclaimed.

“Uhhh... running away sounds nice!”

Gold Petals frowned. “I'm serious!”

“Yeah, okay, fine.” Rainbow looked over. “Hey! Astral?!”

“Daaah!” Astral was smacked by a monster and tossed into Rainbow Dash's side. “Ooof!”

“Oooh! Hey there!” Rainbow grinned and ducked a flying spray of debris. “So, like, how can I make this situation 'un-screwed'?”

“The monsters will k-keep attacking...” Astral strained to speak, all the while creating energy force-fields to hold the diving abominations off. “...until the chaos energies being channeled through the strips is cut off!”

“Okay then!” Rainbow Dash shouted above the growingly horrendous scene. “So, like, how do I do that?!”

“Only the minotaurs knew the enchantment that activated the strips!” a voice exclaimed. Suddenly, Sladesteed was running over and kneeling beside the other three. “My job was just to hold the strip they forced into my possession! If I knew how to shut off the magic ages ago, I would have!”

“You expect us to believe that?!” Gold Petals frowned at him. “Haven't you done enough crap to this village?!”

“I never wanted ponies to die!” Sladesteed snarled. “I want this to end as much as you do! And what's with your voice all of the sudden?!”

“Yours is gonna be a higher pitch than mine once Fulltrot's stallions are through with you—”

“Look, can we harm each other's genitals later?!” Rainbow Dash's voice cracked. She waved her forelimbs as the group huddled under Astral's protective energy field. “If we can't turn the strips off, can we break them?”

“Not through any physical means that we have in our possession!” Astral exclaimed. “If I had the wizards of Southstone to lend their gifts, then maybe!”

Rainbow Dash ducked a ravenous monster and frowned. “I really don't want to go on a field trip right now! What else can we do?!”

“Let's toss them both off the side of the mountain!” Gold Petals exclaimed. “The further away they are, the better for Windthrow, right?!”

“That will only make for a bigger problem later!” Astral said, straining to keep his magical barrier alive. “The longer those strips remain active, the bigger a portal they'll make into the chaos dimensions! Soon, this entire mountain won't be safe!”

“That's not a good thing, right?!” Gold Petals remarked.

Rainbow Dash winced. Her eyes flashed a brief yellow as she weathered a dizzy spell. “No,” she grunted. “It's not.”

“I'll grab the strips!” Sladesteed said. “I'll run the length of Fulltrot's Caravan trail for as long as I can. You can get the Southstone wizards to come and clean things up—off my corpse if need be.” He stood up.

Rainbow Dash yanked him down. “Don't even pretend like you got what it takes to be a martyr.” She turned to Astral. “Are there any other options?”

“If there was a way to contain the strips, perhaps!” Astral shouted. He and the others winced as the huge face of a building smashed down a few yards away. Cracks began forming in the wooden platforms below. “But I don't have a spell strong enough to hold back the chaos energies!”

“Well, what do you need, then?!”

“Some sort of arcane capsule would be perfect in this situation!” Astral said. “But I don't know of a metal substance with enough power to disenchant the chaos portal!”

Rainbow Dash blinked. Her wings twitched. “Duh! Of course you do! We all do!”

“Huh?”

Rainbow Dash beamed, standing up. “The structure! The ancient interior! It'd be perfect!” She was smacked upside the head by a diving monster. “Owie!” She winced and shook her skull.

Astral winced. “How do you intend to get them in there?!”

“Silly unicorn! With my wings, of course!” She scurried over to the glowing strips. “All I need to do is—”

Astral gasped. “Miss Dash! Wait! Remember that—”

Rainbow touched the strips. Immediately, she collapsed in a dizzy spell. Her ruby pendant strobed and her eyes flickered yell. “Ughhhhhh—Buckin' a, I forgot...”

“Rainbow!” Gold Petals scurried over. “What's wrong?”

“I can't exactly carry these things,” Rainbow Dash sputtered, trying not to vomit. “I'm like—chaos-intolerant—or some crap.”

“Then how will get get these strips to that place you were talking about?!” she exclaimed. She looked over her shoulder and winced at the dozens of ponies fleeing from the attacking swarm. “I don't think this place is gonna last another minute! I can't even see Mom or Dad—”

The strips fell into Gold Petals' hooves.

She glanced down at the glowing artifacts. “Uhm...”

Rainbow Dash stood up. “I may not be able to carry these stupid things, but I definitely can carry you.”

Gold Petals blinked. “Carry m-me? Daaaah!” She was being hoisted off her hooves. She flinched and hugged the strips to her chest.

“You just got drafted, girlfriend!” Rainbow Dash grinned psychotically and sped the two of them towards the mines beyond the mist. “Hey!” She shouted over her and Gold Petals' shoulders. “Fart-faces! This way to freedom, you winged pieces of demon luggage!”

The monsters swirled in formation, collected in the air, and formed a solid line of banshee-screaming hunger. The ponies of Windthrow glanced up in shock as their sworn enemy left the violent scene and surged as one after the Equestrian and the shrieking blonde in her grasp.

Deposit

View Online

“Rainbowwwww Dassssssh!” Gold Petals squealed as the two of them bulleted through the mouth of the Windthrow mineshaft.

“I know my name's awesome and all,” Rainbow said in mid flight, “But you do stand to wear it out at this rate.”

“Please be careful!” She exclaimed. “They're gaining on us!”

“Nonsense! I have those monsters beat—” Rainbow Dash looked behind them. “Oh! Hey! They are gaining on us! Cool!”

“How is that even possibly, remotely cool—Dah!” Gold Petals gasped as the two stopped at the mine's metal elevator. “Quick! Where are the controls of this thing?”

“Screw controls!” Rainbow Dash said. As the leather monsters filled the tunnel and gave the air a resonating hum, she growled and kicked a metal grate in the suspended platform loose. “We're going this pegasus style!”

“Have you noticed that I'm an earth pony?!” Gold Petals frowned.

“Ohhhh yeah.” Rainbow Dash grabbed her. “Next stop, center of the earth!”

Gold Petals held her breath and held the two chaos strips even harder. She clenched her eyes shut as Rainbow yanked the two of them through the hole in the elevator before soaring straight down the grand vertical shaft. The cables to the elevator wobbled around them from the monsters banging and squeezing their way through the platform above. Soon, the chaotic monstrocities were joining the plummet, gaining distance by the second.

“Whew!” Rainbow whistled as she barreled into the blackness below. Her voice echoed all around the blurring walls. “And to think that this sort of crap used to give me a nose bleed!”

“Mmmmm,” Gold Petals merely whimpered.

“Might wanna hold on tight.”

“Huh?” Gold Petals' eyes opened, then twitched as the two evened out and started darting left and right through a maze of deeply carved tunnels. She shifted in Rainbow's grip, the top of her head sliding back and forth across the polished pendant. “Aaaah! Whoah! Yeesh! My Goddess!”

“Any sign of them?!”

“You think I have eyes in the back of my tail?!” Gold Petals exclaimed. Then, through her peripheral vision, she saw several leathery shadows in the torchlight of the subterranean tunnels. “Uhhhh. Go faster. Please... Pleeeeeease go faster!”

“I would love to,” Rainbow Dash grunted, sweating, struggling to navigate the myriad of chambers soaring past them. “But this isn't exactly the open skies!”

“Do you even remember the path you need to take to get to that structure-thingy?!”

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash squinted. Before her vision, a horizontal tornado of lavender shades was threading its way through the labyrinth. “I guess you could say that.”

“What the heck is that supposed to mean—”

A monster pounced on Rainbow Dash from behind.

“Gaaah!” Rainbow Slammed into a wall as the creature shrieked and stabbed its spiderly limbs into her back. “Nnnngh-Whoah!” Rainbow Dash skidded into a wall on the left, tumbled to the ground, and let go of Gold Petals.

Gold Petals rolled achingly into the side of an ore cart.

Rainbow Dash, in the meantime, flew straight into a pile of loose gravel. The monster sailed in after her, and the two were silenced under the mountain of debris.

Panting, Gold Petals sat up in the dancing glow of a torchlamp. “R-Rainbow?!” she squeaked, clutching the two shimmering strips to her chest. “Wh-where did you go?!” The wind kicked up underground. She looked over her shoulder and gasped.

A drooling wall of razor-toothed creatures converged on her.

“Raaaugh!” Rainbow Dash burst out of the mound of gravel with an uppercut to her leathery attacker. She flew up, kicked off the wall, and blurred across the tunnel. In a sapphire streak, she impacted the wall of abominations with all four hooves, slamming and kicking them repeatedly. “Nnnnngh! Why couldn't the stupid strips have summoned a bunch of bunny rabbits instead?!”

“Rainbow, there're more of them coming!”

“Haaaugh!” Rainbow spun and whipped her tail-hairs across four of them at once. As the monsters stumbled in a cluster of dizzied limbs, she swooped down, grabbed Gold Petals again, and resumed chasing the lavender light source in her vision. “Whew! Intermission's over! Heh... You still got the chaos strips, right?”

Gold Petals frowned. “I'm fine! Thank you! Now we need to—Eeep!”

Rainbow Dash was diving down as the mineshafts winded its way into the deeper chambers. In less than ten seconds, the monsters were collecting at her and Gold Petals' rear once more. They swerved left, skimmed the top of Sladesteed's work benches, and threaded their way into a large cavern.

“How far is it?!” Gold Petals exclaimed.

Rainbow Dash's teeth gnashed against the frictious air. “We're almost there! I can see the winding tunnel up ahead—” A monster perched on her back. “Augh! Dang it all!”

“R-Rainbow!” Gold Petals shrieked as a monster perched on her as well. “I-I can't fight it off!”

“Tell me about it!” Rainbow growled as a third latched onto them both. She thrashed her neck and swerved left and right in mid-air to avoid the creatures' chomping mouths. Finally, she shouted, “Hold on!”

“What are you about to—Oh jeez oh jeez oh jeez—!”

The reason for Gold Petals' exclamations was that Rainbow was spinning the two of them in neverending barrel rolls. They twirled faster and faster just as they came colliding with the mouth of the tunnel. The world blurred as everything turned into a cacophony of screams...

Exit

View Online

“Mmmf! Ooof! Ungh!” Rainbow Dash grunted as she pinballed through the winding corridors. She bravely took the brunt of each impact, spinning so that her shoulders or back or flank were contacting with the walls. In such a brutal fashion, she shook the monsters off herself and Gold Petals. Finally, she soared out the other end of the corridor and came to a grinding stop just a few feet before the immaculate wall of white metal. “Ughhhh... nailed it.”

“Is this it, Rainbow?!” Gold Petals dizzily stumbled to her hooves. “Is this the structure—Dah!” She yelped as one of the monsters pounced on her backside.

Rainbow Dash snarled, leapt up, and plowed into the creature's side. The two of them flew off of Gold Petals and slammed into a rock wall flanking the metal. After slamming the creature's leather body into the cave material repeatedly, Rainbow Dash spun and body-slammed the twitching attacker into the ground. Sweating, she looked up through a tousled mane to see half-a-dozen abominations emerging from the winding corridor. In a blink, she flashed a glance to her side and saw a pile of lumber. Grabbing one two-by-four, she gripped it in her teeth, spun, and flung the thing at the monsters. It shattered against their approach with a rain of splinters as more and more surged into the chamber.

“This place is filling up!” Gold Petals exclaimed as she hugged the strips to her chest. “How do we get inside the structure?!”

Rainbow Dash spun and stared at the shiny wall of metal. She saw the two symbols glowing under a halo of lavender. “Like this!” She planted her rear hooves against the metal while grabbing Gold Petals with her front limbs. Hovering, she pivoted around in time to face the opening door.

“Okay! I'm tossing them in!” Gold Petals said.

“Not yet.”

“Not yet?! Gaaaah!” Gold Petals shrieked as Rainbow Dash soared the both of them straight into the ancient interior. They soared past the initial elevator shaft and into the corridors beyond. “R-Rainbow...?!”

“I gotta make sure the monsters are inside once we close the doors again!”

“How far do we have to go?!”

“Boy, if I had a bit for everytime a filly asked me that.”

“Rainbow...!” Gold Petals snarled.

“Hang on!” Rainbow Dash gripped Gold Petals hard as she veered in and around pillars, over dormant metal gears, and around dozens upon dozens of marble walkways. All the while, the air filled with the buzzing sound of the monsters giving chase. The place lit up in an eerie trail of bright energy as Rainbow surged through the heart of the abandoned palace. She spun around frozen pistons, dipped beneath pearlescent bridges, and skimmed the surface of polished metal floors.

All the while, the abominations gained distance, their jaws snapping at the two ponies' hooves. There were dozens of them, hundreds of them, a veritable sea of angry leather that hungered for the equines' blood.

Finally, the two fillies' flight took them over a gaping chasm. All was darkness and abandoned metal down below.

“There!” Rainbow shouted. “Toss them!”

“You sure?!”

“Want me to toss you instead?!”

“Away with the strips!” Gold Petals shouted jubilantly, tossing the two glowing artifacts down into the abysmal drop. No sooner has she done this, Rainbow Dash was veering them up in a massive backflip. They came about, twirled, and corkscrewed straight through the surprised swarm of monsters. “Aaaaaaah!”

“Could you hold the screams for when you're face is not so friggin' close to my ears?!” Rainbow snarled as the monsters struggled to reengage them. “I don't want to be deaf for when Windthrow declares a holiday after me!”

“How can you think of celebrating at a time like this?!”

“What?”

“We're monster food if you don't hurry it up!”

“What?!”

“Rainbow!” Gold Petals shouted.

“Hahahaha—Oh snap!” Rainbow Dash jolted to the side to avoid a monster snapping at her ear. Then two more monsters flew aside her flank, stabbing and lancing with its legs. “Darn it! Go play hoofball with a pony who gives a crap?!”

“They're all around us!” Gold Petals shrieked. “We'll never make it out in time!”

“Just gotta make ourselves more aerodynamic!” Rainbow Dash said.

“How do you suppose we do that?!” Gold Petals was dropped in midair. “Gaaaaah!”

Rainbow Dash caught her, only this time they were chest to chest. “How ya doing?”

“Oh, you gotta be kidding m—”

“Hold tight!” Rainbow Dash growled and blurred her wings at an impossible speed. “I mean it!” Her eyes teared as the glowing interior around them turned into one long, indiscernible streak.

Gold Petals stifled a whimper and clutched Rainbow Dash hard, curling into her grip and hiding her face in the pegasus' shoulder. The air around them whistled violently as they bolted past the monsters and towards the exit of the palace. There was a deep ruby glow emanating between the two ponies' chest.

“Oh come on!” Rainbow Dash snarled. The door up ahead was closing slowly. “Fine! You want a race, we'll have a race!”

“Who are you talking to?!”

“The door that's closing up ahead!”

“What?!”

“Nnnngh!” Rainbow Dash's eyes flickered yellow briefly. All around her was a splash of lavender energy. The pendant strobed and strobed as she rocketed forward at nightmarish speed.

“Get us out! Get us out! Get us out!” Gold Petals shrieked.

Rainbow Dash yelled for good measure. The monsters converged on her tail. The glow of the chamber died away as all was absorbed into the pendant. Just as the door closed, there was a bright burst of light, and then there was darkness.

Clarity

View Online

Rockspot was cowering, his eyes tightly clenched shut as he squatted against the wooden floor of the courtyard. The world grew silent as a hoof tapped slowly on his little shoulder. He gazed up with moist eyes to see his father and older brother smiling at him. Slowly, the entire Turnip family stood up alongside several other ponies. The villagers of Windthrow gazed skyward as inch by inch, the mists began to dissipate.

It was a slow process at first. As the minutes piled up on one another, the fog unraveled faster and faster. Ironhoof gazed along with his wife. Fulltrot stood at Hushtail's side, holding the elder upright. Astral and his fellow unicorns started lowering their magical forcefields as the air became clearer and clearer.

Soon, the streets and alleyways of Windthrow opened completely. The multiple wooden buildings showed in their entirety. The platforms and railings became visible. Even the body of the mountain below and the forests stretching beyond revealed themselves in pristine glory.

Finally, a golden glow settled upon the loft village as a gorgeous sunrise pierced the summit of the mountains above. The dwelling was bathed in an ethereal twilight, evoking colors that had remained dormant and obscured for so long.

There was not a single monster present. As the mists disappeared, so did all ugliness and danger. Birds flocked from treetop to treetop below, occasionally peaking above the edge of the hanging township. With the advent of evening, stars were born overhead. The world felt fresh, new, and reborn. Windthrow was at the roof of it all.

When the cheers began, they emanated over the landscape like sirens through a deep gorge. Earth ponies danced and embraced each other atop the multiple platforms. Several guards tossed their armor, whooping and hollering. Loved ones held each other close and greeted the first clear night with tears.

The Turnip family was no different. Red Senior and his wife nuzzled closely while Red Junior, Rockspot, and the rest trotted in eager, chattering circles. Ironhoof and his significant other exchanged a few tender words amidst the deafening celebration within the central courtyard. Fulltrot was being congratulated by multiple peers and subordinates, many of whom stopped celebrating just long enough to give him a smile and a hoof-shake. Dazed, confused, but ultimately cheerful, Fulltrot could only smile in disbelief at the new world that had been shrouded from him for nearly a decade.

The only ponies who were anything but jubilant were Hushtail and Sladesteed. As the entire village rejoiced, they stood in a quiet slump, with several moving bodies separating them. Their eyes met, along with their dullness and shame, and they merely hung their heads.

Astral noticed this. But then he noticed something else. He gestured to his unicorn companions. The four of them watched as the crowd of ecstatic ponies parted ways. From the mineshafts, two mares were trotting up. Astral couldn't help but smirk.

Gold Petals was showing her bashful side. Her hood was long gone, and her less-than-masculine features were on display. However, nopony seemed to mind, much less pay attention, as they rushed over to congratulate her and shake her hoof. She smiled nervously, exchanging a few brief words with the likes of Ironhoof, Red Turnip Junior, and others. When she stumbled upon Fulltrot, she got a little misty-eyed, and gave the elder a tight hug. Fulltrot returned the embrace, gently nuzzling her, glancing over to smile at Rainbow Dash.

Rainbow exhaled long and hard, reeling as a wave of dizziness left her, along with the glow to her pendant. She shifted the weight of the saddlebag over her backside and gazed across the village. Astral was giving an approving smile, only for his image to be blocked by a loud and obnoxious Ironhoof who slapped Rainbow's shoulder before giving her a huge hug.

Rainbow's eyes bugged and she tried to squeeze out of his embrace. Soon, however, Ironhoof's wife dove in and started swatting him hard. He let go of Rainbow Dash and shrugged innocently as his wife dragged him into a corner for a bitter lecture. As Rainbow was free to breathe and gaze once again, she noticed Sladesteed in the distance. She was almost surprised to see that he hadn't run away. Instead, he sat solidly on his haunches and shared a lethargic gaze with her.

A deep breath ran through Rainbow's body. She turned to her side to say something to Gold Petals, but Gold Petals was gone. Blinking, Rainbow Dash gazed across the courtyard. Finally, she saw her. Gold Petals was standing at a distance besides Fulltrot. Fulltrot was speaking to a pair of familiar elders, a mare and a stallion. After gesturing, Fulltrot stepped back. Gold Petals was squaring off with the two older equines, their eyes locked. The stallion shifted nervously and the mare's eyes filled with tears. Gold Petals herself collapsed with a withheld sob, and soon the entire family was hugging each other dearly, reuniting after fate and circumstance almost shattered them completely.

Rainbow Dash stared prolongedly at the scene. Her expression was neutral, calm, serene. It wasn't until several minutes had passed that she realized that she no longer was staring at Gold Petals and her parents. Night had fallen. The moon was rising. The villagers of Windthrow were gathering in the town hall to perform a celebration. But...

Rainbow Dash was alone. She was always alone. As the coolness of the night fell across the mountaintop, Rainbow Dash found herself standing before an unimpeded world, gazing fixedly towards the east horizon.

Rewards

View Online

“Well, I gotta hoof it to ya, Princess, you somehow managed to squeeze in another night,” Rainbow Dash said with a smile as she sat on a cloudbank, gazing up at the full moon. “I thought I had missed ya for another month. It's nice to hear your voice.”

“Verily, we art jubilant to hear thy voice as well.” Rainbow's ruby pendant glowed as Luna's words echoed through the winds. The quality was lacking, and the sound was somewhat hard to make out. Regardless, as the full moon started to wane, the Princess' communication maintained itself, if barely. “From the last time we had spoken with thou, we feared for thy well-being. This trepidation multiplied over the course of the revolutions during which thou were absent.”

“Yeah, well...” Rainbow Dash flicked her tail and gazed down at the mountains below. “I was kind of beyond transmission range.”

“Assisting needy ponies, no doubt...”

“You believe all that crap I told you about the minotaurs and the unicorns and the chaos strips?”

“Your fecal matter is most assuredly comprehendable, albeit drenched in heroic exagerration, we would assume.”

“Heh. You always know how to humble me, Your Highness.”

“It would seem thou hast avoided banishment to the moon for missing our last appointment.”

Rainbow Dash blinked, then squinted into the ruby glow of her pendant. “Wait... was that... a joke?”

“Perhaps we hath gotten better at the art?”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash sweated slightly. “You won't see me heckling ya.”

“We art curious. These chaos strips, there were only two of them?”

“That the minotaurs had. Yeah.”

“And thou hadst an adverse reaction to them?”

Rainbow Dash ran a hoof through her mane. “I... guess you could say that. But I managed.”

“We art overjoyed to hear of your good health in spite of such dangerous pursuits. However, we art curious. Doth thou expect adventurous excursions such as this to happen often? Surely they must only hamper thy journey.”

“Hey...” Rainbow Dash shrugged and glanced down into the glowing sight of Windthrow below the clouds. “Ponies in need are ponies in need. Sometimes I can't help being a sap.”

“We would remind thee that time is of the essence in your trek.”

Rainbow Dash exhaled slowly. “I know that, Your Highness,” she said in a low voice, but very calmly smiled. “But, half of this whole journey is... well... me just winging it.”

“Art thou happy?”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Happy?”

“Verily.”

She bit her lip, gulped, and nodded. “Happy enough, I guess.”

“Then that is what matters to us.” The voice started fading. “Our magical connection is disentegrating, Rainbow Dash. The moon's glow fades where thou art.”

“Yeah...” Rainbow Dash gulped. “Talk to you in about a month?”

“Indeed. We look forward to hearing of thy journeys, provided thou has made a great deal of distance.”

“Hey. Distance is my middle name.”

“And what of 'Danger,' then?”

Rainbow's voice cracked. “I th-think I used that up over the past few days.” She smiled crookedly, then sighed. “Say, Princess, before you go...”

“Be swift, Rainbow Dash...”

“Do you suppose that the place that holds the Midnight Armory is the only structure of its kind?”

“It is the only structure that we and our sister hath witnessed. We told thee upon the beginning of your journey that entering the domain of the Midnight Armory would be the most difficult task to accomplish.”

Rainbow glanced at her own hooves. “Suppose it would take a magic touch to get the doors open, huh?”

“Considering what was used to seal the Armory, it would take a great deal of energy indeed. If our sister wasn't so encumbered with the chaos rift in Ponyville, she would be more than happy to lend her gifts of magic. Surely thou hast been briefed on this.”

“Yeah, Your Highness.” Rainbow Dash blinked, imagining a lavender glow in her peripheral vision. “It was just a thought...”

“Keep thy focus intact, and we shall assist you in every manner which we are art capable of, even if just moral support.” The voice finally dissipated as the ruby glow dimmed. “Thou loyalty shalt not go unrewarded...”

The light died, and Rainbow Dash was alone in the clouds.

She took a deep breath. “It's been a long time since I gave a darn about rewards,” she muttered. She bit her lip. Her eyes fell towards Windthrow below. Stretching her wings, she dove off the cloud and soared towards the mountain village.

Wallflowers

View Online

It was hard to hear Fulltrot from the loud noise, laughter, and dancing of the villagers and reunited family members inside the town hall. Regardless, he stood upon the fringes of the brightly-lit structure, speaking to Rainbow Dash.

“Sladesteed has not put up any resistance. He's fully cooperating with the village, and allowing himself to be dealt in a Wintergate court of law,” Fulltrot said. “It's rather ironic. All his adult life, the heir to the lead seat of Windthrow has advocated full and complete coexistence with the outside world. And now that it is finally happening, it's for the purpose of enacting justice upon his criminal actions.”

“You can only play the 'martyr' for so long,” Rainbow Dash said. “I only hope he doesn't do anything stupid to screw up his future here in the village.”

“His future or the village's is hardly up to him,” Fulltrot said. “In light of recent events, Hushtail himself is stepping down and allowing the town council to elect their own leader.”

Rainbow's ears twitched. “Huh. That's interesting. What's up with that?”

Fulltrot's nostrils flared as he stared into the celebratory crowd lit up by torchlight. “I suppose he feels personally responsible for his son's actions. Not only that, but the extreme nature of recent events has opened his eyes to how his stubbornness has potentially hurt this town after so many years.”

“Do you believe that to be the case?”

“I think Sladesteed was right about a few things,” Fulltrot murmured. “But he chose incorrect ways to go about highlighting this dwelling's problems.” He gazed over at Rainbow Dash. “We would indeed benefit from opening our doors to outsiders, and even letting those of us who wish to leave find other places to live in Wintergate. However, this is not something that can blossom over night. When the council deliberates on the future, they'll have to choose a leader who's more than capable of balancing old traditions with new ideas.”

Rainbow Dash smirked. “I think you would be perfect for the job, dude. You've got the gray mane for it and all.”

Fulltrot managed a slight, bashful smile. “I do have... a considerable degree of experience. But I would be just as happy to serve as the village's lead courier as I always have these last few decades.”

Rainbow Dash said, “You have shown... incredible loyalty to Windthrow, Fulltrot. That's something that ponies have a hard time forgetting.”

“Hmmm. Fitting that you would tell me that, Equestrian.”

Rainbow Dash fumbled for a response to that. Suddenly, her front legs were being tackled by a small body. “Wh-whoah!”

“Heeheehee!” Rockspot was hugging her forelimbs tightly. “My family is back together now! Everything is so awesome and cool and it's all thanks to you!”

“Heh, well...” Rainbow smiled nervously and tried shaking him off. Spotty remained glued to her. “I sometimes share the ingredients that make me so... me. Now will you cut it out? I'm losing the feeling in my hoof!”

“I got it taken care of...” Red Turnip Senior headed over and detached Rockspot with his strong limbs. He balanced his son on his backside and stood up. “We've declared today a holiday. Everypony's talking about celebrating the rest of the week, now that the monsters are gone for good.”

“So long as none of you guys do something stupid like reopen that large structure down below.”

“Hah! You kidding?!” Red smirked. “As if we could!”

“I bet Mommy could!” Rockspot chirped.

“She'll be too busy with my heart over the next few days, Spotty.” Red winked back at him. “You should stay at our place! We have an extra room, and you can join the festivities at sunrise!”

“I...” Rainbow Dash's smile lingered. Her wings flexed and unflexed. “I-I'll think about it. Thank you so much for the offer, dude...”

Fulltrot gazed curiously at Rainbow Dash.

“Whoops!” Red spun with Rockspot on his back. “I think I hear the Missus calling now. Gotta go dance till I drop!”

“Heehee! Dad likes to get tipsy on rock sider!”

“I do not! That's your oldest brother, from what Mister Ironhoof is telling me!”

“Heeheehee!”

As they trotted away, Astral and his companions walked up to Fulltrot and Rainbow Dash.

“I sort of figured you'd four would be wallflowers,” Rainbow Dash said. “Is it just me, or do unicorns suck at dancing?”

“Your racism is only barely made tolerable by your charm,” Astral said with a wink. “It so happens that the entire village has extended their endless hospitality to us.”

“And have you accepted?”

“Most definitely,” Astral said with a nod. “I think most ponies here are self-conscious. They feel responsible for Sladesteed's actions, something that has led to the death of several of our companions over the years...”

“Yeah...” Rainbow Dash stirred awkwardly. “That's... not exactly a cheerful fact to live with.”

Astral waved a hoof in front of him. “Alas, their legacies will not go unheard. Already, Mister Fulltrot has suggested the village council allow a permament expedition of Southstone scholars to come visit the mysterious site beneath the mountain so that we can gain new and rich data concerning Wintergate's architectural past.”

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash gazed nervously between Fulltrot and Astral. “That doesn't mean you're gonna be opening any doors to the crazy bat-monsters, are ya?”

“Heheheh...” Astral shook his head. “Nothing of the sort. I've already started writing an extensive journal of my findings. We'll cross-reference those with the elemental readings we take of the leylines situated around this site. I have no doubt that Wintergate is on the verge of its most startling historical discovery in centuries.”

“Well, sounds like you've got your work cut out for you,” Rainbow Dash said.

“I'm mostly concerned with journeying back home to see my family once more,” Astral said. “My brothers and sisters will have thought I died long ago. I look forward to proving to them otherwise.” He smiled sweetly. “Both my life and my career would not have this second chance if it wasn't for you, Miss Dash. Now, more than ever, I wish to make a pilgrimage to the land of the Sun Goddess before my days are over.”

“Trust me,” Fulltrot said with a slight chuckle. “You have a great deal of years ahead of you, good sir.”

“I would think as much,” Astral said. “Now, if you excuse us, we have an experiment to conduct.”

“This late at night?” Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “The heck kind of an experiment are you talking about?”

Astral smirked. “Whether or not unicorns can actually dance!” He gave her wave and trotted off. Chuckling, his close companions followed him, and soon they disappeared into the thick of the crowded town hall.

Rainbow Dash shook her head, smiling. “I wish all unicorns could loosen up like that schmuck.”

“Hmmm, indeed.” Fulltrot wandered over. He extended a hoof.

Rainbow Dash glanced at it, then at him. “What's this all about?”

“I am wishing you good luck and a strong wind,” he said. “That is the correct pegasus expression is it not?”

“Heh... come on, dude...” Rainbow Dash shook his hoof. “You're talking as if I'm going away or something.”

He gazed calmly at her. “Aren't you?”

Rainbow Dash said nothing.

Softly, he remarked, “Your nonchalance may be able to throw off the likes of Red Turnip and Mister Astral, but not myself, dear outsider. In all the time you've been here, your hooves only barely touch the ground. You haven't even taken off your saddlebag. Trust me, I know a wandering soul when I see one.”

Rainbow stared at him fixedly. She gulped and said, “You are some pretty swell ponies, Fulltrot. But everything that just happened... it was all just a zay, awesome fluke. I... really dropped by completely by accident.”

“A rather charming accident, I must say,” Fulltrot said. “Would you care to announce your departure to the rest of the village?”

“I don't see what it would matter,” she remarked in a low voice. “There is nothing for me here.”

“Ohh...” His eyes glanced up towards a mountain ledge above the village. “I wouldn't exactly say that.” With an elderly smile, he turned around, and trotted out of her life.

Swiveling, Rainbow Dash glanced up at the mountain ledge, and the petite figure squatting thereupon.

Golden

View Online

Her short golden mane glittered in the moonlight when Rainbow Dash hovered down beside her. Glancing over, she instantly brightened. “R-Rainbow!” Gold Petals sat up from gazing beyond the mountain ledge. The sights of Windthrow glowed warmly below as the two mares stood face to face under the celestial canopy of night.

“Kind of late for a hike, don't you think?”

“Mmmm...” Gold Petals shrugged, her lips curved as she gazed into the stars once more. “I'm no longer scared. Heh... That's just the thing...” She ran a hoof through her short bangs and sighed happily. “There're no monsters, no fog, no evil portals opening up to goddess-knows-where. Everything is so still and clear and beautiful. This is my first night in as long as I can remember where I can actually stare out at the stars. It looks way better than from any caravan campfire I've made over the past decade.”

“Speaking of caravans...” Rainbow Dash murmured. “Are you going to be working with Fulltrot like always? It seemed to be your thing.”

“I... uh... I dunno...”

“Oh?”

“Heh...” Gold Petals smiled cheekishly. She glanced at Rainbow through the corner of her eyes. “Maybe you saw me earlier, or maybe you didn't. Either way... uh... things are looking up.” She gulped. “What I mean to say is that... I-I kind of got together with my parents again.”

“Is that who you were hugging earlier?”

“So you did see!” Gold Petals could barely stifle a giggle. “Yeah. Uhm. They actually wanted to see me. Apparently—according to what Fulltrot claims they said to him—they were really freaked out by all the crazy monster stuff as of late. Furthermore, something about how terribly Hushtail and Sladesteed have butted heads really bugged them.”

“They've had a change of heart?”

“I wouldn't call it a change...” Gold Petals' hooves dug at the grassy floor. “More like a fog has lifted from them just as it has from this village. They want me to come back and live with them again.”

“Even after all that's happened between you?”

“I don't know if you have a family somewhere waiting for you, Rainbow Dash...” Gold Petals took a deep breath and brushed her mane back after a gust of wind. “But when you've been gone from them for so long, no matter how horribly cruddy things may have gotten, there comes a time when you want nothing better but to be with them forever and ever.”

Rainbow Dash slowly nodded. “I think I can dig that feeling, yeah.” She gulped. “How do you feel about it?”

“Delighted. Scared. Joyful. Horrified.” Gold Petals giggled lightly and hugged herself. “So much has happened. I think Fulltrot is moving on up with the village and all. I'm happy for him; he really deserves it. Red Turnip's got his family back together again. Windthrow is gonna stop having closed doors to all outsiders. I now have so many possible career choices to pursue. Things are just... so good.” She swallowed and looked over at the pegasus. “And it's all thanks to you, Rainbow Dash...”

“Eh...” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Fate was visiting your village. I just happened to be riding the karma comet.”

“No, really...” Gold Petals took a few steps forward. “What kind of a stranger would just drop in and give so much thankless effort into saving an entire town? Who would do so many nice things for absolutely nothing?”

“It wasn't for nothing!” Rainbow Dash retorted.

“Then...” Gold Petals gazed at her innocently. “What was it for?”

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth. She stumbled, and glanced forcibly away from Gold Petals. After a clearing of her throat, she said, “I was just bored. Does it really have to be so complicated?”

“Heehee. Well...” Gold Petals' tail flicked. “You won't be bored this week! Ironhoof and Red Junior are talking about setting up fireworks atop the the nearest summit! Tomorrow's gonna have a spectacular light show! And with no fog hanging around to hide the sky, it's bound... to be... a... blast...” Her voice trailed off, as did her smile, while she gazed at Rainbow Dash's deadpan figure.

Rainbow Dash said nothing. She was avoiding Gold Petals' gaze.

Gold Petals' blinked. “You're...” She swallowed. “Y-you're leaving, aren't you?”

“I.. uh...” Rainbow Dash chuckled lightly. “I never really arrived to begin with, if you think about it.”

“But...” Gold Petals gulped. “You've proven that you can do so much to help this village.”

“This village needs to help itself,” Rainbow Dash said. “With the likes of Fulltrot's leadership and your spunk, I think both the young and old have everything covered.”

“Yes, but...” Gold Petals' face stretched painfully. “You made so many things happen. You saved so many lives. I... I don't understand...”

“I'm not here to make you understand—”

“Then what are you here for?!” Gold Petals said with a slight frown, her voice wavering. “You taught me that it was okay to pursue my dreams. You showed me that it was okay to... to be different...”

Rainbow Dash gazed softly at her. “Yeah, well...” She smiled awkwardly. “I kind of like 'different.'”

“And... uhm...” Gold Petals shifted nervously. The starlight faded, much like the distance between them. “I... kind of like ponies who kind of like 'different...'”

Suddenly, Rainbow Dash tripped. Or, at least, that's what it looked and felt like at first. All that mattered was that her lips came into contact with Gold Petals', brazenly soft, two dark clouds merging under the moonlight. Gold Petals' took half a step back, her face and neck buckling under the startling gesture. A breath came out of her—more like a squeak—and soon her body deflated beneath her and Rainbow Dash in turn as her eyes fluttered shut.

Rainbow Dash's lips parted with hers, only for her to breathe. When she did, she was inhaling Gold Petals instead, tilting her face at an angle to kiss her more ardently, desperately. Her hooves rose to the mare's neck, cradling Gold Petals' face with the gentlest of feather-light touches, like how her wings danced in the starlight as she ended the kiss with a warm, delicate nuzzle of her cheek against the petite pony's.

Gold Petals was blushing furiously, and her legs trembled underneath her. She wanted nothing more than to curl up in Rainbow Dash's embrace, but that hug never came. Curious, she opened her eyes, gazing innocently at the visiting Equestrian.

It was then—between terrified breaths—that Rainbow Dash got a good look at Gold Petals' eyes. For the first time in days, she saw the true color, and it was the same shade as the ocean. Something deep inside of Rainbow Dash sunk, and the warmth in her face faded with the onset of a pained wince.

Gold Petals saw it. Her face trembled, and those worried blue eyes began to moisten. “R-Rainbow...?”

Rainbow Dash gulped. She clenched her eyes shut. “I'm... I'm sorry...”

Gold Petals' murmured, “Wh-why?”

Rainbow Dash stumbled back, shaking her head and gnashing her teeth. “I... I can't stay here.” She shuddered and fought back a whimper. “I c-can't stay anywhere...”

“But—”

“I'm so sorry...” Rainbow Dash bounded past Gold Petals, leapt off the mountainside, and flew into the stars.

“Rainbow!” she heard a voice calling out from behind. The wind blew in her ears, and for the briefest moment she heard the hint of a sobbing breath. That only made her flap her wings even harder.

Wanderer

View Online

Minutes later, Rainbow Dash landed in a clearing. She was hyperventilating.

Squatting on her folded limbs in a patch of moonlight, she stared down at the ground and tried to catch her breath. Her saddlebag appeared to weigh fifty pounds heavier. Seething, she practically yanked the thing open.

She fished her hoof around the inside of the pack. Something wet and decaying brushed against her forelimb. The hairs rose on the back of her neck as she yanked the one remaining apple out. A hatchet and a lonesome book fell out onto the forest floor as she sat there, gazing at the fruit.

The apple had turned rotten in the past few days of zooming around, chasing monsters, and saving ponies. It had a horrible smell to it, destroying the otherwise pristine kiss of the cool night scene.

Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth and shook, quivered. With a grunt, she tossed the apple away, so that it landed with an ineffectual plop behind a line of strange bushes. Now, all she could see was the book lying on the ground beneath her. She grazed a hoof across the cover, but she couldn't bear to open it. Her eyes swam over the binding, lost in the antique surface, greeen like the forests of Equestria, the same color that Gold Petals' eyes weren't.

Shaking her head, Rainbow Dash shoved the book and the hatchet back into her bag. She tied the satchel up, but then her hooves went numb. She slowly sank to the ground, her nostrils flaring as she planted both forelimbs against her skull—tighter and tighter—as if trying to squeeze a rampaging tempest of thoughts out through her ears. Her breaths came shorter and shorter, more and more furious. A shudder ran through her system, then a whimper, and she started to buckle and heave.

Then, as the slightest bit of moisture came to her eyes, she felt it—and snarled. With gnashing teeth, she kicked up off the ground and soared into the starscape with a flurry of feathers.

Eastward

View Online

The constellations bowed around Rainbow Dash as she soared towards the east horizon. Hours into her flight, she had planted the goggles once more on her head. A light condensation gathered over the lenses, but that didn't seem to deter her.

With quiet grace, she angled her wings to catch the wind currents that would carry her forward with the least amount of effort. She glided for hours, with only the stars above as company.

There was no expression to her face, no curvature to her lips, no moisture to her eyes or shine to her coat. She was one with the sky, an accidental splash of colors against a curious and unpredictable tapestry. Her only purpose—her only desire—was to keep soaring her way through that mosaic, to discover more and more of it, even if it threatened to drown her all the more.

The mountains of Wintergate subsided beneath her. She was finally gracing a flat landscape for the first time in over a week. Windthrow was long behind. Rainbow Dash didn't even bother tempting a glance into her peripheral vision. All that mattered was forward.

Soon, the horizon was burning. With dawn came the rising Sun, the unwitting task of Princess Luna, and the one remaining anchor Rainbow Dash knew she would always have to home... or what she had once called “home.”

As the golden rays melted over the dewy landscape, Rainbow Dash closed her goggled eyes. She expected no mountain to collide with, no cloud to get buried in. Everything was air and wind and forgetfulness. She allowed it to embrace her like a lover, rocking away the memories of yesterday—both painful and blissful. Soon, she was bathed in the warmth of the eastward horizon, and her only recourse was to melt in it.

Unknown

View Online

Rainbow Dash flew east. After half a day, it had become an easy feat. A favorable wind blew at the back of the pegasus' feathers. The air before her gave very little resistance, and the atmosphere was tranquil and cool. She even took her goggles off for a while, allowing the upper currents to coast her gently towards the ever-stretching horizon.

With the departure of the mountains, the landscape gave way to gently rolling hills. Wintergate was a largely unpopulated place. Rainbow Dash wondered if Equestria was an anomaly to have had so many densely packed areas of equine living. She pondered if the ponies of Windthrow actually had any other villages to make contact with now that their time of isolationism was coming to an end.

Rainbow Dash winced. Her wings lost control for a moment, and she dipped briefly before climbing back into a controlled flight. A sigh escaped her lips. She didn't want to think about Windthrow. Not yet.

Below her, the land grew shinier. She put her goggles on and squinted down at the passing world. She realized that several small lakes and tiny rivers were starting to form beneath her. It was the first sight of its kind since she flew over the Undermarshes just beyond Everfree weeks before. As the day wore on, several flocks of birds lifted off of the glittering waters, momentarily accompanying her exodus. She skimmed by cranes, egrets, and herons. When a seagull cry or two touched her ears, Rainbow Dash grew curious. The air was starting to have a saline smell to it, and she scanned the north, east, and south horizons for the source of such a sensation.

Gradually, to the southeast, a bright blue line formed. Rainbow Dash couldn't help herself. She banked southward ever so slightly, careful not to lose her east momentum. Soon, that bright blue line was becoming thicker. However, with the dimness of the dying day, she decided not to take the plunge—as it were. She found a single sharp hill in the great plain of marshes and settled down for a brief snooze.

When she woke, it was just before dawn. She stretched her wings, adjusted the pendant around her neck, and flew at a close glide over the soggy landscape. Soon, she came upon a patch of sandy soil. Looking down, she was surprised to already see the water. The coast was placid. There were no crashing waves. This was how she came to suspect that she was at the edge of a very large lake.

Sure enough, as the sun broke out, she gazed south and saw a large body of water. She couldn't see the southern end of it, but she determined that there was a milky-whiteness to the liquid itself. She imagined that sediment had collected in the basin over the centuries. The place had a pristine quality to it, as if it had remained untouched by equines for countless eons.

Rainbow Dash decided to follow the northern edge of the lake. The banks curved north, much to her surprise, and she discovered a large river flowing into the basin. She wasn't aware of many rivers that flowed south. Curiosity got the best of her, and so she decided to swerve north slightly as she continued her eastward journey. What she discovered was a gently rising series of hills jutting up out of the earth like domed mounds. These weren't the jagged, pronounced mountains of west Wintergate, but something that very closely resembled a word that she had heard Red Turnip say days ago: “Slopelands.”

It was then that a startling thought came to her. Rainbow Dash came to a stop, sitting herself on a polished bit of stone in the center of a rapid stream of riverwater. In the midday sun, she dug into her saddlebag and produced a very familiar object. It was the map, and she slowly unrolled it in steady hooves before squinting at the old parchment.

Once more, she saw the names of regions, landscapes, and provinces. All of them were familiar to her. The last thing was a pair of sharp mountains on the very right side of the map. Beyond that, there was nothing. Rainbow Dash realized she had seen that nothing, and had surpassed it.

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. Without a second thought, she crumpled up the map, stood on her hind legs, and tossed the thing deep into the swiftly flowing river. The map disappeared, soaking away into nothingness.

It was then that Rainbow Dash smiled for the first time in nearly thirty-six hours. She stood up, adjusted her goggles, and took a running leap into the unknown.

House

View Online

Rainbow Dash walked up to it slowly, quietly. She narrowed her eyes. Then, reaching a hoof forward, she gave the wooden edge of the thing a light push.

The boat rocked ever so slightly in the wet sand. A loose collection of fishing tools rattled in between the decrepit seats. A rope was fastened to the bow of the vessel, mooring it to a wooden pole sticking partly out of the waters of the large lake. Among several cattails and fronds, a decaying piece of fish netting was tangled.

Rainbow Dash couldn't guess just how old the boat was, or how long it had been abandoned. She was immensely curious as to why this single piece of civilization was stuck here in the middle of so much nothingness. Taking a deep breath, she hovered up and craned her neck to look around. The sun was setting across the marshlands. The edges of the giant lake to the south glittered with the golden rays. Silently, Rainbow Dash scanned the nearby horizons for signs of other, living ponies.

She saw the shadow of something to the north, just along the furthest reach of the lake's edge. She cruised lightly over the rolling hills that lined the coast. Then, after a rise of earth, she saw it: a two story wooden lake house with part of its roof caved-in. Was this abandoned too?

Rainbow Dash touched down on a decrepit pier lining the south end of the house. Her hooves made echoing sounds as she strolled across the rotting planks. She saw another boat—this time upside down and overrun with grass and weeds. There was also the collapsed shell of a wagon and several overturned crates full of rusted tools.

If she was losing her incentive to call out loud for other ponies to hear, her resolve entirely disappeared as soon as she stepped through the back door to the house. The place was empty, overrun with dust and cobwebs. Everytime her hooves touched the floor, mounds of dust and sediment would rise and fall. The walls were stripped bear of portraits and the bookshelves were as empty as the boggy landscape surrounding the building.

Rainbow Dash, as always, felt the need to explore. But she didn't take her time. Instead, she bolted immediately towards the opposite side of the house and found the kitchen. Her stomach was growling halfway through the act of searching the pantry. Any box or container she found was full of dust and insect remains. She sighed, feeling her stomach growling again. With a nervouse shuffle, she gazed out the shattered window of the room towards where she had seen the boat full of fishing equipment.

The pegasus shuddered. She wandered through the house in a guilty slump, running a hoof through her mane. She wasn't starving. She was hungry, yes, but she wasn't desperate. There was no need to resort to becoming something base and brutish. Wintergaters ate meat, and that was okay for them. However, fishing in Equestria was only allowed for the feeding and maintenance of animals, pets, and forms of livestock in the possession of the citizenry. Eating fish would be just as disgusting as eating pony flesh.

At least, that's what Rainbow Dash was raised to believe. But here she was, countless kilometers from home, with nopony around to hear or see her. Her entire existence was funneled down into the act of flying east. Even in the darkest nights, when her thoughts belonged to nopony else but herself, Rainbow Dash couldn't deny that this was most likely going to be a one-way trip.

She snapped out of it, realizing that she was ascending through the house—but her wings weren't moving. It turned out that Rainbow Dash was scaling the stairs so that she entered the second story bedroom. The roof had partially disappeared. The Sun was almost beneath the Western Horizon, and it was bathing the wooden interior with an amber glow. Here, the wind blew in from the marshlands almost constantly. Any dust and debris had been fanned out ages ago. So when Rainbow Dash stumbled upon a lone mattress in the corner of the place, it struck her as remarkably pristine.

She smirked to herself. She had slept in far dirtier, muddier places. In a way, this felt like a palace to her wandering figure. Without thinking twice, she climbed onto the bed, relaxed her aching limbs, and stripped of her saddlebag for the first time in days. She felt immeasurably comfortable, as if she weighed half as much. Normally, this would inspire her to flit about and do backflips. For the time being, Rainbow Dash was overcome with a heavenly drowsiness. She rolled over in the bed, took one last glimpse at the crimson world softly settling outside the house, and yawned. Curling her legs to her chest, she went into a fetal position and descended into the embrace of sleep.

Bed

View Online

Rainbow Dash's hooves curled tighter towards her chest. Her wings stretched out, closed in, and stretched again. A shudder ran down her face, tensed, and collected in her mouth with a gasp. Ruby eyes flashing wide, she sat up straight, panting heavily.

She was still sitting on the mattress on the second level of the abandoned lake house. Night had completely fallen, and the stars were spilling over the sky above. The long stretch of the Milky Way glittered majestically overhead.

Slowly, Rainbow Dash's breaths calmed down. She discovered that she was shivering. It was cold—annoyingly cold. She imagined that it was because of the valley she was in; a natural wind funnel had formed and it was blowing cool moisture off the marshlands and into the open body of the house.

Rainbow Dash ran her forelimbs over each other, trying to rub her coat warm. She didn't understand why it was so freezing that night, or at least she pretended not to understand. The hollow sensation of her empty stomach did little to solace her. Desperately, she crawled across the mattress and reached for her saddlebag. She knew that there was one blanket left. The other two had been sacrificed in her infiltration of the Minotaur quarry days before.

Her hoof fished around the inside of the saddlebag. Finally, she clasped onto the blanket. Desperately, she yanked it out. A green book slid out onto the bed along with it.

Rainbow Dash sighed. She avoided the sight of the green tome. A few seconds passed, during which her shivers doubled. Biting her lip, she forced herself to look at the book.

Reaching over, she grasped it. Her forelimbs shook even more upon contact. It was difficult enough to so much as touch the binding. There was no way that Rainbow Dash would let herself open the book. Not yet.

A sniffle escaped her lips. She hugged the book to her chest and hung her face with a sigh. Several moments later, she gazed back up at the stars, at the innumerable bits of beautiful yet meaningless specks that shone across the ceiling of the earth. As gorgeous as the sight was, looking at it longer gave her little solace. Soon they all blurred together into an indiscernible gray.

She clenched her eyes shut as a hint of moisture touched her lashes. Unlike with Gold Petals, it was too cold to fly comfortably anywhere. Instead, Rainbow Dash drew the blanket over her figure, curled up in the corner of the bed, and hugged the book tightly to her—occasionally nuzzling it as the next hour ushered her into the warmth of sleep.

Cooler

View Online

The next afternoon, Rainbow Dash was soaring eastward. The border of the lake disappeared, and soon the marshlands dried into a series of rolling plains. Emerald fields stretched widely before the pegasus, forming a veritable sea of grass and shrubbery.

The air was getting cooler and cooler. Rainbow Dash had thought the coldness of the night spent at the lakehouse was just an isolated event. Apparently, that was not the case. She was entering an entirely different climate zone. The winds were thicker here, with bitter and icy currents that blew sideways at her flight, attempting to shove her path towards the south.

Nevertheless, she held firm to her course. Her teeth chattered on occasion, and the goggles threatened to come off with how much her head shivered from time to time. Swiftly, though, she amended this. She stopped on a hilltop and tightened the goggles, re-lacing the canvas straps still monogrammed with the initials “SL.”

There was a collective fog occupying the lengths of her journey. It wasn't a thick and unnatural thing like the essence of chaos that had collected around Windthrow. Rather, Rainbow Dash found herself skimming past several wisps of gray, translucent clouds that hung close to the earth's surface. The misty streams were moving quickly too, pushing against her in a southwest swirl. Rainbow Dash wasn't a geographical expert, but she was already predicting a huge structure ahead that would be capable of pushing such gusts of moist air in such a direction.

As the day wore on, she saw a hint of what she had imagined. There was a solid line of white carving into the sky dead ahead. The eastern horizon was being segmented into a jagged series of ivory shapes. She judged that it had to have been a mountain range, one that was larger and far more massive than any single ridge she had encountered in west Wintergate. If it was indeed a series of mountains high enough to effect the climate, Rainbow Dash could only imagine such a pronounced structure served as the eastern border to that equine province. For a brief moment, even she had to marvel at the sheer distance she had covered in so few days.

Night fell. Rainbow Dash stopped on the west end of a hilltop, hoping the landscape would block the cold winds ever so slightly. With flint and steel, she made a campfire, feeding it with dry twigs from local shrubbery. It was a miserable night, and she hardly got any sleep. Aside from shivering under the blanket, she was dealing with massive hunger pains. Rainbow Dash had gone without eating for longer periods, but never before scaling a series of mountains.

She realized that to head east all day tomorrow would be foolhardy. There was no telling just how many high mountains she was going to have to scale. Even from a long distance, they looked ridiculously tall, possessing an altitude that made vegetation inhospitable. If she truly wished to fly over them, she had to get herself well-fed before the journey even began. Already, the cold was starting to gnaw and bite at her. If her belly remained empty, there was a very real risk that she would freeze to death. She wasn't ready to suffer a fate so lame and idiotic.

The next morning, she had to pull herself onto all four hooves. She packed up her belongings and flew in a slow, southeasterly direction. That way she could approach the mountain while at the same time scan the horizon for orchards, farms, villages—anything that could help her get a bite to eat. There was also the small yet desperate hope that flying south might warm her slightly, seeing that she was well north of the equator and had every reason to believe that there were bodies of water to the south end of Wintergate.

Most of the day went by in a fitful stupor. Her stomach growled repeatedly, and her vision was turning foggy. Rainbow Dash briefly feared that the adrenaline and mania that had driven her so far east of Windthrow had made her blind to just how famished she really was. She was never a pony to use her head, and once again it was starting to bite her.

Grinding her teeth, she slid her goggles up and peered over the landscape with naked, darting eyes. A slight panic was rising through her system. She started thinking crazed thoughts of flying west, returning to Windthrow, or—horrifyingly enough—seeing if she could make use of the fishing equipment she had spotted a day and a half previous.

It was then that she saw something that made her shout out loud. It was a victorious roar, with a cracking voice of joy and triumph. Far below her, bordering a tiny pond just north of a dipping valley, was a hazy cluster of bright colors. There was no mistaking it, even from her hovering altitude. The winged pony had discovered flowers, and they looked scrumptious.

Peaks

View Online

It may not have been heaven, but as far as Rainbow Dash's stomach was convinced, it was the next best thing. She crawled through the shrubbery, munching flower after flower, her insides blessing her with sumptuous gurgles as she ingested petal after petal of floral goodness. She bore her nose through the colorful array, snatching lavender bud after lavender bud. Half of them went into her mouth, the others she collected in the thick of her saddlebag. She knew that she had a cold, perilous, and potentially long flight ahead, and she wasn't about to risk starvation while scaling the mountains ahead.

The daylight was beginning to wane, and Rainbow was already planning to spend the night and wait until morning to begin her trek. With a tall and unknowable land formation ahead of her, it was absolutely prudent that she begin the flight in the daytime when she could see what was below.

So, she rummaged through the shrubbery and picked out the plants that were dying or halfway dead. With the use of her hatchet, she ripped the dry twigs apart and formed kindling. She prepared a campfire for the night, but made sure to pack even more twigs and sticks of wood for the mountainous journey.

Night fell. The fire warmed her. She sat in peace, half-covered by her blanket, surrounded by soft grass and flowers. The stars painted a muted canvas over her head, and for some reason staring at them didn't fill her heart with lonesomness that evening.

She rolled over onto her back. Exhaling, she saw her breath spreading vapors in the amber firelight. The cosmos dipped in and out of the mist, and her eyes bounced around and did loopty-loops between stars, imagining that she was a lone speck of a pegasus outracing a bumbling group of ill-minded Shadowbolts.

For the next hour or so, she kept her body as still as possible and squinted at the starlight, attempting to spot where and in what direction the constellations moved. She wondered briefly if the entire universe was still—including the earth—and that she was the only thing that moved. She didn't understand where she was going with that thought. She fell into slumber with a smile.

The next morning was a foggy affair. She poured sand on the fire, stretched her limbs, took a breakfast bite of flowers, and took off. The saddlebag weighed three times as much, but after a brief strain she hardly mind. It was an invigorating challenge, and she tore her way skyward against the wind.

It took a solid hour of flight before she reached the rising slope of the first mountain range. In her feeble mind, she had imagined that she made camp at the very western edge of the land ridge, but she realized that she was wrong. The first attempt to scale the rising topography gave her a clear picture of just how immense these peaks were going to be. They dwarfed the elevated landscape of western Wintergate by a long shot.

Whistling, Rainbow Dash nevertheless climbed her way up the troposphere. The air grew thin, and she was stabbed from all sides by a persistent, knifing chill. It made her heart beat faster, and she felt slightly nostalgic for Cloudsdale. It was the second thing in the last twenty-four hours that made her smile. In a way, she was even somewhat proud of herself. It gave her a boost of strength as she skimmed over the top of the first summit, and came to a high coast above the first row of mountains.

From here, she could see the entire east horizon—but that very same horizon was blocked. There were innumerable mountains blocking her sight, all of them taller and more daunting than what she was just then scaling. Their elevated tips shone with bright sheets of snow and frost. It looked like she was about to glide over a gigantic field of ivory bones, deposited by some ancient gods.

Rainbow Dash blinked. She raised her goggles with a smirk. For the next hour, she challenged the biting cold head-on, not even doubting who would win.

Mountainous

View Online

What Rainbow Dash didn't account for was how dry she would feel. The cold winds high above the mountain were blisteringly harsh. She felt her lips becoming chapped within hours. What was more, the sunlight reflecting off the snow-capped mountains was quite literally baking her skin. She found herself gliding in southeast and northeast angles, alternating the sides of her body exposed to the solar glow. Most of the trip was performed squinting, and she definitely put the shades of her lenses through a workout.

Ultimately, the entire trek was a test of endurance. Rainbow Dash found herself having to rest on multiple occasions. This wasn't a difficult thing to do; many of the craggy rock formations provided shade for her to sit down and rest her eyes and body from the reflected sunlight. She found patches of snow that were melting. With her flint and steel, she made a torch out of a stick or two and melted the frost even further, dripping mountain fresh liquid into her canteen. After an hour, she had enough water to splash over her dry lips and wet her whistle. Refreshed, she took wing and soared eastward once again.

Even the mountain range of Canterlot couldn't compare to the majesty of Wintergate's eastern border. The granite plateaus rose so steeply that they deserved their own horizons. There were peaks so tall and prominent that giant swaths of shadow marked where they blocked the sunlight. Rainbow Dash briefly felt as though she were navigating a light show.

Every now and then, the snow would disappear, and the black surface of the elevated rock would appear to Rainbow Dash's hawk-eyes. The exposed stone was polished, smooth, immaculate as black pearls. The sheen of frost was so fine that sometimes she'd look down and get a kaleidoscopic effect, as if she was skimming the surface of onyx diamonds.

All in all, there was a haunting stillness to the roof of the world. Aside from random bursts of whistling gales, everything was dead quiet. There were no birds, no waterfalls, no hint of pony life for miles upon miles of jagged rocks.

Rainbow Dash had always dreamed of seeing the world. All her life, though, she had foolishly assumed that the available landscapes would be filled to the brim with ponies. These last few weeks, however, spent from the height of clouds, with the world turned microscopic and bleak down below, she was introduced into an unfathomable loneliness. There was something about it that was tantalizing, though, like swimming underwater for several minutes before coming up to air. Rainbow Dash didn't know how many days she had before seeing another sign of civilization. In a way, she didn't care. If anything, she had previous records to beat. She almost slowed her flight to a casual glide as she comprehended the immensity of her trip.

Then, as always, she would feel the weight of her pendant. She'd imagine a gray horizon as her forehead ached and her eyes flickered a different color. A brief sigh escaped her lips, and she accelerated her flight.

The world was turning crimson; the snowy peaks reflected a rich amber-brown. She realized that the sun was setting behind her. Soon, the shadows from the mountainsides were turning horizontal. The air grew chilly, and feeling dry was becoming the least of her worries. She had to find a place to set up camp, and she had to land before it became too dark to properly see anything. It didn't help that the further she circled about and looked, her lenses started to frost over. A groan escaped her lips, and the first pang of worry lit her soul that dying evening.

Niche

View Online

Rainbow Dash thought that she was prepared to handle the cold. She was wrong.

The frost of night descended on her like a shattering glacier. Every inch of her coat was penetrated by the gloss of freezing moisture. She had found a niche to situate herself in overnight, but she was hardly enthralled. For two solid hours, she fumbled to start a fire. The rocky structure of the crevice she was situated in was made slippery by a thin layer of sleet, and she nearly collapsed several times as she struggled to produce sparks with her flint and steel.

When she finally built a fire, Rainbow heaved numerous bundles of wood onto the glowing flame. Minutes passed as she squatted before the embers, warming her limbs, overjoyed to have feeling return to her hooves. She then noticed that—in her panic and desperation—that she had easily tossed over two-thirds of her wood supply onto the pyre.

She cursed under her breath, nevertheless squatting closer to the flames and rubbing her limbs. More minutes passed, and when she next stretched her wings, she twitched awkwardly upon realizing how stiff they were. The moisture that had clung to her feathers was starting to harden into granules of ice. Wincing, she turned around and positioned her back to the fire, stretching her wings out wide to receive the brunt of the warmth.

With a sigh, she gazed out into the haze of night. The color and spectacle of the stars was gone, replaced instead by a sheer blackness that loomed beyond the halo of orange light generated by the fire. If she squinted, she couldn't tell where the shadowed mountains ended and the dismal cosmos began. Somehow, she didn't doubt that her camp was the only source of light for miles around.

Rainbow Dash exhaled sharply, gazing down into the polished rock beneath her. Every time she thought she was getting used to perpetual isolation, she'd end up in a place or a situation that would dwarf the previous. It suddenly dawned on her that if she were to freeze to death in that place, not only would nopony bury her, but it was likely that no single soul would find her body, period.

Interestingly enough, Rainbow Dash was neither saddened nor frightened by this contemplation. She wondered how many ponies in history had perished in such a lonesome way, having vanished off the edges of the earth, carrying with them infinite secrets and thoughts that would be precious to them, that nopony else would be capable of contemplating for they weren't there when the end of all things descended on that one unfortunate soul. The end of the universe—after all—was relative to when a singled pony died, vanished, or just gave up, Rainbow Dash imagined. History was a selective thing, unaware of so many unsung bards lost within the gaps of the physical and mental planes...

Rainbow Dash went cross-eyed. She turned around, grabbed a stick that wasn't entirely burning, and smacked herself in a skull with it. As soon as her eyes blinked again, all she could think about was food, flying, and explosions.

She smiled.

Tossing the stick back in, she scooted over to the far end of the fire, so that she was pinned between the flames and the cradle that the rocky niche had made. Her wings were no longer stiff, and the flames had intensified enough to keep her moderately comfortable. She knew that it would be a pressing situation to find more wood the next day. She knew that there was an unfathomable distance of mountains left to scale. She also knew that there was nopony within dozens of miles to help her—much less Princess Luna.

Staring into the flames—basking in the warmth as she huddled toastily beneath the star-less expanse—Rainbow Dash no longer cared. She reached into her saddlebag and grabbed a few flowers. Munching on them, she smiled and fantasized about far more scrumptious morsels. She hoped that whatever civilization she might find on the other side of the mountain range: they'd have a feast for her... or at least a salad bar.

Maybe even a water park...

Rainbow Dash snickered to herself. She curled up besides the flame, closed her eyes, and dreamt of summer sunshine.

Landmark

View Online

Rainbow Dash knew she had ascended to heights like this before. Cloudsdale, where she was born, was higher than any mountain in Equestria. Still, as she glided endlessly upwards to scale the jagged summit, she gnashed her teeth against the biting cold, wincing in disbelief.

When she first saw the mountain, she thought that her eyes were deceiving her. Nothing that large and rigid should have existed. Regardless, when she set out that morning to pierce the east horizon, there it was: a monumental promontory of granite construction, occupying a great deal of the sky.

Rainbow Dash had to pause several times on random cliffaces before she could fly any further. Those were tense, shallow-breathed moments spent panting in frustration as she clung to the earthen beast that was refusing to budge. It occurred to her that she could very easily have flown around the immense structure...

The pegasus spat on the rock. Her saliva froze in a blink. Cracking her joints and flexing her wings, Rainbow Dash merely shot up again. The wall of rock became her “ground,” surging past her as she bulleted towards the ceiling of the world. The blueness in the sky had turned into a muted haze, and Rainbow Dash felt like her lungs were shrinking. Concentrating on breathing was the one thing to keep her mind off of freezing. She felt the blood pulsating through her vessels as she finally... finally came upon the top of the mountain and evened out on a ridiculously thin plateau. She landed with numb hooves and trotted weakly towards the opposite cliff. She both anticipated and feared what would be on the other side of the great barrier. If it was already the edge of the world, she somehow wouldn't have been shocked.

What she saw almost took the last remaining breath out of her.

She slumped down onto her haunches and slipped the shaded goggles up to her brow. Wiping a sheen of snowy frost off her face, she blinked her ruby eyes hard and gazed into the expanse.

There was no more world; all was swirling mist and clouds and fog. Occasionally, a sharp mountain or two would rise up through the ceiling of moisture, daring to pierce the heavens with a fraction of the audacity that Rainbow Dash had embodied. As the sun shone down over the glittering peaks and the bubbling clouds below, everything glittered with a platinum shine, as if a hovering pool of flame had chosen to baptise the middle lengths of the mountains teeming below Rainbow Dash's twitchy hooves.

It suddenly occurred to her that something very special had happened that moment. Rainbow glanced down at where her legs were contacting the lifeless, frost-speckled rock of the mountain peak. She imagined that she was the only living soul to have made contact with that very rock. Furthermore, she highly doubted that any other pony in the rest of unwritten history would ever stumble upon that site again. Even if she left a landmark to tell of her having been there, what purpose would it serve? That peak was likely to be left untouched, undisturbed, and virtually unseen for dozens if not hundreds if not thousands of years after Rainbow Dash's hooves stopped scratching it.

Suddenly, the thought of leaving a landmark was no longer important to her. Nopony else in the legacy of the universe was bound to know of that spot, of that scenery, of the beauty and wonder it entailed. The only permanence it would ever have would be for Rainbow Dash, for she had lived that moment and would carry it with her to the grave, like a personal time capsule engrained in the stone surface of her soul.

She smiled. It was the first time in weeks that she had actually felt proud of something.

Rainbow Dash kicked off the cliff and flew into the platinum brilliance. She was careful to resist the urge to dive... in order to preserve the blood that was pulsing through her electrified heart.

Blizzard

View Online

When the blizzard hit, Rainbow Dash thought she would be prepared for it. It struck with such severity that she could barely fly a straight path. A huge downdraft cascaded across the mountainside, pelting her with relentless flurries of snow and powder. Every time she attempted flying straight up, the draft flung her at an awkward angle. For fear of being tossed blindly into a mountainside beyond the veil of frosted clouds, she stuck to the mountainous slopes, crawling her way forward against the winds in hope that the sheer body of the craggy landscape would eventually block the throes of the relentless blizzard and give her some relief.

In such a grounded fashion, Rainbow Dash scaled the cliffs and slopes of the eastward ridges. At least, she hoped that she was climbing her way towards the east. The blizzard had struck in the middle of the day, and the sunlight was evenly dispersed through the translucent soup of ice and frost. What was more, the storm had sent her in a dizzying spiral as soon as it struck. For all she knew, she could just as easily have been trekking north, south, or—worst of all—back west.

The hellish grayness was closing in on all sides. Everytime Rainbow Dash opened her mouth to breathe, she nearly choked on the bone-chilling flurry. She clung to the rocky walls, using her wings to steady her. Her vision was reduced to about ten feet, and she used it to find her way up. Her only progress was the feeble knowledge that—despite her predicament—she was ascending the stony peak. It was her slim hope that she'd reach the summit and have a firm platform to rocket herself skyward as soon as there was a break in the winds.

This, of course, was a noble pursuit. However, it was starting to take too long. The blizzard would not let up. From the windblown icicles she was spotting along the ascent, Rainbow figured that the ghastly phenomenon was common to that particular section of landscape. She was having to deal with the very real and utterly horrifying fact that the sun would fall before she'd enjoy a respite.

Rainbow Dash's teeth chattered, but she couldn't feel it. She couldn't even hear it, much less the muscles in her jaws or the breaths coming out of her nostrils. Moisture was freezing over her nose and clinging to her lashes. She wished that she had somehow acquired for herself a canvas mask back at Windthrow. Years of exercising her wings and hooves had made her unprepared for protecting her face first and foremost. It was one thing to purposefully launch herself into danger for the sake of a well-planned stunt. Rainbow Dash wasn't entirely equipped to deal with the consequences of marching directly into prolonged peril.

Her thoughts bounced back to the truly hectic moments of her life as of late: quarry eels, hydras, minotaurs, and extra-dimensional bat-creatures. She had endured so many chaotic and unpredictable hardships. Surely she had it within her to survive a single blizzard.

And yet, the light was fading from the milky world of madness surging around her. She felt the cold intensifying, if that was even possible for her frayed nerves. Marching into the flurrying flakes felt like swimming through knives. Regardless, Rainbow Dash persisted. On wobbling hooves, she pulled herself up cliff-face after cliff-face, struggling not to slip and fall into unfathomable nothingness just mere inches from her quivering figure. She hadn't used her wings for hours, and she wasn't sure the feathers had what it took from the constant punishment to give her a much-needed lift.

The day was dying. A stone gray darkness melted over the howling cyclone. Rainbow Dash paused to press her back against a wall of stone, panting. She hissed through gnashing teeth as she reached a hoof up to her ruby pendant and rubbed it. A dim glow emanated, then slowly intensified, warming her ever so slightly and bringing a miniscule glow to the frozen hellscape descending all around her. Rainbow Dash wondered if this would be the last thing she would see—a bubble of crimson luminescence hopelessly veiled by snow on all sides. The mountain whistled from the sheer force of the winds slicing past its granite shoulders. It sounded like a swarm of invisible creatures soaring towards her from a distance.

Rainbow Dash closed her eyes, attempting to meditate, to find her center. She had lived a very hazardous life. She was prepared to experience many things. She was ready to stumble, ready to hurt herself, and even ready to die. One thing she never wanted to experience before the end of her days was panic.

So, with a sharp breath, she opened her eyes, and took one step forward. Only... the mountain had disappeared beneath her. To her shock, a swift gale had side-swiped the mountain, shattered a throng of icicles, and flung them hard into her side like a blast of glass shrapnel. Rainbow Dash could no longer make broad assumptions about the usefulness of her wings. As she sailed off the mountainside, she had no choice but to exercise them. She found the entire endeavor taxing, for try as she might to extend her feathers, her appendages were failing her. The blizzard had done its damage, and half of her body wasn't responding to what her nerves were telling it. Soon, she found herself plummeting—twirling—and ultimately diving towards a deep crack in the earth, a sudden gorge that threatened to swallow Rainbow Dash whole.

She hardly had the breath to scream.

Again

View Online

Rainbow Dash gnashed her teeth and fought to extend the feathers on her wings. The appendages refused to obey her. Rainbow's body had become a numb missile, sailing into the womb of the world. She took a deep breath, then jerked to the side. Her body spun, forming a spiraling pattern. The frost shook off her feathers, and suddenly they sprung out like cat claws. As Rainbow flew into the mouth of the gorge, she finally managed to extend her wings. She caught the last gust of cold winds before she sunk beneath the shadowy canyon walls.

The wind whistled around her like a sea of ghosts. Pebbles and stalactites surged past her vision. She growled for strength and tried to pull herself out of the gorge. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't lift herself back up to the surface. She saw a granite wall ahead of her. The mouth of the gorge was about to render her to paste. With no chance of reducing her velocity, Rainbow Dash took a gamble. She angled her wings and dove down.

Her body dipped into the blackness, but didn't strike anything. As the brightly-lit world disappeared behind her, she found herself piercing the lengths of an inexplicable cavern nestled between the mountainous ridges. She felt lengths of granite brushing against her wings, and she knew she had to stop her momentum soon. With only a racing heartbeat as her guide, she dove further and stretched her hooves out. She started to hear the echoes of her own breath. The dark underworld around her was shrinking.

Soon, her hooves made contact with smooth stone. They bounced off almost immediately. She winced at the grinding sensation, but resumed the touchdown. Her limbs heated up with the frictious touch, and soon she was losing balance. Rainbow Dash spun forward, rolled, and bounced off a length of rock. Grunting, she ricocheted off a side wall, slid several meters, and came to an aching stop beneath a halo of pale light.

It took five seconds for Rainbow Dash to find her breath, and another five seconds for her nerves to discover just how much pain they were in. She let out a squeaking noise, wincing more from the sound she had made than from the pain that had sparked it. She bit down hard on her jaw, shook, and exhaled sharply. Soon, rivulets of numbness were spreading through her body once again, bringing her a brief but pitifully short comfort.

Instinctively, she flexed her limbs, feeling for broken bones. Her limbs moved just fine, and her wings—albeit aching—were still in working shape.

Rainbow Dash was too mad at herself to bother rejoicing in her new lease on life. She stood up with a grunt, gazing angrily at the tiny, circular hole above where she was. Straight through, she could see a bright gray world swirling with snow and frost. She knew that the surface was just in the crook of a steep ravine, and any attempt to fly up there and lift herself back to the level of the mountain peaks would be futile.

She could either wait out the storm in that tiny cavern—a feat that would be harrowing, considering the onset of night—or she could set out and see just how far the cave went. Both options were potentially dangerous, but one was only slightly less boring than the other.

So, with a sigh, Rainbow Dash rubbed her hoof along the ruby jewel of her pendant, summoned a dim crimson glow, and set forth through a thin corridor lined with quartz and jagged stone.

Pools

View Online

As Rainbow Dash proceeded, she saw more and more rows of jagged quartz forming along either side of her trek. Her pendant's glow formed a kaleidoscopic dance of ruby light as she strolled past the translucent materials. For a brief moment, any despair and worry about the blizzard sealing her exit had vanished. If there was something Rainbow Dash was other than daring, it was curious.

A breath escaped her lips as the ceiling produced several veins of thick crystals. Each shard was easily the thickness of an adult pony. She saw her reflection appearing dozens of times in a blink. She could barely tell from the polynumerous resemblances of herself, but her complexion appeared haggard, worn-out, and mercilessly emaciated from so many days straight of flying through frigid landscapes.

She paused for a moment after her stomach gurgled. Desperately, she reached back to her saddlebag. To her intense relief, the pouches hadn't flown open. That meant that the contents of her belongings were still there. Upon that thought, she reached in and pulled loose a preserved flower. She munched on the thing for nourishment as she trotted ahead, her ears flicking from the distant sound of whistling blizzard winds.

It occurred to Rainbow Dash that she wasn't thinking of the cold all that much. The further she moved, she realized it was because the tunnel was actually getting warmer. She flexed her wings, relieved to feel the frost melting off the feathers. Not only was it getting warmer, but the place was starting to get positively sweltering.

What was more, a green glow was emanating from the distance. Rainbow Dash rounded a corner, not sure if she was marching north or south but suddenly not caring. She came upon a misty interior, a cavern filled to the brim with steam and fumes. She gaped upon the sight of several pools formed in random ovals within the stone floor. The pegasus had stumbled upon a subterranean pit of lava springs... or at least that was Rainbow Dash's best guess.

The irregularly shaped pools shimmered from a green light deep beneath their bubbling waters. All of the frost and hint of snow was gone from that place, even though there were a few porous spots in the ceiling where the blizzard howled constantly. The rock floor and walls were slick with condensation. If Rainbow Dash closed her eyes and breathed deeply, she would have imagined she was back at Aloe and Lotus' Day Spa.

A foalish urge shot through the pegasus' body. Squirming excitedly, she stripped of her saddlebag and approached the edge of the first of many pools. She reached forward—nervously at first—and barely tapped the surface of the pool. It was warm—very warm—but hardly scalding. Courageously, she stuck her entire hoof in. She was greeted with the most luxurious feeling she had been graced with in months. With a rapturous squeak, she plunged into the pool. She bobbed for a moment, paddling about, reveling in the oozing warmth covering every inch of her pores. All of the misery and frigid anguish of the past few days turned to vapor in an instant. Rainbow Dash exhaled long and hard and kicked back, lying with her shoulders against the edge of the glowing pool. A giggle escaped her lips, and she closed her eyes as she basked in the bubbles and steam.

There was no way of putting this kind of relaxation into words. Rainbow Dash imagined brighter, warmer, more colorful days, and even still they couldn't compare. Catching her breath, she started to map out a far happier and rosier plan for the following day. The blizzard would calm down, she figured, and when the sun rose again she would fly through clear skies and find her way beyond the mountain ranges. She might even find some lower vegetation—maybe an orchard or two. She remembered the last time she ate fruit. The pears outside of the Minotaurs' compound were dry and brittle; they had only served as a means of sustaining her and Rockspot. The next time she found an orchard, she wasn't going to settle for anything less than golden delicious apples, or tangy oranges, or sweet tangerines.

Her mouth watered with the thought, and she drifted even further away into her fantasies, which was probably the reason why Rainbow Dash was deaf to the shuffling of heavy claws in the distance, and even more oblivious to the looming, scaley shape suddenly rising up behind her...

Maw

View Online

The lava pool was relaxing. Rainbow Dash did everything but drown in it. She allowed herself to be soothed by the rising fumes, to be lulled to semi-consciousness by the warm vapors, to be pinched by the heated, rancid breath...

Her eyes flew open. Her nose was scrunched up. Something suddenly, horribly reeked of foul. She tilted her head, and a large drop of saliva hit her square between the eyes. When she winced, she wasn't the only thing in the cave hissing.

A gigantic, scaley frame of teeth was sailing down at her.

Instead of jerking straight up, she dove through the currents, shooting away like a torpedo as the edge of the pool behind her shattered to bits. She felt an unnatural wave of hot water pushing her to the far side of the underground basin. She lifted up, sputtering, her mane soaked. She glanced over to see the front half of a large reptilian mass. She saw six limbs, two massive tails, and a neck that looked like it was forged from pure granite. When the monstrocity raised its head from the edge of the pool, she saw four rows of teeth beneath its hissing jaws.

Gulping, Rainbow Dash glanced down. She squinted.

At the bottom of the pool there was a thin layer of glowing green rock that separated the rest of the cave from a seeded river of lava. However, just above that layer, nestled in groups of six, were large clusters of rust-red eggs.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes long and hard. She didn't have much time to gawk at the situation, for soon the gigantic lizard was scurrying towards her on six thunderous limbs. It uses its twin tails as a springboard and flung itself forward at her, jaw first.

The pegasus shot straight towards the ceiling. Water and pebbles splashed beneath her as the lizard impacted the floor. She flew up, grabbed a stalactite with her entire weight, and snapped it off. Coming back down, she snarled and flung the stone at the creature's skull at full-force.

The monster didn't even budge.

Rainbow Dash was halfway through uttering an expletive when the creature headbutted her. It felt like being slammed by a living brick wall. Rainbow Dash barreled backwards, ricocheted off a stalagmite, and came to a sliding stop beside another pool. Wincing, she struggled to get up on all fours. She squinted across the landscape and saw the distant sight of her saddlebag.

The image was instantly blocked when the monster landed in front of her. With a growling hiss, the thing spun its body and slashed its tails at Rainbow.

She ducked as a chunk of wall behind her exploded.

The monster shrieked and flung its appendages again.

Rainbow Dash jumped up as the edge of the pool splashed beneath her. Kicking her hooves off against the wall, she bolted forward, skimmed directly above the monster's snapping jaws, and flew down the length of its spine. She swooped towards the sight of the saddlebag, planning a hasty retreat, when the rearmost right leg of the creature lifted up and slapped her with the monster's knee. She grunted and flew off course, sailing past the saddlebag and landing with a splash inside a deep pool of bubbling liquid.

She shot back up to the surface, gasping for breath—only to have a pair of jaws coming down on her. With a drowning shriek, she plunged back into the churning pool. The claustrophobic basin was bubbling and surging all around her. All she saw was green light, froth, and the huge chomping jaws of the creature trying to pull her out of the natural dish like a pony might bob for apples. She was running out of oxygen, out of strength, out of hope—

The monster's teet clamped onto her prismatic tail hairs. Rainbow Dash let loose a bubbling shriek. Then her entire world went cold as she was lifted up in a flash, waved around in the cave and tossed by the monster's jaws in a twirl. When she landed, her hooves stumbled upon something wet and springy. She looked down and saw nothing but tongue. Gasping, she stood up on her hind quarters and raised her forelimbs directly upward. Just in time, Rainbow Dash used her body as a stick, holding the ravenous creature's mouth open.

The muscles of the giant lizard quivered all around her. Rainbow Dash was shuddering, straining. If she moved a single inch, the jaws would close in around her and she would be flung down the gaping maw directly in her sight. The smell of bile and acid tickled her nostrols. Everything was hellishly hot as she crumbled upon the gateway to death.

The dim light of her pendant flickered. Rainbow Dash was sweating. The eyes rolled back in her head. She refused to believe that it would end like this. She thought of Princess Luna. She thought of the Midnight Armory. But suddenly nothing about the future was helping her to fight any harder. With a whimpering noise, her mind flew back... insanely far back. Her forelimbs gave way. Her knees buckled, and the monster's jaws closed all around her, consuming her.

Cherish

View Online

“Somebody stop the cow-filly, I wanna—HIC—get off...”

“Gosh darn it, Rainbow, you done gone too far.” Applejack moaned. She trotted across the Ponyville countryside under the sparkling canvas of night. She wasn't alone. A drunk and thoroughly sapped Rainbow Dash was quite literally draped across her back. “What did I tell ya last year about havin' too many mugs during Cider Season?”

“It's just... so—HIC—good...” Rainbow Dash said, then giggled as she clung limply to Applejack's spine. “I'd like to—HIC—have another...”

“Uh uh. No more for you, missy. Maybe yer ego can take it, but I ain't so sure about yer insides. And while we're on the subject, you'd best be holdin' it in. I'll have you home in a jiffy...”

“Holding what in?” Rainbow Dash slurred and blew a tuft of blonde mane hair out of her nose. “We're at a party, AJ. It's okay to let loose...”

“No, Rainbow.” Applejack sighed. “The party was back at Sweet Apple Acres, and it ended three hours ago. Land's sakes...” She shook her head and groaned. “You'd sure as sugar better thank me for this in the morning.”

“Mmmmm... Sankuuuuuu, Jappleack...”

“Oh Goddess...”

“Mmmmf—Heehee... Thanky Thanky Thanky for the Cidey Cidey Cidey—HIC—Snkkkt-Hahahaha!”

“Heh heh heh.” Applejack couldn't help but guffaw. “My stars, Rainbow. You certainly are smashed. What would do without me, sugarcube.”

“Hmmm...” Rainbow Dash's face tensed slightly as her eyes rolled to take in the blossoming stars above. “Don't like... Don't like...”

“Huh? Don't like what?”

“Nnngh... Don't like b-being alone...”

Applejack smiled gently. “You ain't alone, darlin'. You've got friends who love and care for you, even if you are drunk off your flank. Now hold on tight, and dun be thinkin' about nothin' that might make you throw up. I'm gonna take you home and you'll be safe. I promise you...”

“Take... m-me home...” Rainbow Dash nodded.

“Whew. Thank goodness pegasi are some light-weighted folks or else this would have been a real chore. Feels like all your fancy schmancy flight exercises are worth somethang.”

“Mmmm... t-take me home...”

Applejack laughed again. “I am, RD. I am... just hold yer... hold yer... well, you know what I mean...”

While Applejack hummed a gentle tune to herself, Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. The hiccups left the pegasus' lungs, and instead a warm breath filtered through her. She held her limbs tighter around the kindly mare who was carrying her away somewhere safe, somewhere warm. A gentle moisture lined her eyes, matching the redness beneath her cheeks. With a contented smile, she closed her lids and lay limp on Applejack's back, nuzzling her soft orange coat.

If Rainbow Dash never became popular, if she never joined the Wonderbolts, if all of her plans for the future never came through, it suddenly didn't matter. Living a long and healthy life meant countless opportunities—countless nights and morning—to cherish a memory such as this.

Chaos

View Online

Rainbow Dash screamed.

He limbs flexed, and the monster's jaws were snapping wide open.

The creature shrieked and hissed in pain as a bright glow of crimson emanated from its maw.

Rainbow Dash's pendant was glowing, but it was no longer around her neck. She was holding it loosely in her hoof, and her eyes...

They were losing their normal color in a spiral. Flickering with beams of unnatural light, they turned into pinprics of red within yellow seas. Rainbow Dash snarled, and her gnashing teeth appeared to quadruple in number. She flung the mouth of the creature open with freakish strength, then bucked the roof of the lizard's mouth with her hooves.

The lizard sputtered, spat, and coughed Rainbow Dash up.

The pegasus flew back, breathless. Without wasting anytime, she flew down and snatched her saddlebag. She left the chamber of the thrashing creature in a bright blue blur. She soared towards one of the open holes of light above. She didn't bother fearing the blizzard anymore.

She emerged into the cold, wintry world like a rocket. Gravity won out, and soon she was stumbling, sliding through the snow. She dropped her saddlebag and collapsed in a bank of white frost, twitching and spasming. There were two red spots forming along her brow with the same severity of the yellow glow assaulting her eyes. The wounds began to bleed, as if something was trying to burrow up from the surface of her skin. She waves of dizziness overtake her, and she knew she barely had the strength to undo what had been done.

Flailing blindly into her madness, she miraculously succeeded in flinging the Element of Loyalty back around her neck. She exhaled with a shuddering breath, hugging herself in a fetal position as the dizziness slowly cleared. The two spots in her head disappeared, leaving only two thin rivers of blood.

Minutes passed. Rainbow Dash could barely sit up straight. She opened her eyes—their normal ruby color—and gaped at the sunset over the mountains.

The blizzard had ended. It was only a belated blessing.

Coughing, sputtering, and cringeing, Rainbow Dash slowly pulled herself up, donned the saddlebag, and slumped like a zombie in the only direction that mattered.

East.

Show

View Online

A warm fire crackled beside Rainbow Dash as she sat on an open ledge facing the east horizon. The blizzard had stopped, but several swift winds pelted the mountains with brief frost. She had to re-kindle the fire at least three times, but it didn't matter to her. Rainbow was prepared to spend the entire night underneath the stars. After all, she had had her fill of closed-in spaces.

Her nostrils flared. She reached a hoof up and patted her forehead. Most of the blood had dried up, but her brow still hurt in two places. Just thinking of the pain and dizziness that came to her whenever she removed the necklace filled the pegasus with a heavy shudder. She reveled in the weight of the Element of Loyalty around her neck. Placing a gentle hoof over the ruby lightning bolt, she felt the polished surface, exhaling with relief.

Her eyes drifted up towards the cosmos. As her vision bounced between lonesome constellations, she wondered how many times she would cheat death in her life before she got bored with the whole escapade. Twice in a matter of weeks, she had snuck into the chambers of large behemoth creatures, and she couldn't help but imagine that part of her did it on purpose.

Rainbow Dash's ears flicked. Lethargically, she gazed across the starlit landscape. The moon was waning, but still she could see several frosted peaks looming in a forest of rock all around her. The air had no howl to it; the spaces between mountains was too vast to be acoustic. It felt as though the very vacuum of space had collected itself upon the jagged roof of the world to retire, and Rainbow Dash was in the heartless center of it. Whenever she breathed, it felt like an earthquake shattering across the firmament of the earth.

It was then that she realized something, an epiphany that had been gnawing at her for months, that had been begging to be born in the penultimate chapter of her existence: that life was turning out to be something a whole lot lonelier than death.

Rainbow Dash closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She suddenly felt the weight of her saddlebag. Shuffling, she shook the satchels off her shoulders and reached in. Pulling out the green-bound book, she held it in her hooves and gazed at the antique surface. A chill came over her, filling her with more paralysis than ever a giant reptile in any cavern could ever hope to inflict. She thought lonesome thoughts, poisonous thoughts, like what Gold Petals may have been up to at that moment: if she was feeling just as helpless as Rainbow Dash, though she was surrounded by so much life. Would she be drowning her fears in “Gold Plate,” just as Rainbow Dash was drowning her past in the East?

A shudder flew through her forelimbs, and before Rainbow Dash knew it, she was lifting the front cover of the book. Her heart pounded in her chest with each exposed inch of the first sheet of paper. A whimper threatened to form in her throat.

And then something stabbed her eye from a distance. Something streaking.

Rainbow Dash gasped. She looked up and saw a blur of pale-ivory light. She blinked, and the glow was gone... only to be replaced by another, then another. A meteor shower was taking place. It was a spontaneous show of beauty for a part of the world where no ponies were meant to reside. And yet, there Rainbow Dash was, a lone survivor, and a blessed spectator situated upon the freezing roof of everything.

She rediscoverd her smile.

Slapping the book shut, she stood straight up and paced to the very edge of the cliff. She tilted her head forward and took a deep breath. There was something refreshing about the crisp, clean air. She realized that as soon as she dove towards lower altitudes again, she would miss that. But then, she wouldn't miss the cold and the frost. Life was full of balances, of surprises and twists and horrors and joys all the same. It may have been lonely, true, but it was hardly boring.

She murmured something. Perhaps it was a name. Perhaps it was a form of gratitude. Perhaps it was both. Then she sat down and enjoyed the show.

Flag

View Online

Rainbow Dash glided over the mountaintops, her goggles glinting with the rising sun of dawn. She veered around peaks and rises and sharp ridges of stone. Before her, one particular summit stretched high into the troposphere. She pivoted to the north, attempting to go around it, as if a great lethargy had finally overtaken her after so many days and she no longer desired to be daredevilish.

However, upon coasting the northeastern edge of the mountain, something caught her eye: a brown streak in her peripheral vision. Curious, she banked hard to the south and came around in a complete circle. She closed in upon the mountain, squinting at a flat piece of rock along the east side of the summit. Her breath left her upon making a unique discovery.

There was what looked to be the age-old remnants of a campsite. It obviously wasn't just any campsite, but something that had been deposited upon the topmost portion of the mountain with a great deal of excruciating effort and fatigue. Rainbow Dash saw the makings of a tent, several metal pegs, a crate full of tools, and several bundles of lumber. What was more, there was a flag in the center of the whole mess, and it was remarkably well intact.

The flag was red, and in the center of the slightly faded canvas was the image of a blue horseshoe framed with interwoven lengths of green vines and white carnations. Positioned next to the flag was a wooden plaque, and several initials were carved into it, along with a single phrase: “In the name of Emeraldine, we make our mark, offering our legacies to the eyes of the cosmic goddesses.”

Rainbow Dash couldn't help but smirk. She looked around, then saw an abandoned wooden toolcrate half submerged in high altitude frost. She pulled it over and stood it next to the plaque. Reaching into her saddlebag, she produced the metal hatchet and began carving into the wooden material until the toolcrate read “Rainbow Dash.” Once her mark had also been made, she stepped back with a contented sigh.

Hovering with the ease of pegasus wings, she gazed down to see what was blemishing the east side of the mountain. She saw a trail of dangling equipment and cords leading down from the flag-stabbed summit, down into a hilly area of rocky but navigable topography. It was an extremely rough landscape for a flying mare to transcend, but it had to have been feasibly next-to-impossible for earth ponies. She suddenly remembered the draw of the landscape, and the delicious challenge of seemingly unreachable goals.

It also made her realize something else. This was her first sign of civilization in days. After half a week of flying over barren, silent mountainsides, it was quite possible that Rainbow Dash was reaching the very edge. She followed the old tracks in the ground, and it led a haphazard but very real trail eastward. As she flew along, she realized that—indeed—the horizon was beginning to even out, and there loomed before her a grand green haze of flat plains and rolling hills.

The air grew thicker. Moisture gathered in swiftly billowing mists, and a delightful warmth greeted her as she descended. Rainbow Dash took a deep breath, smiled, and raised her goggles as she pierced the very edge of her most recent of perilous journeys.

Emeraldine

View Online

It was hazy at first, like a brown flea clinging to a dog's rocky nose. But there was no denying that it was pony-made. As Rainbow Dash flew closer, the wooden cabin came into focus. It stood on the eastern promontory of a jutting mountain, one of the last few peaks of the ridge dividing the rough topography of the west from the sloping terrain stretching comfortably in front of the pegasus. What was more, the cabin wasn't alone. There stood a tall wooden tower to the side of it, complete with a red flag that billowed in the wind. It appeared to be a lookout post of sorts, but as Rainbow Dash touched down, she discovered that the tower was deserted.

With dull anticipation, Rainbow Dash trotted around until she was peering into a faded blue panel of glass in the north side of the cabin. Sure enough, nopony was inside. Regardless, this hardly depressed her. She was certain that she'd stumble upon further evidence of civilization beyond the peak, and soon she would be in the company of things that were slightly less boring than snow-covered mountains.

Without a second breath, Rainbow Dash kicked off the wooden building and flew under the midday sun. The clouds were heavy here, but they were hardly ominous. A gentle, silken quality embodied them, causing them to drift like translucent balloons over the enormity of the outstretched plains.

Rainbow Dash was coming upon the largest valley she had witnessed in her life. Instead of being arid and dry like the deserts of Appleloosa, this place was teaming with grass and bushes. The landscape had a moist, teal color to it, as if the morning dew never evaporated from the floor of the world. Whatever this “Emeraldine” was, it not only lived up to its name, it surpassed it. A tangy freshness filled Rainbow's nostrils as she coasted lower and lower across the landscape. The air was still cold, but not in an excrutiating way. She enjoyed the full breaths she was able to afford suddenly, skimming over the last of several rocky barricades as she came upon the full depth of the enormous valley.

As she soared past a final cluster of stone, she heard the thick trickle of cascading water and glanced down. She was startled to see a flat wooden roof, followed by a slowly revolving wheel of oaken panels.

It was a mill, and a waterwheel had been erected at the neck of a rapidly gushing waterfall. What was more, there were four-legged figures trotting back and forth between instruments and workstations. They were earth ponies, Rainbow Dash surmised with a prolonged, yet smiling groan. Instead of leather, many of them had their front halves and lower legs bundled in wool. A glittering sheen of moisture danced off the fabric of their sweaters as they briskly worked to make meal out of a thatched collection of harvested wheat.

Unlike the grim inhabitants of Windthrow, these ponies bore a relatively pleasant complexion. They'd frequently pause in the middle of their own work to greet other ponies and share a happy little conversation. Several ponies laughed, others nuzzled each other, and as soon as the disparate bits of discussion ended, the workers went on their merry way. Overall, they were as happy and resplendent as the immense land they worked off of.

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. She heard shouting sounds ahead of her. Facing east once again, she discovered that she was gliding over several rooftops of a tiny little wooden village lying at the foot of the mountains. The place was tinier then Ponyville, and it hugged the smallest, quietest of lakes that was collected at the far end of a creek beyond the mill. Still, the dwelling felt as densely populated as from where Rainbow hailed. Ponies formed busy clusters in the marketplace, took their pets for walks, chatted with their loved ones, and escorted their foals to and from school. If Rainbow Dash tried really hard, she imagined that she could even hear singing.

Attracted once again to the sound of shouts, Rainbow Dash glanced to her left. She saw a wide open field between a triad of large buildings. Within it, several ponies had lined up into two groups, and several more ponies were spectating as the teams fought for control of a bouncing ball. Rainbow spotted netted goals on the far ends of each field, and was swiftly beginning to figure out the rules without even asking anypony.

Not a single soul glanced up at her as she circled lower and lower around the field. She imagined that it was because these earth ponies—much like the norther populace of Wintergait—just weren't familiar with pegasi. Stifling a tiny snicker, Rainbow Dash flew down and settled atop a wooden shed just behind a line of cheering bystanders. Relaxing her wings, she squatted low and listened in on the ball game...

Ridgeside

View Online

“Score's three to three,” uttered a red-haired mare with a smug grin. She dribbled the ball through the dewy field and came to a stop along with the rest of her athletic colleagues. “You thought your team had it made, didn't you, Brisk Run?”

“You just had a stroke of luck, Cherrymane!” exclaimed a breathless, brown-maned stallion in a black-wooled sweater, flanked by several ponies in identical fatigues. “So you've got Grassy Fields on your team and he's caught his second wind! So what?! Give us the ball so we can kick it in already!”

“Heeheehee...” Cheerymane's cheeks turned rosy as she winked at him. “I'm not letting you start the play until you realize just how badly you and all your teammates are gonna lose.”

Brisk Run rolled his eyes. “Oh please, Cherrymane, spare me...”

“I hope your bit bag is full!” She retorted as the rest of her team snickered. “Cuz you're going to be paying for all our drinks tonight!”

“Hah!” Brisk Run cackled. “In your dreams! Me and the other guys have an entire roof to paint tomorrow morning! Kicking your sorry flanks is the only thing that's gonna energize us tomorrow!”

“That's why you're always losing, Brisk Run,” Cherrymane said. She sashayed past him and brushed her tail hairs under his twitching nose. “You put all your time into making Ridgeside beautiful when you could be doing the same to your body!”

“Hey!” Brisk Run blushed beet-red as his own teammates chuckled. “What's wrong with the way I look?”

“I'm just saying that if you grew muscles like you raised barns—”

“Give us the ball, Cherrymane,” Brisk Run growled, sporting a devilish grin. “You can use those smug lips of yours for pouting when you buy us drinks later...”

“Pfft! As if!”

All the while, Rainbow Dash observed the conversation atop the wooden shack sitting beside the field. She stared at the two teams beyond the heads of multiple Emeraldine spectators. Despite Brisk Run's good-natured pokes at Cherrymane, it was obvious to the pegasus that the stallion's team was running short on courage. Cherrymane's ball players were energetic, pumped, and had a spring in their step. Brisk Run's cohorts, however, were positively trembling. It looked pretty obvious who was going to be crushing who in just a few minutes' time, if even that.

This only made Rainbow Dash smile all the more, especially as a wicked idea circulated through her head. Swiftly, she swung open her saddlebag, yanked her blanket out, and fastened it around her neck. Soon, she was sporting a cloak and hood that resembled the “disguise” she had once used to infiltrate a quarry full of minotaurs. Once so thusly garbed, she took one leap and glided towards the middle of the field.

She landed dead-center within the group like a blue comet from the sky. They gasped and jumped back from her, gazing in utter amazement. They couldn't see this stranger's wings, nor her prismatic mane through the blanket's fabric. However, they could definitely see her vicious grin.

“It looks like things are getting tense! Mind if I change the game a bit?”

Cherrymane stammered, “Wh-where did you come from?”

Rainbow Dash pivoted so that her grin was encompassing the mare's trembling vision. “From your dreams. You just haven't had them yet.” She turned slowly in a circle, facing both teams and the spectators beyond. “You guys all seem to be good friends. Why force each other to lose your wallets? Can't winning itself be awesome enough without forcing the loser to go broke?”

“And just what are you suggesting, stranger?” Brisk Run asked with an arched eyebrow.

Rainbow Dash swiveled about once again. “What I'm suggesting, Mister, is that you let me represent your team, and I...” She glanced over her shoulder at Cherrymane. “...will single-hoofedly score the next point and win this game for you.”

“You?” Cherrymane made a face. “By yourself? Pffft! Do you even know what you're up against, lady?”

“Funny, I was about to ask the same of you,” Rainbow Dash said. Several ponies snickered as she paced past the group. “And would you like me to make this more interesting? Ahem.” She cleared her throat and stood up straight under her cloak. “If I lose against your entire team, this stallion's team doesn't pay for your drinks. I do.”

A shocked and confused murmur surged through both halves of the crowd. Cherrymane's jaw dropped. Brisk Run scratched his head and leaned forward.

“Uhm...” He muttered. “And... what if her team somehow loses the match?”

She looked over her shoulder and smiled at him. “I still pay for drinks.”

“Hah!” Cherrymane grinned. “This is all a huge joke! How could one single pony possibly have that many bits on her?”

“Who said anything about bits?” Rainbow Dash exclaimed.

Cherrymane blinked. “But—”

Rainbow Dash turned and smiled at Brisk Run. “I paint the roofs that you and your buddies were going to tomorrow. And if that isn't enough 'payment'...” She turned and looked at Cherrymane's team again. “I'll gladly do half of your menial labor for a week. Now how about that? Nopony here loses!”

Again, the two teams murmured in amazement and disbelief. One pony tilted forward and asked, “I don't get it. Just what would you win?”

“That's just the thing.” Rainbow Dash's teeth glinted in the sunlight. “I'm always winning.”

Several ponies on Brisk Run's side chuckled and nodded their heads with admiring smirks. Brisk Run merely shrugged and smiled in Cherrymane's direction.

Cherrymane tossed her namesake and bluntly said, “Fine. We'll play the game your way. It's your funeral.”

“I bet you'll give a stunning euology,” Rainbow Dash said with a curtsy.

Several ponies chuckled as Cherrymane roughly passed her the ball. “You do realize, that if you're the only one representing Brisk Run's team, then you'll have to kick to yourself.”

“It's what I'd be doing even if I had other ponies helping me,” Rainbow Dash said, already flexing her limbs and licking her lips. “Now get your flanks ready, cuz things are about to be given the hoof.”

“Ahem.” Brisk Run leaned in for one last time. “Are you sure about this, stranger? There's no need to put your neck on the line for our behalf. This was all just fun and games, after all...”

“Brother...” Rainbow Dash hissed his way. “You're about to learn the very definition of 'fun'.” She turned and motioned towards Cherrymane. “Call it in, already!”

“Consider the play called—”

Rainbow Dash kicked the ball, did a somersault, caught it, and dribbled it forward in a blue blur.

“—whoah!” Cherrymane gasped and spun as Rainbow Dash darted past her. She lunged with her forelimbs, only to collapse into a face-full of gasp. She sat up, her ears flicking to the sound of several spectators gasping in awe.

The cloaked pegasus was surging past lines of dimwitted teammates. Cherrymane's posse gasped and fell over themselves in their awkward attempts to steal the ball from the brash stranger. She danced around them as though it was a ballet in fast-forward, and yet she managed to toss in a trick or two every other second. She'd kick the ball several yards, only to dash forward, overcome the sphere's momentum, flip over a defensive line pony, and steal the ball back for herself. Then she'd flip at random occasions, twirling her tail hairs in a brief blur of color to distract her opponents. All in all, she made a very flashy, very brisk, and very succesful charge to the opposing net.

Then a mountain of a muscular pony stood in her way. No amount of tricks and side-jukes and twirls seemed to faze him.

“Lemme guess,” Rainbow Dash panted amidst her sweat as she wrestled to kick the ball past him. “You're the one they call 'Grassy Fields.'”

“You got that right, gorgeous,” he said with a snicker. “Your biggest mistake was thinking you could get past me, never mind the rest of the gang.”

“And your biggest mistake was your name.” She winked, lifted the ball high, and jumped up after it. “Eat it, Grassy!” She spun upside-down and bicycle-kicked the thing in mid-air.

It bounced hard off the top of his skull. “Whoah!” Grassy Fields was shoved muzzle-deep into the soil, spitting up green blades as Rainbow Dash landed behind him.

But she didn't need to dribble the ball anymore. She watched in a victorious lean as the ricocheting sphere flew from Grassy's head and landed neatly in the center of the goal's net.

“Whoah!”

“Woohoo!”

“Yeah!”

“That was amazing!”

“Holy goddess!”

“Hahaha!”

Grassy Fields was struggling to get up. A blue hoof reached down towards him. He grabbed it and looked up.

“No hard feelings?” Rainbow Dash asked.

He got up to his hooves, a little woozy. “Ugh... No. Ahem. Just a hard head. Heheh...” He smirked at her. “Where did you learn moves like that?”

“Eh...” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Somewhere between a nap and a snooze.”

“I've got an even better question...” Cherrymane marched limply towards her, flabbergasted. A thick crowd from both the teams and the spectators closed in. “Where in goddess' name do you come from?”

“I've never seen a pony move like that!” Brisk Run stammered. “That agility you have is insane!”

“Well... heheh...” Rainbow's voice cracked as she stirred under the cloak. “I suppose I could let you guys in on a little secret.” In a blur, she tossed the blanket off of her, exposing the Emeraldine populace to her cyan wings in full spread, along with the kaleidoscopic glory of her billowing mane.

A heavy gasp sucked the oxygen from the atmosphere above the field. The middle of the village lit up from the pegasus' exposed colors. Even random bystanders saw the sight and galloped over in awe.

“A winged pony!”

“How incredible!”

“I thought they were made-up!”

“No wonder she moved so fast!”

“Wow, I never thought I'd see the day...”

“I gotta tell my folks about this!”

Cherrymane was fumbling for words. “It... You... How...?”

“Well, at least I don't feel so bad now,” Grassy Fields said with a shrug. Several of his comrades laughed and patted him on the shoulder.

Rainbow Dash closed her eyes and waved daintily before the crowd. “Now now. I know what you're thinking. And guess what? I'm willing to make it up to you.” She opened her eyes with a cool stare as she flexed her wings before their admiring eyes. “How about I hang out and do enough tasks to buy the drinks for all of you?”

“Hah! Buy us drinks?!”

“We should be the ones buying you drinks! This is spectacular!”

“Are you from beyond the mountains?”

“We don't know anypony from beyond the ridge!”

“What's it like on the other side?”

“Can you really fly?”

“Are you actually a flying pony?”

“Jee, I dunno.” Rainbow Dash's forelimbs crossed and remained so as she effortlessly levitated above the crowd. “You tell me!”

They merely cooed and clapped their hooves in delight.

“We must let us hang out with you!”

“Tell us where you came from!”

“Tell us how to do those really quick moves!”

“Yeah! You just gotta!”

“Hey! Hey! One at a time!” Rainbow Dash hovered in circles above the ponies. “I meant what I said! Let me do some tasks around here for you guys!”

Brisk Run called forth, “And just what do you get in return?”

“Well, I dunno.” She shrugged, then smiled. “You can tell me all about this village of yours.”

“Heh...” Brisk Run grinned. “And why would a strange, flying pony from faraway lands care so much about out tiny little Ridgeside?”

Rainbow Dash scratched her chin and nodded in midair. “That's a start. Could stand to be cooler, but it's a start.” She cleared her throat and looked down at him. “Well, you seem happy enough to live here. So...” She smirked. “Wow me.”

Tavern

View Online

“So, are all of those blue feathers real?” Grassy Fields asked from across the table.

Rainbow Dash swirled a mug of hay ale in her grasp and flexed her wings in front of everypony. “As far as I know. They certainly hurt when they get plucked.”

“They're absolutely spectacular,” Grassy said with a dreamy sigh, leaning his rosy muzzle against a muscular hoof. “It's like the color of the sky on a spring day.”

“Seriously, Grassy,” Cherrymane murmured as she strolled up to the table, balancing a tray full of extra mugs on her flank. “So are you just going to flirt with every mare you see, or...?”

Several Ridgeside villagers laughed merrily while Grassy Fields blushed. In the center of a hazy tavern, a large group of earth ponies had clustered together in a tight circle around Rainbow Dash—the pegasus of the hour... or year... or even century.

“Hey! I don't blame him.” Rainbow Dash took a sip of her ale. She smiled dreamily at the first luxurious taste of a beverage in weeks and leaned back against the table. “Wings are fun to look at. That's why we don't have many mirrors where I'm from, or else we'd never get anything done. You dig?”

Cherrymane giggled while Brisk Run leaned in. “Is that where pegasi are from?” he asked. “To the far west?”

“Well, some of them. I figured they lived all over the world, but I haven't seen any in my travels as of late. Just a bunch of boring earth... erm... earthen mounds and montains and the like...”

“What is it like being able to scale a mountain?” Grassy Fields asked.

“It's like scaling bump in the road,” Rainbow Dash said, then winked. “Only your ears pop more.”

Once more, the group chuckled happily. The place was bustling with excitement and intrigue, and Rainbow Dash was in the center of the merry maelstrom.

“It has to be really amazing,” Cherrymane said thoughtfully, her eyes thin as she gazed into a sphere of contemplation beyond Rainbow's figure. “To be able to just... take off and go anywhere in the world. Not having to use a vehicle.... not having to use an air balloon... just being able to use your wings like any other pony would use her legs. That must be the most free feeling in the world.”

“Hey, sure, it's free.” Rainbow Dash shrugged, took a sip, stifled a belch, and uttered, “But danger is also free.”

“Oh?” Brisk Run chimed as the group murmured curiously around him. “You've had a lot of crazy adventures during your travels?”

“Well...” Rainbow Dash fiddled with her mug and did her futile best to suppress a smirk. “One or two.”

“Like what?”

“Oh, I may have—kind of, sort of—flown straight into a subterranean nest full of giant quarray eels.”

The group gasped loudly around her. “Quarry eels?! No way! Why would you do that?”

“Uh, because I was bored?”

Everypony laughed.

Rainbow Dash grinned at the attention and went on, “And then there were the minotaurs that I totally butted heads with. Spoiler: their heads ended up hurting way more than mine. Ahem.” She took a lasting sip, gulped, and exhaled, “And... nnghh—excuse me. And then there was the giant ugly iguana thing—”

“Iguana thing?”

“It had two tails and a horrible attitude. I didn't stay around long enough to ask it its life's story. And... Well, going way back, I've tangled with Diamond Dogs, dragons, parasprites swarms... OH! The living dark embodiment of the Mare in the Moon. Can't forget that...”

“This is absolutely incredible!” Brisk Run's voice practically squeaked. “You mean you've actually been to the realm of the Cosmic Goddesses?”

Rainbow Dash fidgeted. “Mmmmm... Yeah. But believe me, it's not exactly the most exciting place in the world.”

“Oh yeah? What is?”

Rainbow Dash merely smiled back. “I haven't discovered it yet.”

Everypony chuckled heartily. At that moment, another villager strolled up with a tray of mugs, and Grassy Fields immediately hoofed one container over towards her. “Here. You gotta try this Apple Cider. Straight from Blue Plain to the south! It's the best stuff in all of Emeraldine!”

Rainbow Dash gazed at the mug, her face frozen in between a smile and a frown. A bead of sweat formed on her temple, and she cleared her throat. “Actually... uhm. Thanks, but no thanks. I've wetted my whistle.”

“Awwwww...”

“But... uhm...” She sat up straight, rubbing her hooves together. “What do you guys have around here for grub?!”

Peachy

View Online

“Well, there's the grand city of Verdestone, of course,” Cherrymane said that evening in the Ridgeside town courtyard. Starry night had fallen over the plains of Emeraldine, and only a select few equines were left hanging around Rainbow Dash. Many of the rest—exhausted by the sheer charisma of their guest—had already retired for the night, hopeful to wake up early the next morning and hear even more stories from the colorful traveler. “It's the capital city of Emeraldine,” Cherrymane continued. “Then, east of that, you have the kingdom of Darkstine, our province's biggest trade partner.”

“Whaddya trade?” Rainbow Dash said in between mouthfuls of delicious fruit. “These scrumptious peaches? Mmmfff... Good stuff...”

Brisk Run chuckled as he leaned against a nearby fence. “Emeraldine is primarily agricultural, as is the Moonshade peninsula to the south. Darkstine is home to unicorns who are all about industry and engineering marvels of machinery. They depend on us for bountiful harvests, and we depend on them for... for...” Brisk Run made a face and gazed aside. “Just what the heck do we need them for?”

“A laugh, from time to time,” Grassy Fields said.

Cherrymane giggled. “Yes. Darkstinians are always so serious. It's like their horns are nailing a huge weight of self-importance to their skulls. I don't suppose you know what that's like, Miss Dash.”

“Oh... I can imagine...” Rainbow Dash said with a wink, swallowed the rest of the peach whole, and gulped it down her equine throat. “Hmmpfh... And just what's beyond that? Darkstine, that is?”

“Well...” Cherrymane ran a hoof through her hair in the cool night breeze. “It's hard to say. You see, most of us live here all our lives. I could tell you what's way south of us or what lies to the north, but the lands beyond Darkstine just don't concern us that much.”

“How convenient,” Rainbow Dash said with a smirk. “Well, if you could share your delicious fruit with the rest of the world, you'd have ponies from every continent coming here just to have a bite.”

“Heheh... It's worth it just to see more incredible pegasi like you!” Grassy said.

“Grassy...” Cherrymane grumbled.

“What? I'm just being honest! So shoot me!”

“Invite some Darkstinians over for target practice and we just might arrange that,” Brisk Run said.

Rainbow Dash shuddered. “Okaaaaay... I'll... uh... keep that in mind?”

“Are you really planning on travelling there?” Cherrymane asked.

“Yup.”

“Past the capital city? Past Darkstine? Past the lands beyond?”

“Yup.”

“Why such a long journey?” Cherrymane asked. “I mean, you're far enough from home as it is. Sooner than later, you'll reach the edge of the world!”

“Then it'll be the world's fault for giving up beneath me.” Rainbow Dash said, cracking her joints and blinking a pair of tired eyes. “Whew. Seriously, though, none of you guys know about any places east of Darkstine?”

“Well...” Grassy Fields scratched his chin in thought.

Brisk Run spoke up. “There's the Grand Choke, of course.” He blinked nervously. “Everypony knows that.”

“Lemme guess...” Rainbow Dash gazed at him. “And the 'Great Sea' rests just beyond it?”

“Why... Yes!” Brisk Run grinned. “You've talked to other ponies about it, I imagine?”

“Let's just say that when I show up, ponies can't help but talk about the end of all things.”

“Heheheheh...”

“Haha!”

“Heeheehee...”

Grassy Fields smiled wide. “You're gonna be here for a few days? Please say you will be!”

“We must introduce you to the mayor!” Cherrymane said with a wide grin. “She's always wanted to play diplomat with other pony species!”

“Hey, hey... I know I'm practically glittering with awesome—but one thing at a time, huh?” Rainbow Dash winked at them. “Isn't there a roof somewhere I should be painting?”

Shingles

View Online

“Wow-wee, if we had more flying ponies around here like you, we could get a lot more done!” Brisk Run exclaimed as he raised another bucket of red paint up. “I don't think I've ever seen a roof get touched up this quickly!”

Rainbow Dash dropped an empty bucket, grabbed his, and lifted it in the morning sunrise. Half a rooftop's shingles were glistening in wet crimson colors while the other half of them lingered in a dismal gray. “Hey, to be honest, this is the first time I painted a roof.”

“Well, you're doing a mighty fine job, Miss Dash!”

“I'll let you be the judge later.”

“I'm afraid I can't see all the roof from here. I'd have to fetch the ladder.”

“Ladder, shmadder. I'll give you a lift, dude.”

“Uhm...”

“Don't tell me you're allergic to altitude.”

“Perhaps I'm a bit too scared to find out?”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash smirked. “And if I was too afraid to paint stuff, would this roof get anywhere near done? Hey, check this out.” She gripped the handle of the brush in her teeth, dipped it into the bucket, and practically blurred over the rooftop in blazing loopty-loops.

Brisk Run and a few other ponies watched in amazement as Rainbow Dash covered a quarter of the remaining rooftop in wet paint within mere seconds.

“By the Goddess! That's incredible!”

Rainbow Dash finished her treatment, spat the brush into the bucket again, and gasped for breath. “I'm starting to think it's beyond incredible, but I think the fumes are starting to get to me.”

“Do you need a break?”

“Screw breaks!” Rainbow Dash hovered down to his side and grasped another bucket and brush. “I'll get two more roofs done in the process!”

“That would be making phenomenal time!”

“That's time you can spend telling me more about what's east of Darkstine.”

“Uhm...” Brisk Run ran a hoof through his mane, shuddering. “I'm pretty sure we were all sober last night when we told you that we didn't know what lay beyond it, Miss Dash.”

“Oh come on. Seriously you've gotta have an idea,” Rainbow Dash blurred once more over the rooftop, covering the last bit of shingles in red before going back over to touch-up. “Some myths? Some old mare's tails?”

“Uhhhh...”

“The thing about myths is that they can't exist without an ounce of truth. An egghead once told me something like that.”

“Well, Queen Whitemane of Verdestone has once spoken about a canyon—”

“Wait... your capital city has a queen?”

“Yeah...?”

“Heh. That's interesting.” Rainbow Dash looked over the rooftop as she hovered. “I thought everything was all princesses and goddesses.”

“What ever gave you that idea?”

She sighed. “Never mind. So what's this canal that your Queen has spoken of?”

“She came back from a visit to the east several years ago and said that there was a steep canyon somewhere to the east. It was so deep and vast that nopony has ever crossed it for years, maybe even centuries.”

“So you're telling me that all travel east of this canyon is blocked?”

“Well, only in the north, I suppose. I'm sure the Darkstinians have been capable of traversing it with their unicorn magic and all, but none of them have bothered to speak of such a journey. I'm thinking that many of them just don't care.”

“Do any of you Emeraldine guys ever think about traveling the world?” Rainbow Dash touched down with the latest empty bucket. “Like, this village is a bunch of smiles and laughs...”

“I'd say,” Brisk Run replied with a smirk. His companions chuckled.

Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “But, seriously.” She smiled. “Do Ridgeside ponies ever dream of going on long adventures or something?”

He shrugged. “I never really thought of it that much. I guess, so long as I'm content with being here, so long as I have all of my friends, I'd never want to move an inch, you know?”

Rainbow Dash slowly nodded. “Friends, right...” She shifted the weight of her saddlebag and smiled. “So. What chore's next?”

Wheat

View Online

A bunch of giggling foals ran by, their blank flanks half-concealed by wooly sweaters as Rainbow Dash flew across a field and dropped another bale of thatched wheat into a wooden wagon. Grassy Fields and Cherrymane secured the bundle and smiled up at their helper.

“You're cutting the harvesting time in half!” Grassy Fields exclaimed. “Wherever pegasi come from, you must get a lot of stuff done!”

“Eh, more or less,” Rainbow Dash remarked with a shrug. She gazed at the foals from afar. They gasped and tried to hide behind a fence to avoid the stranger's gaze, ultimately peaking at her when they thought she was done looking. “Pegasis are like lions. We sleep a lot and do a lot of awesome stuff in short bursts.”

“You must ben an exception,” Cherrymane said while Rainbow Dash grabbed another bundle and flew it over the field. “You've done nothing but help us out all day!”

“Let's just say I've got a good wind in my feathers,” Rainbow Dash said. She placed the next bale down and smiled under a sheen of sweat. “Besides, this place is kind of infectious.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

“The last place I went to, the ponies were miserable and ate meat.”

“What's wrong with eating meat?”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash sighed. “Guess I'm still a long way from home.”

“It sounds like Equestria is a peaceful country,” Grassy Fields said. “And with so many unicorns and earth ponies living in the same place with pegasi, I wouldn't mind seeing it for myself.”

“Hey, you could totally make it in your lifetime,” Rainbow Dash replied. “Just pivot towards the setting sun and start walking.”

Cherrymane rolled her eyes. “I think the mountains and rivers would have a thing or two to say about us making as liberal a trip as you, Miss Dash.”

“Not everypony's gotta be so friggin' speedy about it.” Rainbow Dash shrugged, grabbed another bale, and hoisted it onto the wagon. “You guys are young, healthy even. Why not make the most of it? Why not gallop somewhere strange, new, and exciting? I see the world from high up, and still I'm discovering so many nifty things!”

“I think the answer's rather simple, Rainbow Dash,” Grassy Fields said. “Not everypony can afford to make such a trip.”

“Who said it this was all about me affording stuff?” Rainbow Dash said. She blinked, then spun around in time to catch the gaze of several foals. “Booga Booga Booga!” she bellowed, making a wild face.

The Ridgeside foals squealed with mock horror and ran off under a cadence of high-pitched laughter.

“Heeheehee...” Cherrymane giggled. “Face it. A pony that travels as far as you are, at the speed and lengths at which you're doing it, has got to be investing more than just time and energy.”

“Oh yeah?” Rainbow Dash smirked and loaded two bales at once. She wiped her brow. “Care to enlighten me?”

“I mean, that's all it's about, huh?” Cherrymane blinked. “Enlightenment? Transformation? Transcendence? Why else would you be exploring the world unless you wanted to become something that you weren't? Unless you wanted to live life in a way that you were never given a chance to do so before?”

“Or maybe she just likes scoring for losing hoofball teams,” Grassy Fields remarked.

Rainbow Dash chuckled. “I'm not one for philosophy, but I think he's starting to nail it.” She cleared her throat. “Really, though. Traveling is... is...” She tongued the inside of her mouth, her ruby eyes scanning the blue sky. “...it's just fun and exciting. Don't you ever wanna do something awesome in your lives?”

“It must be terribly fantastic to have an adventure,” Cherrymane murmured. “But I'd rather have peace and tranquility anyday.”

“Meaning...”

“I just love this place too much,” Cherrymane said. “My home—Ridgeside—it has everything I'll ever want.”

“Plus, she's popular with the local stallions,” Grassy Fields said.

Cherrymane thwapped him with her tail, then smiled Rainbow's way. “Perhaps it's because we're not pegasi like you, Miss Dash. A simple and wholesome life—well—it's more than adequate for us. We like hearing about the exciting world beyond Emeraldine just fine.”

Rainbow Dash gazed briefly past the waving field of wheat. “There's nothing wrong with a simple and wholesome life, so long as you can have it...”

“Hmmm?”

Rainbow Dash cleared her throat and gave them a quirky smirk. “I guess some of us were just born to do wickedly crazy things.”

“Heh... Perhaps...”

“Is it just me?” Rainbow Dash remarked as a cool breeze struck the three of them. “Or are things pretty much done here?”

“Looks that way,” Grassy Fields said.

“What's next, then?” Rainbow Dash hovered, cracking her joints. “I feel like I've just gotten started!”

“Hehe...” Cherrymane motioned Rainbow Dash to follow her. “Follow me.”

“Another chore?”

“No, actually. Somepony that's been dying to meet you...”

Mayor

View Online

“Hello, Rainbow Dash,” a mature, blue-maned mare said with a smile. “I am Mayor Evergreen. Though I may be late to the party, as it were... heh heh... I do whole-heartedly welcome you to our town of Ridgeside.”

The two ponies shook hooves on the edge of a second-story balcony overlooking the center of the bustling village. A spray of clouds drifted through the afternoon sunlight overhead as Rainbow Dash then took a step back and smiled.

“Wow. Every pony I've met so far is really dang friendly. Even up to the head of the city council!”

Evergreen smiled. “I wouldn't rightly be a representative of my own town if I didn't share the values of every pony I look after.” She and Rainbow Dash paced slowly around the cylindrical exterior of the building. “I must say, you've made quite an impact on this place.”

“Heh. Some impacts don't involve flying straight into the ground like a meteorite, I guess.”

“In all seriousness,” Evergreen remarked. “It's been a long time since we had a visitor of your standing, much less one that's been so helpful.”

“Helpful? Pfft. I just felt like curing boredom and a bunch of your guys' chores were in the way.”

“You've done nothing but bless this town and help immensely in beautifying it. You've done more in a single day that most of us can accomplish in weeks.” Evergreen smiled at her. “If that's what you call boredom, I shudder to see what happens when you're having fun.”

“That's when mountains explode,” Rainbow Dash said with a wink.

Evergreen chuckled. “Somehow, I don't doubt that. Is it true that you come from a place called Equestria?”

“Heh...” Rainbow briefly dug at the floor with her hoof. “Word sure does get around in this town.”

“When someone like you comes along, you can believe it.” Evergreen glanced at her. “Knowledge of the world beyond the mountains isn't entirely lacking, Miss Dash. Mostly traders and merchants from the south carry word of a place that serves as the heart of the world, where the Cosmic Goddesses reside. It doesn't surprise me that such a realm would be home to all kinds of ponies, especially ones as unique and unforgettable as you.”

“There are only a few things in life that are unforgettable,” Rainbow Dash said. “Me? I just try to smell good.”

“I am curious: are you embarking on some sort of journey as an official representative from the land of Equestria?”

“Uhhh... No...” Rainbow Dash shook her head. “Can't say that I am.”

“Well, that's interesting.” Evergreen shuffled to a stop besides the double-doors to her office. She pointed at the pendant hanging around Rainbow's neck. “I could have sworn you carried the marks of your homeland.”

“Oh this?” Rainbow Dash tapped a hoof against the ruby lightning bolt. “This simply scares the bugs away. Heheh... I promise you. I'm one hundred percent free mare.”

“Only one hundred percent?”

Rainbow Dash squinted at her.

Evergreen went on. “Emeraldine is a monarchy, yes. However, Queen Whitemane has maintained the same spirit of freedom that the prior rulers have supported for so long. We are all ponies that appreciate community, Miss Dash, along with hard-work and the ability to express ourselves. In the end, we have established a society that praises harmony and joy. We live in a civilization where ponies are happy, healthy, but ultimately free. I would think that you would be more than at home in a place like this.”

“Before you go mane over hooves to try and create some sort of invitation or something,” Rainbow spoke, “I'm afraid I can't stay. This place is awesome and the ponies are really cool, but... I'm not exactly settling down anywhere.” Rainbow Dash gulped. “Ever...”

“Hmmm... of that I have no doubt.” Evergreen remarked. “I was under the impression that you were heading east somewhere.”

“Heh. Something like that.”

“Had a destination in mind?”

“I figured I'd let east be the judge of that.”

Evergreen chuckled. “Perhaps it would do you some good to stop by the capital city, Verdestone.”

“I heard it's a pretty happenin' place. What, do you have relatives there?”

“No, but I do have close acquaintances there.” Evergreen knocked on the doors. They opened, and a servant marched out from the mayor's office with a tray on his flank, atop which was a scroll. “And a pony who wants to get anywhere safely beyond the immediate borders of Emeraldine will want to have the support of close acquaintances.”

“Are you talking about Darkstine?” Rainbow Dash asked. “That place is starting to sound less and less friendly every time Ridgesiders describe the unicorns that live there.”

“Indeed, it is a very different place than Emeraldine. But, regardless of the true conditions of the government there, I think you could benefit from any assistance you can get.” Evergreen took the scroll from the tray and hoofed it to Rainbow Dash. After Rainbow took it, Evergreen spoke, “This is an official seal of Ridgeside representation. It includes my hoofprint. If you happen to stumble upon the capital city of Verdestone, go and pay a visit to the Chamber of Representatives. Show this to a pony named Steelteeth. He and I go way back, and he would be more than happy to assist a pony who has won my utmost confidence.”

“Heh... yeesh...” Rainbow slid the scroll into her saddlebag and fought the urge to blush. “Do you guys here ever run out of compliments?”

“Not unless you run out of awesomeness,” Evergreen smiled.

“Well, thanks. This could help me big time. What do I owe you?”

“Nothing you haven't won back already,” Evergreen said. “I'm delighted that you have brought such excitement and wonderment to the young members of this town. Will you be leaving right away?”

“Er... well... sooner than later, I suppose.”

“Again, this isn't something you owe us. But, I was wondering, if you haven't run out of energy, if you would be willing to lend your talents to something?”

“Heck! Name it...”

Raising

View Online

The next morning, Rainbow Dash was effortlessly lifting the toppiece of a slab of wooden framework. Several ropes were tugging on the opposite end as she raised the buildingside in place. Holding it in place with two hooves, she pivoted and shouted down below.

“Okay! It's set! Your turn!”

Beneath Rainbow Dash, three dozen Ridgeside villagers were gathered for the massive building construction. Using an advanced pulley system, they hoisted several wooden beams into place, bracing them against the length of siding. As they held the pylons into position, Rainbow Dash blurred down, grabbed a satchel of tools, and soared back up. In swift order, she fastened the beams to the framework in several adjoining places. Soon, there was a thin but impressive framework for a brand new structure in the center of the Emeraldine village. At least a hundred ponies were watching, and the villagers clapped their hooves against the ground in joy and triumph.

Once Rainbow Dash was finished with the basic attachments, she touched down to the ground and wiped the sweat from her brow. In the meantime, several ponies erected ladders and began work on applying the walls and roof panels to the growing structure.

“Way to go, Rainbow Dash!” Grassy Fields exclaimed as he scurried his way up. “We're gonna build this thing in record time!”

“We may actually beat the rain front!” another exclaimed. “Thanks a bunch!”

“Hey...” Rainbow exhaled, sitting on her haunches as she detached the stachel from her body. “Don't mention it. What's this place gonna be anyways? A factory for awesomeness?”

“What does this look like?” Cherrymane made a face. “Darkstine?”

“I think the elders said something about a gathering place of sorts,” Brisk Run added.

“A public dance hall,” Mayor Evergreen said, suddenly there. She trotted up with a pair of advisors and smiled at the gathering. “Our community's been wanting one for a long time. I figured now was the best time to commission its construction finally.”

“No kidding?” Rainbow Dash ran a hoof through her mane, smirking. “You ponies seem so carefree. It boggles my mind that you never danced around before.”

“We'd just do it anywhere in the streets,” Brisk Run said.

Cherrymane giggled. “Now we'll have no excuse to be so crazy!”

“I'd beg to differ.” Evergreen smiled. “Now you'll just have a place to channel the craziness.”

“I wouldn't mind seeing you get down with your bad self, Ms. Evergreen.”

“I wouldn't want to ruin the hooves I write with,” she replied.

Several nearby ponies chuckled.

“Wow, it's like everypony in the village is out here today,” Rainbow Dash uttered with a nervous smile.

“Just about,” Evergreen remarked. “I've never seen the neighborhood this excited since the last time we had Queen Whitemane visit.”

“Oh?” Rainbow Dash blinked. “So, what, is she stopping by soon?”

“No, dummy!” Cherrymane stuck her tongue out. “It's cuz you are here!”

“Me?”

“We were thanking, Rainbow Dash,” Evergreen spoke, “Of naming this meeting place 'Dash Hall' once the final construction is complete. Would that be okay by you?”

Rainbow Dash's cheeks turned a rosier shade as her ears drooped. “Jee. You're pulling my tail.”

“Hardly.”

“That's... uhm... That's pretty swell.” She scratched the back of her neck, smiling sheepishly. “I always figured I would have something named after me. But a dance hall...?”

“Would you rather not?” Brisk Run said.

“Oh! I'm totally cool with it and all!” She winked. “Just be sure you play plenty of Journeigh songs.”

Cherrymane giggled.

“I don't get it,” Brisk Run remarked.

“Don't worry. One day, it will find you.”

“You should stay long enough to see opening night!” Cherrymane remarked. “You'd be the life of the party! I know it!”

“Heh. As much as I'd love to be part of something so cool...” Rainbow Dash dug nervously at the ground. “I... well...” She bit her lip and glanced at the Mayor. “Did you tell them?”

Evergreen smiled softly the younger ponies' way. “Miss Dash will be early tomorrow evening.”

“What?” Brisk Run gasped.

“Awwww...” Cherrymane's face fell in a sad slump. “Must you really? So soon?”

“I've got places to go. And apparently Verdestone is next on my list,” Rainbow said, winking the Mayor's way.

“But it feels like you just got here!” Brisk Run exclaimed, his ears drooping in a melancholic fashion. “Why are you in such a hurry to fly away?”

“Well...” She stood up straight and fiddled with her pendant. “It's not that I'm in a hurry, exactly...”

“You're so awesome and so carefree about everything. It's like you have all the time in the world.”

Rainbow Dash stared blankly back at the group. “Heh...” Her lips curved, but only slightly. “Let's just say that the world's not gonna explore itself.”

Leaving

View Online

“Well, it's been real,” Rainbow Dash said as she stood on the east edge of town. “But I gotta level with you guys. You're starting to creep me the heck out.”

A throng of several dozen young ponies chuckled until their cheeks were red. At the front of the crowd stood several familiar faces. Cherrymane, Brisk Run, and Grassy Fields smiled in the morning light.

“Enjoy Emeraldine while you can,” Cherrymane remarked. “Once you hit Darkstine, it's nothing but gray skies.”

“I've done gray skies before,” Rainbow Dash said with a smirk. “I like to kick it back to blue.”

“I have no doubt you could do just that.” Cherrymane winked. “If you make it beyond the canyon, try putting your hooves someplace nopony has before. Goddess, that has to be the coolest feeling in the world.”

“Been there, done that,” Rainbow Dash replied. “But there's nothing stopping me from doing it again.”

“Heheh...” Brisk Run smiled. “What's my hoofball team going to do without you?”

“A lot of roof painting, I'd say.”

Several Ridgesiders laughed merrily.

“In all seriousness, though...” Rainbow Dash trotted over and planted a hoof on his shoulder. “Practice makes perfect. Try kicking the ball around and bundling wheat a little less. I mean—heck—you ponies seem to have enough time on their hands!”

“Yeah, well, not all of us can afford to do such awesome things with our time.”

“And that kind of an attitude is why they don't call you 'Best Run,'” Rainbow Dash said with a wink. She paced past several chuckling ponies until she stood before a muscular stallion. “Go on. I know you're dying to say something.”

“Erm...” He fidgeted, his cheeks flushed. “Good luck, Miss Dash. You... You think you might come back to visit us sometime?”

“Sorry, handsome. Lightning strikes only once, especially when it's attached to me.” She grinned. “And before you ask—no—I don't have a sister.”

Several other colts laughed and patted Grassy's embarassed neck.

“Cheer up, emoquine.” Rainbow Dash smacked his chin up with her tail and shuffled past. “You'll make tons of little, beefcake hoofballers someday.”

Mayor Evergreen stood patiently, smiling as Rainbow Dash approached. “If only I could live so long to see another one of your kind grace our humble township.”

“Sister, you'd have to be an alicorn.” As more villagers snickered, Rainbow Dash reached a blue hoof forward. “Thanks for the welcome, the food, the dance hall—”

The Mayor held her hoof in mid-shake. “Remember to stop by the Chamber of Representatives in Verdestone.”

“I'm looking for a dude named Steeltooth, right?”

“SteelTEETH,” Evergreen emphasized. “Show him the scroll, and he'll help you with properly crossing the lengths of Darkstine to the east.”

“This is all so swell, y'know,” Rainbow Dash in a quiet voice between them. “Like, seriously. I owe you ponies a lot.”

“We just hope that you make it to your destination in a timely manner.”

“Yeah, well...” Rainbow Dash smiled calmly, dug at the ground, and murmured. “I just hope I make it there, period.”

Evergreen blinked at that.

“Alright, Ridgesiders!” Rainbow Dash bellowed as she lifted up in a bright display of her billowing mane. “Live long and chug cider! I've got more dance halls to claim!” She spun several circles in the air, caught the sunlight in the glint of her pendant, and flew off sideways with a waving hoof. “Stay frosty, everypony! Peace!”

Several equines shouted and cheered. Cherrymane, Brisk Run, and Grassy Fields smiled in unison. Evergreen quietly waved a delicate hoof.

All of their happy images vanished in a blur as Rainbow Dash faced east, burning against the wind. “Well...” She took a heavy breath, slid the goggles over her ruby eyes, and smiled sweetly to herself. “It doesn't get much better than this.”

And she left.

Province

View Online

It was barely half a day before Rainbow Dash stumbled upon another village. She was so startled that she nearly plunged in mid-flight. Gazing down, she saw a tiny farming community surrounded by wheat and corn fields. There were wagons being drawn through the streets and several active ponies filing from one building to another. Even from high up, the air resonated with the sounds of civilization.

Rainbow hadn't exactly expected to see another dwelling so soon. At the speed at which she was going, it would take an entire day to fly from Ponyville to the nearest village back home in Equestria. The quaint and simple architecture of the towns she was now passing over was obviously misleading. Emeraldine had to have been a far more densely populated province.

Rainbow Dash pressed eastward. As she did so, the land gradually sloped lower and lower. The further she drew away from the mountaints to the west, the closer to sea level the landscape descended. The air became hotter and more humid. There was still a delightful crispness to the atmosphere, but as night fell at the end of the first day of flight, Rainbow Dash's teeth hardly felt like chattering. She spent the evening camped out beneath a large stone bridge spanning a creek, warming herself to a fire and several Ridgeside samples of buttered bread.

Morning came, and Rainbow Dash flew at a lower altitude for the duration of the day. She skimmed over one of several cobblestone paths that had been drawn across the tranquil landscape. At random intervals, clumps of forests and woodland thickets sprouted from the earth, giving the otherwise spotless fields of Emeraldine unpredictable beauty. Rainbow Dash found herself looking a little too much at the land and not enough at the east horizon. Before she knew it, she had inadvertently followed the path instead of her own compass, and so she had to veer to the left to reacquaint herself with her epic journey.

There were more towns blurring beneath her in her flight. Several wandering merchants and local ponies turned to gaze at Rainbow Dash streaking by, their jaws dropped in wonder. As Rainbow Dash skimmed past a schoolyard, several fillies and colts galloped beneath her in a grassy field, waving and cheering. She smiled and gave them a salute before performing several dazzling flips and rolls. Then, in a blink, she was soaring her way beyond the sound of their gasping breaths.

Rainbow Dash barely had time to giggle in delight. Soon she was soaring over townships, dozens of them, growing thicker and thicker as the day went on. The bells of a large clock tower rang beneath her as she flew past the central courtyard of a lakeside village. Several miles further along, she darted her way past the rotating paddles of numerous windmills erected along the lengths of a winding river. She paused briefly as she hovered what appeared to be a trading fair of sorts. Several ponies had raised tents in the center of a field, advertising wares from across the landscape. The closer Rainbow Dash got to gaze at the items for sale, the more attention she summoned, so that the entire gathering was suddenly directing their gasps and murmurs towards her. With a shrug and a chuckle, she darted off in time to escape the fall of night. She slept in the branches of a large oak tree besides a thick merchant highway, her dreams occasionally interrupted by the sounds of creaking wagon wheels.

When she woke up, those sounds had quadrupled. She gathered her things and lifted out of the forest. Immediately, she spotted a long, paved road leading due east. It was thickly occupied by row after row of wagons and carts, each chock-full of food, nick-nacks, minerals, and other items of major worth. A few travellers were plodding their way west, but the thick of traffic was heading eastward at a brisk pace. Rainbow Dash followed the road at first through sheer curiosity. But then she hung low enough to spot a sign. It read: “Verdestone.”

“Well, alright.” She smiled and shot ahead of the trotting droves of mercantile pilgrims.

Along the way, several tiny clusters of buildings would appear alongside the road, fitted with saloons and inns and trading hovels for those crossing large distances. Then, as the Emeraldine landscape rose slightly, more and more roads would conjoin with the highway like tributaries emptying into a grand river. The paved path tripled in size, and soon there were so many trading posts along the path that they congealed into a grand urban sprawl. The buildings grew progressively complex, from wood foundations to masonry to metal-reinforcements. Then, as Rainbow Dash flew over even thicker distritcts, she spotted ancient architecture of weathered stone and granite.

She realized that she must have chanced upon one of the oldest establishments in the province. For most of the day, her eyes had been locked on the urbanscape below her flight. She was starting to wonder just how large and wide this city was. So, she looked up, and was shocked to see a giant mountain stretching up out of the middle of the urban sprawl. She couldn't imagine how an immense cone of earth could possibly have formed naturally. And then—upon seeing the pristine polish of the spire's granite surfaces—she realized that it wasn't a mountain at all.

“Holy smokes,” she murmured as she hovered to a numb stop in midair. “Verdestone.”

Verdestone

View Online

Verdestone—the spire, not the city, Rainbow Dash could hardly tell which was which anymore—was easily as large as the tallest building in Canterlot. In its favor, it didn't have an entire hulking mountain beneath it to allow the structure to reach such insane heights. It was simply its own spectacle, a gigantic spike of polished granite emerging from the otherwise flat surface of Emeraldine. Upon a closer fly-by, Rainbow Dash could easily tell that the dense buildings gathered around the cylindrical base of the structure had been constructed over several eons following the discovery of this gigantic structure. She looked up and saw three cocentric rings of platforms built around the neck of the spire. They were like cities all of their own, propped up by hundreds upon hundreds of wooden scaffolds that clung to the stretching body of Verdestone. Tilting her head up as high as she could, Rainbow Dash squinted to see what may have been lying on the very summit of Verdestone. Without flying all the way up to investigate, she could only assume her eyes made out the conspicuous sight of a temple of sorts.

Whistling, Rainbow Dash circled Verdestone higher and higher. Even at her swift speeds, it took nearly ten minutes to fully navigate the circumference of the structure, and this was at halfway up its body. Smoke rose from the chimneys of buildings packed tightly together on each ring. She saw apartments, meeting halls, market centers, and warehouses densely populating the hanging platforms. No single building was shorter than two stories. It occurred to Rainbow Dash that the occupants of Verdestone were determine to take advantage of every square inch of real estate available to them on those lofty rings. As a result, each circle of urbanity resembled a piece of downtown Manehattan, and the sparse roads and courtyards afforded to the high altitude cityscapes came across as deep trenches and gorges between buildings.

As tight and slapped-together as the platforms were, they were not done so with laziness or carelessness. As a matter of fact, there was a uniquely beautiful quality to the architecture of the place. The framework of each building had a curved shape to it, with the reinforcments embellished with organic imagery and artistic flare. The closer the buildings were to the central stalk of Verdestone, the more ornate and polished they look, as if the Emeraldine builders were displaying a deeply-seeded reverence to the holy rock upon which each ring hung.

It went without saying that Rainbow Dash had no clear idea where she was to start. She had slept in many a barn in her life; she quite easily understood the concept of a “needle in a haystack.” When Mayor Evergreen sent her to find Steelteeth, she could have at least given her a clue where in the immense heights of Verdestone to go. There was more sense in tossing a stone across the surf of a beach and expecting it to reach a continent on the other side of the ocean.

“If I was to build the 'Chamber of Representatives,' in all this mess, where the hay would I put it?!” Rainbow Dash murmured to herself. She gazed up at the highest ring on the stalk of Verdestone. The summit stretched more than a naked five hundred feet on its own beyond the last platform. “Seems legit. Ya gotta be lame if you put politicians anywhere else on this thing.”

She flapped her wings, lifted herself up to the top most ring, skimmed several rooftops, and came briskly down. When her hooves slapped to a landing in the center of a street, she was surrounded by ponies. She blinked, nervously glancing around to see if she startled anyone. The place was packed, with several ponies in affluent dress befitting the likes of Canterlot trotting to and fro. However, to her pleasant shock, not a single one of them had so much as gasped at her winged presence. They were far too occupied with their daily lives, rushing from one appointment to another, engaged in various chattering conversations about upcoming elections, local trade offers, and money exchanges.

Rainbow Dash smiled to herself. The blood returned to her limbs after a long day of flying. She relaxed in the meantime, slowly trotting through the town and gazing at the sights and sounds around her. The districts of the upmost ring of Verdestone were beautiful. The buildingfaces had the look of polished ivory, with balconies decked out in flowers and potted plants from all across the landscape. There were courtyards of ancient masonry, with bricklaid foundations that housed grassy lawns and clusters of trees that preserved the beauty of the landscape far below the spire. While the architecture had a muted color scheme to it, there were several storefronts with bright flags and colorful decorations that brought an excitement to the visual spectrum. Through the windows into taverns and inns, Rainbow Dash could spot torches sprinkled with dust to give them ethereal quality, so that the entire place felt enchanted.

The closer Rainbow Dash mingled with the ponies in the crowded streets, the more comfortable she felt. She realized that these weren't the same rich snobs that occupied the roads and alleyways of Canterlot. Though they were busy and distracted, there was still that Emeraldine quality infecting the whole lot of them. Many ponies smiled at each other and paused to engage in cheerful discussions. There wasn't a single frown to be had.

Regardless, Rainbow wasn't ready to ask for directions. She had made a major impression on Ridgeside, but that was only a tiny village at the feet of a mountain. Here—in a city as spectacular and immense as any in Equestria, if not more so—she didn't have the time to woo an entire metropolis. She merely trotted forward, her eyes scanning the signs to various buildings, in hope that she might discover the city's Chamber of Representatives.

As she emerged into a nearby courtyard, something in the mood of the Verdestone residents was changing. There was a hushed commotion flying through the crowd. Rainbow Dash craned her neck, curious if she may have stumbled upon a tense discussion of one thing or another. She tried to make out the words of the urban ponies, but all she could hear—in increasingly gasping tones—was the word “princess” over and over again. The tone in the ponies' utterances was shocked, amazed, and even frightened. Rainbow Dash's brow furrowed as her eyes lifted up towards the summit of the spire, wondering if some message was being delivered somehow from up high.

“Princess?” Rainbow Dash muttered aloud. “What princess? I don't get it...” She turned to her side and froze.

She saw a pair of ponies staring at her, wide-eyed.

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. She turned around, then saw a cluster of ponies staring at her, no less mesmerized.

“Hrmmm...” Rainbow Dash slowly backed away from them, her coat forming goosebumps. She bumped into a group of well-dressed stallions. “Oh! My bad—”

They merely gawked at her, their eyes wide. An entire ring of ponies in affluent gear had stopped whatever it was they were doing, having finally caught sight of the pegasus in full, and their lips murmured the same word over and over again among themselves: “Princess...”

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash looked at them, at her body, and at them again. She pivoted to the side and slowly flexed her wings, watching their faces.

The shock and awe that lit their expressions only doubled. They gasped and chattered excitedly among themselves.

“Yeah, I thought so,” Rainbow Dash muttered. With all eyes on her, she marched icily into a nearby marketplace, biting her lip. “Yeah, this isn't awkward or anything...” She looked left and right, seeing the clusters of ponies doubling, tripling. Unlike the souls of Ridgeside, they were too flabbergasted to dare breaching communication with the pegasus. “I gotta do something about this. I'm about as royal as a friggin' half-eaten cupcake.” Right as she said that, she nearly ran into the entrance to a clothes shop. “Heh. That'll do...”

She walked inside, leaving the gawking crowd inside. A bell rang as her hooves clopped onto antique wooden floorboards. Two young mares in simple gowns and ridiculously adorable manestyles walked up and curtsied in unison.

“Welcome to the Emerald Emporium. How can we be of service to you?”

Rainbow Dash could instantly tell that this was the sort of place she had to be filthy rich to afford shopping at. She could smell it off the sheer perfume of the sales clerks. “Aw snap, I really wish I had worked in Ridgeside for more than food,” she grumbled to herself. She cleared her throat and spoke loud enough for the clerks to hear. “Uhm, I don't really have much on me in the way of bits.”

“Oh... Uhm...” One of the clerks struggled to maintain her smile. “Perhaps you would wish to sample some of our fine fabrics for a later occasion?”

“I know! Like... do you guys do bartering?”

“B-bartering?”

“I gotta have something in here that's of worth to somepony.” Rainbow Dash turned and reached into her saddlebag. She opened the thing and fished around, stretching her wings up to give her more room. “Let's see. The blanket. Flint and steel. Compass. Ugh... I really, really don't wanna have to give up the hatchet—”

But as she rambled thusly, she became aware of the two mares gasping. She looked to see them gawking at her wings like those in the streets outside.

“I can't believe it!”

“A pr-princess!”

“Whitemane's?!”

“This is amazing!”

The two mares clasped their hooves and squealed like schoolfillies. Clearing their throats, they regained their composure, albeit with rosy smiles. “Please. No need to barter. It would be our honor to fit you, your highness.”

Rainbow Dash's face paled. She froze in place, fiddling with her saddlebag. “Uhhh... I think you got the wrong picture.”

“Oh, heaven forbid!” One clerk grasped her left hoof.

“Please! Let us show you our finest wares!” The other grasped her right hoof.

“Uhm, yeah. Okay. But so you know, I'm not a—Whoah!” Rainbow Dash squeaked as she was yanked to the furthest corner of the store. The clothes racks grew increasingly, increasingly pink as she was practically dragged into the center of several ornate, richly woven, silken gowns.

“This is the finest sewing from the alabaster shores of South Crest.”

“And this was made by the famous Emeraldine designer Pastel Pastures herself!”

“And here we have a lovely ensemble that was once worn by the ambassador from Darkstine!”

“This would pass the test for unicorns far and wide!”

“Or perhaps you would enjoy this gown made of northern Emeraldine embroidery—”

“Yeah... uh...” Rainbow Dash was trying her best not to throw up. She flinched away from the flouncing lengths of lavender skirts being stretched before her. “It's all very... uh... dainty and all. But, look. Lemme level with you.” She leaned forward, her eyes thin. “I'm not one to turn down generosity. So, if you two are gonna be so nice to me, it's best I take something that's actually of use.” She took one glance out the front windows of the place and the many ponies trying to look into the shop. “I just need something to hide my wings while I try to find this one pony I was sent here for...”

“Hide... Hide your gorgeous, beautiful wings?” one clerk exclaimed with sad eyes.

“Why would you feel compelled to conceal them, your highness?”

“Stop frickin' calling me that!” Rainbow Dash hissed. “I don't know who or what you think I am! But I need to avoid ponies seeing my wings! I need—”

She paused, staring into the dresses. The windows of her mind opened, and she remembered days when she sat in a cloud over Ponyville, staring endlessly at page after page of Wonderbolt magazines, and admiring the simple clothes they wore when attending functions out of uniform. She smirked and looked at the two mares.

“Got any suits?”

Threads

View Online

A thick crowd had gathered in the street at the front end of the clothiers store. More and more Verdestone ponies trotted up, craning their necks and peering for the source of all the attention. The nearby alleyways echoed and rang with dozens if not hundreds of curious voices.

Meanwhile...

On a third story balcony overlooking the south side of the same building that housed the store, a door opened. Rainbow Dash poked her head out. She looked every which way, exhaling with relief at finding the coast clear. Then, fidgeting, she stepped out onto the balcony in a long-sleeved, fully-pressed suit with a black vest and a satin violet undershirt. The dark collar of the ensemble covered the golden body of her pendant, so that only the ruby lightning bolt stood out like an awkwardly lavish tie.

“Horseapples,” she muttered, fidgeting with the cuffs just above her hooves. “I feel like I should be lying in a coffin or something.” Nevertheless, she glanced back at her sides with a smirk, relieved to see the bottom end of the suit fully covering her blue-feathered wings. The material had been tucked under the saddlebag, which remarkably matched the colors of the suit due to the royal velvet of the twin pouches. “Well, guess I don't stick out like a sore hoof after all.”

“Is it everything you wanted, your majesty?” said one of the two mares as they followed her up to the balcony. “We... hope you are happy with it.”

“I'd be happier if you didn't call me 'your majesty.'”

“Anything to make you happy, your highness,” one mare said.

Rainbow Dash groaned.

“Even if... erm...” One of them smiled, shifting awkwardly on her hooves as she gazed nervously at the threads. “The choice is most decidedly masculine.”

“Some of the best things in life are, girl.” Rainbow Dash straightened her collar and motioned towards the crowded streets below. “I can't believe everypony is flipping their lid. I can't thank you enough for giving me a back door exit.”

They both giggled and nodded fervently. “You obviously must have important things to attend to. We're just happy to have been blessed by your presence.”

“What do I owe ya? Seriously?”

“Your blessing, perhaps, your highness?”

“Uhhhhhh... Yeah. Sure.” Rainbow Dash waved a hoof. “'In nominal pasture, and filly, in spitton stanky.' How's that?”

“Heeheehee!”

“I can't believe I just witnessed the royal tongue!”

Rainbow Dash winked. “Oh no. You ain't getting that.” She cleared her throat. “Hey, I hate to be a total lame-oh and ask for more after all the swell stuff you've done for me, but could you tell me where I might find the Chamber of Respresentatives here in Verdestone?”

“You mean you don't know where it is, your highness?”

“Uhm. You know how tiaras are; they weigh down the skull so much that they squeeze out brain cells. Could you remind me?”

One mare spoke while gesturing over the eastern rooftops. “Head northeast about twelve blocks until you are past the courtyard with the fountain and cherry blossoms.”

“Such a beautiful side of town—” The other cooed. “You might find a prince there!”

The other stamped on her hoof and continued. “And take a left and head past the barracks. You'll find a large building with tall marble columns and a statue of the founding ponies of Emeraldine. Go straight inside, and you'll find the Chamber.”

“They should be having a meeting now!” said the other mare after wincing from the other's contact.

“Well, awesome sauce.” Rainbow Dash bowed—before turning it into a curtsy in mid-execution. “Uhm... So yeah. Thanks for the cool threads. It won't go to waste.” With that, she smiled, and took a running leap off the edge. Her eyes bugged in mid-air. “Oh crap, I forgot—Gah!” She plummeted three stories.

The mares winced. The sound of collapsing garbage cans and a shrieking cat could be heard from far below. After a breath of silence, Rainbow Dash's voice warbled upwards.

“We're good!” She coughed and sputtered. “Meant to do that!”

Chamber

View Online

Rainbow Dash winced slightly from a fresh bruise or two as she scuffled her way down a street connected to the alleyway where she had plummeted. After ten minutes of trotting, she had regained her hoofing, and she marched in even steps, her posture tall and proud. When she entered the open streets of Verdestone, she was graced with the glinting kiss of a gradually setting son. Suddenly, shadows were darting past her. She winced slightly, before calming herself and observing as numerous ponies galloped excitedly towards the southwest edge of the platform.

“Is it true?!” A mare slid up to a stop in front of Rainbow Dash, wide-eyed.

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash blinked awkwardly. “Is... what true?”

“There's a winged pony in town?!” The mare grinned widely. “A relative of the Queen?”

“Oh... Uh... Totally!” Rainbow Dash turned and pointed with a long-sleeved forelimb towards where she had snuck away from. “Look for the fat mare with the ratty mane and the polk-a-dotted coat! You can't miss her!”

“Ohhhhh-How exotic!” The mare darted off along with other breathless ponies. “I've waited all my life to meet royalty...”

“Yeah, cool. Have fun with that.” Rainbow Dash trotted back.

The mare's voice called from a distance. “Thank you, sir!”

Rainbow Dash blinked. Her ears drooped as she slumped forward in her straight-laced suit. “Well, mostly cool...”

Rainbow Dash took her time in navigating the streets of Verdestone. She wasn't a stranger to grabbing attention, but being an outstanding pegasus was easy to do in a small town of ponies or while flying orbit around a tiny caravan of equines. In the middle of a gigantic metropolis in the dead center of a country she was only residually familiar with: it was a great deal more taxing to become the object of every pony's idolization. A part of her almost longed for the past, a simpler time, when she could be the whole world for one pony and one pony alone.

Without thinking, she gave her saddlebag a tiny shake. She felt the weight of her goggles shifting around inside, and a tiny smile graced her lips.

The stroll to the Chamber of Representatives was long, arduous, and a torturous test of Rainbow's patience. It was one thing to force herself to trot slowly so as not to attract attention. But to do so while tucked away in a well-trimmed suit as tight as a tourniquet was utter agony. She resisted the temptation to spread her wings, rip the silk and velvet apart, and go busting the oaken doors to the Chamber in a blink.

Thankfully, she didn't have to wait that much longer upon contemplating that last part. The barracks that the two clothiers had referred to came within sight. Rainbow Dash walked past the gates, peering to her right to see several guards in silver plates of armor practicing fighting moves on wooden equine figures. She squinted through the grated bars, studying their moves, quietly intrigued by the sudden fury and muscle of these otherwise cheerful Emeraldine natives.

“Hold it right there.”

Rainbow Dash skidded to a stop. She looked ahead of her and saw nothing but black canvas. Her head tilted up... and up and up and up. Finally, she saw the head of a stallion towering above her, and a glaring pair of eyes that was three times as intimidating. The rigidly framed pony was given even greater girth by the flaring coat he wore over his limbs. The shadow from a wide-brimmed hat—coupled with midnight black coat—made it look like his eyes were a pair of aquamarine stars stabbing her from a deep abyss.

“Okay,” Rainbow Dash gulped. “I'm holding it.”

“What business do you have in the Chamber of Representatives?” he grunted as two guard ponies marched up to his side.

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash peered nervously past him, at the grand entrance of the building with its thick columns, steep stone steps, and weathered statues of ancient Emeraldine figures. “How did you know I needed to go into the Chamber?”

The stallion's eyes narrowed icily as he murmured through iron-wrought lips. “The only ponies dressed like you in this part of the platform are either here to shop or do politics.”

“Heh. Yeah, okay.” She swallowed and smiled devilishly. “Lemme guess, a pony dressed like you only wants to plant daisies?”

His iron brow furrowed.

“Yeahhhh...” Her voice cracked. “I didn't think so. Guess I'll be going—” She turned around.

“Not so fast,” he said, pointing with a hoof.

She looked over her shoulder with an innocent expression. “Fast? What makes you think I'm trying to do stuff fast?”

He leaned forward. His nostrils flared. “Hmmm...” He leaned back and grunted sideways to his guards. “Leave us.”

The guards bowed and marched off.

Rainbow Dash glanced at them. “Uhhh...”

“Come with me.”

“To where, exactly?”

“The Chamber.” The stallion adjusted the brim of his wide hat and spun around with billowing coattails. “I'm the constable of this platform, and it's my job to escort diplomatic guests in and out with safety.”

“Huh... Well...” Rainbow Dash shrugged and trotted after him. “That works for me.”

“Though you really should have presented yourself at the Base Facility.”

“Base Facility?” She made a face as she followed the tall, lanky stallion up the stone steps. “What, you mean at the bottom of the Verdestone spire? Heh, sorry. But I'm not much one for waiting.”

“I imagine not,” he said in a low voice as they entered the front foyer. He saluted a pair of guards and led Rainbow Dash into the center chamber. Several voices of debating equines filled the air as he turned to look back at her. “Why else would you have flown here this quickly.”

“Hmmm... Yeah...” Rainbow Dash said, gazing at the paintings of old ponies on the walls they passed. She suddenly went bug-eyed and gawked at him. “Wait! Huh? Flew?”

“Please...” He sighed in exasperation as he stood on the edge of a wooden railing overlooking a large circular chamber full of Emeraldine dignitaries in open discussion. “You have the smell of Ridgeside on you.”

“Uh... I do?”

“Nopony without extraordinary means of travel could have made it from Evergreen's town to here and still have retained such a scent, especially one so fresh.”

“Heh. Who would have guessed you were all nose?” She said with a smirk. She leaned against the railing and squinted at the dozens upon dozens of ponies. “Ugh. Jeez. Look at this? How am I gonna find Steelteeth in all this mess?”

“You're looking for a senator, then?”

“At least I think he's a senator,” she grumbled. “With the name like that, you'd think he'd be some sort of wielder of badflankery—” She stopped in mid-sentence. She gazed up at the Constable. “Hey. Uh... Say cheese.”

He stared down at her. With a grunt of indifference, he uttered, “Cheese.” As he did so, a full ring of metal teeth glinted in the Chamber's candlelight.

“Huh...” Rainbow Dash smiled as her wings twitched under her suit. “Guess you're not all nose after all...”

Steelteeth

View Online

“Evergreen and I met when she was still a diplomat on behalf of the Verdestone Council,” Constable Steelteeth said, his cold voice resonating off his shiny jaws. He and Rainbow Dash sat on a lofty balcony overlooking the Chamber of Representatives. “It wasn't until later that she settled down in Ridgeside and became the town's mayor. In our hayday, the two of us conducted several peace negotiations between the earth ponies of Emeraldine and the unicorns of Darkstine to the east. As a result, we saw a lot of the landscape together.”

“Pfftchyeaaaah, I bet.” Rainbow Dash smirked. “And... uhm... Ahem. It looks like the landscape got a second look at you.”

Steelteeth's brow furrowed, and a tiny grumble echoed from his heavy lungs.

Rainbow Dash gulped and adjusted the collar of her suit. “Erm... That is, if you don't mind my asking—”

“I was caught in a collapsing building during one of our trips to Darkstine's Capital of New Ring,” Steelteeth said in a dull tone. “The injuries I sustained put me in critical condition. Only by the grace of Darkstinian technology was my life extended. However, I couldn't afford to return home. So, Evergreen wished me good fortune and made a much-needed return to her family and kin in west Emeraldine. For half-a-decade, I remained in Darkstine, recuperating under their care, learning their ways. I settled there for a while, and then eventually came back here to Verdestone, where Queen Whitemane herself personally appointed me as new head of security for the uppermost platform of the spire.”

“Huh. Well, it looks like it all worked out okay in the end, right?” Rainbow Dash smiled sheepishly. “I mean, she wouldn't have chosen you unless your experience and... uhm... coolness was right for the job!”

“Mmmm... She said I carried a certain presence that deterred criminals on the spot.”

“Eh heh heh...” Rainbow Dash gulped and shuffled an inch or two away from him. “Imagine that...”

“I assume you were trying not to make a scene.”

“Huh?”

Steelteeth pointed at her. “The suit. It hides your wings.”

“How do you know I'm a pegasus?”

“How else did you fly out here?”

“Heh. Good point.” Rainbow Dash gazed down at the seats full of old ponies in open debate. “One thing's bugging me, though. As soon as the local Verdestonians... Verdestonites... Verdequines? Whatever—as soon as they saw my wings, they started freaking out and calling me 'Princess' and stuff. What's up with that?”

“Don't let the affluence of these ponies and the rich nature of their surroundings fool you,” Steelteeth said with a sideways glare. “They are still simple-minded and good-hearted Emeraldines to their very core. They've rarely ever heard of pegasi, much less seen any. I'd shudder to think what would happen if a wandering group of Darkstinian pilgrims wandered in on this metropolis. They would think that gods and goddesses trotted among us.”

“Heh.” Rainbow Dash smiled crookedly. “I guess the Verdestone Council was lucky to have the likes of you and Evergreen to clear up the confusion.”

“For what it was worth,” Steelteeth grumbled. “Diplomacy isn't quite so easy these days.”

“Why's that?”

“Do you hear them?” He gestured towards the crowd below.

“In all honesty, I've kind of been zoning out, dude.”

“They're discussing a new border patrol along the eastern edge of the province.” Steelteeth glanced her way again, adjusting the wide brim of his hat. “In the last three years, Darkstine has become closed off. Their actions have proven xenophobic, and furthermore they are breaking communication with the west, thereby cutting off all traffic for Emeraldine merchants wishing to navigate the lands beyond the eastern ravine.”

“Heh. Kind of makes you wish that you were back in action with Evergreen,” Rainbow Dash said. She blinked, then winced. “Erm... You know what I mean.”

“My place is here,” Steelteeth said. “After spending so many years in Darkstine, I know they way in which they think. I know all about their paranoia, their superstition, and their need for exactness and precision. If the closing of their borders is a sign of bad relations in the future for our two provinces, then my place is here—within range to closely protect Her Majesty, Queen Whitemane.”

“One would think that you would be the best representative to send out to Darkstine,” Rainbow Dash said. “Y'know, because you've been with them so long.”

“Mmm... Perhaps.”

“Besides, uhm...” Rainbow Dash stirred nervously. “A one-way ticket to Darkstine and beyond is kind of what I need right now. And now that I hear that their borders aren't exactly 'roam-friendly,' you could possibly be just the pony to help me.”

“And what impetus would I have for doing this?” he asked, his aquamarine eyes piercing.

“Well... uhm... Oh!” Rainbow Dash brightened. “Duh!” She reached back into her saddlebag. “Where's my head at lately? Forgetting when and where to turn in a quest. Ahem.” She pulled the scroll out, its Ridgeside Seal glinting in the nearby candlelight. “Ta daaaaa! Straight from Mayor Evergreen herself.”

“Is it, now...?” Steelteeth reached for the scroll and began to unroll it.

“Granted, I kind of expected a question mark instead of a wicked-scary hat over your head...”

“Whatever is in this, I hope Evergreen is a great deal more concise and sensible than the way in which you word yourself.”

“H-hey! I know your demeanor doesn't scream 'sunshine and rainbows,' but would it hurt you to smile a little?”

“Yes,” Constable Steeltooth grumbled, his jaw twitching. “It would.”

“Oh.” Rainbow Dash's ears drooped. “That stinks. Remind me never to invite you to Gallopgher standup.”

“Hmmm...” His eyes thinly scanned the document. “Interesting. So you aren't a princess after all.”

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash blinked, then squeaked forth a slight chuckle. “So what, you're one of the 'simple-minded, good-hearted' Verdestonards now?”

“According to Evergreen, you're heading east in a hurry for some reason.” Steeltooth rolled the scroll back up and turned to her. “Surely, she knew that sending you here would have been only delayed your trip in the long run.”

“I... don't quite get it,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “She simply told me that you'd help me get to Darkstine.”

“There aren't any winged ponies in all of Emeraldine. An expert flier that can cross as much distance in as much speed as yourself could easily soar over the unicorns' airspace to the east. They wouldn't expect you.” Steeltooth paced towards the rear of the balcony. “However, sending you here puts you in the presence of Queen Whitemane. And, if my suspicion is correct...”

Just as he spoke, the hallway outside shook with several heavy hooves. The door opened, and no less than eight guard ponies in metal gear strode up, their long faces hanging serious beneath the frames of their helmets.

“Constable Steelteeth...”

“Gentlecolts...”

“Are you in the presence of an outsider?”

“Perhaps.” Steelteeth stood protectively between them and Rainbow Dash. “Am I to assume that you are here on behalf of Her Majesty?”

“As a matter of fact, yes,” the captain of the guard uttered. “Less than twenty minutes ago, we were dispatched to this very spot by Queen Whitemane herself. We would greatly desire your assistance in inspecting the stranger.”

“She is hardly a stranger,” Steelteeth said. “As a matter of fact, she is here on official business from Mayor Evergreen of Ridgeside.” He turned to look at Rainbow Dash, and briefly his glaring expression looked ten times more hospitable than the apathetic leer of the multiple guards. “Would you care to introduce yourself?”

“Erm...” Rainbow Dash took careful notice of how many guards there were and how few exits rested beyond her peripheral vision. Even if she wasn't wearing the suit, her wings would be coiled tightly to her sides. “I'm Rainbow Dash. And... uhm... I'm not here to upset any apple carts.”

“Her neck,” one of the guards said, pointing.

Steelteeth's eyes narrowed. “What about it?”

“Is she wearing a pendant?”

Steelteeth nodded. “And how, pray tell, would you know that?”

The guards were briefly silent. One murmured to another, and then the captain spoke to Steelteeth. “The Queen has requested that we usher the owner of that pendant to the Palace on the Summit.”

“Whoah... Hold on a second—!” Rainbow Dash started.

“Understood,” Steelteeth said.

Rainbow Dash flashed him a look. “Huh?”

“But...” Steelteeth raised a hoof. “I shall escort her. If you wish to supply some of your guards, so be it. But leave me in charge of her transport.”

The guard bowed. “Very well, Constable. As the Queen has granted you authority, I so abide by it.”

“As well as you should.” Steelteeth shuffled over to Rainbow Dash and placed a heavy hoof on her shoulder. “Miss Dash, I think it would do you good to follow me closely.”

“Erm... Yeah...” Rainbow Dash fidgeted as the tall stallion led her past the glaring gauntlet of security ponies. “That's a good idea.”

Soon, the two were exiting the Chamber of Respresentatives. Rainbow Dash gawked at the crowd that had suddenly formed outside. Several ponies were gazing at her and murmuring in wonderment as Steelteeth and his fellow guards did their best to escort her off towards a complex elevator system carved into the neck of the mountainous spire.

“Yeesh... What's their deal?” Rainbow Dash whispered. “Don't they ever creep you out at all?”

“I've spent years in Darkstine,” Steelteeth droned. “It takes a lot to frighten me.”

“Yeah. I have no doubt about that. But this is not what I signed up for,” Rainbow Dash said, shuddering. “You do know—right—that at any moment, I could tear this suit apart, spread my wings, and fly away in a blink?”

“Perhaps,” Steelteeth said, nodding his head. “But for your sake—and mine—I implore you to not do that.”

“But what's the point?” Rainbow Dash's voice cracked. “Why did Evergreen send me here? Why are they looking for a pony with a pendant? What's the Queen of this place want with me?”

“The Mayor wrote in the scroll that you're a traveller from a far-off land named 'Equestria,'” Steelteeth remarked. “I, for one, know a thing or two about the need to explore. What more does a soul like yourself desire than answers?”

Rainbow Dash gazed towards the passing cobblestones and muttered, “I can think of a thing or two.”

“I wouldn't act so sullen,” Steelteeth lethargically remarked. “If you're visiting the Queen, you're liable to have access to luxury, shelter...”

“Ehhh...”

“...food...”

“Oooh!” Rainbow Dash licked her lips as they trotted up to the elevator. “When do we get there?”

Palace

View Online

“Well, what do you think?” Steelteeth asked.

Rainbow Dash's face twitched. She reached a hoof out and poked limply at a copper plate full of thin, green stalks. “It's... asparagus,” she muttered lethargically.

“No,” Steelteeth turned and pointed towards the interior of the lofty palace. “What do you think?” The tall, lanky stallion was dwarfed by an enormous hall that was flanked by giant, cylindrical pillars of marble, embossed in gold and layered with murals depicting the foundation of the world. Gigantic frescoes illustrating Emeraldine's founders stretched beyond flickering torches of otherworldly blue and green. On the far side of the chamber, velvet and satin curtains hung, dangling and swaying in the wind as a cool breeze wafted through the luxurious space and dissolved into the crimson glow of a late evening sky.

“Eh, that's okay too,” Rainbow Dash said.

“You've been to a lot of places, I imagine.”

“Eh, enough to know what kind of an effect asparagus has on a visit to the little filly's room.” Rainbow Dash trotted past a mural and squinted up close to the tiny images of prancing ponies. “So, like, this is where Queen Whiterun hangs out and stuff?”

“WhiteMANE. And it would do you well to practice a little bit of proper etiquette by the time she sees you.”

“Hey, I can do etiquette,” Rainbow Dash remarked. “I once had tea with a princess at Equestria. It was all good until the teacup exploded.”

“Surely, you jest.”

“You should have seen what happened to the saucer,” Rainbow Dash muttered as she trotted past a hanging curtain and poked at its translucent length. “It's strange having lived all my life in a place so magical, now that I think about it. You couldn't swing a dead cat in Equestria without hitting something that could explode or produce sparkles or catch on fire or speak to you in tongue...”

“Nnngh...” Steelteeth rubbed a hoof over his shadowed face. “I would give up the fortune of Verdestone to understand why the queen wishes to see you so ardently.”

“Hey! You and me both, dude!” Rainbow Dash trotted back to him, smirking. “It can't be just cuz she favors the wings that I have and others don't! That's—like—totally equinist!”

Steelteeth merely glared at her.

She smiled nervously. “Okay. So I've thought up better words on the spot.”

“The most likely scenario is that she has sensed a magical quality about you that has necessitated an impromptu visit,” Steelteeth said as he trotted towards the end of the hall. “Emeraldine may not be as magical as Equestria, but our ruler would blend in at your province of birth quite well, I would think.”

“'Magical... quality?'” Rainbow Dash made a face. “You have any idea who you're talking to? The only magical thing about me is the ability to hold off passing gas for several hours in the presence of other ponies.”

“Well, you had better become a sorceror by the time the Queen sees you, then,” Steelteeth said as he yanked on a rope dangling beside him. A distant bell rang, and the sound of dainty hoofsteps could be heard. “It would appear as though Her Majesty is preoccupied with something. Hopefully she will visit you soon. In the meantime, though, it would only be right that you make yourself... more presentable, and humbly accept the luxury that the Queen's grace has afforded you.”

As summoned, five chambermaids appeared. They were five young, pleasant-faced mares in flowing velvets and bearing spotless smiles. They all curtsied to Steelteeth, who nodded towards them and spoke.

“Make our guest presentable for the Queen and show her to her quarters for the night. If you ask me, I think a bath is in order...”

“Whoah whoah whoah—Wait!” Rainbow Dash stretched a hoof out, frowning. “You mean to tell me that I was dragged all the way up here for some sort of mass pony pedi?! Well, you can take your holier-than-thou ideas of hospitality and just sh—”

Steelteeth looked her way. A pair of aquamarine eyes glinted like daggers.

Rainbow Dash wilted, biting her lips. “On s-second thought, I have been flying and hoofin' it for a long time, and I guess a little bit of a rinse wouldn't do me bad...”

“Glad that we are in agreement,” Steelteeth said. “I have business in the uppermost platform to attend.” He bowed towards the chambermaids. “Ladies.”

The stallion trotted off, and the five mares sashayed towards Rainbow Dash, smiling and converging on her. “Just relax, milady. The Queen asks that we make you feel at home.”

“Yeah. Uhhh...” Rainbow Dash chuckled nervously, gulped, and backtrotted from them. “That's just the thing. If I was at 'home,' I'd have a huge fluffy cloud beneath me and maybe a couple of Wonderbolts magazines. Seriously, there is no need for—Whoah!” Her voice cracked as she was gently ushered towards a large basin on the far end of the room.

“Heehee... Just relax, milady. This will not take long.”

“Dah! Okay! I get it—Whoah! Don't tug on that! Ack! Hey, that suit's expensive! At least I think it is. Hey! Where're you putting my saddlebag?! I've got important things in it—Daaah—Heeheeheehee—Okay! Fine! Heehee—Do whatever! Just don't touch the hooves, got it? Oh, and the pendant stays on, no matter what. Don't worry, it's waterpr—Whoah!”

Finally, Rainbow Dash was plopped down into the basin. Cold water was poured onto her from a vase. Before she could shiver, two sets of hooves began scrubbing her coat and rinsing her mane from behind. She winced and chattered her teeth the whole time, feeling as if she was a confounded stagecoach being drawn through a living wash. It didn't help that the chambermaids were all smiles and giggles. Everything became a blur, and Rainbow Dash could have sworn that the bath turned into a hot jecuzzi at some point.

Before she knew it, the ordeal was over—at least mostly over. They wrapped her mane up in a towel and set her things aside on a velvet chair along with the folded Verdestone suit. As one chambermaid trotted off to fetch a robe, the other four stood—smiling—at the edge of the bath, where they addressed the naked and drying Rainbow Dash.

“Is there anything else we can do for you, milady?” Their eyelashes batted innocently.

Rainbow Dash blinked at the curvaceous, smiling group of them. “Uhhhhhhhh...” A rosiness spread over curved lips. “Uhhhhh huh huh huhhhhhh...” She gulped and sat straight up to hide her wings as she looked towards the far end of the hall. “Uhhhhh-H-How about s-some asparagus?”

Maidens

View Online

“And he was all like, 'You're going down!' So I said, 'In history, maybe! See you boys at the finish line!'”

“Heeheehee!” The five chambermaids giggled from where they sat on velvet cushions strategically placed in orbit of Rainbow Dash's seat. The edge of the balcony loomed beyond, and a gentle night breeze was wafting in through the marble pillars that bordered the torchlit chamber.

As for Rainbow Dash: she was lazily reclined on a lounge seat, digging into a brass plate of crisp, green vegetables.

“Mmmmff...” She scarfed another down as she smiled pleasantly at the small audience of bubbly fillies surrounding her. “These things are absolutely despicable! I love them!” They giggled some more as she sat up, brushing her hooves off. “Y'know, ladies...” Gulping a final morsel down, Rainbow Dash plucked disgustedly at the length of the white, silken robe that was loosely clad to her figure. “I could have done without the frilly nonsense.” She rolled her eyes as a lock of spiraling colors dipped below her brow. “And I may have grumbled a little when all of you decided to braid my mane...”

“But it's so gorgeous!” One mare chirped.

“Heehee! We've never seen anything like it before!” Added another, smiling. “It's absolutely amazing.”

“But, all in all,” Rainbow Dash nodded and smirked slyly at the group. “I think I'm starting to warm up to this. Maybe royalty isn't as full of hot air as I thought it was.”

“We were instructed to make you as comfortable as possible.”

“Yeah, well, you've done most of that, lemme tell ya.” Rainbow Dash stood on the edge of the seat, grinning. “So, like, do you girls live in this place or something?”

“In revolving sessions,” one said.

“We work for a month or two, and then return to our families for a sabbatical,” explained another.

A third nodded. “The Queen relies on our services, but she never monopolizes our attention.”

“Mmm... Yes...” A fourth turned and smiled at her fellow servants. “Because if she did, our coltfriends would be truly, truly sad forever!”

The five laughed merrily amongst themselves.

Rainbow Dash's smile lingered on the precipice of her face. “Coltfriends...” She limply nodded as her right eye twitched. “Right... Ahem.” She shifted where she sat and spoke, “So... uh... are you all happy to live on a giant phallic spike in the middle of Emeraldine?”

“Oh, we are most proud to be allowed to work and live here in Verdestone,” one replied. “And to be in such close proximity to Her Majesty: it is truly glorious!”

“And it gives us the chance to witness handsome foreign dignitaries from around the world!” Another chimed in. “Such as Chancellor Nightsteam of Darkstine!”

“And of course we are always graced with special surprises,” said another. “Such as the chance to service an exotic princess such as yourself.”

“Mmmm... yeah...” Rainbow Dash was attacked with the case of the yawns. She breathed her way through it and refocused her vision on the group of five. “About that. You all realize that I'm no princess, right?”

The maidens merely giggled.

“Oh, don't be so humble. Leave modesty to us.”

“I mean it. Seriously.” Rainbow Dash tried to point, but a silken sleeve dangled in the way. She fussed with her robe before ultimately groaning. “This isn't really me. Heh. I'm about as royal as a hill of spent ice cream cones.” She yawned suddenly, her eyelids falling heavy. “Unngh... even I don't understand that last one. Still...” She blinked, the world growing foggy before the torchlight. “I'm... I'm just a pegasus who... who is heading east...”

“Hmmm? So you are on a journey, then?”

“Seeking true love?”

“Exploration?”

“Diplomacy?”

“A... Aw... Awesomeness...” Rainbow Dash slurred, her head teetering as she yawned again. Her brow furrowed beneath the prismatic braids dangling off her skull. “Jeez... Where... Where did the attack of the drowsy gremlins come from? I...”

The smiles on the chambermaids' faces left. They exchanged glances, then nodded in accordance. With singular grace, they all stood up.

“She wishes to see her now...”

“Let's help her rest...”

“See... See wh-who...?” Rainbow Dash gulped, feeling dizzy. “I... I don't get...” She bit her lip. “Something's wrong.” The torchlight disappeared, one flame after another, as the balcony and the stars beyond spun out of focus. “I... I feel so... so lame....”

The last thing she saw, for better or for worse, was the dainty quintet of fillies softly converging on her.

Peace

View Online

“Nnkkktt-gkkk...”

Rainbow Dash was seated on her haunches, gnashing her teeth beneath a clenched pair of eyes. She twitched and convulsed as a mist of white powder and ash settled in a loose cloud before her. The atmosphere above was still tempestuous, swirling like a cyclone over the ruptured Town Square.

A figure was a few meters away. Hugging his knees to his chest, Spike rocked back and forth, his green eye-slits brimming with tears. He heaved and shuddered, bordering on the crest of hyperventilation. A golden pendant with a ruby lightning bolt rattled around his neck as he turned to look at Rainbow Dash.

She was quivering, shaking, spasming all over. Finally, when the pressure reached a breaking point, she tilted her muzzle to the sky and wailed.

“Haaaaaaaaaughhhh!”

She fell to the earth, pounding it with her hoof, repeating her scream in howling bursts as she tore bits of grass and soil asunder. She finished, finally, panting and sobbing into the skin of the sundered world.

The wind finally settled, and the landscape transformed behind them. It was as if rivulets of invisible magic curtains were undulating away from the center. Floating islands and sporadic clumps of geographic phenomena rejoined the smooth surface of the earth. Soon, Canterlot and Cloudsdale came into focus in the grand distance.

Breathless now, Rainbow Dash looked up. Her face was drenched in moisture. She threw one forelimb before the other and pulled herself forward, crawling in an anguished slump. She slithered past Spike, momentarily apathetic to his own sobs. She drew herself past jagged clumps of rock and stone. Finally, she came upon a pile of ash. Beside it, flecks of orange, green and red filaments were dissolving like raindrops.

She sat before the white mound of dust. She stared into it. Her face contorted. Her eyes rolled back in her head. In a quiet whimper, she fell into the mess, grabbing at the windblown lengths of it, clasping nothing but her own tears. The world drew silent around her, echoing with the sound of her muted sobs.

A sudden breeze lifted, followed by the sound hoofprints. Sniffling, she looked up. Her jaw dropped.

A figure was marching towards her with wings brilliantly outstretched and a horn shimmering with the gentle kiss of starlight. The first and only thing to come into focus was a pair of eyes—piercing aqua blue—and they hovered above Rainbow Dash like twin moons, framing a sweet and loving smile.

“Oh, blessed child. You search and you search, but will you ever find peace?” She leaned down and nuzzled the sobbing pegasus and lulled her with a warm breath. “You are not here anymore, Rainbow Dash.”

The pegasus blinked at her. Then she winced. Her eyes twitched, flickered red on yellow, then caught fire. Rainbow Dash fell back and clutcher her skull. Her screams weren't enough to stop her forehead from bursting open in a flash of darkness.

Whitemane

View Online

Her ruby eyes flew open. She sat up in a silent jerk.

Rainbow Dash was lying in the center of a large velvety bed full of plush pillows. A lacy, milky-white canopy dangled around her, dancing from the distant breezes of the Emeraldine night sky. She exhaled, slumping down once more onto the folds of the bed. She stared down at the cushions, attempting to remember how she arrived there in the first place. Just then, two wet spots formed on the velvet immediately beneath her. At first, she was confused, until she felt a warm trickle down her cheeks. She brought a hoof to her face, then examined it. At the sight of the tears, she merely groaned.

“Mnngh...”

Slowly, she stood up, alarmed at how much her limbs ached. She realized that she had to have been sleeping for a very long time. Regardless, she parted the bed canopy and stepped out. Rainbow Dash made a slow, shuffling bee-line towards the edge of the distant balcony, her hooves scraping against the polished marble floor of the grand hall.

She passed the pillars and came onto the platform overlooking the edge of the spire's summit. The world of Emeraldine stretched far beneath her, a hazy sheet of rolling plains and quiet trees stirring under sleepy night. The stars formed a glittering spectacle of violet hues above, and the platforms and urban sprawl below mimicked the cosmos with hundreds upon hundreds of distant torches and candles of its own.

Rainbow Dash knew enough about the stars to realize that her balcony was facing east. Rather than question the dark irony of it, she sat her haunches down on the very edge, closed her eyes, and inhaled the breeze gently flowing from her elusive destination. The wind tugged at her robe and fresh braids, making her feel like a stranger dressed in a far more important mare's skin. It was hard to imagine that just weeks ago she was bashing minotaur skulls and outflying horrible winged legions of chaos.

A shudder ran through her, and she tried to lose herself in the lofty scent of Verdestone night. To think too much was to fall back. To turn around was to regress. She was too scared to open her eyes, to return to the chamber, to put her back to the east. Her eyes were moist enough as they were.

“What danger is there in something that has known so much love”

Rainbow Dash's eyes finally blinked open. Her ears twitched, and she pivoted to her left to see a large equine figure seated beside her.

Her coat shimmered like polished porcelain. Milky-white layers of fur fluttered in the breeze. Atop her neck, a gorgeous mane of alabaster hair billowed like a comet's tail. She turned to look peacefully at Rainbow Dash, and as she did so, the shadow of an immense horn brushed past her nose.

“Perhaps... merely a danger to herself?”

Rainbow Dash gulped. “I... I-I happen to like danger.”

“Hmmm... Of that, I have no doubt, child,” the massive unicorn said, only to flex a pair of wings so that she was no longer a unicorn at all. “But for how long, I wonder?”

Rainbow's eyes jerked towards the sight of the ivory-white figures. “You're... You're...”

“Not the first of my kind that you have met?” The alicorn replied. “There are very, very few mortals on earth who can make such a claim. I am very blessed to be in the presence of one, more than you could ever be honored to be in the presence of me.”

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. “Queen Whitemane, I presume.”

She slowly bowed her head in a graceful manner. “A pleasure to meet you. I do hope your accomodations have been more than adquate.”

“Er... Yeah. I guess you could say that.” Rainbow Dash glanced back towards the hall beyond the pillars. Her face scrunched up. “But... I can't remember ever falling asleep. I mean, I've been conked out quite a few times in my life. But if I crawled to a bed as frickin' crazy as that—heh—I'm pretty sure I'd remember it.”

“Do not worry. I've made sure that you've been in the best of care.”

“Well, you're getting no argument from me. But I just don't get it.” Rainbow Dash turned to look at her. “Why did you wish to see me? Why was I summoned up here? Did Evergreen somehow put you—the Queen of Verdestone—up to this?”

“The Mayor of Ridgeside undoubtedly sent you to the capital city for noble reasons,” Whitemane said. Her voice was like the crashing of waves, and yet as soft as raindrops. “But she couldn't sense in you what I did. It was my choice and my choice alone that you be invited up here.”

“Do you invite all pegasi to your castle in the sky with a bunch of armed guards?”

“Given the circumstances, it was the utmost, wisest precaution.”

“Uhhh... what circumstances?”

“But I know the truth now,” Whitemane said with a soft smile. “And you cannot understand the degree to which I am relieved. I am sorry that I ever doubted you, Rainbow Dash.”

“Well, glad to be of service, I guess—” Rainbow Dash's eyes twitched. She squinted up at her. “How in the hay did you know my—?” She gasped.

Whitemane's eyes came into focus for the first time. They were like twin pearls of aqua blue, piercing in their gaze.

“You!” Rainbow Dash stood up on all fours, gnashing her teeth. “It was you in my dream!”

“You must understand,” Whitemane said in a calm voice. “I needed to ascertain the truth—”

“I do not like ponies messing with my head!” Rainbow Dash barked, to the point of snarling. “It's not right! I don't care who you think you are or how many tiaras you have in your closet! I am totally not down with that!”

“Such anger. Such defiance.” Whitemane merely pivoted her head to the side. “Is this the first time you've yelled at an alicorn?”

Rainbow Dash heaved and heaved. Slowly, her frown left under a weak grimace. Sighing, she slumped to the floor of the balcony and hung her head. “I really, really don't like what you did.”

“It is hardly something I hold pride in myself,” Whitemane said. She flexed her limbs and trotted slowly closer to the smaller pony. “And as a pony first and foremost, I apologize to you, my child. But, as a Queen, I have the safety of my royal subjects to be concerned with. I needed to know if the power that you carried was something that could threaten the populace of Verdestone.”

“And is it?” Rainbow Dash mumbled.

“You mean you don't know?” Whitemane stood before her and pointed towards the golden pendant around her neck. “You are not aware of the sheer precipice upon which that object fastens you?”

Rainbow Dash bit her lip. She brought a hoof up and lightly stroked circles around the ruby lightning bolt. She exhaled long and hard. “How...” She gazed up at Whitemane with soft eyes. “H-how much did you find out about me?”

“Enough to know that—no, Rainbow Dash,” Whitemane slowly shook her head. “You are not a danger to my subjects. You are not a danger to me. You are not a danger to anypony.” She sat down close beside Rainbow Dash, gazing at her deeply. “So, I left your mind as swiftly as I could. And now, because of that, I am terribly curious of one thing.” She breathed sympathetically. “Are you simply a danger to yourself?”

Rainbow Dash merely stared at her.

Whitemane smiled, her face framed by the stars beyond. “You are a most fascinating, remarkable pony, Rainbow Dash. You exercise unfathomable courage. But your bravery is not so much measured in the things you put yourself through, as it is in the things you hold onto.”

Rainbow's lips parted at that. “I...” She gulped. “I-I don't understand...”

“And you wield total mastery over yourself,” Whitemane continued. “From your mind to your soul, you are completely your own masterpiece. What, then, does such an example of perfection have to prove? Is it enough that it's worth risking such a work of art in the end?”

Rainbow Dash briefly sneered, “If you had decided to trespass a little longer in my brain, your highness, you would have figured out that you're asking all these stupid questions for nothing.” She grumbled and rested her chin atop a pair of limp forelimbs. “There's really... really nothing deep about me.”

“It is most challenging to sense depth in oneself, especially when the foundations have been torn out from under one's hooves.” Whitemane reached down and gently urged Rainbow Dash to look up at her. “No pony can stay in the sky forever, child. Even you must touch down from time to time. And, eventually, you must touch down permanently. It is the way of all things. It is even the way of me.”

“Pffft... Yeah right.” Rainbow Dash brushed Whitemane's hoof away and frowned. “You're—like—a frickin' goddess or something. You're just gonna live forever like the other alicorns.”

“Perhaps that would be true,” Whitemane said. “If I was of pure blood.”

Rainbow Dash blinked crookedly. “Wha-huh?”

“Hmmm...” She chuckled breathily. “Do you find it hard to believe that I am not immortal? I have been alive for a long time, yes, but I am hardly like the cosmic entities you have had the grace to know.” She flexed her wings. “As for these, well, I'm afraid they're strictly ornamental.”

“Huh...” Rainbow Dash gazed at the feathery apendages, noticing for the first time how loosely framed they were. “Y'know, I think I've heard of that before. There was a royal pony like you in the Crystal Kingdom north of where I born.” She sighed before tossing a bitter chuckle to the air. “Heh, guess it explains why all the Verdestoners were going ga-ga over me.”

“Or perhaps they were simply drawn to your charm.”

“That's the thing I don't get about royalty,” Rainbow Dash said in a low tone as she stood up. “They're always so lousy at humor. Well, at least they get their manners right.” She clenched her jaw and muttered, “Half of the time.” With a toss of her tail, she marched off. “I'm sorry, your Highness. But whatever you meant to do here, you could have just gotten over with in a snap. Next time you wanna horn-meld with a random stranger, do it a little more quickly, will ya?”

“At least answer me this question, child—”

“Nnngh!” Rainbow Dash spun around and snarled. “Stop friggin' calling me child!”

“Why are you in such a hurry to get to something that is impossible to reach?”

“How could you possibly know a dang thing about what I'm reaching for?”

“Because the Midnight Armory was built specifically to never be accessed by anypony, ever.”

Rainbow Dash froze in place, her lips quivering. She gulped before stammering, “I-I thought you said you pulled out of my head before you could—”

“Deduce the eventual goal of your epic flight? Whitemane slowly stood up. “I may not share the pure blood that flows through my cosmic cousins' veins, but I am no less in touch with the fabric of magic that covers this world like an effluent sheet. Something has been lost on this plane, something that is completely and utterly irrecoverable, save for the acquisition of one precious artifact, the only item of its kind in the entire world. And it was placed inside the Midnight Armory, hundreds of thousands of years ago, with the sole point of never being retrieved.” Whitemane softly trotted towards her. “Since then, nopony has dared scale the heights of the Midnight Armory's twilight spires to grasp it. Nopony has dared touched the surface of dark world to so much as find it. Nopony has dared approach the ends of the earth in the suicidal attempt to contemplate it.”

Whitemane stood boldly above Rainbow Dash, her gaze as sharp as her eyes for a brief moment.

“For while it is there, while it is locked away, the rest of the world exists in perfect peace, in perfect ignorance, and in perfect harmony. It has been this way for eons, in accordance with an unwritten contract, something that the founding alicorns established ages ago to keep the forces of chaos at bay so that this physical plane—a tenuous miracle at best—could remain in one piece. There is no reason for a soul to go above and beyond the limits of both mortals and immortals alike, so long as a single fragment of what remains in the armory touches the surface of the light world. So I ask you, Rainbow Dash...”

Whitemane knelt down and stared evenly at her, once again bearing a soft expression.

“Now that I realize that you aren't a threat, now that I realize that you aren't a danger to my subjects, I humbly ask that you tell me what indeed you are. And why would such a pony so wonderfully brave, so beautifully enigmatic, be the one soul in all the world so desperate to flirt with destruction?”

Rainbow Dash was silent for a while. She coolly gazed up at Whitemane. In a low tone, she asked, “Do you want to know what I am?”

The Queen merely stared at her.

Rainbow gave a brazen smile. “I'm a pony who dares.”

The Queen blinked. Slowly, her lips curved. “Hmm... Indeed. And I am an alicorn who knows.”

Rainbow's eyes squinted. “Knows what?”

“What indeed.” Whitemane stood up straight and trotted briskly into the temple. “Come. Walk with me...”

Prism

View Online

“Tell me, child,” Queen Whitemane uttered while gracefully trotting forward. “Do you know how the Elements of Harmony began?”

“Uhm... I guess?” Rainbow Dash nervously stumbled behind her. She gazed up with momentarily bedazzled eyes as the alicorn led them both into an open courtyard within the palace. The ceiling gave way to a violet sheet of twinkling cosmos as hanging gardens and blossoming trees glittered in the starlight. “I mean, they've always sorta been, right?”

“Everything has a beginning, Rainbow Dash,” Whitemane said as she slowly paced past the gorgeous plantlife. “Just as everything has an ending. It's true for the immortals who came to this plane and gave birth to the likes of me. It is also true for their greatest tool, the very fiber of their beings.” She turned and gazed at the pegasus. “You at least understand that the world was once all alicorns, correct?”

Rainbow Dash fidgeted with the sleeves of her robe. “Erm... yeah?”

“But do you honestly believe that the alicorns began on this world?”

Rainbow bit her lip and said nothing.

Whitemane brushed a hoof over the blooming roses of a passing bush. “Like you, I've had the barriers of time and mortality to challenge my understanding. But, like all families, mine has long carried a tradition of hoofing down knowledge to the lesser generations. What I tell you now is something meant only for alicorn ears, and the seldom few sorcerors of our time who've been blessed to carry the burden of the truth.”

She pivoted around and faced Rainbow Dash with a gentle expression.

“This world was never created,” Whitemane said. “It was found.”

Rainbow's ears folded back. “What? You mean—like—somepony else made it besides the alicorns?”

“Somepony, somebody, something...” Whitemane took a deep breath. “Not all truths in the universe have been understood by my kind. What we do know is that hundreds of thousands of years ago, the alicorns arrived at this plane from their homeland. After a magical flight through the cosmos, they landed here and stopped to curiously study this incidental landscape. At first, it appeared to them as a seemingly innocuous phenonemon. But then, upon closer examination, my forebears discovered life sprouting on its own. Suddenly, they had before them a place of undeniable worth, and as universal protectors of harmony, it was their duty to oversee the progress of this miraculous life.”

Whitemane turned and paced past the trees and blossoms once more.

“It was a joyful task, something that my ancestors reveled in. However, it was not a labor that could be accomplished easily. You see, this plane existed within a cloud of effluent chaos. As a result, the life that was growing here was threatened constantly by forces of destruction and agony. If the alicorns were to ensure harmony, they had to utilize all of the energy in their possession. Essentially, they had to sacrifice themselves. But, there were only so few of them, and this landscape was so large. They faced a dilemma, and they mutually understood that a grim decision faced them.”

“What kind of a decision?”

“Let me ask you something first, Rainbow Dash.” Whitemane smiled gently at her. “What is the world?”

“Huh?”

“By definition.”

“Ugh... if I had known this would be a geography lesson...” Rainbow Dash sighed and leaned against a marble border surrounding a patch of gardens. “Mmmm... From what Cloudsdale Primary taught schoolfillies like me ages ago—well, for the few classes that I was awake in—the world is some sort of flat plane of matter hovering around in chaotic space and... uhm... we're protected by these big bubble-thingies called the 'furry men'—”

“The firmaments.”

“Eh. Yeah. That. I meant to say that.”

“The firmaments surround the plane and keep the elements of phsyicality safe from the vacuum of space and the chaos streams beyond,” Whitemane explained.

“Yeah. And, like, the sun and moon are controlled by the alicorn goddesses who keep the world lit up and safe and prosperous and all that fluff.”

“And is this both sides of the world?” Whitemane looked at Rainbow Dash. “Hmm?”

Rainbow Dash exhaled and avoided the Queen's gaze. “No. There is... there is a bottom side,” she gulped. “A dark side.”

“The dark side of the world...” Whitemane slowly nodded. “The surface that never sees the sun or moon, that only knows twilight and shadows, that is forever pelted by the elements of chaos. You do realize, of course, that the dark side could very easily have been the lit half of the world.”

Rainbow Dash looked up at her. “It could?”

Whitemane nodded. “The dilemma that my forebears ran into was deciding which side of the plane to illuminate with their power. There were only so few alicorns who settled here. The rest were either dwelling in the Plains of Harmony, or exploring the furthest reaches of the universe. My ancestors couldn't rightly abandon this world, so they decided then and there to pool together their resources and create the firmaments so as to protect the life they had discovered. Several of the alicorns made the sacrifice, forever transforming themselves into the energy that would act as barriers against chaos, securing this land and its future for eternity. Those left alive—like the goddesses you know personally—stayed behind to monitor the cosmic bodies that would give illumination and meaning to the realm.”

“I'm guessing... uhm...” Rainbow Dash stirred as she murmured, “There wasn't enough of them to do it to both sides of the plane.”

The Queen solemnly nodded. “If they attempted to monitor both sides of this world, their resources would have been spread too thin. They knew that it was a grim decision to have made, because the side of the world untouched by their glory would forever be abandoned to the essence of chaos. But it was also a necessary choice, because if they had divided their powers, then the world as a whole would not have survived. That is why—to this day—we have a light side and a dark side to this plane, separated merely by the corners of the earth, where they pierce the fabric of the firmaments.”

“So, where do the Elements of Harmony come into play?” Rainbow Dash asked, fidgeting slightly with the pendant around her neck. “Were they just a bunch of alicorns who morphed into magical bling?”

Whitemane chuckled slightly. “No. The Elements belong to a fabric of energy that not even the alicorns could alter. However, they could channel and focus it. And the source of such vibrance comes from the Plains of Harmony, the homeland of all alicorns who spread out across the universe.”

“So... what brought the Elements here, then?”

“Something that every group of alicorns carry with them as they seek out the furthest ends of the cosmos to colonize and spread their glory,” Whitemane said. “It is an object that is forever connected with the enegy of the Plains of Harmony. And, once wielded in the hooves of a pure-bred alicorn, it can refract the beam of vibrance and redistribute it into multiple vessels that embody the same power that protects this world.”

“Yeah. Uh huh.” Rainbow Dash leaned forward, squinting. “Can I have a name, please...?”

“The 'Harmonic Prism,' of course,” Whitemane said. “You mean you've never head of it before?”

“Pfft. Why should I have?”

“What other reason would empower a mortal like you to make such a daunting trip to the Midnight Armory?”

Rainbow Dash sighed and slumped down on her haunches. “Because I'm bored? I dunno...”

“This is hardly a topic to treat lightly.” Whitemane paced towards her. “The Harmonic Prism was what made the creation of the Elements of Harmony possible. Once the six elements were created, the Prism's chief function was to act as a backup, to channel great power from the alicorn homeland in the Plains of Harmony and recreate that which was lost. Now, Rainbow Dash, I know that there is much that you know that you do not wish to confess to me, and I respect that. So, I implore you to at least ask yourself this: has something been lost that the Harmonic Prism can assist in recreating?”

Rainbow Dash bit her lip. She gazed at the ground and slowly nodded.

Whitemane exhaled. “I knew before you even came here that most if not all the elements had been lost. But, I also knew that the world would live on in spite of the destruction of the elements. It wasn't until I met you that I realized that one soul in all the world was attempting to do something about it.”

“You wanna hear a confession?” Rainbow Dash muttered. She gazed up at Whitemane with dull eyes. “I don't really give a crud if this Harmonic Prism thingy can recreate the Elements of Harmony or not.” She gulped, and her voice wavered. “There's nothing in this world—light or dark—that can bring back what I want...”

“And yet you keep flying, keep going, keep seeking a means of reaching the Midnight Armory—where my ancestors placed the Prism for safe-keeping—as if it is the most important task that you have to live for. Do you even know where the Midnight Armory is located?”

“Pfft. Yeah, sure.”

“Do you truly?” Whitemane's pearl-blue eyes narrowed as she trotted slowly around the pegasus. “Do you know the lengths that are left to scale on this surface? The countless miles and stretches of landscape—both forbidding and dangerous—before you can even get halfway towards such a goal? Have you ever asked yourself why you haven't flown north or south? For they are far less lengthy journeys.”

“They'd also end up in me getting totally fried...”

“Because the friction between chaos and the firmaments at the north and south edges of the world are too heated and tempestuous for any single body to even come close to. But do you think that the barrier is any more forgiving on the east edge, Rainbow Dash?” Whitemane momentarily leered above her. “I have seen the edge of the world with my own eyes. I was there seven hundred years ago, as an alicorn foal, taken by my mother and father to witness the work that our immortal ancestors had constructed for the safety of this world. I saw the nebulous fountains of madness that erupted along the bleak precipice of everything. Even a goddess with the protection of magic would find it a perilous task at best to attempt navigating the hellish plummet in a bold but foolish attempt to make it to the surface of the dark world on the other side. And then—what would such an inhospitable landscape offer anypony, much less a lone mortal such as yourself?”

Rainbow Dash said nothing. Her wings were tightly coiled to her side as she stared into the floor.

Whitemane continued. “The darkworld has been untouched, unvisited, and unseen by all civilization—mortals and immortals alike—for countless eons. It is a realm of darkness, suffering, and confusion. There are things there that live but do not know it, for chaos has blinded them for ages, forcing them to feed off of pain like a second oxygen. To reach the Midnight Armory, a soul must not only scale the ends of the earth, but cross the diameter of the sun-less, moon-less horrorscape that is the dark world before the improbable goal can be met. Then and only then, after having miraculously overcome inconceivable odds, would the adventurer even come close to getting her hooves on the Harmonic Prism.”

“If the stupid crystal was so important to the alicorns and everypony,” Rainbow Dash finally mumbled. “Why lock it away in such a crappy place to begin with?”

“Because as horrible as the dark world is, it is not entirely consumed. Furthermore, the animated monstrosities that exist there have not summoned enough strength to attempt an invasion of the sunlit realm, and it is all on account of the Prism's presence.” Whitemane's lips curled ever so slightly. “As the Elements of Harmony were created to assist our world with prosperity, Rainbow Dash, the Midnight Armory was constructed as a means of preserving the one piece of good that could ever exist in the realm of chaos. So long as it exists, then the dark realm possesses the tiniest fraction of good. It was the least the founding alicorns could do to make sure there was a modicum of balance in this world they sought to protect.”

“But.. But if the Prism could re-focus the Elements of Harmony into existence or whatever, why put it so far away that it'd be impossible to reach?”

“You must understand, the Midnight Amory was constructed in a time when the Elements were equally important to the mantenance of the light realm,” Whitemane explained. “Several eons have passed since then, Rainbow Dash, and in that time the goddesses have imbued the prospering life of this world with the power of the Elements themselves. In a way, the Elements of Harmony serve a fraction of the importance that they ever once did. Ponies—in and of their own essence—are as equally important as the tools of the alicorns used to be. Surely I do not need to convince you of this truth—you, who has become an embodiment of one of the Elements herself.”

Rainbow Dash gulped and glanced towards the far ends of the garden. “So... what you're trying to tell me is—”

“What I'm trying to tell you, to show you, to convince you, Rainbow Dash, is that the Elements of Harmony, the physical trinkets that represent the power of my forebearers, are no longer important for the absolute protection of this realm. You, however, are important. You are special and you are precious and you are one of a kind. Yes, you can finish this journey to the Midnight Armory. And, assuming you make it beyond all obstacles, you will have the ability to recreate the other five elements that have been destroyed. But what are the odds that you will actually finish such a journey?”

“Well, I—”

“It will kill you, Rainbow Dash,” Whitemane said. “If not from peril in the many continents left for you to cross between here and the east edge of the world, then most likely in the suicidal attempt to bridge the edge between the light realm and the dark side, and most assuredly in the treacherous death plains of the chaotic half of the earth itself.”

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. “Your Majesty—”

“And have I mentioned that my ancestors built the Midnight Armory to be impregnable? Not even the horrible creatures of the dark side can enter its gates. And even if you did get the Prism from within, for it to be of any use to you in recreating the Elements, you would have to journey back to the light realm, Rainbow Dash. You would have to perform the same journey—the same length and the same perils and the same risks—all the way back until you can hoof the Prism over to a goddess alicorn of pure blood: all for the sake of recreating things that this world can prosper just fine without by this point in time. So I ask you once again, sincerely... why are you making this journey, a journey that can only end in your very own destruction?”

Rainbow Dash's lips quivered as she stared up at her. Her voice cracked as a foalish breath came out. “I c-can't tell you. You... You wouldn't understand. It... I need to make this journey. I don't care if you don't believe me. I don't care if something will grind me to a pulp before I even get to the edge of the world. I don't even care what the Prism does or doesn't do. I just don't care.” She took a shuddering breath. “No single living soul has made it to the Midnight Armory in forever. But... But I'm going to change that.”

“But why you, Rainbow Dash?” Whitemane leaned down and placed a hoof on the pegasus' shoulder. “Why must you be the one to change the future?”

Rainbow Dash was trembling at this point. Her vision blurred, and when she blinked her eyes to force the tears back into hiding, she swore she saw a fluctuation, a tiny dance of lavender light. She jerked her head to the side, gazing east beyond the chambers and halls of the palace. She saw nothing, and yet she saw everything. A smile cracked out of her, and she sniffled.

“Because I'm sick to death of the past,” she murmured. “And if I don't keep moving, I'll just hate myself forever. So maybe something horrible happens to me. Maybe I run into the edge of world and take a leap and that's the end of my awesomeness forever and ever. So what?” She gulped and glared at Whitemane. “If I stay put, if I refuse to budge, then I know what's gonna consume me. And the last thing I ever wanted to do with my life was let it end by something I could predict.” She stood up, frowning into Whitemane's face. “Would you do any different, no matter how old or how bored you'd be with everything?”

Whitemane gazed in silent reflection. Eventually she shook her head. “No.” She smiled. “No, I suppose I wouldn't be any different. I would, instead, grant you a gift.”

Rainbow Dash's eyes narrowed. “What kind of a gift...?”

“Shhh...” Whitemane's horn glowed as she aimed it slowly towards Rainbow's pendant. “This is only going to help you, child. Do not be afraid.”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash merely smirked as she stepped back, relaxed, and closed her eyes to the glow. “Do you forget who you're talking to?”

And the two of them were absorbed by a bright flash of light.

Booth

View Online

With a series of echoing hoofsteps, Steelteeth made his way up a steep stairwell until he came to a shuffling stop in the wing of the Verdestone palace overlooking the bright morning sunrise. His steely, aquamarine eyes glared out from the shadow of his broad-rimmed hat as he paused on the marble floor, looking, standing, waiting.

Everything was quiet, still, and empty. But then—

“Boo!” Rainbow Dash grinned upside down at him from above.

He gave no reaction: not even a flinch.

“Awwww, come on...” Rainbow Dash flew right-side-up and hovered directly in front of him. “There's gotta be a nervous heart beating somewhere beneath all that... trenchcoat.”

“You smell better today,” he muttered.

“Yeah, I made sure the chambermaids gave me a lavender rinse with you in mind.” She stuck her tongue out. “Most friggin' embarassing moment of my life, I swear to Luna. But hey, at least the bed was nice.”

“Did the chambermaids help you to that too?”

“Der—I... Uhm... It...” Rainbow Dash's cheeks blushed furiously. She then frowned. “No.” In an instant, she was grinning again. “But I did get to tell some sweet stories! It made them laugh like crazy. I bet even you would laugh too.”

“Rainbow Dash, I didn't come here to indulge the banal anecdotes of a lone wanderer,”Steelteeth said coldly. “I was requested personally by Queen Whitemane just an hour ago to escort you safely beyond the borders of Darkstine, and if we are to make haste we must—”

Rainbow Dash touched down in front of him, smiling wide. “Hit me.”

At that, Steelteeth actually blinked. “I beg your pardon...?”

“I want ya to hit me!” Rainbow beamed. “Come on, tall, dark, and ominous! There's a mighty set of bucking limbs hidden somewhere beneath that coat, so hit me!”

“Miss Dash,” Steelteeth spoke as if at a distance. “As Constable of Verdestone, I have a great deal of strength at my disposal. I have been known to cripple assassins and render hydralisks paralyzed.”

“Jee. Small world. So have I.” Rainbow Dash tilted her chin up and pointed at her muzzle. “Now come on! Show me what you got!”

“I will not humor you with this violent request.”

“Cuz either you're hitting me or I'm flinging my hooves into your face.”

Steelteeh sighed. He looked as if he was turning to leave, when suddenly the veritable crack of thunder lit the small, enclosed space. Less than a blink later, Rainbow Dash was flying from the violent snap of his horseshoes. She pinballed off a pillar, bounced over the floor, and landed in a numb heap in the corner. There, she lay, not moving a muscle.

Steelteeth stood once again on all fours, smoothing out the folds of his overcoat.

Rainbow Dash's body was still.

He looked at her.

She remained frozen in place.

He squinted.

She poked her head up, grinning devilishly. “Scared you for a moment, did I?”

He took a deep breath. “I am neither frightened nor remorseful,” Steelteeth droned. He watched intently as she stood up, shook her prismatic mane straight, and trotted leisurely towards him. “However, I am immensely curious...”

Rainbow Dash tapped her pendant a good few times, grinning as a tiny, translucent bubble of white energy fluctuated and disappeared in a blink. “Alicorn's blessing. Your Royal Highness, Queen WhiteMonologue zapped me with her superhorn. I can summon this shield with a concious thought at any time. She told me that it's only good to last for a few months, but hey! I'm not about to complain! A buff from a half-godess is better than none at all!” She giggled, shifting the saddlebag on her shoulders. “Heh. I guess, in a way, you could say that I leveled up.”

“Gratz.”

“Now don't you friggin' start.” Rainbow Dash pointed at him with a wink. “We had a long chat, the Queen and I, and she told me that—before I begin my journey—I should stop by the capital City of Darkstine.”

“Alas...” Constable Steelteeth managed a sigh as he walked further up the stairwell. “The very reason I'm here.”

“Yeah, what's up with that?” Rainbow Dash remarked. “After all the words we had to say with one another, you'd think she'd trust me enough to cross the border on my own.”

“Just what did you and the Queen talk about?”

“First thing's first...” Rainbow Dash squinted. “Why the hay are you walking up the steps? Since you're escorting me and stuff, I figured we'd have to hoof it along Emeraldine's sea level. Now, unless you're hiding some wings under that fancy getup of yours—”

“Did or did not the Queen ask you to trust me in our mutual journey?” Steelteeth asked from above.

Rainbow Dash gulped. “Alright, fine. Add 'mysterious' to 'tall, dark, and gruesome'. She trotted limply up the steps to follow him. “You know, keep that up, and you'll never have hope of meeting Mrs. Teeth, much less having a bunch of baby teeth.”

“Surely, that is the least of your or my concerns.”

“Heeeeey! Who said you didn't have a sense of humor! Uhhh... Where are you taking us, anyway?”

Steelteeth led Rainbow Dash to a circular door. He inserted a key that swung the revolving passage open. Inside were a pair of seats positioned within a metallic booth. The booth, as it would seem, was located at the far end of a long, horizontal tunnel opening into daylight.

“When I was recuperating for so long within Darkstine, I inherited more than a proper bill of health and a diplomatic knowledge of the unicorns' culture,” Steelteeth said as he jumped into the booth and sat in a seat. “I was bestowed with the central tenets of their civilization. I've since learned to incorporate them into my job here at Verdestone.” He motioned for her to jump into the booth.

“If these Darkstinians showed you how to look scary and speak with the emotional inflection of a rattlesnake...” Rainbow Dash hopped into the chair next to him with a flap of her wings. “Then I'm not sure they're the kind of ponies I want to party with.”

“Was it Queen Whitemane's instructions that you party with them?”

“No. But... eh... I can't quite explain what Whitemane asked of me in a single sentence.”

“I think we will have time,” he said, flipping several levers in front of them.

“What?” Rainbow Dash frowned. “You mean while we sit here and have a breather?”

“Oh, you will have plenty of chances to breathe, alright,” Steelteeth droned. He flung a hoof to his hat and hit an invisible button. A pair of brass-framed goggles extended down from the article and covered his eyes. Just then, a two-piece handle raised up and he gripped it with his forelimbs. “I would hold onto something if I were you.”

“What forrrrrrrrrrrrr-Daaaaaaah!” Rainbow Dash shrieked and gripped tightly to her seat as the booth shot like a cannonball out the mouth of the tunnel. Daylight exploded around them with a gust of freezing winds, and a pair of metal wings shot out from either side of the booth. The vehicle was powered by several horizontal rotars that propelled the sudden airplane eastward beyond the spire of Verdestone and over the blurring countryside of Emeraldine below. “Nnngh—Okay! Okay! Okay! I give!” she hissed and shivered in her seat. “This is a much cooler way to get across the border!”

“There's no reason to be afraid, Miss Dash,” he said bluntly above the whipping winds. “I am fully capable of piloting this.”

“I never said I was sc-scared!” she frowned, though her teeth chattered. “I do, however, wish I had used the little filly's room before we took off.”

A deep groan escaped the bottom of Steelteeth's throat. “This vehicle is not exactly designed to make return trips...”

“No! No, by all means! Heh!” She scrunched into her seat and took a few solid breaths. Her voice cracked, “Let's just go forward. Everything works out alright so long as we look forward.”

“That's quite the noble philosophy.”

“It certainly isn't a boring one.”

“Perhaps now you would care to tell me why Queen Whitemane insists you visit central Darkstine?”

“That's just it. You ever spoken to her personally?”

“Several times. It is an honor.”

“Well, it's a very annoying, cryptic honor. Ever notice that she says a whole lot of nothing by saying a whole lot of something?”

“I do believe you have lost me, Miss Dash.”

“Hey, you and me both! Just keep your eyes on the horizon!” She reached into her saddlebag and pulled out her goggles. “I feel like I just learned the secrets of the world, and yet if somepony told me all a dream, I'd be tempted to believe them!”

“Then perhaps it is not something worth sharing.”

“Nnngh... Fine...” Rainbow Dash slid the goggles over her eyes, leaned back, and gave a relaxed smirk. “If you must know...”

Advice

View Online

“No, child,” Queen Whitemane spoke with a gentle smile. “It most certainly will not let you fly through the burning heart of a volcano.”

“Awwww...” Rainbow Dash nevertheless smirked at the fluctuating sphere of ivory light billowing around her. She levitated before the Queen on the balcony beneath Verdestone night. “Still, this is pretty sweet. Heaven knows I could have used this sort of a thing a dozen times over the last few weeks.”

“You do strike me as a pony who's well acquainted with danger,” Whitemane said. “Though, I imagine you could learn a thing or two about danger's consequences.”

“Eh. Too boring. It's a lot harder and cooler to survive.” Rainbow Dash winked. “Thanks, a bunch. Just what do I owe you?”

“Not a thing, my child,” Whitemane said. “However, I would like to advise you to do something: not in return for the favor I have bestowed you, but rather as a means of bringing prosperity to yourself and even other ponies.”

“Uhhhhh... Yeah, sure.” Rainbow Dash touched down and looked up at her. “Name it.”

“The province of Darkstine to the east of Emeraldine...”

“Yeah? I hear it's full of unicorns who dabble in industry. And, like, there's a deep ravine lying on the other side. Uhm... What about it?”

“I would like you to pay the capital city a visit.”

“Oh? What for?”

“The country that belongs to the Darkstinians is experiencing a degree of turmoil as of late. Very few members of the Verdestone Chamber of Representatives know what the real problem is.”

“Do you?”

“Bits and pieces,” Whitemane said with a gentle nod. “There's been a clash between two major factions, seemingly stemming from an energy crisis in the center of the province's largest city.”

“Heh... That sounds kind of lame, actually.” Rainbow Dash gulped. “Look, your Highness, you're right when you say that I'm at my best around danger. I'd skim over volcanoes or butt heads with demon chaos bats anyday. But when it comes to ponies getting ticked off at other ponies and coming to blows, I really don't think that's my area of expertise. I mean, I'm no diplomatic or nothing. Unless performing an airshow to wow both sides of the capital is what you have in mind, I'm not sure what help I'm going to be.”

“I think you'll discover that you're the one and only mare to make a difference in that capital,” Whitemane said. “You are important there as you've been important here, as a guest of my very own chambers.”

“I... I just don't get it...” Rainbow Dash sat on her haunches, making a face. “What good could I do a bunch of ponies with their heads full of gears? And—like—what does any of this have to do with my trip to the Midnight Armory?”

“I think you'll find that I'm not the one to illuminate your path entirely, Rainbow Dash,” she said. “I can only point you in the right direction, and soon you'll find that all of the whole world is spread before you as a means of assisting in your travels.”

“Unnngh...” Rainbow Dash facehoofed hard. “Talk to one alicorn, and you've talked to them all.”

“For once, a generality has its merit,” Whitemane said with a wink.

“Yeah, and I bet you're proud of that,” Rainbow Dash muttered.

Whitemane chuckled delicately. “I will be sure to provide you a guide. I think Constable Steelteeth will be most exceptional in escorting you across the less-than-friendly borders of our east neighbors.”

“He's not gonna be very thrilled about that.”

“Unlike you, he doesn't have a choice.”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash stood up, smirking. “I'll be sure to rub that in his angry face. By the way, think you can do one more favor for me, your Highness?”

“What is that, child?”

Rainbow Dash twirled around and shook her mane. “Could you use your royal magic to get rid of these frickin' annoying braids?” She sighed exasperatingly. “All of the chambermaids are gone and I've got nopony left to impress.”

“I am here, am I not?”

“Yeah. Uhm. Don't even go there.”

Whitemane smiled and trotted over. “Do not fret, child. I have many blessings left to give.” And, with a concentrated burst, she shot a beam of telekinetic energy into Rainbow Dash's mane. The balcony flashed with a bright sheen of light.

Darkstine

View Online

“And there was a bunch of talk about the foundation of the world and some other boring fluff,” Rainbow Dash said with a yawn, reclining back in her seat within the steam-powered plane. At least two hours had passed, and Steelteeth was still piloting the vehicle hurriedly east towards the darkening horizons beyond the plains of Emeraldine. “Quite frankly, it was all dull as nails until she gave me the magical shield thingy.”

“And yet she remained vague about your purpose in Darkstine.”

“Yeah, pretty much.” Rainbow Dash stretched a hoof out, smiling as she danced it up and down through the rippling air currents surging past them. “I guess Her Majesty is like me: a pony who likes to wing it. Erm... I don't mean to poke fun at the disability of her wings. They look good on her, if nothing else.”

“Mmmhmmm...”

Rainbow Dash's goggled eyes glanced over towards the trenchcoated stallion. She spoke above the whistling winds around the aircraft, “You're remaining pretty calm for a constable who's been coerced into guiding a featherbrained pegasus elbow-deep into unicornville.”

“Nopony's been coerced,” Steelteeth muttered. “I am honored to be doing the will of my Queen.”

“Even when—like—she's totally ambiguous about the crap she forces you to do?”

“There is very little magic in the realm of Emeraldine,” Steelteeth said. “And there are even fewer souls wise and powerful enough to practice it. Whatever Whitemane's will may be, I shall follow it completely.”

“Hrm...” Rainbow Dash grunted. “That's kind of uncool, don't you think?”

“What is, pray tell?”

“Following an alicorn blindly? No matter what she says?”

“It is not blindness,” he argued calmly. “Much rather, it is righteous subservience. She overlooks the safety of Verdestone, and I protect her interests with equal vigor.”

“Still...” Rainbow Dash muttered as her ruby eyes scanned the horizon with a sudden lethargy. “There's no telling when the day may come when a alicorn goddess screws you royally...”

Steelteeth's aquamarine eyes shifted under his goggles. He said nothing.

Rainbow Dash smirked his way. “Seriously, though, has she ever done the horn-thing with you?”

“What horn thing?”

“Y'know! The... the thing!” Rainbow Dash gestured a fake spike at the base of her forehead, grinning. “Where she waltzes magically into your head and plays croquet with your memories and crud.”

“I have experienced a telepathic connection once or twice with Her Majesty,” Steelteeth said with a nod.

Rainbow Dash blinked at the pilot. “Yeah... and?”

“There is nothing more to add. We've shared a mental connect.”

“She didn't—like—go snooping around in the private filing cabinets of your noggin?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

“You make it sound as though I have things worth hiding.”

“Well, don'tcha?”

Steelteeth grunted. “Not in the least.”

“Oh come on!” Rainbow Dash grinned wickedly. “No childhood fears? No sincere love for fudge?”

“Negatory.”

“Nooooooo...” Rainbow Dash leaned towards him with a wag of her eyebrows. “....clandestine escapades with Evergreen behind the curtains of Darkstine's red light stables?”

“I believe your opinions of Evergreen and I are unfounded.”

“Oh come now, Steely! You and her were the only earth ponies around each other for ages in that city! Don't tell me that there was no hankying of the pankying!”

“None at all.”

“Why? Because your metal teeth scared her off?”

“No,” he droned. “Because Evergreen does not take a liking to stallions.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Oh.” She blinked again. “Really?” Her face paled as a sad twitch pulsed through her ruby eyes. “Dear Luna, just how bad did I need a bath back in Ridgeside...?”

“We are making swift time,” Steelteeth unemotionally uttered. “We will be in Darkstine airspace in minutes.”

“Already?” Rainbow Dash remarked, sitting up straight. “Yeesh, that was quick!”

“Not used to travel this swift?”

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash balked at him. “Hey! I can make lightning bolts look like snails! Pffft! Like this bucket of bolts even comes close to impressing me!”

“You seemed incredibly awestruck until I just now implied that it outmatches your speed.”

“Yeah, well... erm... a pegasus doesn't rust!” Rainbow Dash raspberried before squinting at the east horizon. A solid line of blackness obscured the horizon. “Hmmmm... Uhh, Steely?”

“I do wish you would not call me that,” he growled menacingly.

“So sue me. Ahem. I think we ought to gain some altitude. There're some nasty stormclouds lingering ahead.”

“Those aren't stormclouds,” Steelteeth said in a dull tone.

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash gave him a bizarre look. “Then just what in the hay are there?”

Suddenly, three glowing orbs of sparkling magic flew up and orbited the aircraft in mid-flight. One of them shot directly in front of Rainbow Dash and pulsed a bright blue.

“Whoah jeez!” Rainbow Dash squeaked, scrunching back in her seat.

A crackling voice echoed from the core of the floating sphere in front of Rainbow. “Sincere inquisition: Who trespasses Darksitian airspace?!”

“Ah,” Steely nodded without so much as glancing at the orbiting trio of spheres. “The border patrol. We're almost there.”

A panting Rainbow Dash pointed her trembling hoof at the object before her muzzle. “You mean THIS is the Darkstinian border patrol?!”

The magical voice crackled once more, “Repeated demand with bolder emphasis: Identify yourselves or we will be forced to neutralize this vehcile.”

“Uhhhh... uhmmm... Ehehhhh...” Rainbow Dash stammered.

Steelteeth spoke towards the sphere. “I am Constable Steelteeth, former ambassador of Emeraldine-Darkstine relations. This is Rainbow Dash, honorable guest to Her Majesty, Queen Whitemare.” He calmly tilted the controls forward, coasting the plane lower over a ridge of hills as the smoggy atmosphere of the bordering province lingered darkly just beyond the bouldery peaks. “In accordance with Article Twelve of the Three Hundred and Seventh-Second Industrial Amendment, I am granted freedom to enter Darkstinian territory. If you don't believe me, check clearance with the representatives of Governor Mintelle, whom should be expecting me after such a long visit.”

“Neutral response: Please wait while representatives of the Governor are contacted.” The glowing sphere sparkled and strobed through several shades of blue. Finally, it settled for a bright hue and flickered with affirmation. “Permission obtained: Proceed directly to the Governor's Facility in East New Ring. Governor Mintelle awaits your arrival. Abide by the rules of Darkstine, outtrotters.”

The three spheres spun around the plane one last time before darting off towards the dark clouds overhead like reverse meteors.

Rainbow Dash gulped and slumped further into her seat with a sigh. “That's the first time I've ever been outflown by a plane and three glowing turds in one afternoon.”

“Hmmmm...” Steelteeth muttered below his breath. His grimacing teeth glittered in the permeating gray light that suddenly assaulted the airscape. “'East New Ring.' I'm not sure I like the sound of that.”

“Oh yeah? Why not?”

“It suggests a sudden and dramatic power shift, the political kind,” he uttered as he lowered the craft's altitude, piercing the thick smog. “If nothing else, my incidental trip here may prove useful in gaining knowledge on the inner turmoil of Darkstine.”

“And—nngh!” Rainbow Dash coughed and hacked before waving a hoof to clear the billowing fumes all around them. “J-just... ugh... wh-who's this 'Montel' guy?”

“Mintelle,” Steelteeth emphasized. “And SHE is the head of Darkstinian industrial affairs in the capital city of Ridge Side. At least, she was last time I checked. She had barely won an election against her supreme rival, Duke Zaap Nator of the Western Districts.”

“If these unicorns are half as goofy as their titles, then I think I'll be flying away from this place pretty darn quick.”

“I wouldn't be too hasty, Miss Dash,” Steelteeth remarked. “After all, you are here per the Queen's request just as much as I am. Besides...” He gestured over the edge of the vehicle with a free hoof. “There is no telling if you might enjoy the sights or not.”

“Heh, yeah right...” Rainbow Dash cast a dull glance over the edge of the cockpit. “What's to enjoy about a bunch of stuffy, magic-sucking eggheads—holy snap!” Her ruby eyes bulged as her jaw dropped.

Row after row of cylindrical buildings brimmed with glinting brass gears and cogwheels. Forests of smokestacks billowed flame and smoke into the air while hovering spheres darted between flickering magical portals. Tesla coils brimming with electricity fueled elevated tracks where blue-glowing trains glided hissingly from one portion of the densely packed urbanscape to the other. In the center of the metal-laced streets, several towers stretched with their rhythmically gyrating skeletons exposed, pendulums swingings and conveyor belts transferring objects of magical importance from one district to another in clockwork precision. Throughout the streets, Darkstinian ponies marched in droves, clothed in thin layers of steam-powered copper armor. The smoggy air above sang with crackling embers of magically-imbued sparks, and in the middle of the capital—as wide as a gaping lake—a dark and unfathomably deep pit loomed, its sharp brass edges flickering with etheral pulses of crimson flame.

“Uhmmm...” Rainbow Dash gazed at the spectacle below, her wings twitching. She turned around to witness Steelteeth gazing at her expectantly. In response, she smirked. “Yeah, okay. Where's the gift shop?”

Annoying

View Online

Steelteeth's plane glided into the hangar of a ten-story building in East New Ring. As its landing spokes were caught in a series of elastic cables below, its propeller blades slowed to a grinding halt while the craft parked completely. Surrounded by pipes of hissing steam, Steelteeth climbed out onto the adjacent platforms while Rainbow Dash hovered close to the ceiling, squinting at the many complex mechanisms and pressure gauges surrounding them.

Suddenly, the plane collapsed in a heap of rattling junk.

“Daaaah!” Rainbow Dash spun around, gawking at the jagged shards as the landing strip opened up to reveal a trash compactor below. The remains of the plane were scooped in, squashed, and conveyed away on a rolling treadmill. “What in the hay just happened?!”

“Half of Darkstinian technology is all about destruction and re-use,” Steelteeth said. “Trust me, I'll have an identical vehicle constructed for me just as quickly for my flight home.”

Rainbow Dash pointed at the chunks of airplane being carted away. “You mean to tell me that all the time during which we were flying here, the stupid thing could have done that?!”

“Don't be ridiculous,” Steelteeh droned and marched his rigid self past her. “I wouldn't have given it the pleasure.”

Rainbow Dash frowned. “Okay, dude, if this is your way of introducing me to the Darkstinian sense of humor—”

“That's assuming that they have one,” he muttered. While trotting towards the interior chambers beyond the hangar, he pointed blindly at her hovering figure. “I'd not fly around if I were you?”

“Hey! Hovering is what I do! Why shouldn't I?”

“Because the highly electrified auto-turrets of the Darkstinian mana security system are trained to incinerate all unidentified flying objects within a five mile radius.”

“Erm...” Rainbow Dash gulped and dropped limply onto the floor beside the tall stallion. “Walking it is.”

Just as they entered the chamber, a bright light flickered around them, accompanied by a loud siren that sounded as if a swarm of angry cicadas was shrieking directly into Rainbow's skull. With a rattle of her golden pendant, she scrunched down to the ground and covered her ears with a grimace.

Three sets of hooves bounded around the corner, and soon a trio of deadpan unicorns were standing before the two visitors wearing silver armor and bearing electrified lances over their horns.

“New objective added,” one said in an unemotional tone. “Acquisition of identity of outtrotters.”

“Familial support: affirmative,” a second nodded, sounding just as cold and lifeless.

The third marched forward, frowning. “Completely neutral inquisition: identify yourselves, outtrotters.”

Rainbow Dash was standing up, a painfully perplexed expression crossing her face.

Steelteeth cleared his throat. His glinting jaws showed as he stood fearlessly before the guards. “I am Constable Steelteeth, former ambassador of Verdestone interests. Darkstinian airspace patrol has already cleared us to proceed towards the facilities of Governor Mintelle in New Ring.”

“Correction applied,” droned the middlemost guard. “She who would be Governor Mintelle is located in East New Ring. We who would be Darkstinian citizens currently reside in East New Ring.”

“Supportive statement applied,” added another. “He who is my co-worker is correct: only ponies who support he who would be Duke Zaap Nator fail to add the adjectival descriptor 'East' to the Darkstinian Capital.”

The third's horn shimmered threateningly, though his voice hardly shared the same intimidation. “Passionate inquiry: do you who would be outtrotters support the administration of he who would be Duke Zaap Nator?”

Steelteeth's aquamarine eyes narrowed. Neverthelees, he coolly spoke, “I am not familiar with the political authority of Zaap Nator as of late, and my companion here is a foreign pegasus from a land far away. We're merely here on the insistence of Queen Whitemane of Verdestone to pay your Governor Mintelle a cordial visit.”

The three armored Darkstinians shared glances. After a mutual nod, they leaned back and their horns stopped sparkling with energy.

One of them boldly spoke, “Achievement unlocked: sufficient trust. You may proceed to the Governor's facilities, he who would be Constable Steelteeth and she who would be a foreign pegasus form a land far away.”

“Much appreciated, gentlecolts,” Steelteeth said, tipping the edge of his hat. With a billowing his coattails, he marched ahead.

As Rainbow Dash scurried after him, one of the unicorns leaned in and spoke with a gold gaze. “Title obtained: he who would be a watchful eye of she who would be a suspicious outtrotter of many colors.”

As the two proceeded along a steam-venting bridge between tall, brass-framed buildings, Rainbow Dash peered behind her and glared at the trio of guards, still waching them from afar. “Yeesh, what the hay is up with the way they talk?”

“It's part of age-old, Darkstinian tradition,” Steelteeth murmured as several steam trains and mana spheres zoomed above and below them through the smoggy urbanscape. “The unicorns of New Ring—or should I say East New Ring—speak in a passive voice that blends with their philosophy of emotional detachment and self-sacrifice to the autonomy of industry.”

“Ah,” Rainbow Dash nodded. “Well, could you tell them to stop? It's really friggin' annoying.”

Steelteeth shook his head. “I cannot make them change their speech anymore than I can get them to alter their very own tradition and creed. My former job as ambassador meant maintaining a passive distance of my own.”

“Yeah...” Rainbow Dash smirked up at him. “But what about your current job as tall, dark, Mr. Badflank?”

“You have me misunderstood, Miss Dash,” Steelteeth muttered. “I have never harmed another pony.”

“Heh, well that's good to know.”

“At least none that deserved it.”

Rainbow Dash blinked at that. She shook the thought off as she gazed down at the clusters of dense pedestrians trotting through the metal-paved streets of the metropolis. “Yeesh. It's like a gigantic, miserable sauna in this place and everypony's invited!”

“It must be difficult to force yourself to stay grounded for a visit like this...”

“What?”

“I said, it must be difficu—”

“What?!” Rainbow Dash hissed, wincing as more vehicles zoomed by on tracks overhead. “I'm sorry, but it's way to dang loud! How can ponies live with this?!”

“You must not be a city pony.”

“Heck, I've been to cities before, but this—” She shrieked a little too girlishly for her own measure as a hot burst of steam vented out of the bridge's platform below. Sighing, she scampered to catch up with him. “The capitals I'm used to have paint wooden roofs, heart-shaped architecture, and loads of flower gardens. This place is like a goddess-forsaken jar of almonds in every orifice!”

“The Darkstinians have a different perception of tranquility. They admire the concept of being a cog within a machine, and so it is not strange for them to subscribe to a lifestyle that is just as metaphorically cacophonous.” With a sullen breath, Steelteeth gazed towards the smoggy cityscape. “It alarms me to think that there could be a sudden air of turmoil about the place...”

“You talkin' about that whole confusion over 'New Ring' and 'East New Ring?'” Rainbow Dash made a face. “What's up with that? And just who's this Dath Zaratul anyways?”

“Duke Zaap Nator,” Steelteeth corrected. “And there will come a time and place for a history lesson.”

“Oh come on...” Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and michievously smirked. “Give me a break, Steely! You suck at loremastering!”

“Shhh!” Steelteeth gestured towards the massive, gear-powered gates looming before them. “Behold, the Governor's House.”

“So help me Luna, their little fillies' room better not have auto-turrets too...”

Governor

View Online

“Expository declaration: he who would be Duke Zaap Nator has stolen the confidence of half the country and has taken a seat of power in the western districts of New Ring.” Swiveling from the broad windows overlooking the large concrete hole beyond the balcony, Governor Mintelle faced the two visitors inside her lofty office. Her magenta-eyed stare was calm and emotionless beneath a pale horn and a spread of ocean blue mane hair. “Meticulous elaboration: ever since Darkstine has experienced a severe drop in power reserves, he would be Duke Zaap Nator has made broad, maniacal claims, insisting that the spirit of Industry is deteriorating across this land.” Her eyes hardened in a near sign of passion. “Unfettered opinion: he who would be Duke Zaap Nator is simply using the most recent crisis to defy me and seize the seat of Darkstine's Governor for himself.”

Steelteeth nodded quietly. “So, it is as I've feared. Darkstine teeters on the brink of civil war.”

“Emphatic retort: there is no real threat of civil war yet, he who would be Constable Steelteeth. If you and she who would be Rainbow Dash took a detailed look at the city streets of East New Ring, one would see that the citizens are still diligently engazed industry. I who would be Governor Mintelle regret to admit that while the country remains divided, though, there is no real attempt being made to solve the energy crisis.”

“Did some of the factories burn out?” Steelteeth's aquamarine eyes narrowed. “I saw all of the smokestacks pumping steam when we first flew in here hours ago...”

“Obligatory acknowledgement: Yes, he who would be Steelteeth, the surface of Darkstine operates with otherwise unhindered efficiency.” Mintelle took a deep breath. “Grim delivery: But it would appear that there are several power outages transpiring throughout the urbanscape, as if some geist of Luddite means is sabotaging every manner of industry that it can. Sincere belief: We attribute the cause to the departure of the holy relic from our capital city.”

Steelteeth paced over to the open balcony, gazing down upon the concrete ring through which darkness loomed. “I see it now. The obelisk is gone. I know how much you and your unicorns valued it, Governor. I only assumed that you had taken it upon yourselves to remove the structure.”

Mintelle shook her head. “Solemn recollection: the obelisk simply retreated into the earth on its own volition. It would appear as though the spirit of industry is punishing us for a severe lack of diligence, and many of those who would be Darkstinian citizens feel that the missing obelisk is the source of our random energy shortages.” Her face grew long. “Infuriating observation: he who would be Duke Zaap Nator has preyed upon the fears of the citizenry, and he claims that the function of society must be severely changed in order to dredge the obelisk back up from the ring.”

“Whereas you're attempting to take a far less dramatic approach,” Steelteeth said with a nod. “Hence the political divide.”

“Affirmative,” Mintelle paced across the office. “Achievement unlocked: full debriefing, seventy percent greater confidence gained. Woeful admission: just two visiting outtrotters are insufficient to reunify the divide, much less restore Darkstine's industry. You have arrived at a bad time, he who would be Constable Steelteeth and she who would be Rainbow Dash.”

“With all due respect, Governor, we would like to see more of the city for ourselves before we determine that our business here on behalf of Her Majesty, Queen Whitemane, is entirely over.” He adjusted the brim of his hat and turned to look across the office at his companion. “What do you think, Miss Dash?”

Rainbow Dash had been sitting in the corner all this time, rubbing her brow in a permanent face hoof. She gave a huge sigh and looked up with a bored expression. “Okay, so lemme get this straight. Those who would be Darkstinian citizens were working around a giant obelisk in the hole in the ground, when suddenly the obelisk fell out of nowhere, and those who would be citizens starting freaking out and chomping at the bit of she who would be Governor Mintelle, but she was all 'Hey, relax, it's cool, I got this' which led to a bogus upstart known as he who would be Duke Zaap Nator marching up to those who would be citizens and going 'Hey, like, we should totally rise up and throw stones at stuff to get things to change,' and then they who would be citizens of the western districts said 'Yeah!' and broke off from those who would be citizens of the east district and ever since there's been a power struggle between those who would be supporters of he who would be Zaap Nator and those who would be faithful ponies to she who would be Governor Mintelle, and all the while those who would be Darkstinian dudes and dudettes have been squabbling over nothing while that which would be industry suffered from inexplicable power outtages stemming from the fact that the dang obelisk is still gone and there's nothing that anypony who would be anypony can do about it!”

Steelteeth looked silently from Rainbow to Mintelle.

The Governor took a deep breath. “Redundant statement: that was very redundant.”

“Nnnnngh...” Rainbow Dash slumped back against a wall, rubbing her forehead. “Achievement unlocked: huge frickin' migraine.”

“Don't mind her,” Steelteeth remarked. “She was most recently princess for a day.”

“Breathy acknowledgment: ahhhhhhhh.”

“Alright, look!” Rainbow Dash frowned and trotted forward, flexing her wings. “Why not just—like—get into one of your hovercrafts and friggin' fly down into the big, giant hole you got outside your window and see where the obelisk went?! Once you've got all that figured out, then surely you and Blue Xephos—”

“Duke Zaap Nator.”

“Whatever—Surely the two of you can get an idea of what the real problem is and then tackle it together!” Rainbow Dash leaned up on the Governor's desk. “I mean, that's how we dealt with crap back where I'm from! We were honest with each other and we worked hoof in hoof! That's why we never had any wars for—like—a thousand years! What would you rather have? Civil unrest or Winter-Wrap-Up?” She blinked and gave a double-take out the window. “Or, in your case, Smoggy-Build-Up?”

“Firm negation: We can do no such thing, she who would be Rainbow Dash.” Mintelle frowned and paced behind the desk. “Frustrated confession: there has been a solid line of demarcation sewn across the very mouth of the concrete pit. Neither I who would be Governor of East New Ring or he who would be Duke Zaap Nator of the western districts would risk sending any practitioners of industry into the black depths or else fear incurring the wrath of the other party.”

“Well, that's just the most stupid thing I've ever heard!”

“Miss Dash...” Constable Steelteeth's voice hissed through metal jaws.

Rainbow Dash waved him off and continued frowning at the Governor. “And ever since I arrived at this polluted cloud of a city, I've been hearning nothing but stupid things from everypony! Okay, so you're all emotionless cogs in some sort of wicked cool 'industry.' That's fine and dandy! But don't be frickin' apathetic, for Luna's sake! You've got one heck of a tight shindig built here! There's—like—large grinding gears, glowing blue lights, floating balls of magic, and a whole bunch of crazily nifty stuff! Why toss all of that down the outhouse? It just isn't worth fighting over! Surely the power of friendship could... could...”

Steelteeth craned his neck. “Rainbow Dash...?”

Rainbow was teetering dizzily, her eyes growing thin as red specks flickered on yellow orbs. “I think... if only...” She gulped and smiled tiredly. “Wow, this place has a lot of smoke. Uhm... Do you know wh-where there might be a... water fountain—Nnngh...” She fell to the ground in a slump.

“Oh, for the love of Verdestone!” Steelteeh hissed and galloped towards her.

“Exclamation of emergency: Guards, fetch the nearest physician. Do not tarry.”

The last thing Rainbow Dash saw was the broad rim of Steelteeth's hat looming above him. She wanted to reach for it, but there was suddenly a flickering band of lavender glow shimmering in the way. A whimper escaped her lips, and then all turned dark.

Boring

View Online

Somepony was gasping. It took Rainbow Dash several seconds of sweating to realize it was her.

She sat up on a velvet bench in the center of a two-bedroom suite. A broad window stretched open beside her, with magically engineered fans that were blowing out the fog of East New Ring. She ran a hoof over her mane, gulped, and then felt her neck. At the touch of her golden pendant, she exhaled with relief and began to slump back down—

“Took you long enough.”

Rainbow Dash shot up again, her heart nearly exploding out of her chest. She looked all around the lanternlit room until she saw Steelteeth standing at her side. She gulped and nodded.

“Yeesh. That wasn't very heroic of me.”

“No,” he muttered dispassionately. “It wasn't.” He reached a hoof over and felt her forehead. She didn't protest. “It's not a fever, and I seriously doubt that it's bloodloss. Have you had a history of dizzy spells before?”

“I've got an even better question,” she muttered. “How long was I out for?”

“Around twelve hours,” Steelteeth said calmly. “It is officially next morning.”

“Son of a ballerina,” Rainbow Dash moaned into a pair of hooves. “If I had a bit for every time that happened...”

“Maybe you'd actually have the fortune of a princess.”

“Well...” She slid so that her rear hooves hung off the seat. “At least I didn't have any friggin' wyrd dreams that time.”

“Did you not?” Steelteeth asked.

Rainbow Dash squinted at him. “Did I... talk in my sleep?”

“Nothing important that's worth being repeated, I imagine,” Steelteeth said.

“Whew...” Rainbow's wings fluttered. “Good.”

“Unless the phrase 'Gold Petals' means anything.”

Rainbow's wings drooped. She took a deep breath, gazing lethargically at the floor. “You're right,” she droned. “Nothing important whatsoever...”

Steelteeth raised an eyebrow, but then decided not to touch the subject. He stood up straight and adjusted his hat. “I took the liberty of acquiring this room for us. The Darkstinians may be a rigid group of ponies, but they're more than willing to accommodate us for... well... for whatever it is that we're here to do.”

“Heh. Yeah. Any luck on figuring that out?”

“I was hoping you would provide me some clarity upon waking up,” he stated. “Has the Queen's words of wisdom started making any sense to you?”

“Pffft. How should I know?” Rainbow Dash grunted. “I've been out like a dead tree.”

“Well, perhaps something will take root.” He swiveled about and headed for the far end of the suite. “In the meantime, I had better start asking questions of the locals here. Perhaps it will shed some light on this Duke Zaap Nator.”

“Don't you mean the stallion who would be Zaap Nator?” Rainbow Dash muttered. Suddenly, she blinked, then looked curiously Steelteeth's way. “Wait. How come you didn't go about asking questions before?”

“I didn't have the time to,” he replied.

“You mean... you were hanging out beside me the whole time I was out?”

“It was important to ascertain the nature of your condition,” he replied unemotionally.

“By sitting next to me for twelve friggin' hours?!” Rainbow Dash's eyes twitched. She smiled devilishly. “You were worried about me, weren't you?”

Steelteeth turned to look back at her. His nostrils flared. “You are a liability, nothing more. And the Queen has put me in charge of your care.”

“Heh... I love you to, ya big bucket of 'buck it all'.” Rainbow Dash stood up, her legs wobbling. “If I'd known you were so dang affectionate, I would have warned you about my dizziness ahead... of... time...” Her voice trailed off.

After a while, Steelteeth uttered, “Is there something amiss?”

“Uhhh...” Rainbow Dash blinked. Before her, a trail of lavender light was floating effluently through the apartment. It led out of the building, trickled unnoticeably beyond the body of Governor Mintelle's building, and eventually fell into the giant concrete hole in the center of the dvided city. Mesmerised to be once again bearing witness to the phenonemon, Rainbow Dash scratched her mane and murmured, “Well if this doesn't take the cake. Heh. What's with me these days? I almost miss 'boring'.”

“What was that?”

She cleared her throat and smirked, glancing sideways towards where the lavender light shimmered. “I said that I'd like to go out for a stroll. What about you?”

Duke

View Online

“Is there something in your eye, Miss Dash?”

“You mean besides this whole dang city?” Rainbow Dash wheezed, practically lurching ahead as her lungs heaved and wheezed with the smoggy air filtering through the metal-laced streets. “I've flown through volcanic ash clouds that were cleaner than this.”

“I assure you that the fumes are relatively harmless,” Steelteeth said as he strode easily ahead of her. “The Darkstinians have been living around factories for centuries. They've discovered fuel sources that give off very little exhaust.”

“Koff... Nnngh... You call this very little?”

“The life expectancy of a normal New Ring citizen has increased by three hundred percent in the last decade alone.”

“Just why the heck do they need all these smokestacks and grinding gears and conveyor belts and all the other crap anyways?” Rainbow Dash glared at the sky with a frown. She and Steelteeth weaved through streets of thick traffic. Unicorns in leather and brass outfits strolled past them in solitary lines, paying heavy attention to their pocketwatches. “I can't for the life of me figure out just what they're building, and it's not like the capital is expanding any.”

“That's because more than half of the stuff they build is destroyed within a year and broken down into raw materials to make newer and more refined contraptions.”

“What?!” Rainbow Dash coughed again and limped after him. “That's stupid! What the heck for?!”

“You're a pony of agricultural roots, if I'm not mistaken...”

“I guess you could say that, yeah...”

“And don't equines where you live repeat the same process of farming and harvesting every season of every year?”

“Well... uhm... Pfftchyaaa. But that's not the same!”

“Is it not? Equestrians life off the land. Darkstinians live off of industry. Why not make a life out of it when it becomes something affordable?”

“Only, back where I come from, ponies don't split up over petty politics when there's a surprise shortage on irrigation,” Rainbow Dash said with a sigh. She looked up at the high walls of improvised metal slabs serving as a barrier that separated the east and west sides of the huge concrete circle lying in the center of the capital. “Forgive me for being something of a female dog, Steely. I guess it's just my pegasus roots, is all. Nature is something worth making a fuss about cuz it's something that's harmonious. But industry? Meh. It's something invented by ponies, and ponies very rarely make thinks peaceful or healthy when they attempt to do what nature does... uhm... naturally.”

“You srtike me as a mare who knows a thing or two about harmony.”

“Yeah, and you strike me as a stallion who knows what it means to have his mouth welded shut.” Rainbow Dash made a face at a thick crowd of grumbling, unhappy unicorns who were gathered densely around the walls that lined the pit. “What in Luna's name is happening up here?”

“Doesn't take a Constable to know civil unrest when he sees it,” Steelteeth muttered. “The citizens here are experiencing a literal schism of ideas, politics, and geography. It seems fitting that many of them would be less than happy.”

“We ARE talking about Darkstinians, right?” Rainbow Dash gave Steelteeth a crooked glance. “Seems hypocritical for unicorns without emotions to get in a hissy fit with one another.”

“I never said that they lacked emotions,” Steelteeth droned. “But, much rather, they endeavor to hide them behind a highly industrialied speech etiquette.”

“So they experimented to see if their boredom could overpower their anger,” Rainbow Dash said with a smirk. “I could have predicted something like THAT failing in a heartbeat.”

“Aside from this most recent development, they have always struck me as a civilized group of individuals.”

“That's only cuz you've been around them for too long!” Rainbow Dash groaned. “Yeesh, Steely! That had to have been the trots! Poor little you, lying in the hospital, and then the nurse walks up, and she's all, 'Coy Femininity: Shall I who would be a nurse deliver a sponge bath unto you who would be a hunk of muscular horse flesh?' And you're like, 'Sure, whatever, babe.' And she says, 'Inappropriate advancement: My, what a fine posterior you have my handsome outtrotter who would be a quadruped, shall I who would be your prize tonight proceed with the rinsing of your midnight flank?' And then young Steelteeth says, 'Fine, just try not to let anything rust.' And she's like—”

“Might I do you the favor of aborting your maliciously fictitious anecdote before it carries on for another five minutes?”

“Goddes, I'd give a million bits just to get you to try and punch me or something, ya stick in the mud.”

“You wouldn't survive the experience.”

“I've survived giant lizards to the face... inside a cave... TWICE.” Rainbow Dash came to a stop when the crowd had become so thick that she couldn't advance anymore. “So, like, what are they saying, anyway?”

Steelteeth coolly replied, “Perhaps it would benefit us to listen.”

“Yeah. Just perhaps.”

Training her ears, Rainbow Dash began picking up on the voices of those around her. They were all training their metal-laced horns onto one part of the wall. In repetitious fashion, the Darkstinians hissed and snarled, “Righteous fury: relinquish the west! Righteous fury: relinquish the west! Righteous fury: relinquish the west!”

For the longest time, it looked as if they were shouting at the wall itself. But then, a tall stallion appeared within a cleft of the tall barrier. He bore a black headpiece with a nozzle liken unto a gas mask. Long, curly black threads fountained around the rear of his helmet like a lion's mane. Despite the constant barrage of angry words, he stood proudly along the west border of New Ring, staring down at the masses as a group of guards protectively flanked him.

“So who's the mouth breather?” Rainbow Dash remarked. “Literally...?”

“I would venture to guess our mysterious Duke Zaap Nator,” Steelteeth remarked.

“Ew, really?” Rainbow Dash made a face. “I was kind of hoping he'd be bigger.”

“You have a singular imagination.”

“I think you smell too.”

“Shhh... Let us listen...”

Just as Steelteeth uttered that, Zaap Nator spoke boldly to the crowd, his voice echoing through a shoulder mounted speaker that crackled with magially funneled sound waves. “Sincere plea: I who would be Darkstine's salvation entreat you once again, those who would be my brothers and sisters! Come to this side of the wall! Come to the true New Ring!” He gestured a leather-clad hoof towards his chest and continued, “Epiphanous message: I who would be transcendant have breathed of the fumes of the deep well. Righteous declaration: There is more to the darkness than chaotic anomaly! We are being robbed of industry because of our neglect! Message of conviction: we must give more than our labor to the industry! We must give our essences! We must sacrifice what we selfishly cling to if we who would be Darkstinians wish to rise above the imperfections that plague us!”

The majority of the unicorns merely droned their disapproval. It came across as a monotonous hum of disgust, as hundreds upon hundreds of citizens fumbled to express their negativity without losing temper. Steelteeth hardly batted an eye. As for Rainbow Dash...

Her eyes were trained on the deep pit between the walls of the city. She squinted at the black space yawning within, and all she saw was a cyclone of lavender light flowing down it, like a tributary of bright liquid. With every second she spent staring into the abyss, she felt the irresistible urge to dive in. Regardless, she coiled her wings tightly to her side, all the while sighing at the image of several auto-turrets looming dangerously above.

In the meantime, Zaap Nator was still speaking. “Words of warning: Do not give into the deception of she who would be Governor Mintelle. She who would be New Ring's leader is far too enamored with orthodox redundancy. Pivotal truth: revolutionary change is what Darkstine needs. Those who would be ponies of industry need to look within and eliminate the last vestiges of equine frailty if the perfect machine is to be harnessed! So long as she who would be Governor Mintelle is in power, there will be no single New Ring; there will be New Ring and her defunct East New Ring!”

“He's much more radical than I had first feared,” Steelteeth remarked.

“Really?”

“Haven't you thought the same?”

“I'm still reeling over the fact that he can throw his voice that far while wearing a gas mask.”

Steelteeth sighed, pulling the brim of his hat further over his face.

A dainty hoof tugged on his trenchcoat. “Uhm... excuse me?” a filly's voice remarked.

Steelteeth and Rainbow Dash turned to see a teenage mare standing before them, clutching a cloak to her trembling body.

“Are you really outtrotters?”

“Do not mind us, citizen,” Steelteeth said. “We are not in league with anypony but Queen Whitemane, and she is a diplomat of pure motive. You needn't fear our presence.”

“It's not that. I don't fear you two. I was wondering if you could help me.”

“We are only here for a short visit,” Steelteeth dismissively grunted. “Royal business...”

“Hey, Steely, hold it.” Rainbow Dash trotted closer to the young mare. “I think we should let her speak.”

“Miss Dash, I think it would benefit us to listen further to what Duke Zaap Nator has to say—”

“Dude, just open your frickin' ears!” Rainbow Dash hissed. She leaned forward and pointed at her. “Can't you hear? She ain't talkin' like the rest of them!”

Steelteeth raised an eyebrow. As if coming out of an apathetic stupor, he turned and looked down at the frail pony.

She gulped and stared up at the two of them with emaciated eyes. “We have to talk. But not here. Please... take me somewhere safe...”

“Safe?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“From him,” the pony remarked, pointing up at the wall where the masked Duke was orating. “I'm awfully frightened that he'll see me if we stay here too long.”

“And why is that, young one?” Steelteeth remarked. “What is it that you've done?”

“I... I've lived...”

“Lived?”

She nodded in a trembling matter. “I'm from Zaap Nator's New Ring. I snuck in from the other side of the wall.”

“You? From the other side?” Rainbow Dash gasped. She scratched her neck behind her mane and cast the lavender glow of the hole one last look. “Hmmm... How about we get something to eat somewhere? My treat...”

Gears

View Online

“My name is Flower Gears,” the teenage filly murmured. It was evening, and her trembling face leaned over a half-eaten bowl of soup in the center of the visiting ponies' suite in Governor Mintelle's building. Free of the cloak that had obscured her in the streets of East New Ring, the young unicorn's yellow coat and petite cutie mark of pink cogs were exposed to the hovering lantern overhead. Her silver-white mane was frayed at the edges, and heavy bags hung under her eyes. “I am fourteen years old. I was studying to become an engineer of seed planting devices in Enterprise University...”

“You mean the place of learning in the western district,” Steelteeth remarked thoughtfully. He trotted over and poured more broth into her bowl before carrying the pot of soup back into the suite's kitchen. “I've been there before.” He paused briefly. “That is, years ago, before this intimidating wall was erected.”

“It's been four days since I snuck my way over to this side,” Flower Gears stammered between desperate slurps of the soup. “Every unicorn of East New Ring is convinced that the western Darkstinians are out to overthrow Governor Mintelle and claim the pit of the sunken obelisk for themselves. That couldn't possibly be even further from the truth. It just shocks me how... angry the citizens are over here.”

“Well, I can only imagine you're weirding them out some,” Rainbow Dash said from where she hovered in the middle of the room.

Flower Gears looked nervously up at her. “Huh? How?”

“Well, the way you're gabbing, girl!” Rainbow Dash waved her forelimbs. “Goddessawful inquisition: why aren't you who would be Flower Gears talking like you've got marbles in your mouth?”

The filly winced at that. “It's... It's complicated. I know that I am past the Age of Industrial Ascension, b-but I haven't had my parents around to perform the linguistic ceremony...”

“Why is that?” Steelteeth asked.

“Mmmm...” Flower Gears picked at the soup as her cheeks went red. “I... I-I haven't seen them in over two years...”

Steelteeth's midnight brow furrowed. “Two years...?”

“Extended summer camp?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Not exactly. I've been... ushered to a special learning center.”

“What kind of learning center?”

“I... uhm...” Flower Gears fidgeted, her eyes locked on Rainbow's blurred wings. “That is... uhm...”

“Something the matter?”

“It's just...” She took a deep breath for composure. “I'm not used to seeing... well...”

“Oh. Heh...” Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes and smirked from where she hovered. “It's okay. You'll get used to it. Seriously, don't mind me. The auto-turrets of this smoggy place keep me from feeling the air outside.”

“Oh. Okay. Ahem...” Flower Gears cleared her throat and continued, “I and several other young unicorns were chosen to participate in an experimental new study program just a block away from the pit where the obelisk used to be.”

“'Experimental' in what way?” Steelteeth asked.

“We were to study in peer groups, without the aid of unicorns who had grown past the Age of Industrial Ascension. Still, though, in between thorough reading and engineering projects, we were asked to report to an overseer responsible for monitoring our bunker.”

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “Bunker?”

“Allow me to guess...” Steelteeth adjusted the brim of his hat and leaned against the table. “This overseer was a citizen who would be a follow of him who would be Duke Zaap Nator.”

Flower Gears bit her lip.

“Hey... Come on...” Rainbow Dash spoke, managing a soft smile. “You can tell us. I know he looks scary as heck over there in his badflank trenchcoat, but we're actually the good guys!” She turned and gave her tail a flick. “See? Rainbows! We're totally friendly!”

Steelteeth merely sighed.

“Mmmm... They never tell us much, but as soon as I heard Duke Zaap Nator make one of his speeches on the wall beside the pit, I knew that the overseers had to have been working for him.”

“What made you think that?” Steelteeth inquired.

“Because of the way Zaap Nator talks,” Flower Gears murmured. “It's just like the overseers. It's also a lot like the books they make us read.” She looked up at Rainbow Dash and the Constable. “It's full of all these lessons about finding the inner faults within ourselves and bringing them to the surface so that we can be cleansed and made into good industrialsts.”

“Sounds quite radical to me,” Steelteeth muttered.

Rainbow Dash frowned at him. “That's your word for everything!”

“I've seen this sort of thing before,” Steelteeth continued. “When there's a period of political turmoil, a power hungry individual will round up the local youths and indoctrinate them to his own ambitious agenda. That way, in the event of a future power vacuum, he'll have access to fresh, zealous recruits able and willing to fill in the gaps of his dogmatic ranks.”

“Only, they aren't around to do something like that!” Flower Gears remarked.

Steelteeth's aquamarine eyes narrowed. “How do you mean?”

“Only that... well... one moment, there are other ponies studying with me, and then the next moment they are gone.” She gulped. “A lot of them are older than me. Some of them are younger. But I'll wake up, and they'll be gone. The overseer talks like nothing has changed. And when I ask him where my friends went...” Her face scrunched up as if in pain.

“Yeah?” Rainbow Dash leaned in from where she hovered. “What happens?”

Flower Gears murmured, “He asks me if I really wish to stay alive or not...”

Steelteeth and Rainbow Dash said nothing.

Just then, the lights went out.

“Aaaah!” Flower Gears flew out of her seat, knocking the chair over as she rushed over to Steelteeth's side and clung to his coattails. “What's happening? Are they here?”

“Is who here?” Rainbow Dash asked in the darkness.

“They'll have followed me!” Flower Gears whimpered. “They'll know I have run out of the bunker!”

“Relax,” Steelteeth unemotionally grunted. “I imagine it's just a surge from the absence of the obelisk in the center of New Ring.”

Sure enough, a few seconds later, the lights flickered back on. Flower Gears exhaled with relief, but she still trembled visibly.

“Something's gotten you really, really freaked out, girl,” Rainbow Dash remarked. “And I don't like it one stinkin' bit!”

“Let's not resort to rash actions,” Steelteeth murmured.

“Hey! Who says I'm gonna do something rash or impulsive?!”

Steelteeth merely stared at her.

“Hmmph...” Rainbow Dash folded her forelimbs in a pout. “As if you don't have a single unpredictable bone in your body, Steely.”

“Actually, most of my skeletal structure has been comprised of magesteel alloy since I recovered from the collapsing building—”

“Oh, go eat your hat!”

“Are you going to tell Governor Mintelle?” Flower Gears inquired, still clinging to Steelteeth. “Maybe a lot of Darkstinians in the west half of the city don't think she's doing the best job, but I know she's got more power than the Duke! Maybe she can help me find my brother!”

Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes narrowed. “Your brother?”

The filly nodded. “He and I were ushered from our apartment flat on the same day. He went to a younger study program in a bunker across the street from mine. Everyday for a year and a half, I could see him through the southernmost window. But then, just a few months ago, I couldn't see him anymore. I started to worry. And then when ponies started graduating and being taken away, and when the overseer started threatening me...” Her voice trailed off as she clutched harder to Steelteeth's coattails.

Steelteeth stared off into the far corner of the suite, his nostrils flaring. “You have done the right thing, she who would be Flower Gears. I shall attempt forthwith to bring this sudden revelation to Governor Mintelle.”

“Huh?”

“He means...” Rainbow Dash hovered down and smiled at the mare's eye-level. “You're totally safe with us! And when all is said and done, we're gonna find your little brother and then kick Duke Zaap Nator's butt!”

“Miss Dash....” Steelteeth glared at her coolly. “There will be not violent striking of anypony's posterior, not now, not ever.”

Rainbow Dash groaned. “Okay, so we'll make fun of his butt. But we're totally gonna find your lil bro.” Rainbow Dash swept a loose cleft of white bangs out from Flower Gears' face. “Okay?”

The girl gulped and nodded with a feeble smile. “'Kay...”

The lights flickered again, ultimately shutting off.

“Unnngh... Not again,” Rainbow Dash grumbled, staring up at the darkened ceiling.

“It's happening much more swiftly,” Steelteeth said. “Most of last night while you were unconscious, it went out just like this, but after more prolonged periods of time.”

“Just what the hay does that mean?”

“I'm not sure. But I definitely must speak with she who would be Governor Mintelle again.”

“Try writing to her,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “Maybe it will save time.” She turned and looked at their guest once more. “Hmm. Speaking of unconscious.”

“Hmmm?” Steelteeth glanced down. Out of exhaustion, the weak teenager had fallen asleep on her hooves, leaning against his rigid form. “Oh.”

“I've flown loops around lakes and scaled mountains for days on end,” Rainbow Dash said. “I don't think I've ever once looked that pooped.”

“Exhaustion is subjective.”

“Ever the poet,” Rainbow Dash said, then blinked awkwardly at Steelteeth.

With a remarkable show of gentility, the metal-toothed stallion lifted Flower Gears' slumbering form onto his spine, carried her over to the bed beside the balcony, and layed her down with extra care. He pulled a sheet over her form as Rainbow Dash hovered over to his side.

“You think she's making half of it up just to get a bite to eat and a place to rest?” Rainbow Dash asked in the falling shroud of evening. With the lights cut off, the apartment was a great deal darker. The first of several distant stars poked through the foggy sky beyond the balcony “Or could she be telling the truth about all that crazy stuff with the bunker and the mean overseer?”

“She's convinced of it, at least. A filly's sincere love for a sibling transcends most temptations to falsify the facts.”

“I wouldn't know anything about that. Heh.”

“Nopony is without a shred of sincerity, Miss Dash. You should remember that.”

Rainbow Dash squinted at him. “Do you?”

Steelteeth merely trotted towards the door to the suite, adjusting his broad-rimmed hat. “I am off to speak with Governor Mintelle. There is much to discuss.”

“And what am I supposed to do?!” Rainbow Dash barked at him from afar. “Hover here and twiddle my hooves?”

“Well, somepony needs to play 'hostess.' You, at least, have the teeth for it.” He paused in the open doorframe and pointed with an intimidating glare that Rainbow could practically smell. “Do not do anything crazy while I am gone.”

“Me? Crazy?” Rainbow Dash glanced towards her peripheral vision. A solid beam of lavender light was gliding straight out the window and shooting over the darkened rooftops of East New Ring until it fell ever so fatefully into the deep pit beyond several rows of auto-turrets. “I-I wouldn't think of it!” she said with a nervous smile.

Steelteeth looked at her. He exited, paused, looked at her again, then closed the door completely.

Rainbow Dash groaned long and hard. She finally touched down to her hooves and leaned on the bed, casting a bored glance at the peacefully slumbering figure of the young mare.

“Heh. 'Flower Gears.'” Rainbow Dash smirked into the falling curtains of night. “Anypony with a name that silly totally earns a second lease at life...”

Thanks

View Online

“And you know what the funny part is?” Rainbow Dash sighed as she slumped down in a chair besides the balcony of the darkened apartment. “I'm pretty sure that's my bed Steelteeth put you in.”

Flower Gears had no response. She slept soundly beneath the covers, her petite body slowly rising and falling in peaceful slumber.

Rainbow Dash stretched her limbs. “Ehhh... It's not like I had any chance of catching some z's anyway.” She reached over, grabbed a saddlebag, and slid it over to her side. “Y'know, there was a time when I'd climb the walls as soon as I got bored. Not sure why I'm not doing it now. Maybe I'll blame it on the autoturrets.”

The lengths of New Ring hissed and sputtered beyond the edge of the balcony. Distant groups of laboring unicorns struggled to reroute the meager allotment of Darkstinian power. For a brief moment, starlight pierced the smog and illuminated the gigantic pit and the steep wall edged against it.

Rainbow Dash opened her bag and fiddled with its contents. She grumbled, “Stuff's a friggin' mess in here. I miss having my own room. Not that I used it much... heh. Most of my days were spent sleeping wherever I felt like. A pegasus' life is pretty easy, once you realize that every cloud belongs to you. Heck, even that smog looks comforting, assuming it'd stay together long enough to act like a bed for me.”

She paused briefly, biting her lip.

“Yeesh. Listen to me. I sound like old mares rambling on about their lives...”

Flower Gears stirred slightly. The tiniest of murmurs escaped her lips as she turned over and retreated even deeper into the blanket.

Rainbow Dash looked at the filly again. “I guess life doesn't so much get longer as it gets stretched out. I used to... to have a friend who told me a thing or two about how time is relative and that the faster you could go—like at really crazy speeds—then time would appear to go slower, or something. You ever heard of Einstallion?”

Silence.

“Hrmmm... Yeah. Boring egghead stuff, am I right?” Rainbow Dash chuckled. She looked out the balcony once again, her eyes twitching upon the sight of the lavender stream wafting towards the distant pit. “Unicorns aren't all that bad, once you get to know them. So what if they have their heads in the stars? They can be pretty cool... when they want to be...”

She took a deep breath. She reached once more into the saddlebag, rummaging through it. Her hoof grazed against a book binding. Rainbow Dash flinched, not bothering to pull the item out for examination. Instead, she tilted her gaze until it fell on Flower Gears once again.

“I dunno what's happened to you, and I dunno where your brother's gone. But someway, somehow, I'm gonna make sure you get together with him again. I'm gonna make sure you get back to your family, kiddo.” Her ruby eyes matched the dull shade of her pendant as she murmured, “You're way to dang young to lose everything. Nopony should ever have to go through that...”

Her wings twitched. Slowly, like melting candlewax, a frown spread down over her features. When the expression caught up with her mouth, it morphed into a devilish smirk.

“Auto-turrets, auto-smurrets. At least being shot at would be a heck of a lot less boring than sitting here like a rock.”

She clasped her saddlebag shut, threw it on her spine, tightened it, and approached the balcony. Pausing, she then turned around and slid up to the bed. With gentle hooves, she slid the blanket up tighter around Flower Gears' slumbering form.

“Dream all you like. Your life's about to get a lot brighter. That's a promise, kid.”

Then, with a flick of her prismatic tail, she scaled the balcony railing, looked every which way, and stealthily shimmied down. Once she was sure the coast was clear, Rainbow Dash sneaked across the Governor's courtyard and shuffled into the shadows of the dark streets of New Ring. She headed directly towards where the lavender glow was personally leading her.

Alone in the room, the teenage filly stirred under the covers, yawned, and turned over with her eyes shut. “Mmmm... th-thank.. you...”

Turrets

View Online

Rainbow Dash hadn't realized how dark it would be until she was surrounded on all sides by Darkstinian shadow. Muttering under her breath, she stuck close to a thin alley wall, her ears twitching as she slid past steam vents built into the metallic struts that supported the tall buildings on either side of her. With the power having flickered off in her immediate vicinity, she found herself navigating a cold district of dormant mechanical parts and floating industrial vapors. She had imagined that some thing or another within the city would be giving off a light; this was home to mechanized unicorns, after all. However, as the minutes of sneaking bled into half an hour, she was still surprised to be piercing clouds of thick black nothing.

Her only aids were the sounds and smells of the place, and neither turned out to be all too pleasant. If it wasn't the trace fumes from underground engines, it was the stench of cycled garbage within the framework of the urbanscape all around her. Rainbow Dash couldn't imagine what would possess ponies—unicorns or not—to actually live there on a year-round basis. Holding her breath, she paused as the sounds of various stallions galloped through the street past her, rushing towards backup generations in a desperate attempt to bring life and illumination back to the city. She thought about Steelteeth, about where he might have been at that time.

“He'll literally burst a pipe once he sees I'm gone,” she muttered. A slight smirk crossed her lips. “With my luck, he'll have powered down too.”

She blurred across the street bravely and slid into another alleyway. Pressing up against a wall, she exhaled with relief upon hearing no sign of anypony spotting her. With liquid movement, she pressed on towards the center of East New Ring.

For a moment, she was tempted to reach up and summon a glow from her neck pendant. She restrained, however, fearing that doing so might give herself away. She was used to doing impulsive things, but almost always the only pony she had to be concerned with was herself. This time, the very reason for her leaping out into the streets was to find out about Flower Gears' family, or so she had convinced herself.

It perplexed Rainbow Dash that ponies like the Darkstinians of New Ring could live so close to each other in such densely packed conditions and yet not know a single thing about one family's peril just beyond the barriers of a few skyscraper walls. Then again, Rainbow grew up in Cloudsdale, a skyborne city that definitively mocked the concept of “living in a glass house.” Pegasi had very little trouble—much less need—in keeping secrets from one another, especially when there were dire problems at hoof.

But these Darkstinians, Rainbow Dash felt, were the utter epiphany of what had always bothered her about unicorns. Their library of ideas weighed far more heavily than the substance of themselves, and she could never quite sit right with the philosophy of most magic ponies because of it.

“Besides, horns are just too pointy and annoying,” she muttered as she reached a source of light. Tilting her head up, she gaped at the size of the lanternlit wall that split the city of New Ring down the center: the west from the east. “Yeesh. There's not enough spray paint in the world for this thing.”

Carefully, she glanced over her shoulder. There were no ponies around. Not a single horn was to be seen. With a smirk, Rainbow Dash flapped her wings and lifted up.

Immediately, a series of high-pitched beeping noises resonated around her. Hissing through her teeth, she dropped down to the metal street and squatted low, sweating.

The beeping stop. Rainbow Dash became aware of tiny shadows lining the walls high above, tilting left and right in mechanical precision.

“For Pete's sake!” she grumbled hoarsely, gazing up at the looming threats. “How come the turrets aren't powered off?!” She glanced between them and the flanking lanterns. “Hrmmm... Must be a secondary power line or something. Well, gosh darn it...”

She looked around the immediate street, still anxious about being seen. She spotted a loose chunk of metal on the ground beneath her. Briskly, she snatched it up in her jaws, flexhed her muscles, and chucked the item straight up in the air. With a bicycle kick, she spun and bucked the item savagely towards the smoggy night.

The high-pitched beeps sounded off again, followed by the whirring sound of swiveling turrets. Not half a second later, eight completely separate barrels went off from the edge of the wall. The airborne metal shard was vaporized from multiple angles. The bright flash of the weapons' discharge filled the nearby streets with noise and an orange glow.

“Holy tap-dancing Luna,” Rainbow Dash muttered, her ruby eyes wide. Just as she murmured this, she heard the stampede of several hooves. “Awww crap. Night guards!” Biting her lip, she looked every which way and darted into a nearby alley... only to slam muzzle-first into a metal wall nearly two feet deep. “Oww!” her voice cracked as she rubbed her nose. The suspicious Darkstinians ran up and scraped to a stop directly behind her. “Uh oh...”

“Imperative exclamation: halt! You there, she who would be a citizen!” a unicorn shadow shuffled up, levitating a sparkling blade of energy as his fellow cohorts flanked him in silver armor. “Swift inquisition: did you see that which would be the target of the auto-turret fire?!”

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash squirmed.

She realized that the shadows of night were cloaking most of her figure, including her wings. Something glinted in the corner of the metal niche. Looking down, she saw a rusted baton that must have once been the handle to a broken lever decades go. Nimbly, she kicked the thing up so that it flipped into the air and landed—balance—on her forehead.

“AHEM.” She spun around, her head tilted skyward so that the pole stood at just the right angle from her brow. “Uhh... Totally innocent answer: I haven't seen anything flying around here. Friendly suggestion: Have you... uhh... tried somewhere closer to the wall and those evil westerners?”

“Furious agreement!” One stallion hissed to his compatriots. “It must have been a weapon from he who would be Duke Zaap Nator!”

“Mildly veiled threat: let us go and launch refuse over the wall to that it might strike that which would be his flank!”

“Exasperated dismissal...” The leader of the guards groaned. “You are those who would be delinquets. Authoritative command: swiftly, let us search the nearby streets for sign of fresh debris.”

“Affirmative.”

“Aye.”

The guards ran off, leaving Rainbow Dash standing with her head tilted up as if she had a nose bleed. After a few seconds, the lever handle fell off her skull and collapsed onto the metal street.

“Whew...” She slumped against a nearby wall, stretching her wings. “Achievement unlocked: Darkstinians are gullible as dirt.” She looked up at the wall, making a pouting face. “I hate walls. They're like the licorice gumdrops of cities.” She glanced around. “Just how the heck do I get over it—” She paused, squinting.

About thirty meters away, caught in the glow of an orange lantern, a ventilation shaft was pouring steam out into the night sky. As close and as densely as the puffs of vapor wafted towards the auto-turrets, not a single one of the weapons moved or beeped.

Rainbow Dash blinked, her ruby eyes reflecting the delicious clouds of sting. Soon, she smiled, and her wings twitched. “Unicorn city? Get ready for a taste of pegasus country...” She trotted firmly forward beyond the edge of shadow...

Cloud

View Online

“Okay, hooves,” Rainbow Dash murmured, licking her lips and leaning forward. “Work your pegasus magic.”

Carefully, she stuck her hooves into the columns of steam wafting out of the metal vents. She brought her forelimbs together and pulled them toward her chest, as if she was hugging the air itself.

“Come on... Come on...” she whispered.

With twitching feathers, she curled her wings forward like an extra pair of limbs. Nimbly, she formed a dome around the rising steam with the combination of her hooves, chin, and downy appendages. At first, it seemed as if nothing was happening. Then, in the haze of a distant lantern hanging along the wall of New Ring, the mist grew thickier and foggier within the pocket built by Rainbow's body parts.

“Oh yeah... There ya go...” She murmured, grinning wickedly. “Just like sculping cumulus clouds back at home. Come on... You can do it...”

The vapors coalesced. The steam from the vent was now feeding the blob of murky air. The improvised cloud grew even thicker, and soon Rainbow Dash had a veritable platform bouncing in her grasp. The cloud started to rise, as if from its own volition. Rainbow Dash's wings buzzed as her body levitated to match the ascent. To her satisfaction, none of the auto-turrets above were making a single noise.

“Yes... Yes, this is it...” She gulped and pressed her body deep into the center of the rising platform of mist. She sense the lanternlight along the wall growing fainter as she rapidly climbed the smoggy Darkstine sky. The leering metal bodies of the gun turrets were just within a sneeze's distance, and she chanted over and over again, “I'm a cloud. I'm a cloud. I'm a cloud. I'm a cloud...”

Sure enough, not a single blast was to be heard. Rainbow Dash's body was encased in steam and moisture. The turrets' magic found no pegasus intruder to target.

“Hah! Yeah!” she cackled victoriously as the misty bed brought her beyond the topmost height of the wall. “Rainbow Dash is best cloud! Ahem...” She flicked her tail so that it no longer dangled out of the vaporous disguise. “Okay. Now to just... go west.” She gulped. “Going west isn't so hard, r-right?”

Her wings flapped, gently at first. Slowly, she began propelling herself away from East New Ring. Soon, her steamy platform was violating the airspace of Duke Zaap Nator's districts. She glanced below, her ruby eyes squinting as she tried to make out the shapes of the buildings beyond the deep pit. The wall was the only part of the city still lit during the current power outtage. While all of the Darkstinians' homes were pitch-black, the one symbol of the province's political divide was burning like a birthday cake. She tried not to distract herself with pondering over that ironic detail.

“So just where the heck was Flower Gears staying...?” Rainbow Dash scanned the various shapes and shadows below. “If the learning facility was something the Duke was monitoring, then it couldn't have been too far from the wall. That stallion seems to like hearing himself give those crazy speeches. Ah!” She smirked suddenly.

There were a quartet of rectangular shapes space apart from each other with a broad courtyard in the middle. Rainbow Dash judged that it was no less than a five minute trot from the wall, as well as the deep pit of the missing obelisk itself. It help that she was seeing the lavender light leading into the cylindrical abyss, otherwise she might have noticed the buildings.

“They look enough like bunkers to me.”

With a deep breath, she began piercing her blue hooves through the bed of steam.

“Alright, now to just deflate this a bit and softly descend—”

The cloud dissolved in a vaporous gasp.

“Poopsicles!”

Rainbow Dash hissed, flailed, and fell. She dropped like a naked rock through the airspace of Darkstine. Clock towers and frozen pendulums soared up past her. She plummeted past walkways, skyscrapers, and a shiny monorail track. Just as her body rocketed into the courtyard between the four bunkers, she flared her wings out, dragged air, and landed heavily on all four hooves.

There was a loud, coordinated beeping noise as eight menacing sets of auto-turrets swiveled in the darkness and aimed directly at her in the center of the courtyard.

Rainbow Dash froze still in the shadows, her legs bent, her face twitching under a sheen of sweat.

Silence...

The turrets beeped again, swiveled away from her, and pivoted back towards where they were witlessly guarding the sky.

Rainbow Dash's entire body slumped down to the metal surface. “Whew....”

And then, with a loud crackle of deep bass noise, the power to the city switched back on. Four sets of lanterns flashed to life overhead. As a result, a golden halo of bright light was shimmered directly onto Rainbow Dash's figure, exposing her like a blue needle in a haystack.

Beeping madly, the auto-turrets swung back and immediately fixated on her. Their noises turned into a shrill banshee cry as the barrels grew hot with plasma discharge.

Rainbow Dash grumbled, “I really don't like this place...”

And then her voice was drowned out by weaponized thunder.

Wrenched

View Online

From all across the avenues of the western district, New Ring unicorn guards came charging. A billowing plume of ash and smoke filled the courtyard beyond the deep pit where four bunkers were residing. In swift order, the armored stallions arrived, looking all around the scorched metal surfaces of the place. Their horns sparkled with electrical energy as they narrowed their eyes and scanned the vicinity under the fumes of red-hot autoturrets.

Soon, a dark shadow trotted in from a large building to the north. Duke Zaap Nator arrived, flanked by leering guards. He gave the disturbed scenery a quiet glare and hissed through his breathing mask.

“Sincere curiosity: was it an incursion from they who would be Eastern Darkstinians?”

“Prompt reply: negatory, you who would be my superior,” a guard stated with a salute. “There has been no evidence pointing to somepony who would be a malevolent infiltrator. Tentative theory: with the sudden restoration of power, it's quite possible that the defense systems malfunctioned.”

“Shocked reaction: you who would be an insufferable grunt dares to insult my very own technology?!” Zaap Nator hissed and shook a mighty hoof. “Righteous declaration: we are being starved of the holy obelisk's presence, and it is because of the imperfections of those who would be like you that no industry is being made! Enlightened hypothesis: there is indeed somepony who would be a trespasser in this district, and it is the job of we who would be saviors of New Ring to find and eliminate him! Imperative exclamation: go forth and search with greater vigor!”

“Subservient response: absolutely, you who would be Duke Zaap Nator!” The guard ran off, followed by three more on thundering hooves.

Grumbling into his breathing equipment, Zaap Nator swiveled about and spoke to his higher-ranked followers. “Calm inquisition: has there been any evidence of deaths or casualties?”

“Factual response: Negatory. If he who would be a trespasser was eliminated by that highly-intensive yield of cannon energy, then he would surely have vaporized.”

“Anxious assumption,” Zaap Nator muttered as he gazed off into the smoggy sky. “They who would be citizens of New Ring will most likely have been frightened by the noise and tumult just now. Wise supposition: Perhaps it would be best to be more expedient with the processing.”

“Desire for clarification: Do you refer to the chosen unicorns, sir?”

“Affirmative.” Zaap Nator gestured to his nearest guards. “Nocturnal operation: We must round up the remaining subjects and bring them to the chamber of New Industry. Be swift!”

“Aye!”

“Immediately, sir!”

“We who would be true Darkstinians concur!”

The guards fanned out. Slowly, Zaap Nator departed from the smoldering courtyard, being escorted by his closest subordinates as he descended a series of metal steps that led into the basement levels of the city.

Several seconds passed after his exit, and then a high-pitched breath exhaled from atop one of the bunkers. Slowly, Rainbow Dash slid out from the crook where the metal shingled roof met the concrete body of the building itself. She looked towards the rising cloud of ash and winced. As she caught her breath, a faint translucent shield of energy fluctuated around her before dissipating.

“Thank youuuuuuu, Whitemane,” she cooed. “Luna only knows how long I have until I get another charge of that stuff.” She tapped the edge of her golden pendant. The ruby lightning bolt didn't even glow. She frowned, grumbled to herself, and glanced up at the gun turrets. “Friggin' stupid guns, and I didn't even break a leg!”

Quietly, she scurried down the edge of the building like a spider. She clung to its side, hiding her body from the glow of hanging lanterns above. Patiently, she scuffled towards one of the doors of the bunker, careful not to expose a single inch of her body to the whirring sentries above. Eventually, she made it to the entrance, and cursed under her breath upon feeling a lock.

“Oh, for pete's sake!” Rainbow Dash moaned. “The one pony city on the face of the world that doesn't know what a barn is, I swear to goddess...”

She fumbled her hoof over the lock, shaking and tugging at it. The door handle wouldn't budge. The bunker remained close.

“Come on... I just wanna take a peak inside!”

She exhaled heavily through her nostrils. She tapped her hoof lightly on the ground. She looked up at the turrets, then at the door, then at the turrets again.

“Hmmm...” She smirked. Tightening her muscles, she counted several quiet seconds and dipped her neck out into the light, making a goofy little face. “Booga-Booga-Booga!”

One of the gun turrets spun and immediately fired a blast of weaponized mana.

Rainbow Dash jerked back. Instead of hitting her, the bright beam flew into the door, melting the lock off.

“Hah!” With a speedy blur of her wings, she shot out, yanked the door open, and tossed herself inside the bunker before the turrets could register her again. Pressing her panting self against the entrance from within, she listened as a commotion rose from the guards in the streets beyond. Swiftly, things quieted down once more, and she sighed in relief. “Well, at least I'm not outside anymore.”

A light flicked on.

“Nnngh!” she winced, squinting across the lengths of the tiny interior. “What...?”

The place was full of young ponies. Several foals, preteens, and teenaged fillies and colts stood beside an array of bunkbeds, gazing with fright at the strange sight of Rainbow Dash.

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash sweat and gulped. “Sorry to bother your slumber party and all, but I'm kind of on... uh... a fact-finding mission of sorts here, yeah. What's the deal with the Duke and all you kids? Oh! I've got a better question!” She tilted her head, squinting at the group. “Is there anypony here with an older sister named 'Flower Gears?'”

“Back!” a tiny filly stammered, telekinetically waving a heavy wrench before her horn. “Do not come any closer! We're being cleansed of our sins to the industry!”

“Sins to the what-now?” Rainbow Dash made a face. “Okay, can we at least have a little talk? Lucky for you guys, I'm starting to get good at long, boring conversations...”

“Don't come any cl-closer!” the child squeaked again, waving her wrench higher.

“Look, kid...” Rainbow Dash sighed and trotted a few steps forward. “If you really, really wanted to threaten me, you gotta do better than just one measly wrench.”

With the ringing of harsh metal, the rest of the frightened ponies lifted matching wrenches out from their mattresses.

Rainbow Dash froze, twitching. “And just like that, my pipes are bursting—”

With a frightened shriek, all thirty children launched their heavy rusted wrenches straight at her skull.

Training

View Online

It was in the middle of her daredevilish backflip when Rainbow Dash realized that she wasn't moving fast enough. She spread her wings and barreled out into a forward glide just as a stream of rusted metal tools pelted the wall of the bunker behind her. Before she could fly out of danger, the magic of the panicked children's lifted the wrenches right back up and flew them after Rainbow's tail.

“Oh for the love of—!” She seethed through her teeth, spun around, flew in and out of the metal supports of bunkbeds, and even swirled up to glide along the flat surface of the ceiling. No matter how swiftly she moved, twirled, or dodged, the tiny room of frightened occupants were flinging objects at her from all angles.

“Come on, Whitemane...” She hissed, rubbing her pendant and struggling to beckon the alicorn's recharged field of translucent energy. “Come onnnnnn Whitemane—Daaugh!” She gasped as a heavy tool flew over her skull, ripping a few mane hairs loose. Wincing, she skidded to a stop in mid-air and made a face. “What the heck?! Nnnngh—They're friggin' wrenches!”

With a thud of her hooves, she landed on the floor before a bed, ripped the mattress off with her teeth, and held the cushion up in front of her. Fearlessly, she braced herself and absorbed wave after wave of pelting instruments, all the while snarling:

“Look, I'm not here to cut you into unicorn meat or nothing! I'm concerned about you all and I was looking for a filly's younger brother!” Her hooves skidded back about two feet as a severe wave of objects slammed into the mattress. “Nnnngh!” Her ruby eyes burned as she snuck a frown around the edge of the mattress. “I'm here on behalf of Flower Gears! Do any of you know her?! I swear to Luna, you're worse than a bunch of flight kindergarteners—”

A single wrench whalloped her upside the head.

Her eyes crossed, and a crooked smile flashed across her face. “Heeee... apple sauce...” Rainbow's body tilted over. With a dull thwomp, she landed on the mattress and was out like a light.

Her head swum into nebulous chasms of murky thought and numb pain. She couldn't be sure just how long she had been suspended there, treading water across the dull, muted kaleidoscope of colors. Seconds? Minutes? Days? There was a flash of light, billowing across her mind in tune to a jagged, hoarse voice, and it was around that time that her eyes opened.

“Nnnngh...” She instantly winced from a throbbing whelt along the top of her crown. “Did somepony get the license plate off of that migraine?” She sat up, or at least tried to. Her already aching skull immediately slammed into the metal rungs of a bed support. “Augh!”

“Shhhh!” whispered a voice. Dizzy, Rainbow Dash looked to see a tiny foal looking at her from where she stood on the side of the bunkbed. Rainbow realized that she was lying, hidden, beneath one of the bedframes. The light was still on in the bunker, and beyond the several sets of young, anxious hooves, she saw the silver plated limbs of a pair of Darkstinian adults.

“Industrial necessity: we who would be Duke Zaap Nator's brethren require ten of you to accompany us to the training facility.”

A colt's voice stammered in response, “But it is so late in the evening! Please, take me and my friends here. We're older than the others. The young ones need their sleep if they're to concentrate on their training during the daytime.”

“Negatory. Those who would be the youngest in age are required, for the industry is still sparkling and malleable within their spirit.”

“But if we could just—”

“Intimidating assertion: This is not something that is open for debate, you who would be New Ring's salvation. We who would be Duke Zaap Nator's brethren shall be taking ten fillies and colts immediately.”

The pony's voice sighed. With a scuffle of hooves, he spoke to the rest of the group. “You heard the overseer, guys. Sorry about your sleep. Just do what they say, and we'll resume our activities tomorrow, okay? Try to keep your horns up for the good duke! Let's move!”

There were groaning and whining sounds from the bunker's occupants while ten sets of hooves filed out from just beyond the edge to Rainbow Dash's bed. She watched, squinting, as they were accompanied by the heavy march of the two stallions, and then escorted out of the bunker. The door to the building shut tight, fastened by what had to have been a new lock.

“They had to have seen that I burned it off,” Rainbow Dash murmured to herself. “Surely they know a trespasser is around. Just what's their hurry to do some 'training' at this hour?”

The lights went out.

Rainbow Dash blinked. Fidgeting, she finally pulled her aching self out from beneath the bed. When she stood up, she wasn't alone. At least twenty young ponies were standing around her. They bit their lips with shame and embarrassment.

“We're sorry that we threw stuff at you,” a tiny colt said. “We just never seen anything like them before.”

“Nnnngh...” Rainbow Dash rubbed her skull. “Seen what?”

“Them!” a filly squeaked, pointing at her wings.

“Oh, these...” Rainbow Dash gave a weathered smiled as she brought a hoof down from her throbbing skull. “Well, they're not sold discount to unicorns. Becoming an alicorn ain't cheap; that's for sure.” She cleared her throat and trotted in a circle among them. “And about the whole 'wrench incident,' I think you've already earned your forgiveness for hiding me. Just what's up with those stallions?”

“The overseer sometimes has us practice drills overnight,” said an older colt who must have been the one speaking earlier. “In a test of our industrial aptitudes, we are summoned at night to perform feats of magic and engineering.”

“That sounds... kind of lame,” Rainbow Dash remarked. She squinted out a window at the lit courtyard still stained from the autoturret fire. “I dunno, guys. Regardless of whatever it is you all do here—or are forced to do—I feel like there's something wicked strange about tonight.” She turned to look at the group. “I raised royal Tartarus just getting here, and yet these bozos are a lot more interested in 'training' you guys in the middle of the night than looking for me?”

“They're not bozos!” the colt growled, making his younger associates squirm nervously. “They're interested in the future stability of New Ring! They freed us from the linguistic age of ascension so that we may free our minds to become better unicorn workers!”

Rainbow Dash stared at him. Slowly, she paced over until she could rest a hoof on his trembling shoulder. “This 'Duke Zaap Nator' and his army of whackjobs took you and all these other kids from their families. I don't care how important industry is for you guys, but nopony—and I mean nopony—has the right to stamp their hooves down on your life, family, and friends. Do you hear me?”

The colt tried to frown, but his lip was trembling. He gazed down as a shudder raced through his form.

Rainbow Dash leaned in. “Hey... Emotions aren't all that bad. Heh... Even I've warmed up to sappiness in my life as of late.” She smiled gently. “It's okay to feel bad about all this...”

The colt sniffled, bit his lip, and rushed forward into a flinching Rainbow Dash. He sobbed and clung to her, whimpering, “I don't understand what they want fr-from us! They m-make us train d-day in and d-day out! I try to be st-strong for the little ones, but I-I just have no answers...”

Rainbow Dash gulped. Seeing the eyes of all the other foals gazing up at her, she strongly wrapped an arm around the colt and smiled assuredly. “Hey, I may not have the answers for ya yet, but I'm working on it. Maybe you can be of help to me, y'know?”

“Help?” The colt sniffled and gaze up at her with teary eyes. “H-Help you, how?”

“Well, for one thing...” Rainbow Dash sighed and gazed at the locked door. “You can tell me about this 'training facility' thing.” She winced and rubbed her skull again. “And then, just maybe, you can help me get out of here...”

Hacking

View Online

Foggy mists fell over the four bunkers within the west district of New Ring. Cold lanternlight poured over the courtyard and surrounding alleys as autoturrets hummed overhead. Suddenly, there was a loud clanking noise from one of the bunkers, then silence. Several seconds later, another loud ring resounded. Thirdly, a pair of hooves kicked out a grated window that rattled to the ground. The autoturrets above swiveled to face the item, beeped neutrally, and rotated back towards the dark heavens.

Rainbow Dash peered her head out from inside, squinting.

“Hmmmm... Yup. Still miserable and ugly outside. How do you unicorns even bear it?”

“Huh?” The young colt stared out next to her. “I don't understand. It's a beautiful night!”

“Shhh!” Rainbow Dash hissed, staring out towards the descending stairs beyond. “So, that's the way down to the training facility?”

“Mmmm... More or less.”

“I'm listening.”

“First you go down four flights of metal steps, then you take a left and proceed down a long hallway. Then, about forty paces through the basement corridors, you'll find a large round door. Through that is the training room where we spend most of the day practicing magic and industrial aptitude tests.”

“Okay, one last question.” She glared at the colt and the group of anxious foals surrounding him. “What was all that crapola your overseer was spouting earlier about you kids having 'sparkling, malleable spirits' for the 'salvation of Darkstinian industry' or wutnot?”

“There has been a break in industry,” the colt said. “The obelisk that grants our city its power and inspiration has receded into the earth. Duke Zaap Nator feels that industry must be reinvented if we're to be successful as Darkstinians again.”

“Yeah? And what do kids have anything to do with that?”

The colts and fillies exchanged nervous glances.

Rainbow Dash frowned. “You don't have a clue, do ya?”

“The Duke is wise and he cares about our province.”

“He's also full of hot air. I should know.” Rainbow Dash smirked. “I've seen that elephant trunk he wears around all the time.”

A series of giggles billowed from the crowd.

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash smirked. “So Darkstinians do have a sense of humor. It's just buried beneath all the metal and monotony.”

“The Duke is right about many things, though,” the colt said, fidgeting. “We need the obelisk if we wish to prosper.”

“Well, why not just build a new one?”

“There's no building a new obelisk!” A filly spoke up, wide-eyed. “There's only ever been one!”

“You mean that crud was here when Darkstinians first set hoof to wrench in this place?”

The children merely nodded.

“Ugh...” Rainbow Dash looked out the window and sighed. “As always, I'm late to the party. Well...” She stood up and mounted the window. “Not for much longer.”

“Wait!” The colt grabbed her tail. “Wh-what about the turrets?”

“I think I figured it out.” Rainbow Dash smirked and motioned towards them. “Gimme those wrenches.”

The fillies and colts hesitated. Eventually, half of them shuffled forward and hoofed them to Rainbow Dash. She grabbed them with both forelimbs and hovered with the weight of the collective tools in her grasp. “Check this crud out. I'm gonna hack them.”

“Hack... them...?”

“You heard me.”

“But what about when the guards come back?” A filly whispered. “What about if they see this window knocked out and all these wrenches gone?”

“Kiddo, I get the feeling that once I get down to this 'training facility' of yours, I'm gonna blow the lid off this place, and you're not going to have to worry about boring ol' 'industry camp' or whatever the heck this is ever again.”

“Really? You mean we'll get to see our parents again?”

“Oh, absolutely!” Rainbow Dash grinned, struggling to keep all the wrenches from slipping. “You'll get to hear them utter 'Amorous sincerety: I love you, junior' just as if you never left them!”

“That's spectacular! Thank you, ma'am! You're so... so...”

“Yessss?” Rainbow Dash leaned down. “Here it comes! It starts with an 'a'...”

“Authoritative.”

Rainbow Dash sighed. “Nnngh... frickin' eggheads.”

“Wh-What was that?”

“Nothing!” Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. “Okay, everypony. Stand back. Time for me to... uhm... hack.”

The ponies parted ways like a living sea.

Rainbow Dash swung her legs forward, kicked against the window frame, propelled herself backward, planted her rear limbs against the opposite wall, then bucked off with full strength. She shot out of the bunker like a blue cannonball, creating a burst of concussive air as soon as she rocketed out of the small building. The gasping children fell back on their haunches.

In the meantime, the turrets were spinning wildly in mechanized confusion. They struggled as one to zero in on the one source of the sonic noise.

But Rainbow Dash wasn't giving them any time to get acquainted. Holding her breath, she spun up, spiraled about, and dove low along the walls of the courtyard. With merciless efficiency, she leaned herself sideways and murderously flung a wrench at each turret right as she blurred past it.

“Hacked!” The turret exploded. “Hacked!” Another turret exploded. “Hacked you!” A third. “Hacked you too!” Shrapnel and metal gizmos filled the air. “Hack-Hack-Hack-Hack-Hack-Double hack!” She finished the cyclonic path with double wrenches swung like clubs against the last standing turret. The floor was littered with bits and pieces of metal debris as she slowly descended and touched down directly in front of the descending stairwell. “Whew!” She dusted her body and saddlebags off, smiling. “Good thing I'm so smart, or I'd be screwed by now—”

Her hoof slipped on the first stair.

“Darnit-Gaaaah!” She tumbled, rolled, pratfall, and slid jaggedly down the winding stairwell. She landed upside down in the basement corridor below, her main frazzled and her head injury aggravated. Staring up past two pairs of stiff legs, she moaned and collapsed sideways in a shuddering heap. “Nnnngh... Industry hurts.”

Slowly, she pulled herself back up to her hooves. She paused to stare at her surroundings. The hallway was insanely long; Rainbow Dash could barely see the opposite end. The corridor was old, rusted, with grime and sediment formed thickly around the corners of the walls and ceiling.

“Whew...” She whistled. “If this is Darkstinian summer camp, I'd hate to see winter camp.”

She trotted slowly down the corridor, squinting past cold red lanternlight. A crimson glow danced through random puffs of cloud from flanking steam vents.

“Forty paces... Forty paces... Forty paces....” She murmured aloud to herself. “Just gotta find there the other kids went and then—”

She froze upon hearing a muffled exclamation from the door immediatley to her left.

“This isn't the training facility?! I don't understand! Where's my sister?! What did you do with Flower?!”

Rainbow Dash's eyes twitched. “No flippin' way.” She turned and faced the doorframe. It was a circular entrance, much like the young colt had described. However, there was a bright crack of light showing through the edges. Applying the firm grip of her hooves, Rainbow Dash was able to slide the seal open by a sliver. She peered through the curved line to look inside.

There, she saw Flower Gears' little brother, or at least whom she asssumed was him. A stone gray little foal stood at the far end of the claustrophobic compartment, his blank flank shivering in fright. As Rainbow Dash watched with baited breath, she soon found out why. A dark, towering Zaap Nator was marching towards him, forcing the colt to back up into a dark panel that occupied the centermost column of the wall.

“Solemn confession: she who would be your blood sibling has left the flock. She is a shame to the purpose of industry, and will suffer in aimlessness just the same as she who would be Governor Mintelle. Righteous affirmation: you who would be Darkstine's salvation shall be the first of many to bring restoration to the industry, for your spirit is pure and full of sparkling creativity.”

Rainbow Dash made a face. “What in the hay is this joker going on about—?” She stopped in mid-speech, for her eyes were scanning through the thin sliver to make out the rest of the room. She saw several heavily armored guards standing side by side with sparkling poles fused over their horns. Between them, trembling and nervous, was a solid cluster of youths. “What are they lined up for...?”

“I don't care about Darkstine or industry!” the colt shrieked, tears streaming down his face. “I just want to see my family again!”

The Duke reached a hoof out, forcing the colt to flinch with a gasp. A dark hoof carressed his mane and chin. “Shhhh...” The stallion hissed through his gas mask. “Be grateful that you who would be innocent are making this sacrifice for the good of that which used to be your family.”

Rainbow Dash's eyes twitched. “Sacrifice?” She heard a loud groan of metal. Her vision darted in time to catch two armored stallions yanking at a series of levers. The panel in the far end of the wall opened wide, and Rainbow Dash was immediately assaulted with an ethereal beam of lavender energy.

She winced, panting, then blinked. She saw the lavender energy more clearly now, running straight down a black compartment just beyond the freshly opened panel. “Wait a second, is that...?” Her face paled. “It's a door to the pit!”

The colt was being shoved straight towards the open panel. “Divine declaration,” Zaap Nator seethed. “The obelisk must be summoned back. For the sake of the industry, become that which would be the spark!” That said, the Duke spun, lifted his heavy hooves, and bucked the shrieking foal straight into the gaping abyss.

Obelisk

View Online

Duke Zaap Nator swiveled around as the colt's shriek dwindled in the gaping pit beneath him. “Sincere aside, as much as I regret this action, the fate of Darkstine's industry is at—”

A rainbow streak soared straight past him, nearly throwing the stallion off his hooves.

“Aaaugh!”

Both the guards and foals gasped to see a speeding pegasus diving clear through the rusted door to the abyss. In a blue of blue, she disappeared.

Rainbow Dash held her breath the entire time she plunged into the darkness. She couldn't see the bottom of the abyss. Her eyes were filled with fluctuating bands of plasma and her ears twitched with the echoes of the colt's screams. Shaking the dizziness out of her head, she flung a hoof down to her pendant and rubbed the ruby lightning bolt. A dim beam of red light shimmered down, and she barely saw the tips of the foal's flailing limbs.

Gritting her teeth, Rainbow curled her wings to her sides. She dove like a lead arrow shot into the heart of the world. The air whistled on all sides of her until she was deaf. Just as a huge, glossy wave of black loomed into focus, she caught up to Flower Gears' sibling and clutched him with all four limbs.

“Gotcha!” Rainbow Dash barely had time for a second breath. She spun with the colt in her grasp and flared her wings up high like a parachute. The the heated friction in the air tugged at her wings until she felt that they would rip from their joints. She winced, her eyes watering, and managed to flap them once, twice, before leveling out in a sustained hover.

It was just in time, too. Barely four feet below Rainbow Dash loom the sharp, pointed edge of a black object. The huge spike jutted upwards at a length of about twenty feet from where it had sunk to the bottom of the cylindrical abyss. Only by the glare of Rainbow's pendant could she make out the shape of the obelisk's tip... and then something else.

The breath left her in a squeak that mimicked the colt's gasping breath. Her ruby eyes darted left and right at the frayed edges of her ruby spotlight. She made out the limbs, at first. They were pale stalks, thin and gangly. It took her several seconds of mortified comprehension to discover that most of the flesh had rotten off. Mane hair hung in tatters where flakes of skin had collected around crumpled bodies. Teeth glistened in the jaws frozen open in agony. The smell of the place was dank, copper, and Rainbow figured that it wasn't from rush.

“Where... Wh-What...?!” the colt stammered in confusion and panic.

“D-Don't look, kid,” Rainbow Dash breathily murmured, holding him tight so that his face was buried in her shoulder. “Just don't...”

Her peripheral vision quivered. She glanced aside and saw a bright pair of spots where the lavender light was the brightest. The phenomenon cast no shadow, and her heart beat faster simply from looking at it.

It took an astronomical effort to rip her gaze away. Afterall, there was something far more grave to deal with, and in Rainbow's recent experience, horror trumped awe.

“Wh-Who are you?” the colt murmured.

“I... I...” Rainbow glanced at the bodies once again. They were all tiny; they had all been young. She swallowed hard. “I'm gonna get you out of here kid.” With a heavy flap of her wings, she shot straight up the hole. The colt whimpered and clung to her tight as she soared towards the slim circle of foggy starlight that made up the top rim of the pit.

Once she burst out into Darkstinian night, there were no turrets to fire at her. Rainbow Dash figured tha it was because the pit was not only located in the center of New Ring's East and West Districts, but that the spot was sacred ground to the unicorns. Spinning about, she caught her bearings, and carefully touched down on the east side.

“Okay, listen to me carefully,” she spoke to the colt as she placed him down on his hooves. “You see that big, brass-framed building just two blocks away?”

“Mmmm... Y-Yes,” the colt said, still visibly trembling.

“Run straight towards it. It's the home to Governor Mintelle. As soon as the guards hear one sentence out of you, they'll know that you're not just any kid in need, and they'll listen to what you have to say. And if that doesn't work out, ask for a tall, dark, and gruesome stallion named Steelteeth.”

“What sh-should I tell them?”

“Tell them that Duke Zaap Nator is up to no good, and the lives of dozens if not hundreds of innocent foals are at risk. If Governor Mintelle has been holding back from crossing the wall of New Ring, now's a good reason to smash a frickin' hole through the thing. There's too much at stake.”

“But... But I don't understand!” the colt cried as Rainbow Dash levitated upwards. “Why won't you come with me?”

“Cuz I've got a huge gas mask to kick in,” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “Go and fetch the Governor and Steelteeth, kid. You won't be seeing me until I've rescued all your friends.”

With a burst of air, she backflipped, somersaulted across the starlight, and dove like a missile straight down the pit.

Steely

View Online

By the time Rainbow Dash was halfway down the pit, she could see the lanternlit panel to the “training facility” sliding shut. Frowning, she angled her wings and rocketed downward. She spun to the right and threaded her way through the sliver of a door at the last second.

The first thing waiting for her was a surprised guard. He received the full impact of all four of her hooves. The blow sent him flying back, so that he tumbled into the doorway on the other side of the small chamber through which Duke Zaap Nator was attempting a hasty exit. The tall stallion spun around, his breath wheezing through his mask. His fellow guards formed a tight circle around the whimpering foals while brandishing sparkling horns.

“One question...” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “Why? Why the heck?!”

“Apathetic disdain: you would not even fathom the purpose of salvaging industry, you who would be an impudent outtrotter!” Zaap Nator uttered.

“Tossing foals down a bigflank hole in hopes that it'd—what?—turn all the lights back on in the city or somecrap?!” Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes became piercing daggers. “Where I come from, the only creatures nutty enough to think something like that's okay have a name: 'monsters.' There's only one place for freaks like you. Lemme ask you a question, Duke. Do you like the smell of sulfur? Cuz you'll have to be channeling a lot of that junk into your mask if you wanna last a single week in Tartarus.”

“Exasperated curiosity: Did you come all the way back to lecture me with words?”

“No, I came here to shove my hoof up your butt!” Rainbow Dash spat. “So forgive a mare for wanting to savor the moment...” She started dragging her hoof across the floor in a threatening manner.

The guards' horns hummed with brimming energy as they fixated their bright points on Rainbow Dash. Before they could launch a single burning discharge, Zaap Nator raised his hoof. They all froze in place as he glared through his mask at the pegasus.

“You who would be an outrotter, has it occurred to you that you are out of your element? The obelisk has descended from the surface of our city. She who would be Governor Mintelle has done nothing to restore the spirit of industry that has abandoned us due to our frailties and sins. I who would be Duke Zaap Nator have taken it upon myself to entreat the spirit of industry directly. If those who would be angry Darkstinians wish to take their wrath upon me for such a desperate act, so be it. We who would be ponies live in a world abandoned by the goddesses, and the rules of magic and ingenuity that they have left behind require more than mortal means if the glory lost to us is to be resuscitated.”

“For your information, Dukey, I've lived among some of those goddesses for most of my life!” Rainbow Dash snarled, her nostrils flaring. “And if this is what it's like to live in a place where ponies feel the need to think for the goddesses themselves, then I'll be really flippin' happy to leave this stinkin' province. But not without taking those foals out of your hooves and bringing them back to their families! There's just one problem: I haven't kicked your teeth in yet!”

“Necessary brevity: allow me to solve your problem.” Duke Zaap Nator lowered his hoof.

In one blink, all the unicorn guards fired magic bolts from their horns. The bright beams of energy converged on Rainbow Dash. She murmured something, flinched, and took the brunt of the energy blasts. In a smoking heap, she collapsed across the metal floor, her wings twitching.

The foals gasped and started sobbing, clinging to each other.

Duke Zaap Nator took a deep breath and adjusted his breath. “Quiet solemnity: it had to be done. Verily, those who would be redeemers of New Ring, follow me.” He turned once more to the door that led to the corridor. “Let us proceed to one of the lower chambers and approach the pit from there—”

His speech was interrupted by a blue body sailing hard into his flank with a bucking of four limbs.

“Gaaaah!” He face-planted into the doorframe. A hose or two popped loose from his mask, venting gas into the air.

“Nnnngh!” Rainbow Dash flipped off the Duke, twirled, and flew like a missile straight through the line of guards.

They could barely react in time; she pinballed through them with vigor, knocking them to the ground with kicks to the ribs, uppercuts to the chin, and bucks to the groin. In less than ten seconds, the group had fallen painfully to the floor.

“Haaaaa!” Rainbow Dash slid to a stop besides the gasping foals, her body dancing with an aura of flickering white light. “Ten seconds flattened! Sprinkle some of that on your salad, ya rust-licking bags of lame!”

As the guards groaned and struggled to pick themselves up, Duke Zaap Nator reattached the hose, wheezed, and struggled to utter, “Impossible statement: this is impossible!”

“Impossible your eye!” Rainbow Dash smirked devilishly and ran a hoof over her pendant as the white light danced around her. “From Whitemane with love, barf muffin!”

“Darkstinian magic is pure...” Zaap Nator seethed as his guards slowly stood up. “It is the epitome of unbridled industry!”

“Nuts to that! I... uh...” Rainbow Dash's face contorted in thought. In a blink, she beamed brightly. “I bubbled!”

“Intimidating retort: you merely sealed your fate, she who would be outtrotter.” Zaap Nator motioned towards her guards. “Furious imperative: reduce them all to dust! We still have the other foals to sacrifice for salvation!”

“Save your breath!” Rainbow Dash sneered as she stood directly in front of the firing squad with the foals to her rear. “You're not touching a single hair on their mane! So long as the Verdestone Queen's energy shield doesn't wear out!”

The energy shield wore out.

Rainbow Dash's ruby pupils shrunk. She stood—dim and unprotected—before the line of sparkling unicorn horns. “Erm... Eh heh heh... About my 'Tartarus' comments earlier...”

The Duke wasn't hesitating. “Fire!”

The unicorns tilted their heads forward, only to have a panel of metal collapsed in the middle of them from above.

Rainbow Dash and the foals looked up, gasping.

With his trenchcoat billowing, Steelteeth landed in the center of the firing squad. He spun in furious circles, bucking and knocking as many of the guards down as he could. Once the Duke's loyalists wwere appropriately shoved back, the tall stallion marched in reverse and stood before Rainbow Dash and the children.

“Steely!” Rainbow Dash's voice cracked, and then she breathed in relief. “I knew I smelled radicalness.”

“I thought I told you to stay at the Governor's mansion,” he grumbled.

“Love ya too.”

“I swear, her Majesty doesn't reward me for weathering all of this chicanery.”

“Mild astonishment: the Constable of Verdestone?” Duke Zaap Nator stood beside his guards, leering. “It now seems apparent that those who would be Emeraldinians are invading New Ring.”

“I'm going to make you wish it was an invasion.” Steelteeth's aquamarine eyes glinted as he reached a hoof to his hat. “Stay back.”

“Hey! The more the merrier! Let's take them both... on...” Rainbow Dash stopped speaking as her eyes blinked wided.

Steelteeth had flung his widely-brimmed article off, revealing a metal, maneless skull with twin, sparkling teslacoils. In a second breath, he flung his trenchcoat off, revealing a shiny metal body complete with driving pistons, whirring mechanisms, and sparkling bulbs of channeled mana. Whatever flesh was left of him had been reduced to scorched skin that only barely matched the midnight-gray coat clinging to the ends of his hooves. In place of a cutie mark was a metal grate that covered a miniature furnace brimming with flames.

“Uhm...” Rainbow Dash stammered.

“I said stay back.” Steelteeth's voice rang with a vibrating tone. Gritting metal teeth, he twisted his rear hooves and fired a pair of steam-powered thrusters. He launched his body towards the crowd, toppeled two guards, and landed in a slide. With a flick of his left front hoof, he extended his limb into an eight foot pole that tripped three more unicorns.

The guards next to the Duke fired manabullets through their horns.

The energy blasts merely bounced off Steelteeth's metal skeleton. Steelteeth's skull pulsed with electricity, and he swiveled his right forelimb one hundred eighty degrees so that it turned into a cannon. Aiming with an expert stare, he launched a stream of metal pellets back at the assailants.

The guards fell down one after another, their armor shattering apart from the vicious projectiles' impacts. Duke Zaap Nator growled something indiscernible into his mask and summoned a telekinetic shield to block the last of Steelteeth's volleys.

Steelteeth converted his hoof back, only two have two guards rushing in and grabbing his sides. He merely crouched low, concentrated, and activated twin springs in his ribcage. The guards were propelled off of him. While one flew into the air, Steelteeth extended a prehensile tail of metal coil and lassoed it around the gasping unicorn's leg. With a ringing snarl, the Constable spun and swung the screaming guard like a cudgel into the remaining group of lackeys.

“You know what?” Rainbow Dash smiled crookedly. “You got 'em.” She pointed at the foals. “How about I get them to safety?”

“That sounds exceedingly prudent,” Steelteeth calmly replied in the middle of kicking guards' helmets to shrapnel. There was a roaring sound from across the chamber. Steelteeth spun to look.

Duke Zaap Nator was galloping towards him. In mid run, he telekinetically lifted two scimitars out from under his coat and flung them at the Verdestone guardian.

Steelteeth jumped back, ducking and dodging the Duke's dual blades. He grunted and twitched his neck. A shot of electricity flew down his spine, and a metal taser bar shot out of his body. He gripped it in his teeth and used the sparkling tips of it to deflect the Duke's blows and stab back. In haphazard fashion, the metal pony and masked unicorn fought to a standoff in the center of the echoing chamber.

“Steely!” Rainbow Dash called out to her.

“Mmmmf—Go!” Steelteeth managed. “Safe the—mmff—foals!”

Rainbow Dash winced, sighed, and ushered the crowd along. “Come on, kiddies. This show isn't for us.”

“Where are we going?”

“Somewhere... uhhh...” Rainbow Dash sweated nervously as she hurried them out of the room and into the corridor. “Somewhere with less explosions, I hope.” She galloped out of the room, giving the place one last, regretful glance, seeing a sliver of Steelteeth's sparkling combat with the psychotic duke. “Goddess, I hate being left out of a climax.”

Sow

View Online

A deep rumbling echoed through the metal corridors beneath West New Ring as Rainbow Dash swiftly escorted the group of young foals up the stairwell.

“Wh-who was that metal stallion just now?” a young filly stammered.

“Somepony who's awesome,” Rainbow Dash said.

“And who are you?”

A different brand of awesome,” she replied, then galloped ahead of the group as they reached the top of the vertical chamber. “Stick behind me, kids. There seems to be an awful lot of noise coming down from the streets—Whoah boy!” She hissed and skidded to a stop, holding her wings out to block the group of foals just as a flickering aura of red light fell on the emerging group.

There were flames across several rooftops of the western districts. Magical beams of light were flying from one half of the capital to the next. Cannon volley after cannon volley lit buildings on fire and sent several chunks of the wall flying in every direction. The Darkstinian city had become a veritable warzone.

“Does this sort of crap happen all the time when I'm not looking?!” Rainbow Dash shouted.

“It would appear as though the unicorns have engaged in full-on civil war,” Steelteeth said, quite suddenly there.

The foals jumped back with a gasp, as did Rainbow Dash. “Whoah! Yeesh, Steely! With all of those metal gizmos on you, don't you think you'd have room for a bell?”

“Meh.”

“What happened to Mr. Mean Mask? I thought you were doing the epic battle of the ages with him.”

“The Duke is as much a coward as he is a sorceror supreme,” Steelteeth hummed. His metal limbs and torso had several dints and scorch marks. Regardless, he managed to stand upright as he calmly gazed into the burning madness beyond the mouth of the stairwell. “I would have throttled him severely had he not teleported away at the last second.”

“Where the hay do you think he went?”

“Any number of places that are far safter than here,” Steelteeth grumbled. “By the Goddesses, this is not at all what Whitemane intended.”

“Whitemane...” Rainbow Dash looked out as a chunk of burning wall fell into the courtyard, summoning a shriek from the beyond-frightened foals. “Riiiiight...”

“What I wish to know is what sparked the full-on conflict to begin with.”

“Yeah, well...” Rainbow Dash scratched the back of her head and smiled nervously. Her voice cracked, “I... maaaaaaaaybe kind of sort of sent one of the foals as a messenger to Mintelle, letting them know that Duke and the ponies of the western district were doing terrible things to children.”

“You mean to tell me that you are the provocation for this?!” Steelteeth's aquamarine eyes glinted.

“What, you didn't know?! I thought they sent you!”

“Nopony sent me but Her Majesty,” he said, grinding his teeth. “And that was just to protect you! Now I see that I was really supposed to be protecting everypony else from you!”

“Well, excuuuuuuuse me, robo-horse!” Rainbow Dash hissed back. “But if you had seen what I've seen—”

“I have seen what you've seen!” Steelteeth interjected. “I started trailing you forty minutes ago after you abandoned the suite in the governor's house! Personally, I had hoped to go about the revelation of Duke's nefarious actions with a great deal more subtlety.”

“Yeah...” Rainbow Dash gulped, looking once more over the burning rooftops. She wasn't focused on the missiles being hurled through the air. She wasn't focused on the chunks of debris flying skyward from the heavy impacts. She wasn't even looking at the armore stallions running back and forth in desperation to cool off the flames. The one thing that caught her eye was the lavender glow—the same beam of light that was forever coalescing into the heart of the pit just beyond the wall. “Still, Steely, there are some things that even you can't see.”

“Huh?”

Rainbow Dash lifted up on flapping wings. “You're right, I started this mess. But I think that's the reason why Whitemane sent me here.”

“To sow chaos?”

“No, to fix it.” She turned and gave him a weathered smile. “But I do happen to know a thing or two about chaos.”

“I... don't understand.”

“That's fine. Just sit there, protect the kids, and try not to get any more rusty, ya walking refridgerator.”

“Wait—You're leaving?!” Steelteeth shouted above the noise of battle.

“More like I'm just arriving.” She beat her wings faster. “Don't fret your metal head off. I think I know just the thing to fix all this mess! Stay frosty!” She spun to the side, twirled, and flew through the burning battle.

“Rainbow Dash!” Steelteeth growled after her.

A filly shivered and clung to one of his steaming limbs. “Is she really going to help us all, Mister?”

Steelteeth's nostrils flared. “She had better. I can't buck this group's way through an entire civil war, no matter how strong my prosthetics are.”

Up ahead, Rainbow Dash was winging left and right, dodging ribbons of manablasts and surging over cannon volleys. The shouts and angry rabble of guard ponies lit the air beneath her, punctuated by explosions and crackles of thunderous magic. Floating spheres sparkled and zipped past Rainbow Dash, zooming towards an infernal destination. A large bulb of burning energy flew into a monorail track, sending chunks of metal and concrete sailing Rainbow's way.

She expertly dodged the flying debris, spinning and twirling swiftly towards the pit. The lavender light intensified, almost distracting her as two more beams of mana shot past her. She dodged the blasts, dipped through a smoldering cloud of ash, and dove swiftly down the gaping pit. Surrounded in blackness once again, she descended. The sounds of battle echoed above and behind her, reverberating in the abysmal hole's deathly acoustics.

Finally she landed on the black ring of metal bordering the pointed center of the obelisk. It took all the strength from her insides to avoid looking at the young corpses lining the bottom of the chamber around her. Instead, she searched the cylindrical walls of the place. Somewhere along the circumference, she found the source of the lavender glow once again.

“Ah.... Yeah, but of course,” she muttered with a brief smile.

There were two symbols on the wall, two very familiar symbols: that of a hoofprint eclipsing a solar crest. The lines were etched solidly into the metal surface, and they glowed with bright energy that only she could see.

“Maybe somepony should start paying me for this.” She raised a hoof towards the omega symbol. The coat hairs on her body stood on end. But before she could make contact—

A bright pulse of crimson light emanated from behind her, followed by four heavy sets of hooves landing on the metal floor. A bright hum filled the bottom of the pit: the unmistakable sound of a mana rifle being charged.

“Intimidating interjection: stay right where you are or I shall reduce your skull to ribbons, outtrotter.”

Rainbow Dash slowly, calmly spun around. All she saw was a gas mask, and she snickered. “Hah... Oh, now here we go...”

Yourself

View Online

“Furious disdain: you who would be a blind hero are an overzealous fool of a pegasus to have brought such anguish and confusion upon New Ring!” Duke Zaap Nator grumbled through his mask. A rifle loaded with glowing bullets levitated beside his battered figure at the bottom of the cylindrical pit. The scars of having struggled with Steelteeth were evident across his mask and cloak. “Rhetorical inquisition: what possible wealth of knowledge could an outtrotter have concerning the prosperity of those who would be Darkstinians?!”

“Ya know...” Rainbow Dash squinted at him as she stood with her back to the lavender-shimmering emblems etched into the wall of the chamber. “You can color your actions in this place all you want; you're still nothing more than a murderer of foals.”

“Righteous rebuttal: I have sacrificed what I had to in order to assure the salvation of Darkstine!”

“Doubly righteous rebuttal: kiss my flank, you backwards yahoo!” Rainbow Dash hissed. “Obelisk or no obelisk, this city didn't start going to crap until you raised an angry rebellion against Governor Mintelle! Just cuz you've got a bunch of starry-eyed unicorns doing everything you command doesn't make you the savior of Darkstinians everywhere!”

“Those who would benefit from the power of industry need my guidance. Surely you who would be an outtrotter could stand to pause and think about the promise I am offering.”

“Hmmm... You know what? You've got a good point there,” Rainbow Dash said with a nod. “Let's just cool our jets and let me think for a moment about what you mean to this city.”

His breath came out softly through is mask. “Calm assurance: You have made the right decision.” He lowered his rifle. “Perhaps it is not too late to—”

Rainbow Dash's rear hooves flew across the Duke's skull as she launched herself across the pit. “Ooops!” She grinned wickedly. “Did I forget to mention that I don't think very well?”

“Nnnngh!” The stallion stood up, cocked his rifle, and aimed it. “Message of doom: you are doomed!” With delicate telekinesis, he fired bullet after bullet. The projectiles surged after her, flickering bold crimson light across the tiny spaces between the wall and the vertical spoke of the obelisk.

Rainbow Dash effortlessly flew around the pointed structure. Bullets danced and ricocheted off the black metal around her. She dipped up, down, and circled about for a low swoop. Spinning upside down at the last second, she snatched the gun out of Zaap Nator's telekinetic grip with her teeth.

The stallion reeled, looking up to see her bring the weapon over the topmost point of the obelisk and snap the thing to metal ribbons over the tip. Snarling, the Duke unsheathed two scimitars, gnashed his teeth beneath the mask, and disappeared in a flash of crimson light.

Rainbow Dash blinked, hovering awkwardly in place. Suddenly, the air directly behind her crackled with static. Gasping, she spun about just as the Duke rematerialized with a downward swing of both swords.

Rainbow barely dodged, losing a lock of prismatic hair on both her mane and tail. She flew backwards, dodged two more swings as the Duke leapt off the obelisk tip, and planted all four hooves against the pit's wall. The Duke landed beneath her, twirled, and flung one of the scimitars like a spear. Rainbow Dash easily dodged it, but not so easily escaped its velocity as it telekinetically chased her like a homing missile. Breathless, the pegasus resorted to flying loops around the pit, desperate to shake the blade off of her rear.

The Duke timed himself, held his breath, and teleported in a puff of crimson. He solidified directly in front of Rainbow Dash, swinging his scimitar up high. Rainbow Dash twirled, dodged the blow, and flicked her tail at the last second. Her hairs wrapped around the Duke's horn. With her forward momentum, she yanked his skull at an awkward angle, forcing him to stumble into the path of the sword chasing after her figure. The blade sliced through the hose connected to his gas mask, and suddenly he was hissing and venting steam from the breathing apparatus fastened to his torso.

The scimitars rattled to the floor on either side of him as he stumbled to the bottom of the pit, wheezing and gasping for breath. He fumbled with a toolbelt tied to his left forelimb. A length of rubber adhesive tumbled out, but it rolled away from him. He sputtered, coughed, and crawled ineffectually towards the one tool that could fix the leak in his mask. As he came closer to it, a set of hooves landed directly in front of him.

He looked up, his goggles fogged over.

Rainbow Dash gave him a prolonged glare. After a few seconds, she muttered, “You depend so much on this 'industry' of yours, and yet you don't have the guts to look deep enough and see that there could be more answers than just one.” She placed her front hoof down onto the rubber adhesive. “Life can be tough, crazy even. Sometimes the easiest answer is the quickest one, the chaotic one. But that's just cutting the surface.” She kicked the adhesive graciously into his trembling grasp. “The hardest solution is always the best one.”

“Hckkkt...” He hoarsely stammered while desperately repairing his damaged mask. “Snnkkt—s-sacrifiiiice...?!”

“Did you ever once think—just once—that the only pony you should be sacrificing is yourself?” Rainbow Dash asked with a bored expression. With a deep exhale, she turned and trotted towards the two emblems that glowed before her in the wall. “The world can very well slip out from underneath you. But not even a million obelisks shrinking into the ground can change one simple fact.” She planted her hoof on the omega symbol besides the solar crest. “The only pony you will ever be accountable for is yourself.”

The pit lit ablaze with a fountain of light. The skulls of foals and young ponies leered around Duke Zaap Nator. The stallion shuddered, surrounded by an impermeable wall of death. He shuddered and curled up in a fetal position, whimpering into his mask. And, just like that, the glow ended. The glaring bodies of those ended by his hoof disappeared, for he was once more cast into darkness. Shivering, he looked up towards the wall where Rainbow Dash had been standing.

She was gone.

Pedestal

View Online

Rainbow Dash's ruby eyes twitched, sparkled. She blinked, and a gloss of moisture ran over her vision.

Stretching above and beyond her figure was a huge stretch of cavernous metal chambers, polished like the finest gold. Runed pendulums and levers hung in a frozen snapshot of an ancient time long gone. The place had a sterile smell to it, reminiscent of the chambers well beneath the mountain of Windthrow.

“Whew...” Rainbow's voice echoed through the place as she brought a hoof to her pendant and gave birth to a ruby glow. “If only the Darkstinians could see this place; then they would be they who wet themselves...”

Prophetically, a dull rumble echoed through the labyrinthine chamber. Rainbow Dash sensed the civil unrest building on the surface of New Ring directly above. Feeling pressed for time, she scanned the local interiors until her eyes caught the wafting path of lavender light. Swiftly, she galloped after it, her hooves making lone clanking noises against the metallic surfaces as she hurried down a hallway, descended a spiraling stairwell, and threaded through a series of inert pistons to get to her obscure destination.

Images blurred past her: scenes etched in platinum murals depicting alicorns arriving upon a flat strip of landscape in a billowing nether of chaos. Priceless details of historical importance lingered on all sides of her path, but she didn't care. She was being drawn somewhere; she was always being drawn somewhere. All that mattered was the lavender path and the act of chasing it. It was just as important as chasing the rising sun.

Finally, Rainbow Dash rounded a last corner, and she saw it. Her ruby eyes twitched, and she froze upon the edge of an impossibly deep chasm. Stretching across it was a bridge, and in the center of it was a golden pedestal. Hovering in the center of the altar was a billowing flame of red light.

“Hmmm... Awesome sauce...” Rainbow Dash took a deep breath and bravely trotted towards the glow. Once within smelling distance, she cracked her limbs, exhaled, and reached two limbs forward.

She touched the flame, and yet she didn't. Rainbow Dash wasn't in the position to tell anymore. The worst dizzy spell in memory struck her like a club to the skull. The subterranean world of metal spun a million miles per second, and she was reeling from it.

With a voice cracking yelp, she teetered on her hooves, and fell...

Conversation

View Online

...flatly across the balcony of the lofty Verdestone Palace. She wheezed and curled up, coughing and sputtering. A soft blanket fell over her figure, only it wasn't a blanket.

With eyes tearing, Rainbow Dash nervously, foalishly peaked at the feathers engulfing her in a motherly hug. A gasp burst out of her mouth, and she sat up in a jolt.

A gentle hoof rested on her shoulder, followed by a smile and pearl blue eyes. “Be at ease, child. This only means that you are making progress...”

“Wh-Whitemane...” Rainbow Dash stammered. She stared off into the canopy of Emeraldine night. A cool wind wafted through her braided mane as she stared, dumbfounded, at the purple hues of the milky way lingering high above the wispy evening clouds. “The P-Palace?! But how?!” She twitched, biting her lip. “Did I ever leave...?”

“But of course you did, child,” the alicorn murmured with a loving chuckle. “You are always on the move, after all. Would any superheroine settle for less?”

“Superheroine?” Rainbow Dash made a face. “I don't get it. Why are you here?”

“Dear child,” Queen Whitemane hummed, her horn glowing with a gentle platinum aura. “Did you think our conversation ever truly ended?”

Rainbow Dash looked at Whitemane's horn. She raised a hoof to her own forehead, then glanced at the silken robe hanging over her own figure. After a few blinks, she smirked up at the alicorn figure. “Just what does all this mean?”

“Only that my suspicions of you have been correct all along.” Whitemane paced slowly towards the edge of the balcony, her majestic wings stretching. “For the only reason that we would be communicating again is because you've found the flame of my forbears.”

“You mean that red stuff dancing above the pedestal when I finally made my way into the mechanical temple?”

“It's not a temple,” Whitemane said.

“Huh?”

“It's something truer than all the forest, seas, and deserts of this world combined. If anything, the pony civilization established above the chambers is the true temple.” Whitemane stared off into the constellations, as if seeking a home amidst the millions of twinkling stars. “What lies beneath is older than recorded time, and just as sacred.”

“I don't get it...” Rainbow Dash weakly got up and trotted towards her. “I've been in these underground halls of metal before. I saw nothing but a bunch of alicorn architecture.”

“Hmmm... That's just it, child,” Whitemane cooed. “It's not alicorn architecture. Truth is, nopony knows who built it.”

“But I thought Astral said—” Rainbow Dash winced, groaned, and spoke, “I ran into this unicorn expert once, and he said that the place was likely built by alicorns well before recorded history.”

“Indeed, and as all things before recorded history, such a statement was the fault of misconception.”

“Then just what is the big deal about these places and the flames? If it isn't alicorn technology...” Rainbow Dash suddenly froze, her ruby eyes lighting up with a burst of truth.

Whitemane must have seen it, for the Queen was turning around to smile proudly upon the petite pegasus. “Did I not tell you that the world was discovered and not created?”

Rainbow Dash numbly nodded.

“Dear child,” The alicorn knelt down and stared intently into Rainbow Dash. “The Mare in the Moon has been redeemed. The bringer of Chaos has returned and was subsequently banished. And yet these events—as amazing as they are—do not serve as much importance to our day and age as what is about to happen. The control chambers of the world remain to be rediscovered, and within them the flames of destiny lie in wait. You must understand, when my ancestors discovered this flat world floating in chaotic space, they realized it was not a landscape...”

Spark

View Online

Rainbow Dash's eyes flew open, and she gasped for breath. Standing up, she looked at the wide space of metal gizmos and golden bowers surrounding her. Drowning in ancient architecture stretching above and beneath her for hundreds of meters, her only impulse was to smile and say:

“...it is a machine.”

She stood up on wobbly legs, rediscovering her strength. The crimson flame was gone from the pedestal, and instead the entire place was awash in lavender glow. She was in the center of it, the epicenter of a living candle.

Gulping, Rainbow Dash raised her hooves to her face and smiled even more.

“And I am the spark.”

Her eyes flickered red on yellow and back to their ruby glint. The pendant around her neck fluctuated briefly. She felt dizzy, but for the time being it no longer mattered. Her wings flapped once, twice, then blurred as she lifted up in the belly of the behemoth chasm of metal. As she levitated, the lavender light followed her, filling each remote corner of the place with illumination and purpose. Gears came to life. Pendulums swung as if on their own. Conveyor belts and pistons hummed with a timeless breath of industry.

Rainbow Dash lifted her way into a spiraling chamber of clanking and rotating parts. Lanterns flickered brightly, being lit for the first time in centuries. She looked everywhere, at walls studded with endless, complicated instruments. She didn't understand a single thing, and yet she comprehended it all. There was no questioning it. Her eyes were filled to the brim with lavender energy, like a solid explosion of intelligence was blossoming forth from the center of her skull.

Spinning around, Rainbow Dash saw a series of levers. Flying over towards it, she landed and gripped the handle with two hooves.

“Nnnngh...!”

Straining slightly, she gave the levers a heavy tug. Pipes hissed with steam and tesla coils sparked to life.

Twirling about, she saw even more levers waiting for a phantom to come and give them motion. She dashed over and yanked at the handles before pulling at the switches to the side and pressing at the buttons beyond them. Like a drunken boxer, she scrambled over the various contraptions, relishing the lucid engineering abilities for as long as they lasted.

Before the flame died out in her eyes, and the glow left her pendant, her task was completed. She felt another wave of dizziness, but bravely bore it as she sat back and watched through a glass panel while a large black object rose straight up like a huge piston.

Glow

View Online

Above, in the battle-strewn streets of New Ring, a loud rumble drowned out the cannon fire and magical exchange of bullets. Unicorn guards skidded to a stop, sweating and looking all about with nervous jitters. Trembling civilians hugging their loved ones gazed out from where they hid underneath crumbled pieces of the city's wall. All of the violence and chaos settled just in time for the Darkstinians to drink in the new sense of panic and alarm overwhelming them.

Then, just as the anxiety reached a fever pitch, it was silenced by the sight of the city's central obelisk bursting up out of its pit. The black object stretched high above the skyscrapers and metal-laced towers of the metropolis. The shadow of its immensity covered the gaping faces of western and eastern New Ring citizens alike.

Once it stretched to its tallest height, it settled in place, rotated, and stopped with a loud metallic ring. Then, from top to bottom, rivulets of light formed, cascading a soft blue glow over the landscape. Then, in a flash, the entire urbanscape lit up as the sheer power of the obelisk returned once more to the Darkstinian capital. Skyscrapers lit up, their framework turning ablaze in hot blue luminescence. The rusted streets glazed over with cool blue electricity.

One by one, the Darkstinians emerged from their hiding places, dropping their weapons as the awe of their city's renewed power and industry came full circle. Unicorns who were blood enemies just minutes ago stood side by side, relishing the blue light that filled every crevice and chased the smoggy misery away. Mothers and foals clung to each other while distant siblings replaced their manarifles with firm embraces. Gradually, a murmur of shock morphed into a cheer of ecstasy, and the city came alive with celebration.

Governor Mintelle trotted out of her mansion, stumbling over chunks of battle-strewn debris as she gazed fixedly at the resurfaced obelisk. She managed a subtle, Darkstinian smile and began issuing orders to her advisers as the ponies of East New Ring crossed the demolished wall to assist their brethren in the west.

Somewhere along the rim of the towering obelisk, disheveled and trembling, Duke Zaap Nator sat on his haunches. He was discovered by several armed members of Mintelle's brigade. It took a lot of calm and careful persuasion to remove the foal's skull that the sobbing stallion had cradled in his grasp. While the rest of New Ring celebrated, the masked unicorn was quietly ushered towards a facility for questioning.

Steelteeth watched this from a plateau of metal high above the four bunkers that once housed so many displaced foals. Behind him, a massive reunion was taking place. Unicorn parents knelt and scooped their children up into their forelimbs, sharing laughter and tears after coming together for the first time in weeks, months, even years.

Steelteeth's nostrils flared as he turned from the happy sight to the cryptic haze of sapphire light cascading off the obelisk and filling the streets of New Ring with brightness and vigor. There was hardly a single puff of steam to be seen. It was almost dawn, but the Constable could barely tell from how brightly the city was now burning.

“It almost looks pretty in a way, doesn't it?”

Blinking, Steelteeth stood up and spun his metal body around.

Rainbow Dash hovered calmly above him, her forelimbs folded as she smiled with calm approval at the obelisk.

“Blue glow is best glow, don't you think?” she remarked with a wink.

Steelteeth blinked at her, gazed at the obelisk where the gaping pit had been, then back at Rainbow Dash. “You...” his voice rang metallically. “You... did this, somehow, didn't you?”

“Yeah, sure, why not?” She scratched a hoof across her chest and gave it a bored glance. “Not all of us can be full of badflankery like you, Steely. Some of us just gotta steal the home plate, ya feel me?”

“Since the day I stumbled into you, you've been nothing but impulsive and childish and unpredictable—”

“Hey...” She grinned wide, her teeth showing. “You're welcome.”

His aquamarine eyes blinked as the coils of his metal skull flickered. Slowly, he exhaled. “I almost wonder why Whitemane put me in charge of you and not the other way around.”

“Yeah, well...” Rainbow Dash hovered around him, shrugging. “That's the thing about awesomeness. It has a way of flipping stuff upside down. Heck, even I get dizzy over it. But I don't plan to stick around long enough to throw up.”

His eyes narrowed. He glanced at the glowing city, then at the horizon. In a surprisingly awkward voice, Steelteeth stammered, “You... You're leaving.” He stood up straight with his metal joints hissing. “Somehow, you've brought power and industry back to this city in a single blink, and you're not even sticking around to bask in the triumph...”

“Believe me. If I stayed here, I wouldn't be 'basking,' dude. Besides...” She turned and glanced towards the east. Between the glow of the city and the golden hint of dawn, she saw the barest hint of lavender, faint yet distinct. “Things are... starting to make a little bit of sense to me.”

Steelteeth gravely nodded.

“Hey! Don't be sad!” She winked and reached into her saddlebag. “Look what I found on my way up from obelisk-ville!” She produced a broad-rimmed hat and slapped it down onto Steelteeth's metal skull. “Better tilt that thing the other way next time you go visit Ridgeside and catch up on old times with Evergreen, am I right?”

Steelteeth adjusted the hat. When his face tilted back up, a bright blue glint reflected off his jaws, for the Constable was smiling. “You know, Miss Dash, I just might consider doing that...”

“Heck, that made this whole darn escapade worth it.” She fluttered towards Governor Mintelle's building to the south. “Well, almost...”

“I... I thought you were leaving.”

“Gotta check one thing first...”

Dawn

View Online

“The power's all back and everything is bright and pretty again!” the young colt exclaimed, shivering with excitement from where he sat atop the apartment balcony. “Oh Flowers, I can't believe it! Does this mean we can see Mom and Dad again?”

“It means we can all see each other again...” Flower Gears squatted low and engulfed her younger sibling in the dearest of hugs. “Dearest brother, if I had known that things would get so ugly before, I would have tried to make it to the east district much earlier...”

“Don't apologize, sis,” he said, sniffling. He buried his face into her shoulder. “I'm so sick of everypony feeling sorry...”

“Well, no more,” she murmured, nuzzling him close. “Let's be happy from now on, okay? We've got our family back, we've got our city back. Let's just be thankful...”

He shuddered briefly before opening one tearful eye and murmuring, “Does this mean that you and I still gotta learn to talk funny like all the grownups?”

Flower Gears snickered, then giggled as she held him in her quivering limbs. “We can talk and laugh and chat any way we like. Let's see any ponies tell us otherwise!”

“Heehee! Well, in that case, I love you, sis.”

“I love you to, brother...”

The two sat on the balcony, absorbing each other's shuddering breaths, as a blue figure gazed from the platform above.

Smirking, Rainbow Dash drowned in the sight for a minute or two before stretching her wings, ascending to the skies, and darting swiftly over the glowing rooftops of Darkstine. She rocketed eastward just as the sun peaked over the horizon, and her figure was lost in its golden beam.

Easterly

View Online

Rainbow Dash hadn't even considered that Darkstine possessed a landscape until the city started to break up. Staring beneath her, she saw wide plains of brown bush dissolving into dull gray stone. The air was becoming dry, and the earth was sharing the arid sentiment. As the buildings dissappeared, so did the rivers and tributaries, so that the landscape evolved into a desolate valley of polished stone and inert rock. The only trace of civilization was a long, straight series of highways stretching from New Ring to the eastern horizon, almost acting as a line for Rainbow to follow. As she skimmed along the ground, she gazed in wonder as the asphalt and concrete panels that made up the highway illuminated themselves from underneath with bright blue beams of energy. In a way, the juice from the obelisk was following her even as she soared miles and miles from the heart of the pit in New Ring.

“Huh... Neato,” she muttered, smirking to herself.

Though the air was dry, it was anything but still. Sharp mountains to the north and south produced strong currents of air that funneled through the valley at merciless speed. If Rainbow Dash flew high enough, she could very easily have escaped the wrath of the lower troposphere. Instead, she maintained a humble altitude, relishing in the exercise that the strong currents forced her to endure. For days, she had been forced to not use her wings for fear of gun turrets or uptight unicorns. Right now, she was outracing a blue glow and was having the time of her life.

The day of Darkstinian travel wore on, and the blue glow below her didn't fade. As she passed over neighborhoods and clustered communities of metal foundations, she watched as the blue light caught up and reenergized their buildings with unearthly locomotion. Gears came to life, wheels started to turn, and giant town clocks began clicking once again. She heard the murmur of astonishment and subdued rapture from the unicorns below. Holding in her breath, Rainbow Dash twirled about and kept flying eastward.

The lavender glow hadn't faded either. In a way, the light had always been there, but it felt more prominent now than when she had first left Windthrow. She also couldn't help but think that Whitemane had a hoof in how swiftly she recovered from her exposure to the red flame atop the golden pedestal in the mechanical belly of the world.

Rainbow Dash bit her lip. She gazed down at the arid world blurring by. As she passed an elevated series of hills, she dipped low and dragged the tips of her hooves over the tall grass and topsoil. She felt the dust of the earth spreading from her gliding touch. She smelled the pollen from the vegetation. Every memory of every Winter Wrap Up day flickered through her mind like lightning.

It was daunting to think that everything that was alive grew off the back of something as artificial as a can opener. But even then, Rainbow Dash knew very little, and though the idea both intrigued and frightened her, she was no egghead. In a few seconds, she was thinking about the sick moves she had pulled on Duke Zaap Nator in the pit. A chuckle escaped her lips, and she barrel-rolled into an upward glide that took her over a sudden mountain ridge.

The highway ended, finally. The road stopped at a slightly larger township bottled against a large white dam. The one and only river of east Darkstine fed a meager wealth of power to the community, only to be doubled by the glow once it reached its ultimate destination and absorbed itself into the mechanical buildings. Then, as the sun set red and filmy over the stone landscape, the unicorn town disappeared behind Rainbow's tale, along with the blue light, the last sign of her most recent heroism.

Rainbow Dash kept flying, even as the night fell purple and dark over her flapping wings. There were no lights out here, save for the stars above. The world was a black stretch of emptiness beneath the stellar canopy. It was darker than in Emeraldine, or even in the snowy mountains before. Just like the mountains, though, it was cold... insanely cold.

She hadn't truly taken into account the fact that she was in a legitimate desert now, and that the temperature was only bound to drop like an anvil once the sun went down. If recent advents had taught Rainbow Dash anything, it was that she was made of strong stuff. Still, she was anything but a machine. She knew this; she had even gotten one to smile before taking off.

She realized that she had to retire for the night—not so much for the sake of sleep but for the sake of keeping herself from freezing. As two hours went by, she realized that she could start to make out a rough shape of the landscape below. The glow of the milky way illuminated dim shadows in the darkness, and she could have sworn she spotted what looked like a cluster of artificial shapes resting before a long black strip, like a vacuum.

Curious, Rainbow Dash briskly touched down. When she landed, it was with a clanking noise. Her hooves had struck a wooden platform.

“Huh... That's weird,” she murmured, and in so doing she realized how strongly her teeth were chattering. So, squatting down, she summoned a glow from her pendant and opened her saddlebag. Gathering a few twigs from nearby shrubbery, she started a tiny fire. After using the flint and steel, she then added a few sticks to the blaze. Soon, she had a miniature bonfire blazing. The warmth of it soothed her, more than any single lantern in all of New Ring ever could.

She smiled and basked before it. Her peripheral vision caught more of the wooden platform around her. She thought she sensed a rickety railing, along with a tall pole dangling a flag. She could barely make out any important details; what's more, she could barely care. Drowsiness was overcoming her. She knew that she had some bread in her bag that was swiped from Governor Mintelle's house, but that could wait until morning, when she would discover just where the heck she was.

Rainbow Dash lowered her head onto her forelimbs. She closed her eyes, seeing a faint glimmer of the lavender energy. When that faded, the one image that lingered was of Flower Gears and her brother hugging herself. In such a serene fashion, Rainbow Dash fell asleep with a smile on her face.

Canyon

View Online

“Hey! Hey you who would be a trespasser!”

“Nnnngh...” Rainbow Dash muttered, lying upside down with all four limbs spread in the must undainty fashion possible.

“Imperative command: wake up and identify yourself this instant!”

“Mmmmff...” Rainbow Dash's eyes opened and immediately regretted it. A bright stab of golden sunlight burned their way through her lids. She hissed, rolled over in the dirt, and sat up besides the smoking remains of her bonfire. “Unnngh... Feels like... morning after Cider Fest...”

“Authoritative intimidation: get up this instance or I who would be a faithful sentry shall unleash righteous magic upon you!”

“Ugh... I thought I was done with you hornheads—” Rainbow Dash's eyes finally fluttered open, and she barked, “Whoah!”

A mana rifle was being aimed straight between her eyes by a young stallion who was doing his best not to tremble. A hazy desert landscape loomed behind him as he gulped and aimed the rifle once more at her with glowing telekinesis. “Do not ignore the power granted to me by the purveyors of industry—”

Rainbow Dash planted her forelimbs behind her into the dirt, kicked up her rear limbs, yanked the rifle out of his telekinetic grasp, and smacked him across the face with the butt of the weapon.

“Oooof!”

With a flap of her wings, she stwirled up into the air, tossed the gun away, and pounced upon him. Slamming him into the dirt, she now snarled—fully awake—into his quivering face. “What's the big idea?! I was just trying to sleep!”

The sound of a cocking manarifle lit her twitching ears from a dozen feet away.

“And he was only doing his job,” a gravelly voice said. Rainbow Dash looked aside to see an elder unicorn with a raggedy gray mane glaring at her from behind a glowing weapon. “Greetings, outtrotter. Welcome to the edge of Darkstine.”

Rainbow Dash blinked at him, then at the shivering stallion beneath her. Without relinquishing her weight, she stammered, “And you are?”

“Eh... Ponies sometimes still call me 'Cold Canter.' And that poor unfortunate soul you're squatting on is 'Desert Light.' However, if you don't get off him, he's gonna turn into 'Desert Bulb.' So, would you mind doing us a favor and cooling it?”

“Why should I trust you?”

“Cuz I haven't shot a hole in your head yet, filly.”

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. Calming down, she backtrotted off of Desert Light. The stallion hopped up, trembling all over.

“Shocked statement: she pounced me!”

“Take it easy, Desert,” Cold Canter groaned, shouldering his rifle with a flicker of his horn.

“Necessary exclamation: we must hoofcuff her and bring her to the authorities immediately—”

“She's not from around here. Just take it easy. It's not like we're being invaded by fruit-haired pegasi or nothing. Now why don't you go and clean your gun? I know how much you love your gun, boy.”

Desert Light was obviously fuming. Muttering something under his breath, the young unicorn trotted over, picked up his gun, and wandered towards a wooden shack that turned out to be just a few dozen feet away in the morning sun. He cast several angry glances back at Rainbow Dash, until the weathered sight of Cold Canter stepped in the way.

“Where you from, kid?”

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash blinked, settling down to stamp out what remained of her bonfire. “Equestria.”

“Equestria... Sounds vaguely familiar...”

“I've got an even better question,” she remarked, grabbing her flint and steel and slipping it into her saddlebag. “Why aren't you talking in... y'know... normal Darkstineese?”

“Mmmf... When you're my age, and you've been away from technology as long as I have...” The elder smiled a dirty grin and shrugged. “'Cow Cookies,' you know?”

“Heh... Sure, I guess.” Rainbow Dash stood up. “I'm sorry for—like—trespassing and stuff. I was just tired and I needed to warm myself up. The desert's really dang cold.”

“Don't I know it?” he said hoarsely, turning and marching towards a stretch of wooden platforms. “Still, you picked a really strange spot to bed for the night, outtrotter.”

“Why do you say that?”

Cold Canter paused, swiveled about, and gave her a thin-eyed glance. “You really don't see very well for a flying pony, now do you?” That said, he gestured towards the rickety old railing beyond him.

Rainbow Dash trotted forward, and with each foot she approached the platform, her breath was stolen from her in larger and larger gasps.

As it turned out, she was at the crest of a huge canyon, larger than any ravine she had ever seen. She could very easily have fit four Ghastly Gorges into the thing. The deep trench stretched from north to south as far as she could see. The gash was sliced cleanly too, as if by means that were anything but natural. She judged from the edge of the platform that it had to have been a kilometer drop at least. The air was hauntingly still, and she could hear random echoes of falling rocks from unknown sources throughout the gaping fissure.

Glancing at her immediate surroundings, she realized she was at a sentry post of sorts. A wooden shack older than time rested on the cliffface of the canyon, bordered by wooden platforms that stretched north and south along the west face of the abysmal drop. Several tall, wooden poles stretched along the ridge, equipped with raggedy red flags that danced limply in the barest hint of wind.

Beyond the opposite end of the ravine—which was difficult enough to spot with the naked eye—Rainbow Dash saw nothing but dust and sediment with no sign of any pony-built structure. She was, for all intents and purposes, standing on the very edge of civilization. It was a very familiar feeling, and yet—leaning precariously into a huge ravine—she felt peculiarly vulnerable, even though she had wings.

“Well, that's something you don't see everyday.”

“Mmmf...” Cold Canter rolled his eyes. “I beg to differ.”

Rainbow Dash smiled sheepishly. “My bad.”

“Dare I ask if you're actually planning to cross the ravine?”

Rainbow Dash scratched the back of her neck. “Uhm...”

“Cuz it would be foolish without eating something worthy for the journey ahead.” He motioned for her to follow him as he scaled the worn wooden steps to his shack. “Come. You can tell us of your travels in the meantime.”

“Hey...” Rainbow Dash shrugged and followed him. “The day I turn down food is the day I forget how to backflip.”

Outpost

View Online

“It's not the Grand Choke,” Cold Canter muttered as he telekinetically poured a glass of water for Rainbow Dash. “Who in the hay told you that?”

“Oh, well, uhm...” Rainbow Dash shifted nervously from where she sat at a dusty wooden table in the center of the guards' tiny bunkhouse. “I just kind of figured...”

“I've heard tales of the Grand Choke, but that's leagues away,” the elder stallion said, walking back to the pantry. “The continent stretches for thousands of miles east. That's what travellers tel me, anyways.”

“You get a lot of ponies passing by this... this...?”

“We are essentially in charge of a guard outpost, meant to send a magical signal across the latiduninal leylines in the event of an unforeseen incursion,” Cold Canter said. He shuffled over and sat across from her with a weary exhale. “There are many outposts like this one north and south of here, but they tend to get travellers more than we do. With the ravine most dry and arid in this location, I'm afraid the answer is no: not many ponies stop by this place.”

“Well, you certainly know how to make a pegasus feel welcome.” She said with a smile as she took the glass in her hoof and sipped its contents. As she did so, Desert Light strolled by and unceremoniously slapped a plate full of lettuce leaves onto her edge of the table. She finished gulping the water and gave him a droning, “Jee, thanks.”

“Insincere response: you are most welcome,” he grunted and marched towards the far end of the shack.

“Don't mind him,” Cold Canter murmured. “He's the latest in the line of young, novice guardponies sent to fulfill their quota here on the eastern border.” He sighed and leaned forward against the table. “He's been here only four months. He's headstrong, but learning. Being out here so far from the heart of Darkstine does wonders to the ego.” He smiled wearily. “Have you seen the capital of New Ring? It's quite the mechanical wonder.”

“I... m-may have flown past it along the way here,” she said with a nervous voice crack. She munched on a leaf, swallowed it, and smiled. “So, like, what keeps you staying in a lonely place like this while so many recruits come and go?”

“Mmmf... You live as long as I have, you start to look inward for answers,” he said. “I never quite had a grasp of the industry like so many of my fellow unicorns. Thankfully, the government is understanding of my 'heretical deviance,' and they haven't tried to recondition me. To be perfectly honest, life would be a lot harder for me if I moved back west. I like it out here. It's peaceful... it's calm...”

Rainbow Dash munched on another leaf and smirked. “You don't get many foals on your lawn...”

“But when I do, it means that the visitors must be those invested with a great deal of remarkble gifts and stories to tell of their travels.” He rested his hooves together and stared at her intently. “Tell me. Is that necklace that you wear something of royal design?”

“Eh... well, uhm...” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “It may be kind of sort of built out of the harmonious essence of cosmically displaced goddesses from a realm far gone.”

Cold Canter stared dazedly at her.

“But!” She smiled nerviously and rubbed a hoof over the ruby lightning bolt. “It can do this!” A crimson glow shimmered across the room. “And it can do this!” She grabbed a rusted spear from the nearby wall, took a deep breath, and smacked herself in the head with it. A metallic ringing noise filled the air, followed by an aura of white light enshrouding her like a translucent cocoon. “Ta-daaaa!”

“Impressive,” Cold Canter remarked with a dry chuckle. “Maybe you could consider minding an outpost such as this with those kinds of talents!”

“Disgruntled interjection: she lacks the horn of industry.”

“Yes, but she has the wings of shut your muzzle!” Cold Canter growled.

“Heh heh heh!” Rainbow Dash almost choked on a length of lettuce. “I like you, dude. You're like if somepony crossed Clint Eastwhinny with my uncle.”

“The day I become a pegasus' uncle is when I know I've put off drinking for too long.” Cold Canter stood up and trotted across the shack. “Why, I haven't seen a pony of your kind in decades.” He took a canteen off a fixture on the wall and raised it to his lips. “Last bunch of journey equine we got in these parts was an exodus of earth ponies who actually managed to scale the ravine from the east.”

“You don't say?” Rainbow Dash's wings twitched. “And did they have any interesting stories to tell?”

He took a sip, but lingered. His gray eyes blinked, and he eventually swallowed with a solemn expression. Slowly, he hung the canteen back up on the fixture and trotted towards the door, motioning to her. “How about you finish your lettuce, filly, and then we can have a little talk about the east...”

Rainbow Dash squinted curiously at him. She looked across the way at Desert Light. The younger stallion had a solemn expression. For once, he wasn't scowling at Rainbow Dash.

She took a deep breath and munched a few lasting bites. “Well, at least the greens are good...”

Retirement

View Online

“From what Darkstinian scholars have told me, it is a barren landscape of desert and wasteland for countless leagues,” Cold Canter said, gazing at the far end of the massive canyon. He turned around and gave Rainbow Dash a thin-eyed glance. “I happen to know it's more than that.”

“I'm listening,” Rainbow Dash said. She hovered above the elder unicorn as he paced slowly over the creaking wooden boards of the cliffside's precarious platforms. Tattered red flags whipped in the dusty wind overhead as the two wandered gradually south along the edge of the ravine.

“Years ago, when I was much younger and full of energy, a group of earth ponies scaled the cliff.”

“I think you mentioned that to me, yeah.” Rainbow nodded.

“What I didn't mention was how dazed and speechless they were when they finally arrived on our end. I summoned several of the unicorns from posts to the north and south of here to assist in lifting them up to the top of the canyon's edge. The outtrotters were hardly threatening, and we knew we had nothing to fear of their unexpected arrival. The painful elements of the desert had done its worst to them. They were emaciated, scrawny things. It was a miracle that they lived any longer than a day in our company. However, there was something more to their suffering than the merciless gauntlet of the desert.”

“Like what?” she asked, her ruby eyes thin and inquisitive.

“I've seen many a soul trot through this place. Travellers have graced me with all sorts of expressions, both honest and insincere. However, there was nothing that I could read beyond the glossy-eyed gaze of these poor creatures. The will to smile had been utterly drained from the earth ponies, and for a young Darkstinian to notice this means that it was nothing to take lightly.”

“Yeah, I imagine not.”

“We asked them what they had seen. We asked them where they had come from.”

“And...?”

Cold Canter shrugged. He paused and leaned against a wooden railing with his flank to the gaping chasm. “They didn't answer us. They didn't so much as speak to us. By next sunrise, all the ones still left alive had galloped towards the west. To this day, I never found out if they made it to the capital city of New Ring or not. All I know is that something deep and primal inside of them wanted to get away from the east as much as possible.”

“I'm guessing something really freaked them out.”

“I've seen many frightening things in my day, filly,” he said. “Not all creatures with wings are as sweet and innocent as you.”

“Awww. You're gonna make me blush and crap.”

“I'm serious.” His eyes became frigid pinpricks. “Something isn't right about whatever's on the far end of this ravine. Everything is so... desolate and lifeless. At my age, you'd think I would have given up on the notion of danger being beyond this outpost. But with each passing day, I'm glad that I'm here and not elsewhere. I feel as though I have a job to do.”

“Did you ever witness any other ponies coming from across the ravine?”

“No,” he said flatly, then fidgeted. “Well...”

“Hmm?” Rainbow Dash leaned her head down from where she hovered.

He sighed before finally speaking, “About a decade ago, there was movement along the ridge across the canyon. The stallion who was assigned to the outpost with me at the time had a good eye, and he used the state-issued spyglass to observe the figure from afar. He said he saw what looked to be an earth pony wearing rusted plates of armor. We were too far away from the pony to engage in verbal communication, but the stallion seemed to be a smart fellow. He had with him some reflective object, and he started engaging us with a series of bright strobes, using the sun's glint to convey a message.”

“Really?”

“Mmmhmm. We replied back with our own signals, and the two of us managed to perform a simple conversation with the lone figure.”

“And what did he say? Did he tell you anything?”

Cold Canter's eyes appeared to go hollow as he stammered, “He said that 'It was all gone. They had burned everything. I am alone.'”

Rainbow Dash bit her lip. “And then what?”

The elder looked at her solidly. “And then he died.”

Rainbow Dash said nothing. She pivoted and stared towards the far end of the yawning trench.

“You strike me as the adventurous type, filly,” he said in a hoarse voice. “And undoubtedly you have encountered your own fair share of perils.” He paced over and stood beneath her, giving her an imploring look. “I do not know where you are headed, nor is it my place to question the drive that inspires you to scale such immeasurable lengths. But please, consider heading south and crossing the divide there. The canyon's thin stream coalesces into a thicker river that feeds into a far more hospitable landscape with forests and emerald glades to the southeast corner of Darkstine's borders.”

She remained staring, her eyes hard and steady.

He spoke, “It is... a great deal safer to take an alternate route. You can still make it east, I imagine. You need not risk your own life for the sake of exploration, no matter how daring.”

“That's just it, dude...” She turned and looked at him. “How many ponies have been here, just like I am now, and have said the exact same thing you're asking me to do?”

He took a deep breath, giving a weathered smile. “I suppose they all have me to thank for living longer lives, or to blame for experiencing far less exciting ones.”

“Hey, no biggie,” Rainbow Dash said with an airborne shrug. “You're just doing your job. You deserve to be called 'Best Cautionary Guard,'” she muttered. “Maybe once you retire, you should head back to New Ring to receive such a title. Goddess knows Governor Mintelle has a flankload of them lying around someplace...”

“I'm afraid you're mistaken, filly,” he said. “This is the closest thing to retirement I will ever enjoy.”

“Even with your bedroom windows looking out onto dry, arid creepyville?”

He shrugged. “I've known old friends who have laid their heads in places far less conducive to philosophy.”

“To each their own, I guess.” She scratched her chin while scanning the far end of the canyon. “Just where exactly did this earth pony in rusted armor spend his final minutes?”

Cold Canter turned, squinted at the opposite end of the ravine, and spoke, “About twenty degrees to the north, above the batch of exposed minerals.”

“Would you mind—I dunno—pointing? I left my geology major at home in Equestria.”

“I seriously doubt that after a solid decade of desert punishment that there'll be anything left of his materials to find.”

She smiled placidly. “Humor me.”

Nostrils flaring, Cold Canter trotted up towards the edge, leaned against the railing, and pointed.

Skeleton

View Online

Rainbow Dash crossed the ravine in the span of a minute. Her hooves touched down effortlessly, just like with any other piece of earth. She stood on the east edge, flexing her wings. With squinting eyes, she paced along the cliffface. Her hooves made tiny scraping sounds that echoed into the upper air of the chasm yawning below. Through her peripheral vision, she saw the wooden platforms of Cold Canter's and Desert Light's outpost lingering like dusty shelves on the far side. To the extreme north and south, she could make out tiny specks that marked where the neighboring Darkstinian guard posts resided.

Try as she might, Rainbow Dash could not see any remains of an earth pony. Undaunted, she pressed forward, covering every inch of the cliffside that the elder unicorn had pointed at. With each progressive minute that passed by, she began wondering if a heavy wind had done away with the remains of the equine. After ten years, it was foolish to expect anything to be waiting for her.

Rainbow Dash found a bush lying in her way. With a side-step, she walked around the vegetation, but suddenly paused. Curious, she turned and knelt down, squinting up close at the shrubbery. Something wasn't quite right about it.

Murmuring under he breath, she opened her saddlebag and pulled out her hatchet. Clenching the blade's handle tightly in her teeth, she hacked and sliced away at the thorny branches of the dry thicket. Slowly, like scraping paint off a picture, a dismal shape was starting to form. Halfway through the task, she hissed through her teeth, almost spitting the hatchet out.

A pony's jaw was yawning towards her, frozen in anguish and starvation. All flecks of skin had long eroded off the calcified remains of the equine. There was a leather scrab bundled tightly against the ribcage: the remains of a saddlebag, perhaps.

It appeared as though—over the past ten years—a cluster of bushes had grown through the discarded bones of the ill-fated figure. Rainbow Dash had no doubt what the soil received for its nutrients.

With a solemn breath, she slid the hatchet back into her bag and examined the partially uncovered skeleton closer. She reached a hoof in and pawed at the leather scrap. A few sparse belongings rattled out, disturbed for the first time in years. Rainbow Dash was careful to scoop the items closer to her, so that they wouldn't blow away with the wind into the deep chasm.

She saw a knife, several lengths of twine, scraps of paper—perhaps the remains of a journal—and a silver medallion. Curious, Rainbow Dash raised the medallion between two nimble wing tips. Her eyes narrowed on the sight.

One side of the coin display two giant palaces of ornate architecture resting atop a pair of tall mesas in the middle of the valley.

She flipped the coin over.

The other side held a symbol that she didn't recognize. It resembled a circle with two concave lines sandwiching the sphere on opposite sides. She couldn't understand the lettering house within. There was a gritty layer of soot filling the grooves of the medallion, as if the object had been exposed to hot flames and dense smoke.

Exhaling, Rainbow Dash slid the contents back into what remained of the leather pouch. Curious, she looked down the length of the pony body... and realized there was no remaining length. Her mouth opened in awe.

The bottom half of the pony was missing, just below the upper structures of the rear legs. From what Rainbow Dash could tell, the skeleton wasn't shattered or broken in anyway. The furthest tips of the legbones were oddly smooth, as if seared to rounded nubs.

She squinted quizzically, glancing once again at the leather strap within which the soot-stained medallion lingered. “Was...” She stammered. “Was he burned in half?”

Shroud

View Online

“Esteemed opinion: It would most certainly look like it,” Desert Light said. He stood across from Rainbow Dash and Cold Canter as he leaned over the table in the middle of the shack and examined the excavated skeleton up close. “There are no signs of structural fractures on the limbs of he who would be the earth pony signaler from ten years ago.” He pointed at the smoothed ends of the legbones. “Discreet analysis: these show signs of exposure to extreme heat. Be it an elemental or accidental, this body was exposed to extreme temperature, to the point that it undoubtedly amputated his rear limbs.”

“You can tell all of that?” Rainbow Dash remarked with a suspicious squint. “I mean, no offense and all, but this skeleton is pretty dang old. What if—I dunno—the earth pony was born without fully developed legs and this is all we got for his remains?”

Desert Light frowned. “Obligatory defense: I who would be a Darkstinian citizen studied in forensics and unicorn anatomy as a minor before enrolling in the national guard. If the state of this skeleton was a matter of natural deformity, the entire build of the legbones would be different. What's more...” He leaned towards the upper half of the equine structure and pointed at the forelimbs. “While there were no signs of extreme stress on the rear legs, the front hooves show extreme wear and tear, as if a great deal of weight and labor was exerted on them.”

“He may be full of himself, but the kid's bright,” Cold Canter remarked. He looked at Rainbow Dash, then over at Desert Light. “Does this mean what I think it means?”

Desert Light nodded gravely. “Solemn conclusion: whatever had injured this poor soul, it did not kill him. I believe that he used his forelimbs to bring his sundered self to the edge of the canyon.”

“Whoah, hand on a sec...” Rainbow Dash raised a hoof, her face blank. “You mean to tell me that this poor sap somehow got burnt in half... and then crawled halfway across the desert before giving CC here and the guard before you a signal?”

Desert Light merely shrugged. “Obligatory digression: I who would be a learned pony of science cannot pretend to know anything save for what evidence suggests to me.” He brushed his way past Rainbow Dash and made for the front entrance of the shack. “If you who would be an outtrotter would excuse me, I have a patrol to perform. Good industry be upon you.” And he was gone.

Rainbow Dash leaned back against a wall, rubbing a hoof over her chin and gazing forlornly at the skeleton.

Cold Canter's shuffling hooves brought him limply across the room as he drew a dark sheet over the dusty bones. After a spell, he took a deep breath and murmured her way, “You said that he had some things on him?”

“Hmmm?” She looked up at him, blinked, then snapped out of it. “Oh! Uhm. Yeah. But... not much to go on...”

“Humor an old stallion.”

“Uhhh...” Rainbow Dash shuddered. “He had a bunch of old journal pages, too burnt to read well. A leather saddlebag, charred at the edges. And... uhm... some sort of medallion.”

“Let me guess,” Cold Canter sighed. “Also burnt?”

Rainbow Dash gulped. “Yeah.”

Cold Canter turned to look at her. “Could I see it?”

She reached towards a side table, pulled the coin out of the bag, and flipped it towards him.

Cold Canter caught it in a field of magic. He calmly floated the thing before him in a telekinetic grasp. “Hmmm...” His eyes narrowed. “I've seen this symbol before: the one with the circle and the curves. I do recall seeing it on the belongings of the haggard earth ponies who had made it to the west side of the ravine decades ago.” He turned it around again. “I don't recognize the buildings in this engraving, though. It looks almost like pegasus architecture, strangely enough. And the pegasi—as far as history is concerned—based their architecture on the alicorns of ancient times.”

“Yeah, well, you can make a lot of big, snazzy buildings with clouds,” Rainbow Dash said with a light smirk.

“One thing's for sure...”

“What's that?”

“This coin is old,” he said.

“How old?”

“Really old,” Cold Canter emphasized with a grunt. “I may have lost the funky Darkstinian speech, but I'll always have a certain skill in metallurgy in my blood. Comes with the horn, you see.”

“Righto...”

“This couldn't have possibly been minted in recent times.”

“Like, how long ago are we talking about?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Decades? Fifty years?”

“Try centuries, filly.” Cold Canter gazed up at her. “Now what pony in their right mind would be carrying this around as a means of practical currency in our day?” He twirled the medallion one last time in his magical grip. “No. I suspect the only reason a pony would possess something this old would be if it was looted from someplace.”

“You think that earth pony who died on the ridge was a robber?” Rainbow Dash asked.

“Heh. You're still not getting it. This obviously held a great deal of meaning to his culture, or whatever may have become of it.” He tossed the coin back at Rainbow Dash. “If anything, it's a time capsule.”

Rainbow Dash caught it in two hooves. “So, he was delivering a message.”

“One that never got across the canyon.”

“Until now...” Rainbow Dash stared at the soot-stained engraving. “But just what was he trying to tell you guys?”

“I think the coin speaks for itself,” Cold Canter murmured, pointing. “Whatever is left of his society, it's in ashes... perhaps from the same thing that burned half of him to a crisp.”

“What kind of determination would it take to endure so much pain and agony just to reach the canyon's edge?” Rainbow Dash thought out loud.

“What else?” Cold Canter's eyes were narrow. “It's a warning.”

Rainbow Dash looked up at him.

He was slowly shaking his head. “Don't do it, kid. Don't cross the ravine. Don't go into those lands.”

She took a deep breath and placed the coin back on the table. “Look. I know you're used to minding this post and believing that it's the end of the world and all—”

“That's my job,” Cold Canter said bluntly. “I'm telling you this as a pony, a fellow spirit. You're only asking for trouble.”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash chuckled dryly, running a hoof through her mane. “If I didn't want trouble from life, I would never have set out for the east to begin with.”

“That's just what I don't understand...” He shuffled a few steps towards her. “What's so important a destination that it necessitates you flying in a straight line, no matter what unknown dangers lie in wait?”

Rainbow Dash's eyebrows rose. “I didn't tell you that yet?”

He slowly shook his head.

She cleared her throat and shifted where she stood. “Uhm... the... th-the Midnight Armory,” she eventually said with a glint of pride in her ruby eyes.

His eyes blinked. He sat down on his haunches as he exhaled. “The... dark side of the world...”

“So you know about it?”

“I know that you'll only kill yourself trying to get to it, filly!”

“No you don't,” she said calmly, shaking her head with a soft expression. “How could you possibly know that?”

“Kid, the odds of you even crossing the edge of the world to reach the dark side is—”

“That's the funny thing about odds...” She paced towards him, scraping the wooden floor with her hooves. “Limits, barriers, barricades... all that sort of stuff...” She strolled limply around the table, her eyes gazing at the form beneath the somber shroud. “They only exist when we let them stop us. You think it stopped this dude?” She brushed a hoof over the edge of the blanket so as to cover an exposed length of bone. “I'm not one to brag, but, I just came from a place that had a huge wall. And if I let that wall stand in the way of things that I needed to do, a lot of ponies would be in a bad place right now.”

“You...” He narrowed his eyes on her. “You speak of New Ring?”

She kept on pacing and talking, “I don't know how long it will take me to get to the Midnight Armory, or just what crap I might run into along the way. As much as I care, that hardly matters, cuz it's neither here nor there. Now this crazy desert is staring at me and I don't like the look in its ugly face.” She smirked at Cold Canter and came to a stop. “So I intend to force it to blink.”

Cold Canter's nostrils flared. “You're mad.”

“No, I'm alive,” she said, pacing back towards the front door of the shack. “And unlike some ponies, I think that the best living can be done while on the move. Cuz the only excuse I have for not going any further is when my body refuses to move. Until then, fire or no fire, ashes or no ashes, I'm going to see what the landscape to the east has in store for me. Cuz at this point, I'm not sure I could live proudly with myself if I just let such a mystery go to waste. What's the point in crossing the ends of the earth if you know nothing about it, ya feel me?”

“There are more ways to live than dangerously, filly.”

“Goddess help me if I ever settle for any one of those boring reasons.” She paused at the door and winked at him. “And don't pretend that there isn't a curious bone inside you either... uh...” She curtsied apologetically towards the shrouded figure atop the table. “Present company excluded...”

“You know...” Cold Canter ran a hoof through his gray mane as he murmured aloud, “There could possibly be a way for you to make this next leg of your journey an advantage for the likes of Desert Light and myself.”

“Oh? How's that?”

He looked fixedly at her. “Tell me, pegasus, have you ever utilized sound stones before?”

Her eyes briefly crossed. “Buh?”

Stones

View Online

“Do you hear me now, filly?” echoed the voice of Cold Canter in the cool desert air.

Rainbow Dash stood on the edge of the wooden platform. A crimson sun was setting over the ravine, casting a shadow over the eastern edge of the chasm and painting the rest of the landscape in amber hues.

The pegasus held a blue crystal in her grasp that was glowing each each vibration of the unicorn's disembodied voice.

“Yup. I hear you as clear as rainfall,” Rainbow Dash replied. “Uhhh...” She pivoted the glowing blue shard around and around before her. “Do you hear me? Is this thing on?”

“What's your favorite vegetable?”

“Uhm...” Rainbow Dash fidgeted. “String beans? I guess? What's that have to do with anything?”

“Just making sure I was picking up you and not a telepathic feedback of my own thoughts.” The blue crystal stopped glowing. The door to the shack opened several feet away. Cold Canter marched out, levitating an identical stone of his own. He crossed the distance between the two and stood before Rainbow Dash. “Nopony loves the kind of vegetables I do.”

“Celery? Brussel Sprouts? Spinach?”

“I'll tell you if it means you changing your mind about this crazy journey of yours.”

“Sorry, guy,” she replied with a smirk, juggling her own crystal from one hoof to another. “Guess I'll just have to stay in the dark, then. It's the sacrifices we make, after all.”

“Well, that's putting it lightly.” He gestured towards his rock. “These stones should afford us a moderate amount of communication.”

“Why only moderate?”

“Well, if you too were a unicorn imbued with magic, then you and I could cover considerably longer distances—even scaling the continent if need be. But, as I'm the only one possessing a horn, this will most likely cover no more than a thousand miles.”

“Sounds cool in my book.” She smiled and looked at the sound stone up close. “I've done something kind of like this before, only it requires the moon to be full.”

“Oh?” Cold Canter leaned his head aside with curiosity. “That must be some insanely powerful unicorn magic.”

“Alicorn, actually.”

His eyes narrowed. “You've consorted with goddesses?”

“Heh... 'consort' is such a funky, funky word.”

Would you prefer a more apt title?”

“Nah. I'm good.” Rainbow Dash pocketed the sound stone away in her saddlebag and shuddered. “I've had it up to here with titles.”

“To each their own,” he said with a shrug, then levitated his sound stone into a belt strapped about his weathered haunches. “I would very gladly have donated use a piece of Pristine Darkstinian Quartz, but I'm afraid Desert Light and myself will have to retain those for communication with the authorities due west of here.”

“Well, I'm not about to ruffle anypony's mane. At least, more than I've already done.”

“Am I talking with a national fugitive all of the sudden?”

“Heh...” She smiled. “I wouldn't be a very successful criminal if I allowed a guard the means of talking to me over long distances while I made my getaway.”

“Again, I wished that I had a much better sample of rock to use in this scenario.”

“I'm sure this will work just fine, CC. You've been generous enough as it is.”

“Emeraldine Sapphires have an exquisite enchantment for fusing to leylines. And then if I was to make an alloy out of the local rubies of the ravine's lower crust—jaded as they are—it could add a firm buffer to the communication spell. Unless, of course, we were to use hydra diamonds to increase the range of leyline differentiation...”

“Hey, Uhm,” Rainbow Dash murmured. “I'm a bit unsure of asking you this, because I'll sound like a blundering idiot if I'm wrong, but... are you a diamond dog in disguise?”

“I'm pretty sure I'd smell a lot worse if I was,” Cold Canter replied.

“Heheheh... Good one.” Rainbow Dash turned and faced the darkening horizon beyond the ravine.

“You surely don't plan on leaving tonight.”

“Why not?”

“I may not be the avid explorer that you are, but venturing across the desert—by air or by land—is hardly a pleasant experience during the night. Aside from bitter cold, the occasional sandstorm might blot out the stars and make travel daunting at best.”

“I think it's downright cute how concerned you are for me,” she replied. “And trust me.” Rainbow Dash winked. “There's not a lot of crud in life that I will admit is cute.”

“I guess you're just unlike most young sprites who past through this area,” Cold Canter said, pacing up along the length of the platform's railing. “You're full of life and optimism. That's not something that should be sent lightly into that unforgiving east.”

“If I don't head east, every other direction in my life will be unforgiving.”

The old stallion started to chuckle hoarsely.

Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “What?”

He turned to look at her in the dimming sunset. “I almost remember what it's like to be so determined to do something that all other avenues of possibility become dull, like dying stars.”

“Hey, I've 'consorted' with alicorns, remember?”

“Yeah...?”

“I've seen what it's like to raise the sun up close,” she murmured. “Believe me, stars are overrated. If I don't spend my energy right here and now the way I like to, then I'll lose the only light that matters. Life is full of crazy dangers and stuff, but I'd like to be at least in charge of when and where I burn out. You dig?”

His nostrils flared as he calmly looked at her. “I suppose it would have been a pity if, in the end, you simply ended up like me.”

She blinked awkwardly at that.

“So, you will stay, then?” He gestured towards her, bearing a gentle smile. “Until morning, at least?”

“Heh...” Her wings flexed as she walked with him towards the shack. “If it makes you sleep better, I'll not fly out until sunrise.”

“That sounds like a wise decision.”

“And hey! Don't look so down in the muzzle!” She winked at him and jostled the saddlebag with her sound stone in it. “Seems like we'll have plenty of stuff to talk about on the horizon...”

Senile

View Online

Rainbow Dash leafed through the charred scraps of journal pages in the morning light. Her blue hoof flipped one blackened sheet, then another, then yet another. She paused upon an ear of paper that was intact enough for a few words to grace the desert air:

“...the bones of the kingdom linger around...”

She flipped a few more pages. She saw another phrase, barely legible.

“...further underground. But the mineral springs are disappearing...”

She turned the journal around, flipped through the back of sheets, and saw a phrase legibly splotched against a white page stained with copper-red fluids.

“...can't go outside. Her children are everywhere. Must stay...”

“Ahem. Do you mind, filly?”

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash looked up. She saw Cold Canter and Desert Light staring blankly at her, telekinetically floating shovels in the air beside them. “Oh. Uhm. Right.” She folded the journal tightly, sighed, and tossed it into the grave on the partially covered remains of the dead earth pony.

The two guards resumed filling the plot of land with shovels of dirt. The morning air was solemn, chilling. Rainbow strolled over towards the two stallions as they finished their grim job.

“You suppose he had any family? Any ponies back east whom he belonged to?”

“Families are like any ponies,” Cold Canter said. “They come and go. In the end, the only place we belong to is the ground.”

Rainbow Dash smirked bitterly. “Surely you don't completely believe that.”

“Firm support: Cold Canter is for once of sound philosophy,” Desert Light remarked. “We who would be mortal ponies are born of dust and return to dust. The only eternal thing is our industry.”

“Yeah, well, you can go hump your blasted industry,” Cold Canter grunted. “I, for one, have had a decent amount of enjoyment out of life. Let's see dust ever tell another pony that it's had fun.”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash's teeth showed as her wings twitched. “Now we're talking.”

“Lethargic retort: you both should head east and rid I who would be Desert Light of my misery.”

“I'll never give ya the satisfaction, boy,” Cold Canter remarked. He shoved his shovel into the ground and wiped his brow before turning to look at Rainbow Dash. “You have all your things?”

“And then some,” she replied, giving her suddenly bulky saddlebag a shake. “Is this your way of deterring me from going east? Giving me so dang much to carry that I almost back out from such exercise?”

“I'd rather most of that food go down your gullet,” Cold Canter remarked with a thin-eyed stare. “You could use with some meat on ya, filly.”

“Jee, thanks, dad,” Rainbow Dash groaned. “Next thing you know, you'll try hitching me up with a handsome stallion.”

“I think we both know that wouldn't be proper.”

“Uhhh...” Rainbow Dash did a double-take at that, her cheeks warm. “We d-do?”

He was marching up to her, planting a hoof on her shoulder. “Remember to ration the foods carefully, most especially the water. Where you're going, the landscape won't nearly be as kind to you as two lonesome guards on the edge of civilization.”

“Right. This won't be my first song and dance.”

“It will be over a desert, I'm willing to bet,” Cold Canter replied. “Whatever took out that poor earth pony sounds very frightening. It would be a shame for you to... well... die from something less 'awesome' along the way to discovery. Heh... Wouldn't you think?”

“I'll try not to bore you with my dull existence along the way.”

“That's what the sound stone is for, filly. Keep it close to you. So long as you do, you won't be alone in this. Not really.”

“Jeez, CC...” She smiled bashfully, her ears flicking in the morning glow. “All of this stuff you're doing for me, all the things you've given me, it's... it's almost as though you're more than just some random unicorn. It's as if you're... I dunno... some goddess-given spirit of the element of generosity come down to deliver me to glory in my time of need.”

He looked at her, blinked, then grumbled, “What in Tartarus' flaming name is that supposed to mean?!”

“Meh.” Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Or maybe you're just some cantankerous old buffoon after all.”

“Delightful affirmative: new title of lucidity unlocked—”

“Don't you even start!” Rainbow Dash grumbled at the younger stallion across the grave.

“Heheheheh...” Cold Canter chuckled and gave Rainbow Dash a lasting pat on the neck. “I don't normally say this, filly, but good industry be with you.”

“Wow.” She broke into a hover. “You must really be desperate.”

“That or senile,” he remarked. He jabbed a hoof into a belt pocket. “I'm pretty sure it's the second.”

“Well, your senility is going a long way.”

“We'll see about that.” He pulled out a familiar medallion and tossed it to her. “Catch a good tail-wind, filly.”

She caught it, turning its soot-stained engravings over and over before her eyes. With a deep breath, she smirked devilishly towards Cold Canter. “You know I will.”

The elder stallion nodded, his gray mane blowing in the wind.

Rainbow's ruby eyes got a good snapshot of the image before blinking and tilting around. With a single flap of her wings she turned east and darted towards the dry horizon.

Flat

View Online

The first thing that surprised Rainbow Dash about the desert east of the ravine was its flatness. The landscape was devoid of mountains, jagged peaks, rising crests, or any of the other topographical deformities that had marked so many of her previous journeys. There was nary a hill to be had in the broad, brown, and altogether lifeless environment. There were moments where the only indication she felt that she was making any progress was the location of the sun as the sweltering day wore on. Otherwise, she might accidentally have been heading north, south, or any direction but east along the identical horizons.

For a moment, she felt that the earth pony's dragging plight—albeit horrific—was suddenly a lot more comprehendable. The dry, smooth terrain would have made for a navigable crawl along that unimpeded latitude line. She still had to praise the ill-fated pony for his endurance. For hours on end, she flew without the flimsiest sign of oases. No bodies of water, no trees, no vegetation whatsoever crossed her eyes.

Rainbow Dash felt something tugging at her heart. It tasted ever so marginally of fear. She grinned, for it was delicious.

Tightening the goggles to her face, she dove down and skimmed the landscape, delighted to not have a single hill or tree trunk to slam into her daring flight. She blurred within a breath's length from the ground. Nowhere in Equestria was the landscape flat enough to afford her this sort of a trick. She dragged a hoof down and lightly dug the edge of it into the arid soil. Dust and sand kicked up as she carved a solid line in the earth. The layer of sediment was thin, and a solid cluster of bedrock lingered within a sneeze of the desert surface. It was the very definition of inhospitable, and Rainbow Dash toyed with it like it was a lake bed.

Night of the first day came, and still the landscape didn't open up any changes. If somepony had told Rainbow Dash that she was flying in circles within four miles of the ravine, she might have been prone to believe them. She thanked her lucky stars for the horizon settling to her rear, reminding her that she had been faithful to her journey the entire day. If she had to imagine the distance crossed to strengthen herself, then that was what she had to do.

Then the coldness fell like a gigantic anvil. Rainbow Dash shivered and fought to start a fire. She had waited until the last second, of course, and she grumbled at herself, using the light from her pendant to illuminate her hooves as she struggled to work the flint and tender with a batch of twigs foraged from the west end of the ravine.

She managed to get a tiny fire started. It was of little consolation to her. Rainbow Dash was starting to discover that she hated extreme cold a great deal more than extreme heat. Using two large sticks stuck in the earth, she pitched a tiny “tent” out of her remaining blanket and squatted under it, warming her front hooves before the fire.

She took a swig from her flask, and was amazed at how much water was still left in the canteen. It occurred to her that she hadn't taken a single sip during the first day's journey. Either it was because she was a great deal more prepared to deal with the heat, or her body was too pumped about being in flight agin to notice her own thirst. Nevertheless, she decided to take a few more liberal sips the following day, or else risk dehydration. She had been in warm places before like Froggy Bottom Bog, but such locations were sweltering because of the humidity. Here, in a desert, dealing with dry heat, Rainbow Dash realized she could become a withered husk if she didn't take more precautions.

Thankful to have water in the first place, she slid the flask away and looked up. The sky was ablaze with light. To her undeniable pleasure, they were showed up with more clarity now than ever before. She had looked at the nightly canopy on previous occasions, but the proximity of civilization and the mists from local bodies of water had made the viewing experience foggy at best.

Now, it was like flying upside down and gazing into a series of living lights beneath a thin sheet of glass. She saw colors in the constellations for the first time, making the universe look and feel like a canvas of prismatic beauty. She reached a hoof up, tiredly, wondering if perhaps she could touch the surface of everything and send a ripple back home to Princess Luna.

She smiled, for suddenly she wasn't thinking of Luna. She brushed a hoof over the bulging contents of her saddlebag, relishing the feel of the sound stone. Maybe she could ask Cold Canter in the morning about the stars. It was a happy enough thought to lull her to sleep. She curled under the stars and shut her eyes until she felt like she was drifting amongst them.

Desolate

View Online

“Well, CC. It's... uh... it's a desert,” Rainbow Dash said.

“I most certainly did not expect an ocean of smooze,” said the crystal sound stone in her grasp.

“Ocean of what-now?”

“Before your time, filly.”

“Whatever.” Rainbow Dash flew under the burning glint of morning. The flat landscape stretched out desolately before her. The world was still an endless plain of dirty yellow rock. The sky had lost its blue texture, favoring a sickly pale eggshell color. Rainbow Dash's eyes were protected behind a pair of tinted lenses inside her goggles. “Long story short, it doesn't look like there's much to get freaked out about beyond the ravine. It's just a bunch of... nothing.”

The sound stone echoed the stallion's voice, “A bunch of dry, arid nothing, I imagine.”

“Yes.”

“And you are taking necessary precautions?”

Rainbow Dash sighed, her lips curving somewhat. “Yes, CC.”

“Rationing the water we gave you?”

“Absolutely. You'll also be pleased to know I wash my bridle everyday and don't accept drinks from strange stallions.”

“Now, filly, there is no need for sassing me. Don't let the dull appearance of the landscape fool you. You are still in a great deal of danger if you underestimate the severe lack of resources at your disposal.”

“Hey, I've flown through rough places before,” Rainbow Dash said. “I'm pacing myself here. Trying not to go too fast or too slow. If I just glide and let the air carry me, then I'm exerting only half the effort and—” She blinked, then smiled nervously to the sunlight. “Well, that's pegasus stuff. I dunno if you can relate.”

“I think I understand what you're getting at well enough. I know it may seem like nothing to you, but I find your current discoveries amazingly fascinating, filly.”

“Uh huh...”

“It boggles the mind to think that the injured earth pony could have dragged himself for so long across such a barren landscape.”

“Yeah, and I was thinking about that too,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “He had to know a thing or two about what lay beyond this stretch of desert. I mean, it's a crazy distance to gallop on hoof, much less drag oneself across. What are the odds that he and his fellow ponies knew that Darkstine was waiting for him to the west?”

“Or he could have been making a blind run when he approached the ravine.”

“Uhhhh... what for?”

“Because whatever it was that chased him out of his home, it was horrible enough to warrant the suicidal venture.”

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath, squinting at the pale horizon. “Well, I guess we're both going to find out, huh?”

“So long as you don't fly out of range of the stone's enchantment first.”

“Boy, wouldn't that ruin your day...” Rainbow Dash took a deep breath. “And speaking of enchantment, I think I'd better cool it before this stone blows up from the awesomeness of your voice.”

“Well, if you insist.”

“I'll fill ya in on my progress tomorrow, old stallion,” she said. “In the meantime, hit Desert Light for me.”

“I'll strongly consider it.” And Cold Canter's voice dwindled in the air.

Rainbow Dash pocketed the stone away, took a deep breath, and glided eastward at an accelerated rate. “I'm sick of this place already,” she muttered.

The flight ahead was identical to the previous thirty-six hours. There was no break to the flat topography. Occasionally, lines would form in the sand from what Rainbow Dash judged were ancient river beds that had since dried up. She'd also discover a cluster of rocks that would be lying upon the desolate surface for no apparent reason. She paused once to examine a pile of stones, only to touch one and witness it crumbling into smaller, ashen pebbles. If she didn't know about the earth pony and his horrible fate, she would have guessed she was the only pony to have graced these parts in millennia.

Rainbow Dash was starting to wonder if the entire world was nothing more than a desolate mystery. When she grew up, she always had the deeply-seated assumption that Equestrian society had spread to the four corners of the physical plane. What she was beginning to discover, however, was that the world she lived on was simply tiny patches of society spread thinly between huge stretches of untapped wilderness.

In a way, she was excited. This meant that there were innumerable spots to discover and witness first-hoof in ways that those before her never did. This also meant that such amazing places... stood to not be so amazing after all. After a day spent with Cold Canter and Desert Light, building up so much fear and supposition about what lay beyond the ravine, she was “discovering” a whole lot of nothing. And she wondered if perhaps the rest of her journey would be more interesting if spent in the mechanical bowels of the realm than above it.

“Hmmmm... Meh...” She smiled as she glided eastward, undaunted. “There are more explosions up here... occasionally.” Suddenly, she squinted. She raised a hoof up to her goggles and removed the tint to see the horizon far more clearly.

The east desert was growing thick with dust and haze. Soon, a swirling wall of grit and sediment was kicking up, forming a solid tempest of billowing sand. She couldn't even see the sunlight through it.

“Huh...” She clenched her jaw. “Well, that doesn't look good.”

Sand

View Online

There was only enough sunlight left in the day for Rainbow Dash to tell that the sandstorm was occupying the entire eastern horizon and coming up fast. A brown, hazy cloud of dirt approached her, sweeping over the flat landscape like a solid curtain. Her solution was to fly higher, but still the wall of sediment threatened to drown her. So, she climbed and climbed altitude. Finally, as she reached a thin layer of chilled atmosphere, she scaled beyond the summit of the storm. Her ears rang from the tumultuous wind that whipped at the pocket of air below.

Soon, she found herself flying directly over the ceiling of the desert phenomenon. Even in the starlight, she could gaze down and see the churning miasma of grit and ash. It occurred to her that she had hoped to take a break sooner than later so that she might rest her hooves. However, the possibility of that happening anytime soon was now zero. Composing herself with a deep breath, she evened her wing beats and glided ahead.

Rainbow Dash flew east, sandwiched between the shroud of night and the billowing storm below. It was difficult to make out the shape and volume of the mess in the darkness, but the sheer sound of it left no doubt in her mind that it was a continental affair. She wondered how often sand blew over the landscape like this, weathering the dry earth away until it was the barren rocky bones of the world and nothing else.

It was a daunting task to keep her focus. On top of not having relaxed her wings, Rainbow Dash hadn't relaxed her mind in a while. She was running on lack of sleep, and it didn't help that all parts of the ground was now being pelted with sand and dust particles. She could only hope that, as she scaled the lengths of the world below, she would come upon the end of the entire ordeal.

This did not seem to happen. A dim beacon lit up ahead of her. For a brief moment, she thought it was a building or a bonfire or an air vehicle with a lantern. As the light crested over the storm cloud in all its brilliance, she realized it was the sun. Golden rays pierced the outer layers of the dust storm, only to be swallowed ravenously within the dense heart of the arid tempest.

It was then that Rainbow Dash saw—below and all around her—that the dust storm was quite literally encompassing that entire portion of the world. It was like she was gliding over a sea of ash, churning and rolling with brown tidal waves. There was no end of it in sight from any angle, and Rainbow Dash knew that there was no point in trying to retrace her flight and land on the ground before the event horizon of the storm.

It didn't help that Rainbow's wings were starting to ache. The pegasus knew that she was always better at speed than at endurance. Although her latest travels had helped her exercise her long-term abilities of flight, she had always enjoyed the possibility of having a landscape beneath her to land on and rest at any given moment. And, of course, there was always the hope of a cloud to sleep on.

Here, there was nothing. The bright yellow sky lacked any clouds whatsoever. In truth, Rainbow Dash hadn't seen any during her initial flight through the desert. It wasn't an issue until that very moment, as her wings started to throb in pain and exhaustion. Now, when she needed a cloud the most, she didn't have any to choose from.

Rainbow Dash grumbled. She looked at every horizon as she glided ahead. Her eyes pleaded for a white wispy shred of vapor. Still, she found nothing. Chewing on her lip, she gazed down at the duststorm. Slowly, experimentally, she descended until her hooves were dangling just above the gritty tempest. Then, with meager grace, she dipped her limbs into the mess.

Her pegasus hooves did not—as she hoped—make firm contact with the material. Instead, her hooves sank through the material. The sensation was hot, searing. With a hiss, she flapped her heavy wings and pulled up sharply. She looked at her hoof and gawked at a rash that had immediately formed. A shot of pain ran up her spine, along with a knot in her stomach. There was no purching on the dust storm; it simply was not pegasus friendly.

The agonizing day had consumed itself, and a dimness cast over the miasma as the sun lowered towards the horizon to her flank. It was around this point that Rainbow Dash realized what a bind she was in. It felt with each flap of her wings that her appendages would fly clean off. On top of that, her body was exhausted, and she was starting to lose the cohesiveness of her vision. If she couldn't rest her body soon, she'd collapse like an airborne boulder. Rainbow Dash knew from the age of a little filly what happened to pegasi who fell asleep in mid-flight.

She didn't have the aid of sunlight to help in her distress. She thought of Cold Canter, but knew that talking to him would be useless. Besides, she had to save her breaths for as long as she could. Still, she could barely think. Her lungs were starting to heave with the effort of keeping her quivering body aloft for hour after hour.

Rainbow Dash tried to stay calm. She turned herself upside down, facing the stars, and pulled a few things out of her backpack, balancing them on her chest. She ate a few leaves of lettuce and took several swigs from her flask. As her wings started to heave and buckle in the darkness, she thought quick to prepare for what was coming next. With a hoof, she summoned a ruby glow from her pendant. Using her limbs and teeth, she pulled her blanket out, removed her hatchet, and sliced the end of its length off. She soaked the improvised rag with water and wrapped it tightly around her mouth like a rag. Breathing slowly, she tightened her goggles and tied what was left of the blanket over her like a cloak. She formed a hood over her mane, covering as many parts of her body as she could.

Her wings were going numb. The stars bowed as she felt herself descending. The noise of swirling winds filled her ears. She was going down.

She spun about, angled herself with the horizon, and dove swiftly. If she was to pierce the storm, she might as well slice her way to the earth as swiftly as possible. In the night, a great onyx wall of madness churned directly ahead. She took several breaths, stuck her wings out straight, and summoned a mental command from deep within. In a bright, platinum flash, Queen Whitemane's shield kicked in.

Rainbow Dash hit the sandstorm. Even with the shield on, it felt like slamming into a brick wall. She grunted but soared forward all the more quickly, bulleting through the dust and sediment like a hot knife through butter. The world howled and hissed at her from every angle imaginable. Her vision rocked and buckled in the nightmarish turbulence. She could barely see beyond a foot ahead of her, maybe two. Then, as the whistling and whipping winds intensified, she reached the surface of the world.

She landed awkwardly, her hooves scraping against the rock. Wincing, she anchored herself as firmly as she could and leaned against the wind. The heart of the storm was deafening. She could no longer feel her wings. With madness and cyclonic dust spinning all around her, she forced herself to concentrate. Queen Whitemane's shield would be depleted in a matter of seconds. She pulled her saddlebag completely off, whipped out her hatchet again, and began hacking away at the ground. She managed to make two equidistant notches in the ground. Within these holes, she stuck a pair of sticks that she had gathered from Cold Canter's and Desert Light's outpost. To these, she tied her saddlebag, praying to the goddesses that the lunar silk would live up to its famed versatility. Once this was erected, and the magic shield was starting to buckle, she scrunched up to the side of the saddlebag opposite to where the sand was blowing from and crouched as low as she could, covering every inch of her with the blanket as she breathed through the moist rag.

Right then, as she was just scrunching up against the saddlebag, the shield failed. The cold of the desert instantly stabbed at her, and she felt the blanket would tear. She clutched its length tightly to herself and stuck her face against the shape of the saddlebag, breathing as much clean air she could manage as a fine powder bled through the material of the blanket, threatening to suffocate her. Her goggles were already covered in a fine layer of brown grime. She wiped them clean, only to see how terribly her hooves were trembling.

Stifling a whimper, Rainbow Dash hid her masked face in the crook of her limbs and gave shallow breaths, praying that the blanket wouldn't rip apart, thinking about warmer, gentler days. She teetered upon a blackout, her entire body going numb. Reaching deep into the darkness, she tried to imagine something soothing, something hopeful. All she could envision was green eyes, and that was when her body went limp.

The storm collapsed thunderously upon her.

Miss

View Online

“Reckon Rarity has a different idea for what 'work duds' mean,” Applejack said. She waved her hoof, showing how her Gala Dress hung in tatters. “Cuz, spruced up or not, these things wouldn't have survived a single day of apple buckin', much less a night of garden animals runnin' like the dickens across a ballroom!”

“Heheheh...” Rainbow Dash chuckled. The two mares hung out late at night under the entrance to Doughnut Joe's cafe. The rest of the girls had retired to the local hotel, and the two remaining ponies were taking their sweet time, still recovering from the chaotic events of the Grand Galloping Gala. “I can't even pretend to question Rarity's abilities in... uhhh... dress-dressing, but would you just look at this cape? If I flew so much as a single city block in this thing, the back would only collect wind and slow me down! I'm amazed it didn't rip in two when I first showed off for the Wonderbolts!”

“Just how did that go, anyways?” Applejack asked with a grin. She brought a hoof up and brushed some of her tousled blonde bangs back under her hat. “It had to have been a might bit better than my failin' business venture tonight.” Her blonde locks fell loose again.

Rainbow Dash stared, unblinking.

“Rainbow?”

“Oh. Uhm. Wonderbolts. Right.” She bit her lip and dug at the ground with a shredded slipper. “Yeah, uhm...”

“Cuz you was always fancyin' yerself as joinin' them high fliers, right?”

“I... guess.”

“You guess?” Applejack's face scrunched up. She smirked cynically. “Dun tell me you done switched wings with Fluttershy overnight, darlin'.”

“Look, I dig the Wonderbolts. I really do!” Rainbow Dash sighed. “But, let's face it. I'm never gonna get them to give me so much as a second look.”

“Nonsense!” Applejack frowned. “You saved their lives at the Best Young Fliers Competition, didn't y'all?”

“Well, sure—”

“And you've had your name spread all around for helpin' defeat Nightmare Moon! Reckon you recollect that?”

“Sure I reckon—I mean recollect—I mean—Ugh!” Rainbow Dash shook her head so hard that her golden helm slid loose. She propped it back up, but it slid loose again. Sighing, she avoided Applejack's gaze and murmured, “Face it, AJ. If the Wonderbolts really gave a flying feather about me joining their team, they would have personally invited me to enroll for tryouts already.”

“Oh come on, sugarcube.” Applejack leaned forward. “Y'all can't lose hope!”

“It's not about having hope or not having hope! I'm just... not meant to join them. It's about time I wake up and see what my talents are better at. I'm just being realistic about it, is all.” Rainbow Dash said. She took a deep breath and gazed towards the towering image of Canterlot Castle beyond the nearby rooftops. “If anything, I think this night has taught me—well... all of us that it isn't right to hold too much weight in one single dream.”

Applejack glanced down at their hooves. “Maybe it's just that you've been thinkin' too hard about the wrong team.”

“Huh?” Rainbow Dash squinted at her.

Applejack smiled softly. “The Wonderbolts are some pretty fancy, schmancy athletes, and there's no doubt that you'd blend in just fine with them, darlin'.” She leaned her head aside, her green eyes glinting with sincerity. “But would they be the right group of ponies? The one you were meant to be with?”

Rainbow Dash was silent, curious.

“I've witnessed you turn into a fine, responsible mare over the past year, sugarcube.”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash grunted, her cheeks slightly red. “What are you, now? My sister?”

“Just listen.” Applejack spoke firmly, “You used to be a goofy, hot-headed, braggin' loner. Somethin' of a freeloader, even, if I may say so.”

“Jee,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “Thanks.”

“Lemme finish.” Applejack smiled again. “But the old Rainbow Dash is gone, now. And, in her place, we've gotten ourselves the most loyal, most dependable, most dazzling friend a pony could ever ask for. Seriously, Rainbow. Have y'all ever looked back and thought about how much you hang out with the other girls and I? Over a year ago, you wouldn't have so much as given us the light of day. But now, bein' with your friends is like your whole bread and butter.”

“I... I like you guys,” Rainbow Dash said. She gulped. “I really do, y'know.”

“Oh, I know, darlin'.” Applejack said with a soft nod. “I know.”

Rainbow Dash stared at her. She couldn't avoid squeaking forth a meager “Really?”

Applejack continued, “And if you left and took yer place with the Wonderbolts, I think you'd feel a tad bit lonesome, 'cuz you wouldn't really be with your real team. Ya feel me?”

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath and gently smiled. “Yeah. I guess I do...”

“Hmmm...” Applejack smiled back. With a kind hoof, she reached forward and finally set the golden helm straight on the pegasus' head. “Yer destined for great things, Rainbow Dash. Greater things than the rest of us. I dun care what you think is realistic or not; I'm still rootin' for ya to join them super-fancy fliers someday. But I know that when you do...” Applejack gazed at her. “I'll be missin' y'all somethin' awful.”

Rainbow Dash nodded. She felt a warmth flush over her as she lifted her hoof to feel the helm firmly on her head. “I'd miss you too, AJ...”

Ungrateful

View Online

When Rainbow's eyes fluttered open, she slightly less surprised to be alive than she was surprised to be in the same place. The makeshift “barricade” of the saddlebag still stood in front of her, and the blanket was covering her figure. Nothing had torn apart or been blasted to shredded bits by the storm. What was more, daylight was seeping in through the material.

In a flash, she whipped the blanket off her. Sunlight stabbed her eyes. She grunted and sat up, her limbs weak. She couldn't tell how much time had passed. It most likely was just eight hours, but for some reason she felt as though two days had gone by.

She pulled her goggles up and squinted towards the horizon. She saw the sun, but she couldn't tell if it was rising or falling. But then, her senses caught up with her mind.

It was no longer storming.

The desert was dead silent, save for the slightest kiss of wind behind her. Turning around, Rainbow Dash finally discovered where the west end of the world was, for she was staring straight at it.

A solid cloud of brown mess was blowing away from her. She clearly remembered the storm heading directly towards her while she was flying east. At some point during her unconsciousness, it had passed over her figure.

She knew that she was lucky—more than lucky. This was a blatantly stupid miracle and she was desperate to figure out the how and why. Looking down at herself and the saddlebag, she realized that there was something awkward about the ground. There was a slight impression made in the rock, and it stretched circularly outward from where she had been lying for the past several hours. If she didn't know better, she'd think that some sort of inexplicable force had made a crater in the landscape where she had collapsed.

“No way...” She gulped, her body covered in a fine sheen of brown dust. “Was it Whitemane's shield? Was it—?” Her body reeled with a touch of dizziness. She winced, feeling two points of pain at the top of her brow. Briskly, she removed her goggles completely from her head and pivoted them around. With a forelimb, she wiped the grime and sand clean from one lens and looked at her reflection.

The slightest hint of red-on-yellow eyes flickered, and was gone.

Rainbow Dash froze. Sighing, she closed her eyes and hugged the goggles to her chest. Her jaw clenched and unclenched, but soon she focused just long enough to relax.

“Won't pretend for a second as though I'm friggin' grateful,” she muttered to the air.

Slowly, weakly, she gathered her belongings. She dusted off the saddlebag, admired its unearthly integrity, and slipped it back over her shoulders. A little too frail to fly just yet, she trotted limply eastward, battling the sun and dryness and everything in between.

“Nnngh...” Rainbow Dash grumbled. “Sand sucks.”

Squared

View Online

“So, what's the deal, CC?”

Cold Canter's voice dully replied through the resonating sound stone. “I am afraid you have me at a disadvantage.”

“Horses for courses,” Rainbow Dash droned as she glided gently eastward along the wind-swept desert plateau. “Why didn't you warn me about the sand storms.”

“I wasn't aware that you would encounter any along that stretch of landscape.”

“You mean to tell me that you're a veteran guard stallion pushing sixty and you've never encountered a sand storm in all your years of minding your post out in the desert?”

“Darkstine has weather spheres.”

“Am I supposed to know what those are?”

“They're magically imbued devices that patrol the borders of our landscape and keep inclement weather in check. I do so believe that they cover clouds of sediment blown along westerly winds.”

“Wow. Your society would really kick the bucket if everything got unplugged, wouldn't it?”

“It begs the question, filly,” his voice rang out as she flew under the glaring sunlight. “Did you encounter such a detrimental phenomenon?”

“Ohhhh...” She shrugged in mid-air, still trying to feel her limbs from all the pelting they had received overnight. “It was a tad bit annoying. Not something I'd like to run into everyday.”

“It's nice to know that you are safe, at least.”

“Jee, thanks,” she mumbled. “I'll be happy to be out of a place that has so much of this stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“Sand, what else?” Her jaw clenched. “Unnngh... The stupid crap gets into everything. I've never felt so in touch with my femininity in all my life.”

“That's a remarkable tidbit of information.”

“You're cute when you try to be sarcastic.” Her lips curved as her goggles glinted against the sky. “So, C-Squared... I can call you C-Squared, right?”

“I prefer that you wouldn't.”

“So tell me, C-Squared, have you ever been on any vacations in your life?”

“I would much rather spend our magically transmitted conversation discussing your exploration.”

“I'm over a desert,” Rainbow Dash grunted. “It's flat.” She cleared her throat and continued, “Haven't you ever thought of going on a cruise somewhere? Maybe tour a bunch of desert islands and drink out of coconuts?”

“I would rather be caught dead.”

“Awwwww...” Rainbow Dash pouted with a playful grin. “No cruises whatsoever? What's the matter, C-Squared, you got a problem with ships?”

“I have a problem with doing anything that would detract from my faithful task as sentry of Darkstine's borders.”

“Yeah, well, no offense, old guy,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “But I don't think we're talking about a case of equivalent exchange.”

“How do you mean?”

“Does Darkstine really—and I mean really give back to you exactly that which you give to it?”

“I don't see how that would matter. As a citizen, it is my task to serve my kingdom—”

“Yeah! But even where I'm from, the guards who served the princess at least had time off, not to mention hazard benefits and good pay and—”

“I am not like most guards.”

“Well, no frickin' duh. You've been at that post for how long?”

“I really do not see how this conversation is relevant to anything.”

“I just wanna get to know you better, guy!” Rainbow Dash said with a smirk. She spun around just for the heck of it and glided upside down for a spell. “There's gotta be more to ya than tall, dark, and wrinkly!”

“And certainly you have a convoluted past that you are absolutely dying to convey to me.”

“Hmph...” Her nostrils flared. “Touche.”

“To be an explorer, you don't have to be a winged pony, traveling everywhere at the speed of sound. Sometimes the best discoveries are made by staying perfectly in place.”

“I'm sure there was something really snazzy and poignant about what you just said,” Rainbow Dash mused. “Unfortunately, even as far up I can fly, there are still things that go over my head.”

“I'm here on the edge of civilization to do more than just my job. I find a great deal of introspection and meditation to be had here.”

“So are you some sort of philosopher pony or something?”

“Aren't we all?”

“Well, to each their own, C-Squared,” she murmured. “My philosophy is that if you can't eat it, drink it, outrace it, or blow it up, then it's not worth one's time.”

“I don't suppose you have any philosophies for staying perfectly still?”

“Uhhhhh... Nope. Can't say that I do.”

“Surely there will come a day when you must slow down and reexamine your life.”

“Too busy living it.”

“That's a simple excuse.”

“Anything more complex would just be lame.” Her teeth showed as she grinned and flew right-side-up again. “No offense to you or any other thinking-ponies, but if you spend all of your life playing the guessing game, then by the time death comes you'll realize that could have been answering your own questions the whole time.”

“In what manner?”

“Any manner! Any manner that involves moving your limbs and seeing what happens when you run into stuff.”

“Sounds foolhardy.”

“Better than wisesofty!”

“The degree to which you make up words is astounding and foolish all at once.”

“Love you too.” Rainbow Dash hummed to herself and eventually asked, “So, I'm guessing that all that philosophizing didn't really add up to much in the Hearts and Hooves department.”

“I beg your pardon?” Cold Canter's voice replied.

“Why else wouldn't you want to go on a cruise?” she remarked. “You don't have a fillyfriend to share sun-tanning with!”

“Now you're treading into completely unreasonable territories.”

“I haven't heard you 'hang up' yet!” She grinned. “You're telling me there's not a lucky, beautiful, curvaceous mare out there who enjoys being swept off her hooves? A C-Circle, if you feel me?”

“I have lived out the extent of my days, and not all of them alone.”

“Oh really?” Rainbow Dash sighed briefly. “Well, I guess it's a shame you never had kids to share all your stories with.”

“I am a father, actually.”

Her eyes brightened. “You don't say? Hah! Way to go, Cold Canter! What, a kid? Two kids? A son and a daughter?”

“Five, actually.”

Rainbow Dash blinked. “Oh.” She blinked again. “Five what? Sons or daughters?”

“I meant five of each.”

She nearly fell out of the sky. “Whew!” She whistled. “I'm guessing your 'Canter' wasn't exactly 'Cold' all your life! Heh. Wow, guy. I... I didn't realize that! You must be really proud!”

“They are good, healthy, law-abiding Darkstinians, proficient at industry.”

“So... you're proud of them, right?”

“I wish I could say the feeling was mutual.”

“Oh...” She gulped. “Uhm...”

“It would not behoove you to listen any further about my progeny, nor any of my relations.”

“No, really...” She smiled. “Come on, C-Squared. Dish it out. I'm all ears.”

“This was not the purpose of the sound stones. You have a journey to complete.”

“I have all the time in the world,” she said, coasting towards the horizon with a contented breath. “Seriously, guy. Tell me about your family.”

“It... It would hardly be an uplifting tale.”

“Try me.”

Emotions

View Online

“They're such bright, incredibly creative foals,” Cold Canter's voice said. “All of them. Though, when I say 'foals,' it's really just a relative term. Many of them are quite old, even beyond Desert Light's age.”

“Heh...” Rainbow Dash swallowed another bite of lettuce and huddled beside her campfire in the middle of the desert plain. The purple haze of night lingered overhead, like a glass window overlooking a forest of fireflies. “And you haven't seen them in forever?”

“It's going on twelve years since I last spoke with any of my children face to face.”

“I'm so sorry to hear that, guy,” Rainbow Dash said, took another bite, and murmured. “May I ask if there's some reason?”

“Not a reason. A mare.”

“Ohhhhhh.” Rainbow Dash nodded slowly to the shadows beyond the flickering fire. “You and the Missus don't see eye to eye?”

“We hardly see eye to flank.”

“Yeowch.”

“I can't rightly blame her.”

“Why not?”

Cold Canter's voice lingered before eventually muttering through the sound stone, “She is, without a doubt, the most loyal, honorable, and law-abiding citizen Darkstine could ever hope for.”

“In other words, she talks like a brick and has the emotional scope of an oak tree,” Rainbow Dash said. She immediately blushed in the firelight. “Erm... No offense.”

“Heh, none taken, filly.” Cold Canter chuckled through the leylines. “If anything, I've always been something of... anomaly among those of my culture.”

“Jee,” Rainbow Dash droned. “You don't say?”

“Mind you, I spoke and lived much like my fellow Darkstinians for years. But slowly, as the years grew by, I couldn't stand to function in the same manner they did. I couldn't allow myself to be totally disconnected from my emotions?”

“What changed?”

“My wife foaled. Again and again and again. Soon, we had nearly five kids. That's when I started to change.”

“How so?”

“I don't suppose you have any children of your own?”

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash chuckled nervously. “Not this mare.”

“I didn't think so. Bringing a new life in this world is a divine, even spiritual experience. Darkstinians are the kind of unicorns to invest all spirits in industry. Our families function as parts of a machine, and the children we produce are meant to add to the locomotion of such a system.”

“I'm guessing you weren't all that happy with being the center gear to a whole bunch of cogs...”

“I wanted more. Perhaps it was selfish of me. But is it asking too much to want to love and cherish your own offspring? With each child that we raised, they reached the age of ascension, and I could no longer appeal to their emotion. I had to accept that the system conditioned them into an unemotional element. With each son and daughter we had, this grew harder and harder. My wife had the necessary persistence of a good Darkstinian citizen. I, however, did not?”

“What happened?”

“I started to buckle under the pressure, both interior and exterior. I was seen as having a deficiency, and many ponies 'caim to my aid,' in hopes that I could be brought back to the surface of the systematic way of thinking. So long as I was letting my emotions get the best of me, I was a defect to the industry.”

“Yeowch. I kind of find that hard to believe...”

“How so?”

“Well, uhh....” Rainbow Dash shrugged. “To be perfectly honest, CC, I don't exactly find you to be gushing with emotion.”

“By Darkstinian standards, I am a drama queen.”

“Hah!” Rainbow Dash munched one final bite of her lettuce and rolled the rest of the supply up in her saddlebag. “Mmmmff—hmmff...” She gulped and chuckled. “Heheh... Well, I'll buy the 'drama' part. I'm a bit brainfuddled on 'queen.'”

“Eventually, it got to the point where my wife and I couldn't agree on the simplest of things. When a Darkstinian household is imbalanced, it affects all who are related.”

“So... uh... how did you get way out here?”

“Simple. I was always working for the military, as a guard and a protector of the peace. I felt that the best thing to do for my wife and my offspring was to move out to the furthest reaches of the kingdom.”

“What the hay for?”

“Divorce may be allowed in some cultures, but it doesn't have a place in the Darkstinian dictionary. My wife and I are still bonded. By moving the defective element—myself—far away, I maintain that our marriage still stands, and all members and products of the union continue to have their function in industry.”

“Wow... Uh... that really, really sucks,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “That sucks more than sand.”

“Truly?”

“Well... eh... almost.” Rainbow Dash gulped and laid her chin down on her hooves. “It must be really, really lonely for you, C-Squared. I mean... to have discovered so many of your own emotions and to have been treated like crap for it.”

“I hold a great deal of respect and credibility in the Darkstinian border patrol. I am hardly without my fair share of connections.”

“Still...” She took a deep breath and smiled thinly. “I'm very... y'know... happy that I've gotten a chance to know you.”

The voice on the other end was silent for a bit. A few shooting stars streamed overhead. Rainbow Dash's eyes were getting heavy, but then the sound stone fluctuated again.

“It has been very nice getting to know you too, filly.”

Rainbow Dash smiled. Calmly, she shut her eyes to the shimmering heavens. “So...” Her voice wafted over the desert. “Tell me more about your kids...”

Assumptions

View Online

“Iron Wrench, our second youngest daughter, is almost graduating from the University of South Ring,” Cold Canter's voice said. “She's currently top in the class, exploring fields of quantum energy translocation.”

“Whew!” Rainbow exclaimed, blurring eastward over a sun-lit desert plain. Tiny dunes of dirt were layering the path before her, giving the eroded landscape the tiniest hint of personality. “I imagine that's a ceremony where the announcer loses her breath.”

“I don't follow.”

“Well, imagine saying something like 'Elegant pomposity: now presenting she who would be Iron Wench, she who would be an instrumentalist pony in the field of that which would be quantum energy translocation' with each pony graduate that steps up!” Rainbow Dash exhaled, wheezed, and coughed for breath. “You see?” She adjusted her goggles and soared faster. “Even I'm having trouble with it!”

“Oddly enough, I doubt that would be too far from the truth.”

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Yeah, well, it could be worse.”

“It is for that reason that most ceremonies last an entire week.”

“Hah! You're totally pulling my leg there, CC!”

“Surely, this is not me being jocular.”

“I guess you'll be falling asleep halfway through when you watch her.”

“I wouldn't think as much.”

“Why not?”

“I will not be attending.”

Rainbow Dash's smile left her. Her eyes traced the edges of her goggles, towards where the glow of the sound stone was edging its way towards her peripheral vision. “Your situation with your family is so bad that you can't even attend your own daughter's graduation ceremony?”

“I assure you, it is not something that I take much pride in.”

“Then why don't you go?”

“My presence there would merely be a deterrent.”

“'Cuz of the Darkstinian non-emotion pact thingy?”

“You're catching on, filly.”

“Screw them!” Rainbow Dash frowned into the hot wind. “Why don't you catch on?”

“It's not that simple...”

“Of course it is, old guy! It's life! Life rocks the most when it's simple!”

“Perhaps that is the case for you, filly. But I would be selfish and near-sighted to assume that I could ignore all of the barricades that have been erected between myself and those I've helped bring into this world.”

Rainbow Dash took a deep breath, slowing the flapping of her wings so that she coasted slowly towards her obscure destination. Eventually, she murmured, “C-Squared, how old is Iron Wrench. Your second youngest daughter?”

“Twenty-five winters,” he replied.

Rainbow Dash smiled gently. “Even your second youngest kid is older than me, CC. So, this probably sounds a little weird—for me to be preaching to somepony of your age...”

“Preaching?”

“But you gotta go to your kid's graduation ceremony, dude. You just gotta.”

“I did not open this leyline frequency so that you might—”

“For the love of pete, just hear me out!” she briefly barked, then more calmly said, “I know you're—like—seventy, going on a thousand years or whatnot...”

“Heh...”

“But you really, really have a lot to live for,” Rainbow Dash remarked. “You've got a wife. You've got kids. I'm willing to bet that you have friends.”

“I also have honor and credibility to uphold—”

“And a crap lot of good that's going to do if all the ponies you're loyal to aren't a part of your life anymore.” Rainbow Dash's eyes hung thin against the curves of her goggles' lenses. “I don't know what makes a guy so cool and awesome like you hang out on the edge of nothingness. You have... You just have so much, CC. You have so much to live for.”

“Need we forget that you're the one with a young life full of discovery, filly. You have a full life ahead of you.”

“Cold Canter,” she replied calmly. “Go and see your family. Even if things go crazy, you'll at least be able to. Just because they can't be emotional doesn't mean you don't have to be. You brought them into this world through love and devotion, didn't ya?”

“I... Well...”

“Well didn't ya?” She gulped and said, “The moment you let go of your feelings for them is the moment you let them go too. And if there's anything in this world that sucks royally, it's b-being alone.” She exhaled sharply, then added, “You can tell yourself that you're living in retirement for philosophy's sake until you're blue in the face. I don't think you've felt loneliness. Not quite yet. I don't care how many years are between us.”

She bit her lip, expecting a harsh replay. What she experienced again was trailing silence, punctuated by the random whistle of harsh desert winds. Finally, after much blurring landscape, Cold Canter replied.

“You make a lot of assumptions, young one...”

She hung her head in mid flight.

“Very daring indeed, but with a hint of wisdom. Are you sure you're not an alicorn in disguise?”

After that, she managed a gentle smile. “That depends. This alicorn asks if you'll be visiting your daughter.”

“I shall... think about it, filly. I'm out this far to think, after all.”

“Uhhhh...”

“And you are certainly as persuasive as you are mysterious—”

“Hey, uhm, Cold Canter?” she remarked, squinting her eyes.

“What is it?”

“How long will you be on the air?”

“Why do you ask?”

She gulped, staring straight ahead as a solid line of earth obscured the blurred horizon. In the center was an enormous gap in the mountainous ridge. Even from afar, Rainbow Dash couldn't deny what the structure resembled: a gate.

“I think I'm seeing something...”

Gate

View Online

“It's how tall again?!” Cold Canter's voice resonated incredulously.

“Two hundred and fifty feet,” Rainbow Dash said. “I'm not even joking. I'm a pegasus and I know my heights.” Even at mid-hover, the humongous gates loomed above her. The bone-white material was ancient, made out of compressed stone and mortar that had congealed together over countless centuries from the structure's massive weight. “And it's pretty long too.”

“How long?”

“Uhhhh...” Rainbow Dash flew up, up, up and angled out along the top of the wall. She peered left and right, towards both the northwest and southeast horizons. “I, like, seriously can't see where it ends. But if I could guess...” She narrowed her ruby eyes as her wings flapped on either side of her in the afternoon air. “I'd say the south length of the wall is curved slightly towards the east. Otherwise, it's pretty dang straight.”

“And you're certain it's abandoned?”

“CC, dude...” Rainbow Dash hovered over what was once the gated entrance to the wall. “This thing is smashed to heck! The door looks like it's made of solid oak, and yet it's barely clinging to the hinges.” She glanced down at giant slabs of sundered wood that hung in the sandy, pelting winds. “Anypony with a lick of sense would have fixed this crap by now. If I didn't know better, I'd say it had been pretty smashed for a while.”

“Constructed out of solid oak, you say?”

“Yeah.”

“And I'm guessing it's the same two hundred off feet of length?”

“Pretty much.”

“What in industry's name could have broken the thing apart?”

Rainbow Dash opened her mouth, but lingered. She gulped and stammered, “I have no clue, C-Squared. Hang on a bit. I'm gonna have a look on the other side.”

She flew through the gate, ducking flakes of ash and sediment that rained down on her from the blowing winds. After a good fifteen, she finally pierced the far side of the immensely thick wall. She blinked and stopped in place.

At first her heart skipped a beat, for she felt as though she was looking at a boneyard. After blinking, she realized that she was peering down on the pale rooftops of a tiny city. Several domed structures and rectangular walkways stretched below. Half of the buildings were collapsed, with several chunks of stone and concrete forming piles of refuse within the ovegrown streets.

“Yup... Definitely not Dream Valley.”

“I beg your pardon?” Cold Canter's voice reacted.

“Shhh. I'll give you an update in a moment!” She dove down.

Hovering closely over the two and three story structures, Rainbow Dash got as close a look of the ruined townscape as she could afford to. The pale-white buildings may have once held color, but their surfaces had faded over years of arid exposure to the elements. Everything may have been decrepit and demolished, but she'd be lying if she said it was completeyly devoid of life. Grass and vegetation—the first green thing she had seen in days—were growing in various spots. Water troughs, windowsills, and aqueducts were overgrown with flora. Soil collected in the former plots of land where wooden houses once stood. Even a few flowers dangled out of collapsed huts and imploded storage crates.

Lining the edges of several of the buildings—especially the larger ones—were brown and black splotches of discoloration. Even after innumerable decades of neglect, Rainbow Dash spotted the unquestionable signs of burn marks. Looking deep into the windows and doorframes of houses, several piles of ash rested where furniture had once been. In abandoned gardens, hollowed husks of charred wooden trees stretched skyward forever.

“You still there, C-Squared?”

“At your beck and call, filly,” his voice replied.

“Every street is empty,” Rainbow Dash said, gliding just a few feet over the ground as she passed through a rubble-strewn neighborhood. “Looks like the ponies here had a thing for stone. But it didn't save them in the end.”

“Save them from what?”

“Looks like a fire,” Rainbow Dash said. “I'm guessing that they had to abandon the place from a terrible blaze.” She paused, perched on a hollowed-out schoolyard, and turned around to look at the large, smashed gate. “Or worse.”

“You are sure there are no other equines around?”

“I dunno about you, but I'm not prepared to look into every single building of this place.” She flew up above the rooftops and looked towards the east horizon. “Besides...” Her eyes narrowed as she spotted several splotches of curious structures dotting a long, brown plain. “I'm willing to bet that this isn't the only town. I'm guessing this was some sort of settlement built for ponies who looked after the gate. I heard Stalliongrad in Equestria had a wall with similar townships.”

“Stalliongrad. That's a pretty name for a metropolis.”

“Yeah, well, it was pretty in name only,” Rainbow Dash said, grumbling. “Hold on a second. I'm about to do something I haven't done in ages.”

“What's that?”

“Visit a library, I think,” she murmured, flying down into a large, half-collapsed building with several rows of dust-strewn bookcases. Her hooves made echoing, scraping noises as she touched down and marched through the misty archives. Each time she breathed, the particles in the air undulated around her. Squinting, she glanced down at the overturned shelves and nudged them with her hooves. She dug and dug until she found a rectangular structure. Pulling it out, she gave it a good shake. The dust fell off to reveal a book, but its pages were too torn to even consider reading.

“Finding any records?” Cold Canter's voice eventually asked.

“No such luck,” Rainbow Dash muttered, rummaging through the piles of papery debris. “Too bad I'm not an egghead, or else I'd be perfect for this thing.”

“Not much of a literary figure?”

“I fell asleep once to the Pegasus Meteorological Manual.”

“Then how did you ever make a living in Equestria?”

“I let my coolness outweigh my dumbness.”

“How quaint.”

“See? My lifestyle kept me from saying crap like that.”

“Like what?”

“'How quaint.'”

“Don't be so foolish.”

“Shhhh... Dead civilization, remember?” Rainbow Dash kicked at the pile one last time. A cloud of dust flew up, and she coughed savagely in the wake of it. “Unngh... Yeah. This is lame.”

Something glinted in the corner of her peripheral vision. “Mmmmf... Huh?” She turned to look. There was a partially buried container embossed in gold. The shine was barely noticeable, considering all of the weathering that sand and grit had done throughout the years. Nevertheless, Rainbow Dash trotted towards it and gave it a meager shove with her forelimbs. The thing turned over and crashed against the marble floor of the library. Flecks of metal and glass flew every which way, but something with a bergundy binder had survived the ordeal. Reaching down, Rainbow Dash picked the book up—and did a double take. “Whoah...”

“What is it?”

“Something familiar,” she murmured. She turned the book around until she saw the image that was plastered to the front of it. It was a circle with two curved lines attached to the sides of it. Curiuos, Rainbow Dash sat on her haunches, opened her saddlebag, and produced the medallion from the corpse. She flipped to the side of the coin opposite from the engraving of the two mesas and the palace. To her fascination, the emblem matched the symbol on the coin. “I think I may have found the survivor's neck of the woods.”

“You don't say?”

“This book has the symbol from the coin that was found on him.”

“What's the book about?”

“Well, it has no title, but it was placed in some special container, no doubt something that was on display in this place at one time.” She opened the book and blew the dust off. Squinting, she flipped through several pages. “Hmmm...”

“Is it legible?”

“Yup.”

“That's remarkable...”

“Not really,” Rainbow Dash murmured. “I've traveled a long, long distance and the same stuff seems to come out of all ponies' mouths, regardless of what goes in it.”

“How's that?”

“There's a place called Windthrow where they like to eat things that used to walk, sleep, and ask that other creatures not eat them.”

“Your civilization is purely vegetarian?”

“We're sane, if that's what you mean.”

“I applaud you for being civil and open-minded up to this very moment.”

“Jee, you're welcome.”

“I'm glad Desert Light was willing to part with so much lettuce for you.”

“I could have asked the guy for a grilled cheese sandwich, but something tells me he would have shoved his horn through my throat.” Rainbow Dash stopped murmuring in time to focus on a single page. She read out loud: '...to his brother's brother, give equal share, for the sake of equality and justice, for such is the Silvadelian way...'”

“Are you reading?”

“If I thought that last stuff, then I'm ready to have my head examined.”

“Sounds like a book of social etiquette and customs.”

“You guess well,” Rainbow Dash murmured as she turned the book over and over. “This is full of boring scenarios of ceremony and stuff, but the same name appears over and over again: 'Silvadel.'”

“The name of the province?”

“That's what I'm thinking. Still, no word of how everything hit the fan.”

“Well, if it's a published and manufactured book, I doubt it would have been made after a terrible apocalypse.”

“Guess there's only one way to learn more.” Rainbow Dash stuck the book into her saddlebag, stretched her wings, and propelled herself east out of the library. “Here's hoping I can see more stuff before sunfall.”

Silvadel

View Online

As Rainbow Dash pressed eastward, the ruins of Silvadel opened before her. For the most part, it was almost as barren an experience as the desert west of the gate. The landscape was dry, arid, and only sparsely dotted with clusters of grass and vegetation. Any oases that may have dotted the landscape had dried up into riverbeds of cracked earth. Any scarce bits of forest had been reduced to withered stalks of blackened wood.

She found townships, most of which were just as small and just as decrepit as the village immediately inside the gate. White marble buildings and alabaster structures fell in disrepair. Each and every one of them had the same signs of discoloration. A horrible fire had seemingly swept over the entire landscape, evaporating anything that may have once supported life.

The sun was setting, and Rainbow Dash still hadn't found any major cities. As the stars unpeeled from the night's veil overhead, Rainbow Dash touched down and settled in a tiny dwelling nestled within a dry dip of earth that must have once been a lake. Wooden docks lay in tattered clusters beyond a rickety lumber mill. Rainbow Dash trotted her way until she found what must have once been a two story hotel. Clearing debris off from a square patch of concrete, she started a fire. There were many materials at her disposal, and she was able to make a comfortable, warming blaze for once.

By the firelight, she hoofed through the pages of the book she had discovered. She read about a culture that so far had lent her only fossils. The Silvadelians were ponies who favored the structure of the family above all else. Marriage was something divine, and the equines were strictly monogamous. Age was seen as a thing of beauty. Birthday celebrations were grander occasions for the elderly than they were for the youth, and retirement was expected for all citizens at age fifty-five. The government, it would seem, functioned by an oligarchy that made the rules for all of society. Despite it's anti-democratic nature, the ponies of Silvadel gladly submitted to the system, and everything was peaceful.

Rainbow Dash slept, staring at the patch of starlight shimmering through the porous ceiling of the hotel. She imagined a perfect society with perfect rules with a perfect system, and how it had to have taken a perfect cataclysm to level it all to the ground.

Morning came. Rainbow Dash spoke with Cold Canter and took off towards the rising sun. As she did so, she spotted several shadows blocking the light. Her heart skipped a beat, for fear that she was spotting the limbs of some horribly large creature. However, the giant shapes weren't moving a single inch, even as she soared towards them at record-breaking speeds.

She slowed down as she passed by numerous mind-numbing sights. In the middle of a barren plain of dead grass and brown earth, gigantic stone structures emerged from the ground. Impossibly large statues swam and weaved around each other