Cascade! Clouds Above, Obfuscate!

by WritingSpirit

First published

✽ Tale III of XXXIII ✽

✽ Tale III of XXXIII ✽
adapted from Volume I, Track VII
veat

You can hear the clouds trembling if you listened hard enough.
One day, it'll all come crashing down.

Day I

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"Uh... hey, so..."

"Yep?"

"Did I ever tell you how much I hated jungles?"

"Ngh-hahahaha!! Heh. Whew! O-Okay, okay, wait wait wait, this is good, this is good... So! You spent a couple of days at my place to prepare for our trip. After that, there was that five hours of nothing on that train to get to Vanhoover. Then we spent one day — yesterday — just walking around town and eating at all the pie stalls in sight. Finally, we woke up this morning, got ourselves ready for our expedition and we're about half an hour in, and now you're telling me that you hate jungles?"

"With a passion."

"You know what, it's not that big of a deal! Really, no biggie at all! Except for that teeny tiny fact that I mentioned back home that we were gonna, oh, I don't know, spend days travelling across a jungle?"

"Hey, relax, I just said I hated jungles, not your little expedition. Yeah, I mean, sure, spending days in a jungle is kind of a bummer and all. You look around, it's just green and green and goopy green, like egggh. But you said it was important, didn't you? One of those awesome adventures where you and the girls just save the day, right?"

"Yeah, I did."

"So I thought hey, maybe, just maybe, I get to see the Element of Loyalty in action!"

"Look, first off, that's not how the Elements work. Second, as you can clearly see, my friends are not with me, so there's not a chance you could see how awesome we were anyway. Last but not least, I said you didn't have to follow me, alright? I could've handled this by myself."

"Really now? Is it me or was that your bravado doing the talking?"

"For the record, I went on a couple of adventures with the great Daring Do herself, and they all took place in jungles like this one. Anyways, like I said, you could've stayed behind, even back at Vanhoover if you wanted to. I'll just be away for several days anyway."

"And leave me alone to scour every pie joint on this side of Equestria? No way, Jose."

"Well, you don't have to do exactly that. There's probably a lot of other things you could do in Vanhoover too, you know."

"Like?"

"Like uh... uh... I don't know? I mean, there's that big park that they have. You can walk around it. Or fly around it. Last I checked, the ponies here aren't that fussy about stuff like that. Remember when you tried doing that in the Canterlot Royal Gardens? You somehow managed to rile up half of those snobs! Ha! That's probably setting a record somewhere!"

"Yeah, I don't think my heart can take being mobbed by everyone all by myself."

"But you're a Wonderbolt—"

"Retiring Wonderbolt."

"R-Right... retiring... still, you can handle all that jazz, right? I mean, being a Wonderbolt does kinda mean you're gonna have a mob or two around the corner somewhere."

"I wouldn't mind if you're there with me."

"You know I can't be there."

"Right. Yeah. Of course."

"I'm here for a job, after all. I didn't wanna drag you along for this, you know that. I mean, it's better for you if you found something else to past the time. You know, maybe doing something productive?"

"Which is why I'm not gonna spend my third date with you cooped up in our hotel room away from the fans, all alone with boring baking shows to watch on TV while you go do whatever jungle business that you have to do out here."








"You're angry."

"No. No, I'm not."

"Look, I know... I know it's supposed to be our third date, I know you've made plans and... Celestia, how does everyone else do this..."

"Listen, Rainbow, just... let's just keep moving..."

"... y-yeah... okay... sure, sure, but I mean—"

"Just... lead the way, Dash."

"Right, I... right..."


Night I

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Moonlight.

Swathes of it. Lunar pathways sifting through branch and leaf, casting mangled shadows upon the forest floor. Stranger still, the heat. Sweltering, though without the severity it bolstered in the afternoon. They shimmer gently between the squirming trees. They slither like svelte scarves, swaddling them, shrouding them. They splinter and suffuse, and within it the world slumbered.

Soarin' was a keen viewer of this spectacle in the night, drifting about the river bend with wings fanned out, catching every falling leaf as he paddled himself in spiraling circles. Every descent was grateful, every step measured and gentle. He watched them swinging and swirling in the nightly breeze, and for a single second, something twitched in his rusted wings. There was a longing in his chest, and it shall remain there, as it always has been. And so, the leaves danced for him, and in turn he thanked them wordlessly for their sacrifice.

Monotony marred the moment, prompting him to emerge from the river. He decided not to dry himself off, and though the Soarin' of the coming day shall regret this dastardly decision, he shouldn't find it in him to complain. He glanced about the forest, surrounded by nothing but the shrill screeches of crickets and the grating croaks of frogs. And so, leaving a dotted line of droplets to be forgotten on the forest floor, he sauntered into the undergrowth, drenched by the night in, along with the rest of the world, a brumous blue.

Funny how the moon plays with his senses; the green he found so distasteful and glaring was absent. It wasn't as though he hated the color: he just found them a little overbearing when it comes to jungles, that's all. As if it's all breathing down his neck and devouring the color in his cheeks. He should've been accustomed to that strange sensation, being a Wonderbolt, retiring or not. Then again, Spitfire always remarked that his inability to made him a little more down to earth than most of the team. Honestly, he just never bothered with it. No one should feel accustomed to being asphyxiated, Wonderbolt or not. No one.

Rainbow Dash was a sound sleeper, cradled as she was by the hulking roots springing from the ground, her back resting against the bark of one of the bigger trees they've stumbled upon. Not to say it was a little known fact, but Soarin' was always needlessly reminded of that every night. Not that he minded either, mostly cause he found it a little amusing, though he had wondered if he would still feel the same later on. He probably wouldn't: a notion he too easily vocalized with a belittling snicker.

"You're still up?"

Rainbow Dash was a light sleeper... well now, there's something new to think about. Soarin' slackened his shoulders and mustered one of his lighter grins, stooping over one of the wooden bends as she daintily rubbed her eyes. Her gaze ambled across his trickling form, pausing briefly only to make way for a yawn, before she leaned in and ran a hoof through his dripping mane.

"What happened to you?"

"Just a dip in the river, no big," he chuckled. "Thanks for the concern though."

"Dip in the river?" A soft sigh. "Celestia, it's the middle of the night."

"The heat's a little much, that's all," he muttered, raising a hoof to brush away the hairs sticking to the sides of his neck. "Not to mention my coat was feeling a little sticky and sweaty. Like I was doused in a tub of glue or something. Drove me nuts the whole afternoon."

Rainbow Dash couldn't help it. "Diva."

"Yeah, yeah," Soarin' laughed alongside her. "So, is this how it's always like with you and the girls? Just... travelling around in these conditions, probably skipping a bath or two?"

"We'll make do with it, I guess. When the going gets tough, the tough gets going. Rarity might whine about it a little maybe, but she knows we hate it as much as she does." With a restrained yawn, Rainbow made her way to settle down by his side despite his dampness. "I guess you could say it's just about priorities. Can't skip saving Equestria just because you don't like being in the rain, right?"

"I don't know, Dash. I mean, the whole of Equestria against staying dry for a day... is it really worth it?"

"I'd like my Soarin' to have a little less sarcasm, please."

"Haha! Yes, Ma'am."

Soarin' gave his wings a flutter, sending the many dewdrops clinging onto his feathers scattering across the air, before he wrapped one around his marefriend. The heat of the jungle simmered above his skin, yet the warmth coming from Rainbow Dash snuggling against his chest chucked those thoughts out the window. He could feel her breath caressing his chest, before it slowly crept up to his neck. When he glanced down, their exhalations met, as did their stares. Those amethyst beads shimmered in the moonlight, lighting up the abated flames in his own emerald gaze, only to pivot to the side.

"Sorry."

"About?"

"This afternoon."

Pause.

"It's fine, really."

"You think so, Dash?"

"I guess— I mean, sure."

"You're here for work, after all."

"Yeah, but I promised a third date."

"The third date can wait, Rainbow. It's fine."

"But I should've talked about it before coming here."

"Look, it's fine. If anything, I'm actually glad I'm here."

A final pause.

"Really?"

"Really, I mean, I'm here with you, aren't I? Stuck in a jungle, sure, but I'm pretty sure I've been through worse in my life." His eyes drifted across the dense undergrowth once more. "I mean, if you think about it, this is technically what our third date's going to be. The two of us, venturing into the unknown in search of some lost artifact belonging to the ancient civilization of Forgottenistan."

"Uh— wait, what did you say? Forgottenistan?"

"Pretty rad third date when you think about it," he continued, smugger than ever. "So yeah, I think I can handle it. If it means spending a few days with you, all alone in the forest with no one else around for miles, not to mention the really, really unbearable heat—"

"Hey now, don't get any ideas."

"I'm not, I'm not, promise!" A cordial chuckle left his lips. "I'm just saying that this... this might not be such a bad idea after all. Just you and me and a bunch of trees. Maybe not the kind of peace and quiet I expected, but it's... it's nice. Just... it's nice."

"Mm..." Rainbow wriggled further into his chest. "As long as you're cool with it then. We gotta be up before sunrise though."

"I'm a Wonderbolt, Rainbow. Waking up before sunrise is kinda my thing."

"Right you are, boyo. Now come a little closer. Your marefriend here wants a little more of her snuggle space."

"Heh. Will do, Ma'am."


Day II

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"Oh, the humidity."

"Toughen up, bucko. It's gonna get worse from here on out."

"Uggghhhhhhhhh..."

"You know groaning out loud's not gonna solve anything, right?"

"It'll probably solve something. There's probably a weather pony living around here somewhere listening to us at this very moment and he'll be thinking 'I pity these prolific pair of proud pegasi, progressing prudently and persistently despite precarious perils so profound, and shall provide to their prayers!'. Give or take a couple of minutes, we'll have a bit of wind coming in. Yep, good idea right there! What do you think? Wanna give it a shot?

"Uhhh... no?"

"Aww, don't be a bummer, Dash! Come on! Help this stallion cope!"

"Dude, you're pretty melodramatic today."

"It's the heat."

"Just the heat?"

"The walking too, if you really wanna know. Six hours of wholesome green is a little overbearing. By the way, why are we walking all the way there anyway? We could be flying straight to wherever we're going."

"Well, when you're up in the air, it's really, really easy to miss it."

"You said it was a temple, right? Probably not that hard of a thing to miss."

"That's what I thought too, but I did a bit of digging around before we left and every mention of it says that most of the temple is deep underground. The only part sticking out of the dirt would be the entrance, which isn't exactly... big, to say the least. If we're flying now, we'll only be seeing trees, trees and more trees."

"Well, we are in a jungle. Underground temple though. That's news to me."

"Something to do with the weirdo they're praying to. Hates daylight, I think."

"So... vampire?"

"Probably."

"Nice! This is what our third date's gonna be: a death battle! The vampire from the underground versus you and me. Ten bits says one of us will get our blood sucked before we get back to Vanhoover."

"Not funny."

"Ten bits says it's not a vampire?"

"Hmmm. Ten bits says our 'vampire' doesn't exist."

"You're on."

"You serious? You really wanna take the bet? It probably isn't there though. I mean, it's really unlikely that something is down there. Possibly some booby traps and maybe a couple of skeletons, but nothing alive, you know."

"Ey, don't ruin the fun! Backing out of our little bet? Chickening out, Crash?"

"You did not just— fine, fine! Twenty!

"Twenty-five!"

"Deal!"












"This is crazy, you know that, Dash?"

"Heck yeah it is."

"I mean, vampire! Like, wow! Pretty steep threshold, don't you think? Second date was a dinner on the clouds, third date is this? Vampire hunting?"

"Or not, you know. Like I said, highly unlikely. Even so, we're here to hunt for artifacts, not vampires. Pretty sure if we were, it'll be a supplementary thing."

"I mean, it's definitely better than being mobbed in Vanhoover. I can handle being mobbed in Cloudsdale, but Vanhoover? Yeah, how about no."

"You should try running that by the ponies of Vanhoover. Rustle their jimmies a little."

"They might be forgiving. I hear they're nice this time of the year."

"Celestia, my coltfriend is an evil monster."

"Nah, just a retiring Wonderbolt. In a few years, I'd probably be yelling at eleven-year-olds to get off my lawn. Probably throw a few pies at them as well. Probably yell something like 'you nosy little brats! I hope you get lost in a forest and have your blood sucked dry by underground vampires!' or something like that."

"With that rhetoric, you'd be kicked off into a nursing home."

"Not my fault those colts were running around my lawn!"

"Old Soarin's gonna bum me out when he comes around."

"You make it sound as if you're gonna be sticking around me long enough to see it."







"D-Don't read too much into it."

"Heheh. Yes, Ma'am~!"


Night III

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Retirement.

It's a big deal. It must be. It certainly was to Soarin', from the looks of it. She can't picture herself doing it however. Seriously, to have spent your whole life working for that dream job only to throw it all away in two decades (give or take) was just... baffling, there's no other way to put it! Just baffling! Why would anyone do that? Why would he... why must it be Soarin'? It's not as if it's age — he's only a few years older than her — and it's not as if he's not a good flyer anymore? He's still perfectly capable of pulling off all the signature moves the team had came up with, some of them even by he himself, and yet...

Rainbow Dash sighed.

The argent moon did her no favors. The wind oozed by, smothering her in a swarm of primal moisture that she quickly expelled with a wheeze. Steadily, the dreary seconds ticked in her head, her tail swishing side by side to its errant rhythm. Her eyes were barely staying open: staring was cumbersome, especially at this time of the night, though she had to be sure. His absence, though unwanted, was slowly setting in, and she was doing everything she could to not spring up from the branch she was resting on and just scramble about. She doubt he would just wander off for whatever dumbfounding reason he found compelling enough, yet here she was without the gentle embrace of his proud wings around her midriff. Here she was without the warmth of his breath brushing the back of her ears. Here she was, waiting.

The night rolled onward.

With a nicker, Rainbow turned to her side and closed her eyes, only to open them again. The winds were truly trying her. Being near the coast, it shouldn't be a surprise that they would come sweeping in to sour the night. Shuddering from its onslaught, Rainbow shuffled upward onto the higher, leafier branches, gritting her teeth. There was much scorn to be had, though it was ultimately fruitless. Perhaps she could remedy the situation herself, being a pegasi and all, only to stop herself: one missing pegasus was one pegasus too much, to be frank. The foggy sigh was all that's left of her willfulness as she quietly curled herself up, her voice faltering through chattering teeth.

"Why does it have to be so cold..."

"Need some help with that, Dash?"

Her stare shot downwards, pupils flaring at that voice. The mischievous smirk he dared to wear made her seethe. Like a panther, Rainbow Dash pounced onto him, her weight pushing him onto the ground with an oof. The familiar fuzz of his chest cupped her chin, her snout burrowing like a mole into his hairs before she dragged herself upwards with the finesse of a painter's brush, leaving only a trail of sensations to remember it by. She stopped when she reached his neck, tense and taut throughout from her advance, only to jerk when she dug her snout in and gave it a deep whiff.

"R-Rainbow, I—"

"Shut up."

"I just wanted to—"

"Shut up."

Soarin' knew what to do.

Her hooves sifted through his wings, faintly and absentmindedly stroking them. Her gaze rose to meet his, and though it remained a marvel, there was not a hint of joy in them. Oddly enough, he was smiling. In admiration, perhaps. Or adoration? Or both? Either way, there was no mistaking that little crook of the lips, which remained even as she reached out a hoof and gently traced the contours of his cheek. Of course, he gracefully reciprocated, his two hooves clasping around it and burying it deeper, even bringing it to trace the dry edges of his lips.

"Did I worry you?"

She almost scowled. "What do you think?"

"Didn't mean to. Was looking forward to another dip in the river."

"River's pretty far from here. Bay's a lot closer."

"Figured as much. You were right about the heat being worse around here."

"It'll even out in time, I'm sure. Just the changing of the seasons."

Her hind hooves curled inwards, interlacing with his. The glances they shared quivered with their skin. Gently, Rainbow Dash turned her head to its side, her murrs of contentment traipsing in a waltz with his genteel exhalations. The warmth they shared flickered with every puff, with one particularly strong gust even making Soarin' yelp out and almost keel over, though that only made Rainbow Dash cling onto him tighter. Throughout the next several minutes, the assault was relentless, yet they remained brave in the face of each other. They always do.

"We're gonna pull through this one."

"You don't have to tell me that."

"Yeah, I guess I don't," Soarin' laughed. "I'm just... I feel like we should be talking about something here."

"Talking? About what?"

A pause. "Stuff. Anything on our minds, really. I mean, there's still some things I don't know about you, Dash, and at the same time, I'm sure you have a bunch of questions for me. You know, third date stuff."

"Well, it's not like I have much to ask anyway." A wellspring of nostalgia came spiraling through her head, kindling a faint grin on her lips. "I mean, we're in the Wonderbolts together, we always hang out after practice and chatting up a storm. Even had a couple of bar nights together, just the two of us. Heck, the rest of the gang were surprised that we weren't dating already back then."

"Who would've thunk, huh?"

"Always overthinking the platonic friendship stuff, those girls."

"Can't really blame them. Spitfire, Fleetfoot and the others had been dying to see us together the moment we signed you up for the reserves."

"Huh," she mumbled at that prospect, her glance falling sideways. "So, uh... since we're on that topic, why didn't you... uh... what's the best way to say this..."

"Hm?"

"W-Why not Spitfire? Or Fleetfoot? Why me?"

"I... wow... well now..." Soarin' quavered, forehead tingling from a few beads of sweat. "I think, well, if I really gave it any serious thought and I really didn't... well... lemme see how this... I think for Spitfire, she and I are always perfectly happy with how things are between us. She'd hate for me to become her coltfriend and vice versa. As for Fleetfoot, I think we did try to spark something up, but it didn't work out."

"That's news to me. You and Fleetfoot, huh?"

"I mean, she's fine, really, I like her just the way she is. It's just... she's not... well... we just couldn't get into it, I guess."

"O-Okay..." Rainbow muttered, cheeks burning red. "Then w-why me then?"

"Don't know."

A long pause.

"You... don't know?"

"Really, I don't. Don't get me wrong, I'm very sure that I like you," he sheepishly responded, hoof quietly stroking her mane. "It's just... I don't know what exactly it is about you that I like, but it's there and... I guess that's why I'm doing all these dates. To figure out what it actually is, you know? I wanna find out what is it about you that just... clicks, you could say."

"I don't know, Soar, I'm pretty bad with understanding these kinds of things."

Another long pause.

"It's fine though, isn't it?"

"Hm?"

"Not knowing what it is in the end? Would it be fine?"

"I... guess so."

"Okay... alright... great, uh, h-how 'bout we stop there for now? Too much of reality for one night." She shuffled her hooves, insistently brushing them alongside her coltfriend's. "Anyways, we're gonna have a lot of ground to cover tomorrow. Hopefully we'll find our temple by then."

"Hopefully."

Rainbow didn't need to look to know he was smirking. "We'll definitely find it, I know we will."

Soarin' didn't need to be told what to do next. "Well then, if you say we will, then damn right we will!"

With those words came the one thing he always adored watching.

"Heh. Now there's a beautiful smile."

"Get some sleep, dork."


Day V

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"We should've been back in Vanhoover by now."

"Yeah... yeah we should've."

"Darn this stupid jungle... How you holding up, Soar?"

"Tired... just tired..."

"Can't even complain about the heat anymore, huh?"

"That's what five days of walking around a jungle and daily gallons of sweating does to you. Seriously, how are you... still... walking..."

"Don't know. Really trying my best not to just fall over and die here."

"Can we just fall over and die here?"

"You know what, yeah... good idea... let's fall over and die here..."

"Alright, and here we... ahhhhh...... finally, some rest~!"

"Got that right. Five minutes tops though."

"Aw, seriously? Why not ten minutes? Or at least eight?"

"Ugh, fine, seven minutes. No more, no less. The sooner we find the temple, the better."

"Heh. Got that right."









"Hey, Dash."

"Yeah?"

"Just wondering, and I know it's a little late to ask this, but um... what's this all for?"

"This expedition, huh? Well, uh, it has to do with some research involving... well... some really old stuff, I think. Like ancient. Like before Celestia became a thing. Look, I know I'm sounding kinda cagey here, but it's a little hard for me to just say it to you outright, mostly caused I sorta Pinkie Promised to not just tell anyone I meet on the street."

"Hey, I'm more than a pony you met on a street. You can at least tell your fellow wingpony, can't you?"

"Huh. Thought you were gonna go for coltfriend instead of wingpony."

"Well, I am, or was, your wingpony before I was your coltfriend, aren't I?"

"Actually, you were Spitfire's wingpony."

"Yes, that, but she reassigned Fleetfoot in my place, remember? When she put you into our main team, she assigned me to partner up with you, didn't she?"

"Yeah, she did, except that you became the lead flyer. I was the one assigned to be your wingpony."

"...yeah, that's how it went, didn't it?"

"Yep."

"By Luna's moonlit flanks..."

"Whoa-hoh there! Tone it down, butterlips!"

"It was getting good though! It was supposed to make you understand why it's a good idea to trust me, because wingponies are supposed to have the back of their lead, but instead I got our roles mixed up and it turns out you're the wingpony and I'm—"

"Okay, okay, I get the analogy! Damn, this heat's really messing with you... Okay, you want me to trust you with stuff, I get it. It's just... I'm not entirely sure of what's going on myself. I mean, it sounded important, sure, but it didn't sound urgent, so I don't wanna just... screw things up by talking my head off."

"Come on, Rainbow, when have you ever done that?"

"Do you really want to know?"

"Alright, sorry I asked, meant to cheer you up!"

"I don't need cheering up, Soarin'. I need to find this stupid temple and get the stupid artifact so we all can go home and sleep in an actual bed, for once."

"Well, I can't argue with that. I just thought since, you know, we're both down in the dumps and almost dumping on each other, I'd try lightening the mood a little. You know, liven it up before it all goes wayward."

"You don't have to, okay? I'm not that bummed out about this whole thing."

"Dash, you're wayyyy past the bumming out stage. If you ask me, you're looking really frustrated right now."

"Who wouldn't be? Wandering around in the middle of nowhere, looking for some stupid slab of stone sticking out from the ground among all the other stupid things sticking out from the ground—"

"Yeah, that, but I don't think that's what you're frustrated about."

"Okay. You're gonna tell me what to be frustrated about now?"

"Rainbow, that's not what I said."

"Well, then what are you saying?"

"Look, I'm trying to make this work as much as you are. I know, I know, some of the things I've been doing might be worrying you a little bit, but I promise, all of this has nothing to do with that—"

"Where's all this coming from, Soar?"

"It's just— ugh, how do I say this without... you're scared, aren't you?"

"N-No, I'm— um, uh, s-scared of what?"

"You gave an answer then, so I'm guessing you know what I'm talking about. Look, yes, I'm definitely retiring from the Wonderbolts and yes, I should've let you know in advance, but I guarantee you, this has nothing to do with—"

"Can we not talk about this right now?"

"Th-Then when do we wanna talk about it?"

"Some other time."

"You said that the last time."

"And I'll say it again. Some. Other. Time."









Soarin' sighed.

"You don't have to worry about a thing, that's all I'm saying."

Rainbow glanced away.

"How would I know that..." she mumbled.

He was about to respond, only to stop in his tracks. His jaw slowly fell, much to Rainbow Dash's bewilderment, though she quickly realized it when she followed his glistening gaze. For a moment, time stood still to marvel, perhaps at how the two of them shared almost the same expression of wonder at a curious stone cube about the size of a small hut, intricately designed with fractured patterns of concentric circles and jutting out from the ground like a molehill with a rectangular opening carved in, pitch black except for the set of stairs leading downwards into the darkness. Silence hung stoically between them, only to make way when Soarin' finally found it in himself to speak.

"Is that your temple?"

"Yes," came her answer, accompanied with a slow bout of nodding and a growing grin. "Yes it is."


Night VIII

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"I'm pretty sure it's around here somewhere."

"You're pretty sure?"

"Absolutely sure, if you wanna delve in the specifics! I can smell it in the air! The moisture! It's close by, Rainbow, I know it!"

Rainbow Dash tried her best to keep a straight face. Really, she tried, yet to see Soarin' sniff about the thick air like an excited puppy was already calling in a swarm of vicious butterflies circling in her belly. She didn't know whether she was fortunate or not to call this quirky stallion her coltfriend, though that wasn't something she minded, really. In fact, she was perfectly content with him leading the way like this, prancing up and about in his whimsical search for a good spot to bathe.

The night was young. Just past sundown, if the watch around her hoof was of any indication. She had bought one for her and Soarin' back in Vanhoover after learning that the temple was mostly subterranean. With how vast and far-reaching the underground complex was, she was almost certain they'd spend a day or two down here, perhaps even a week if things get rough. As such, she stockpiled as much as she could, just in case. Sure, Soarin' might complain about carrying all the baggage, but that's just Soarin' for you — runny mouth, sure, but he always gets the job done, no matter what.

Come to think of it, that was something she was always found amusing about him. Why bother complaining when you're gonna do it anyway? Why waste his breath when he could just utilize it for his task? 'That's just what divas do', a voice clamored in her head, though she shrugged off that notion. If anything, Soarin' was much more than those snobs up at Canterlot could ever hope to be; the last thing he was as a pony is one that was all talk and no action, that much she knew. 'Still a diva though', rang that voice again, to which she responded with a snarl.

"Come again?"

"Wha— uh, nothing! Nothing!"

"That's a lot of nothing to be thinking about," Soarin' said with a smirk, cantering up to her. "Guess I can be pretty obsessed when it comes to looking for a bath, huh?"

"I wasn't— okay, maybe I was, but it's not like it's a bad thing," Rainbow protested earnestly. "I just find it a little funny, that's all."

"Well, I try my best. Seems like we needed a bit of cheering up anyway."

She couldn't argue with that. Spending three days wandering about the temple's labyrinthine depths, with only the light of their headlamps and each other to confide in, was definitely taking a toll on them. That's not to say that the vast network of rooms itself was dreary: there was a quaint beauty to it, seeing as all its stone walls and even some of its floors were designed with carvings of every kind, depicting what life must've been like living in the dense jungle and all the stories told here that were now lost in translation, and they've certainly spent most of their first day marveling in awe at the intricate artistry of it all. What really got to her was this... this sensation of darkness watching them from behind, at times even glaring down from above their heads. It was the asphyxiating dread of loneliness lunging right into their ribcage, smothering whatever trace of air still clinging onto their lungs. It was incomprehensible, at times inconceivable, yet standing amid this obsidian miasma, she knew it was anything but.

To put it simply, it was like the weight of the surface world was being stacked on her shoulders.

Perhaps that explains it.

"Explains what?"

A long pause.

"...did I say that out loud?"

"Kinda did," Soarin' chuckled, stopping at a doorway. "But before we get to that, maybe you should do the honors."

"Do the honors for w-holy guacamole!"

That was all that came out from her lips. The rest of it was all stolen away by the shimmering beauty of a large rectangular tub of marble jutting out from the ground, filled to the brim with water and dappled by a few fallen leaves. The welcoming rays of moonlight glistened upon its surface, beckoning the two of them into their embrace. Quickly placing her various satchels aside, she quickly scampered up to the tub and dove in without a single thought, sending a ripple of gushing waves across the tub and spilling out its edges. With a relaxed sigh, she swam back and rested her head on the rim, before realizing that Soarin' was still standing outside and doing nothing.

"Ah yeah, that's it... so you gonna stand there and stare for the rest of the night or you gonna come in?"

"Uh, yeah, yes! J-Just thought you would've checked if it was actually water before diving in, you know? Traps and such?"

"Oh... right..."

"As long as my marefriend doesn't get hurt. it's fine." Soarin' chortled at her growing blush, setting aside his bags and slowly striding into the tub with a low, rumbling purr of content. "Cold, cold, oh... ooohhh, now that hit the spot..."

Rainbow silently and wholeheartedly agreed, giving a couple of backstrokes and drenching her head before letting herself just drift along with the ripples she created. Her eyes glimmered between the shafts of moonlight spilling in, split as they were by the fronds of a palm tree hanging above the square skylight. Before long, Soarin' had swam up to her side and flipped himself onto his back, joining her in this splendid view of the sleeping world outside. Together, the two gazed up at the waning moon and the many twinkling stars surrounding it, bringing to their souls a wondrous repose, however brief it may be.

"Soar?"

"Hmm?"

"I think I get it."

Soarin' craned his neck upward, the hairs of his mane swirling into the water. "Get what?"

"Retirement."

Surprise graced his features. "So that's what you were thinking about earlier."

"Yeah. You're tired, aren't you? Not about flying, but about the whole 'being a Wonderbolt is awesome and I'm proof of it' gig."

"Yeah, you could say it's one of the reasons," he muttered, paddling himself to her side. "I just don't feel like flying for the sake of putting up a show. It's been my dream when I was a colt, sure, but I don't think that's what I want to do anymore. Why, you thought it had something to do with you?"

"Uh... a bit..."

"Well, aren't you feeling a bit insecure?" he teased.

"I can't help it! I mean, it was so sudden..."

"I know, I know, I should've warned you ahead of time, sorry," Soarin' sighed, his breath meeting hers. "It's just... I had a lot of things on my mind."

"I kinda noticed." Rainbow brought herself closer. "You looked exhausted every time you reported in."

"I do, huh?" he laughed despondently. "I guess it's because I couldn't sleep at all lately. My body wants to, yet my mind keeps interfering every time. I keep getting this headaches because of that. So I thought of going to the doctor's. You know, just to see if I got a little sick. After giving me my checkup, they're saying it's insomnia, so there's that."

"Wait, insomnia?"

"Can't believe it either," he mumbled, his wing unconsciously wrapping around his marefriend. "I guess I had it coming for a while now. Drinking with my old buds, partying all the time, all the stuff I did. It's like it's been slowly growing and I've been taking good care of it. Sometimes, I could go nights without sleeping and just wandering around, you know, and I'm tired as heck but I still can't do it even after counting hundreds of sheep, no matter how hard I tried."

"S-Soarin', I... I didn't know..."

"It's cool. I mean, it's not like I went around showing it off to everybody." A small laugh. "I think apart from you, only Spitfire knew about it before I announced my retirement, mostly cause she's the captain and my oldest friend ever. Thought if anyone would understand, it was probably her. Sure enough, she excused me whenever she thinks I couldn't handle it, just in case I put the rest of you guys in danger. She even recommended the idea of retirement to me as well."

"You could've told me."

"I didn't wanna worry you, though it didn't work out that well now, did it?" he muttered sheepishly. "I didn't want to make this your problem to handle as well, that's all. I mean, you're still enjoying life as a Wonderbolt and everything and... I just don't wanna take that away from you. You looked like you were having fun and everything, and I didn't want me dragging you down. You were having fun, right?"

"Of course I am."

"Great."

"That doesn't mean you should just keep quiet about it." Rainbow stopped to gravely ponder. "Okay, wait, when's the last time you slept? Tell me when, honestly."

"Uh...two nights ago, after we finished gathering the supplies."

"So you haven't slept the whole time we were down here?" Rainbow gawked, to which he solemnly nodded. "Celestia, have you brought anything along to help? Any sleeping pills, anything?"

"Left them back at your place."

"In Ponyville?" she gasped. "But why didn't you bring... oh... oh, you idiot. You stupid idiot."

"Yeah."

"You think I'd be mad if I found out? You think I'd be better off not knowing?"

"Mm."

"You freaking idiot."

"Yeah..."

"You idiot... y-you stupid, boneheaded, harebrained—"

"Hey now, you don't have to cry over thi—"

"Then what do you expect me to do?! Am I supposed to just ignore all of that?! Am I supposed to sit here and be happy about it?! What do you want me to do, Soarin'?! What do you want me to... want me to..."

"I'm sorry."

"Don't you try to do that now!! Don't you dare! Don't you even try to... gahh.... can't believe you had to just went ahead and do this to yourself... it's stupid, you know? It's stupid..."

Soarin' glumly stared down at his reflection. 'Pathetic', he wanted to yell at himself. 'Just pathetic'. He wanted to speak up, he really did, though he knew that there was certainly nothing he could so to salvage the situation right now. His gaze followed Rainbow Dash as she sniffled and heedlessly wiped her tears away, wading across the tub and stumbling out without giving him a single glance back.

"I screwed up, didn't I?"

Her response, or lack thereof, was as cold as he expected.


D̴a̷y XIII

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"No, not here..."

"Empty."

"Not here... not here..."

"Also empty."

"Not here either. Not here, not here, not here, not here—"

"Rainbow."

"But it can't be, it's supposed to be here! This was it! This was supposed to be it!

"Rainbow?"

"It's empty... it's empty..."

"Rainbow Dash!!"

Soarin' expected her to yell at him. It wouldn't be the first time; certainly wouldn't be the last either. Having underwent it so many times, he firmly believes there's an art to her anger— perhaps not one as graceful or coherent as her flying, but it certainly showcases her endless supply of bravado. He held his breath and clenched his eyes shut, knowing it would come charging right at him and strike him in the gut in full force. In a few minutes, he would be limp and writhing on the floor, and she would still be hurling word after devastating word at him.

Any minute now, he reminded himself.

Any minute now.

Just a little longer.

Sure enough, it soon came charging forward in the form of a... plaintive sigh?

Wait a minute. Taking a little peek, he tensed up when he was met with Rainbow's stern frown. Angry: check, his brain chimed even as he scribbled up a grin, only to have it falter when she dolefully turned away. "You okay?" he asked, craning his neck forward.

"This is stupid."

The rabid bitterness skewered his gut. "You mean our search?" he asked, brows furrowing when he received a glum nod. "Hey, just because we didn't find it yet doesn't mean it's not here. Sure, temple's helluva lot bigger than we thought, but pointlessly complicated's just the way it is for the ponies of old, isn't it? You said so yourself!"

"Soarin', we've searched the whole temple, top to bottom, and we couldn't even find a single thing! It's not here! It was never here! Stupid temple with the stupid rooms, all for one stupid, worthless god of darkness or whatever! What kind of god is he anyway?! What does he even do?!"

"Pretend he could kiss his shadow?"

"Ewwwww!! What the hell, Soarin'?!"

"What?" he said in mock befuddlement, stifling a giggle. "He's all alone down here and has no one to look to for companionship. Well, no one real, at least. Heck, if I'm stuck down here for thousands of years, that's what I'd probably do. Would probably get sick of all the kissing and complain to my shadow that it's just not interesting anymore. Then give or take a few years, I'll be begging for it to come back and say that I was wrong, and it would say no, and then I'd show it this bouquet of flowers I bought—"

"Okay, stop! Stop it!" Rainbow yelled out between her badly-contained laughter, her shaking hoof holding onto his shoulder. "Okay... phew... I'm good, I'm good, all good..."

"Feeling better now, Dash?"

"Just for now, Soar," she declared, shaking her head with one last chuckle. "Celestia's flanks, how do you even come up with those?"

"I guess staying awake throughout the night does that to you. Well, it's either that, or just the sight of the awesome Rainbow Dash down in the dumps."

"Flatterer."

"You know you like it," he hummed delightfully, smirking at the tint in her cheeks. "So, uh, what now?"

Rainbow glanced around the room. "Good question."

"You didn't think of a plan B?"

"I didn't think we even needed a plan B," she sighed. "Just find some old thingamajig, then leave. That was the plan. That was the simplest job ever, yet... ugh, I can't believe I could even screw that up."

"Well, you were sure it's this temple, right?"

"Absolutely!"

"And you're absolutely sure no one's ever thought of coming here, correct?"

"I'd retire from the Wonderbolts if I ever get that wrong!"

"Okay, now you're just rubbing it in."

"Sorry," she sheepishly chuckled, her cheeky grin meeting his. "Look, point is, I'm sure I had everything right! Double-checked, triple-checked, quadruple-checked! You know, Twilight-level stuff!"

"Ooh, Twilight-level! Can never go wrong with Twilight-level."

"That's what I said!" she cried, throwing her hooves out across the room. "Yet look at what we've ended up with! Fat lot of good all that did for us."

"Devil's in the details, probably."

"But not in this temple, for crying out loud! Wished he was here so I could punch his shadow-kissing face back to the last century! Stupid god of darkness and his stupid artifact..."

"Wanna take five? Cool yourself off a bit?"

"I... yeah, I'm... yeah, sure..."









"Hey, Dash?"

"Yeah?"

Soarin' bit his lip. "Listen, about that night, back at the bathhouse... can we talk about that?"

Rainbow crossed her hooves. "Nothing better to do down here anyway."

"Okay, good, okay." he cleared his throat. "Think I'll start off by saying thanks."

His words swallowed up every coherent thought off the top of her head. "F-For?" she managed to squeak, eyes wide in bewilderment.

"For putting up with it for the past few days. Pretty sure it was on your mind the whole time we were stuck down here. You think I wouldn't notice? You were really, really upset about it, I can tell."

"Of course I was upset."

"And you have every right to be, no question," Soarin' clarified. "I should've let you in on it earlier, I should've told you, I just should've..."

"It's fine, Soarin'." she flashed a reassuring grin. "It's technically not water under the bridge just yet, but it's fine for now."

"Huh, so, uhh, what's it gonna take for me to get it off your mind?"

"Hmm... maybe a fourth date."

"Hah! Seriously? A fourth date? Might just be me, but aren't you wasting a good opportunity here? I'm saying you can have me repay you with anything you want and you chose to have a fourth date?"

"Yep."

"You're trying to go easy on me?"

A spark flurried frenziedly in her eyes. "Who said I was?"

Soarin' was about to speak, only to stop when he noticed her grin. The grin. It was the same grin he saw on her face when she first signed up in the Wonderbolts; the same grin that he spotted her wearing on every newspaper cover after another of her occasional monster fights. It was the one grin that screams out deafeningly 'give me all you got' to all those who view it, and now it was directed right at him, to which he mustered up his own game face in return.

"Fourth date it is, Dash."

"You sure you can take it? Steep threshold, you know. First date, bar night. Second one, dinner in the clouds. Third, hunting down a god of darkness. What you gonna come up next?"

"Oh, I can think of a few things," he hummed slyly, watching her grin widen. "Trust me, Dash, it'll blow all our previous dates out of the water, no question."

Firm stare swirled before firm stare; Wonderbolt to Wonderbolt; thunderstorm to thunderstorm, until Rainbow Dash leaned in and give him a nuzzle on his cheek.

"Love you."

A surprised, lighthearted chuckle. "Hah, love you too," he replied. "Now then, since there's a whole lot of nada to do here, should we head back to Vanhoover? Aching for a hot bath, nice and proper, with actual shampoo. Wanna get that oil slick off my mane ASAP."

"Sure, you diva, you."

"It's a matter of appearances! You want me to look good standing beside you or not?"

"Hey, you're great as you are already!"

"Did you just compliment me?"

"You goaded me into doing it! Doesn't count!"

"Seems to me like it does!"

"Does not!"

"I'm telling you, it does!"

"And I'm telling you, it does not!"

"Does!"

"Does not!"

"Does!"

"Does not!"



















"It was here... I'm right, wasn't I, it was right here..."

"Yeah... positive..."

"It was... it was just here... it was just here!"

Rainbow Dash was faced with a wall, her stare wide and trembling in disbelief. She stepped up to it and, biting her lip, reached out her hoof. Tentatively, it drew closer and closer to the stone cold surface, shivering softly throughout until it made the unthinkable first contact. It was right at that moment that her gaze fell to the floor and her pants hastened, before she reached back the same hoof and slammed it right into the wall with the loudest shriek her lungs could carry.

"DAMN IT!!"

She slammed it a second time.

"DAMN IT, DAMN IT, DAMN IT!!!"

A third, a fourth, a fifth, a sixth—

"Rainbow, stop it! Rainbow, Rain— STOP IT, YOU'RE HURTING YOURSELF!!"

"IT'S GONE, CAN'T YOU SEE?! THE EXIT'S GONE!!" she cried, giving it one last slam before stumbling backwards and falling onto her haunches, her worn hoof bruised a brazen purple with traces of blood seeping from minuscule cuts. She gritted her teeth and opened her mouth once more, only to gasp when Soarin' knelt down and wrapped her in a tight hug, squeezing out every ounce of rage and fury from her until all she had left was a whimper that came with the first of many tears to come.

"We're trapped down here..."




Ẋ̆X̼I

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"You're up early."

Soarin' didn't have to turn back to know who it was, instead focusing his eyes to the scenery above his balcony. "Pretty sure it's an everyday thing."

"Whatcha looking at?"

Nothing special, he wanted to say, though she'd certainly jab him in the sides for that. "Just the clouds."

"The clouds?"

What else is there? "Yeah, the clouds. They're just up there, drifting about in the emptiness, never sticking around for long before they're moving on, only to come all the way back again. It's a never-ending journey for them if you think about it. A journey with no destination in mind. A single floating lump of droplets with nowhere to go."

"Uh... I hate to break it to you, but that's just what clouds do."

He chuckled in agreement at that line. "It sure is, isn't it? Still, it's kinda... I don't know, it's kinda magical in it's own way. You look at them just ceaselessly moving onward, even with the knowledge of never knowing their destination clear in their fluffy little heads, and you'd wonder: what's driving them to do this? Is it a determination to get somewhere? Is there a purpose to doing this? Is there a pattern behind it?"

"Don't you think you might overthinking it a bit?"

He almost glanced back. Almost. "Maybe I am. Maybe this whole thing is a little much for one night. Still, it's... something to think about, just something. No idea what's it for or how it'll be useful, but it's definitely something."

"Well, I can't blame ya for that. It's not like there's anything else to see out there."

He stifled a laugh. "What are you talking about? Sure there is, I mean, there's the—"

He glanced back to the clouds, those silent passersby, quaintly drifting along their ephemeral tracks. He blinked, and glanced back to the clouds. He brought a hoof and rubbed his eyes, and glanced back. To the clouds. Slowly, Soarin' tore his gaze away to another part of the sky, whereupon drifted more clouds. Hastily, he glanced left and right; clouds and clouds. That was all that hung upon this night sky: just clouds— from which the unsettling, squirming screech lingering behind his reeling mind finally burst to the fore.

"They're not there..."

"What's not there?"

"The moon... the stars..." he gasped. "They're not there..."

"Of course they're not."

Soarin' didn't have to turn back to know who it was.

He didn't have to. He didn't need to.

Yet he did.

And in doing so, it came for him too.


" Aw̸æ̵kn "






























Eight days.

Remember, eight days.

It's been eight days.

Remember, Rainbow Dash.

She tried. She really tried. She had to try, she knew that from day one, yet to grasp something as mundane and minuscule as the passing of the minutes, the ticking of the seconds... she could hear them in the distance. At least, she could if she tried. It's the best she could do, what with both of their watches running out a day ago or so. She probably could— no, she can, she can! Tick, tick, tick. That's it, that's how it usually goes with watches, don't it? Tick, tick— no, no, off by a millisecond! Late! Early! Doesn't matter now, does it? Not down here. Not down in this dayless, nightless temple.

"Eight...

With trembling hooves, Rainbow Dash left another tear on the edges of their map. She thought it might help, yet now, down here, it's just another useless piece of paper. The rooms that they had been traversing in and out of weren't... right somehow, as if it's being moved in and out, like some sadist's puzzle box. All they could do was simply trudge onward, knowing that the exit would be around somewhere waiting to be stumbled upon. Still, it's been eight days. Eight whole days.

"Damn it... d-damn it..."

A laugh nearly broke from her drying lips, even as she reached into her satchels to have a nibble from their rationed stockpile. She stifled it in time, instead focusing on the layout of the room they've stopped for the night and musing on the options they have. There's a single doorway leading off to the left. On the contrary, they could always try going back the way they came. It wouldn't be the first time they tried that, and each and every time the room would change itself up as it always does. They could try that. Or they could just wait here and brave it out.

They could do that.

They could... but if it's all for naught...

"Dammit," she mumbled, holding back her tears. "I shouldn't have—"


"RAINBOW!!"


"AHHH!!"


Silence.

Dark silence.

Breathing silence.

Panting silence.

Hanging low.

Between one stare to another.

"Celestia's sake, Soar," she gasped first. "You scared me."

"What just... what did I—"

"You had a nightmare," she explained sullenly, cantering up to his side. "And you were finally having a good rest too."

"I... nightmare, okay... okay..."

"You okay?"

"Fine, I'm..." Soarin' swallowed and sighed. "This place is getting to me, I guess."

"You're not alone there."

With a shimmy, Rainbow brought herself closer to her coltfriend, their wings unfurling before curling up around each other. The sound of their breaths were the only sounds down here, and though they don't amount to much, it was still much more pleasant than the silence that was strangling everything. Sometimes, Soarin' would even hum a tune, and sometimes, Rainbow would find herself compelled to join in. She'd want him to do that now, in fact, yet with how shaken he looked, she knew he couldn't do it if he tried.

"What happened?" she opted for that instead. "In the nightmare, I mean?"

"Uh... I don't know... not sure... can't seem to find the right words for it..."

"But you yelled my name when you woke up." Rainbow cocked her head. "Guess that means I was in it, right?"

"Think so... but..." Soarin' frowned. "I don't know, it's not coming back to me, I don't know why, it's... just so... unreal..."

"This temple is unreal."

"Heh. Glad you didn't lose your sense of humor."

"I gotta try, don't I?" Rainbow said, grinning proudly. "I mean, being stuck down here with no one to come help us for uh... how many— eight days, yes, eight... eight days is definitely... doing things to us... to you and me... and I don't wanna lose to this. Not down here. Not in this dump."

"That's model Wonderbolt words right there."

"As if you haven't said anything like that yourself. Remember what you said to me the day I became your wingpony?"

Soarin' grinned wholeheartedly. "You still remember that?"

"How could I forget?" she laughed, clearing her throat before she began doing her best expression of him. "Think it went something like 'you gotta reach a little higher than what you would reach for. Ain't that hard for you, kiddo'. Might have a part I left out."

"No, no, I think that's it." He stopped to ponder. "Wait, did I actually call you kiddo back then?"

"Yep."

"Echh. Kinda weird, now that I think about it."

"It's weird now, that's for sure," Rainbow retorted. "I think it was fine for me back then, though. I mean, you were sorta, not really, my teacher or something, so it sorta fit."

"Sorta."

"Yeah, sorta."

A pair of sighs as the two pegasi glanced around once more. The breath-sapping silence swarmed in quickly the moment the echo of their voices faded away, relentlessly chewing and clawing at their eardrums even as Rainbow rested her head onto Soarin's shoulder, her eyes drooping as she finally caved in to her exhaustion after watching over her coltfriend for so long, only to be briefly interrupted when Soarin' spoke up again.

"We'll ride this one out, kiddo."

"Don't you—" she groaned too little too late, only to smile as the low, warm rumbles of the chuckles from his throat filled her ears. "Alright, you had your fun, dork. Now lemme get some... ah... shuteye..."

Soarin' could only smile his warmest smile, his hoof pulling her closer than ever.

"Have a good one, Dash."















XX͠XIV?

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"Wonderbolts, assemble!"

With a sharp swerve, Rainbow Dash swiveled upwards to the edge of the sky, spinning past the many lumps of clouds before screeching to a halt right at the peak of the world. Breathlessly panting, she turned back to view the small world beneath her, her smile burning bright from cheek to cheek, almost rivaling the marvelous glare of the sun behind her before swooping down towards the academy. Her eyes lit up when she spotted him standing by the runway and smiling right at her, before he reached out a hoof and gave her a wave.

"Nice lap there, Dash!".

Chuckling proudly at her coltfriend's praise, she did one last somersault before gliding towards the ground, her hooves breaking into a jog the moment they touched the asphalt. Without even a sliver of hesitation, she cantered right up to her smiling coltfriend and affectionately nuzzled his snout with a light nicker, their mingled breathes blithe and blissful.

"You looked beautiful up there," he tossed the line.

Of course, Rainbow took the bait. "Just beautiful?"

"Awesome too," Soarin' added smugly, the two of them chuckling.

"Dorms are that way, you two lovebirds."

Giggles and cackles swarmed upon the now-blushing pair, with Spitfire the one coyly leading the charge. "We won't be needing it soon, Spits," Soarin' jested in return, though it only deepened his marefriend's scarlet cheeks. "You guys were great out there too, by the way. This for the next show in Fillydelphia?"

"Bet your sweet flanks it is, Soar," Fleetfoot chimed in. "Though you know what would make our routine better?"

"If you're gonna say what I think you're saying, I don't think so."

"Aw, come on! All we needed to make this perfect was your signature moves!" she pressed on, with the rest of the team nodding and humming in agreement. "Just one more show, one more, then you can call it quits! Don't you think so, Dash?"

"Wha? Uh, um—"

"Hey, don't bring the lady into it," Soarin' interjected, though that only earned a few more laughs from the rest. "Okay, seeing what you guys cooked up, I think the routine's fine the way it is. Me joining in at the very last second might just blow it up, you know. Plus, you made the announcement about my retirement to the press already, didn't you Spits?"

"Not yet. Press pool bumped the schedule by an hour. I could, however, retract the topic of your retirement until the next one if you just say the word."

"Nah, I'm good. Nice try though."

Spitfire laughed heartily at that. "Thought I had you there. Still, I'm with everyone else here: I think you have one more show in you. It's all up to you in the end, though. Remember that."

On that note (and of course, with their captain's permission) the Wonderbolts dispersed, some of them returning to practice, the others to take a break to chatter among themselves. Turning her head towards her coltfriend, Rainbow opened her mouth to say something, only to notice the subtle crumple baking in between his brows. "You're not seriously reconsidering it now?" she muttered lowly.

"Doing one more show? Of course not. It's just..." he stopped, gazing up at the clouds again. "If you asked me that question a couple of months ago, I'd be all for it, no second thoughts. I'd still fly up there with you guys and enjoy it, probably. I mean, I still feel the thrill of it all and everything. Probably more than ever, especially since I've got everything down to a tee."

"So what's stopping you?"

"I don't know... no, I think I do, but I don't think it's the right answer. I wouldn't dream of it, but I... it's not right, it just isn't, I know it isn't—"

"What's stopping you, Soar?" she pressed onward. "Just tell me."

And with a gravest stare unlike the stallion she came to know and love, Soarin' sternly provided his answer.

"You."
























A tear.

Just another tear.

She lost count. Not the tears, for they're very clearly there on the fraying edges of the map, but she might as well lose count of them anyway. The clock in her head had stumbled in its tracks some time ago. Don't know if it was early or late, nor by how much. Minutes, hours, days even. Hopefully not the latter, or anything beyond it, for that matter. She wouldn't dream of it, especially with all the tears she made on the map. She wouldn't even want to think about it.

Not down here.

Not here.

Anywhere but here.

No, think of something else.

Something else. Anything else.

Soarin'.

He's sleeping again. Soundly this time. She would laugh at that if she could, though she was afraid it would wake him up. She didn't know how long he stayed up for this time around, but she'd always see his despondent smile every time she opened her eyes after waking up from all the naps she took before his turn came. He might've slept then, he might not. It's a gamble, at this point, much like flipping a coin to see whether it lands on its head or tail, or picking a card out during a game of blackjack, or wandering into some ancient temple on the notion that they'd actually make it out aliv—

No, no!

Soarin', back to Soarin'.

Retirement.

It's a big deal. It must be. It certainly was to Soarin', from the looks of it. She wouldn't understand it, yet she knew there's no need to. Soarin' has his reasons for retiring, and they were legitimate reasons to boot. She heard it straight from his mouth; there's no mistaken that he meant every word he said. Those were the reasons and the only reasons, period.

"Right?"

Rainbow Dash clamped her mouth shut.

It's her voice.

Definitely her voice.

"Soar?"

A whisper. A glance.

Still sleeping.

A sigh.

A tremble.

A tear.

Just another tear.

She didn't bother wiping it off at first. She just let it swirl there, right above her cornea, and sure enough, it began its meandering crawl down her cheek, clinging onto her even as it hung at the edges of her chin before finally taking its dive onto the cold stone floor. The next one followed it soon after, as did the next, as did the next, as did the next. Only then did she found the resolve to raise her hoof and start wiping them away, though that only encouraged them to come in full force.

"Dash? You, ah... you okay?"

"Dammit..." she mumbled, hearing the shuffling sounds and rumbling groans from behind her. "Y-Yeah, I'm... I'm fine, Soar. I just— well, um... temple's dusty as heck, and it's getting into my eyes, so—"

"It's fine to cry, you know," Soarin' tersely pointed out. "No one's gonna judge you for that. 'Specially not down here."

"I just... I..." she cowered. "I screwed up. I screwed it all up. If I knew, if I read a little more, then maybe th-there's a bit that says something about this! Maybe then we wouldn't be stuck here! Maybe we wouldn't just starve to death—"

"Don't say that!"

"That's how it's gonna be! That's what's gonna happen! We'll die here, Soarin'! This is it!" Rainbow shrieked, only to sink back down. "This is it for us... this is how we're gonna go... and it's because of me..."

"Dash, please—"

"I should've realized this was gonna happen... I should've known—"

"Should've known that there was nothing here, yeah, got that," he interrupted, much to her chagrin. "But that's just it, Dash. We're stuck here now. No one's fault, just an unfortunate set of circumstances, that's all. You don't have to blame for yourself for it, okay?"

"But I should've known, Soar! I-I should've— I just— I don't k-know why I-I-I—"

"There, there," Soarin' hushed, embracing Rainbow as she choked on her sniffles, her muffled whimpering and squeaking barely audible with her face buried in his chest. It was the only sound reverberating across all four corners of the room, and for the longest time, he held her like that, draining out every sour snivel and weathered whine that she could muster.

"it's not your fault, okay?" he reassured her once again when her sobs tapered off. "It's not your fault. Shh..."

"I'm sorry, Soarin', I'm so—"

"Wait."

Rainbow's glistening eyes shot up at him. "Wha... what is it?"

Soarin' craned his neck higher, closed his eyes and, in a moment that dumbfounded her, sniffed the air. "That smell..." he muttered, taking another whiff. "Did you smell that?"

"Smell what?"

"The moisture. It's like— no, it's definitely it! The bathhouse, remember?"

Soarin' suddenly scrambled to gather their things, stuffing everything she had carefully laid out into their satchels before she could even begin to speak, the flurry of excitement giddily flaring in his eyes churning from her a vehement groan. "Soarin', we don't have time for this!" she hissed, hoof meeting her face. "We've been stuck down here for Celestia knows how long, our food supply's running out—"

"Don't you realize what this means?" he abruptly shouted, stunning her as he gripped her by the shoulders. "Think back to the bathhouse! Come on!"

"Soarin', I d-don't think—"

"Just!" Soarin' stopped short to gulp in a huge breath of air. "You remember the bathhouse, don't you?"

"Y-Yeah, sure? And?"

"What do you remember?"

"Uh... the tub, the cold water, you talking about your insomnia—"

"No, other than that!" he yelled again, only to get a blank, somewhat frightened stare. "You really don't remember it?"

"Remember what?"

"The skylight! The bathhouse had a skylight!"

Silence.

"And the skylight leads outside—"

"Exactly."

"—so if we find the bathhouse—"

"Yeahh?"

"—we could use that to fly back outside!"

"Correct!"

"Soarin' you're a genius!" Rainbow laughed out loud, hugging her coltfriend tightly, if only for a moment. "Come on, we gotta find it before it vanishes! You can still smell it, can you?"

A smug grin. "Clear as day."

"Lead the way."

Without further ado, the two pegasi galloped from room to room, with Soarin' sticking his nose up in the air, sniffing about like a puppy despite Rainbow's horrible attempts at stifling her laughter, the mare following closely behind. Sure enough, the glistening waters of the tub soon came into view, and shooting right from above it, the wondrous sight of golden, crepuscular rays, streaking right out from the square-shaped opening in the ceiling.

"We... we did it..."

Neither knew who muttered that, but at that point, they most certainly didn't care. Wearing their most elated smiles, Rainbow and Soarin' ruffled their wings and zipped right through it, speeding out of reach from the tendrils of darkness, spiraling right through the palm fronds in the way with a splattering fanfare of dewdrops spraying their cheeks and right into the grand expanse of the orange-colored sky.

Rainbow Dash felt the rush of the morning air seep into her skin and churn in her lungs, panting and gasping as she kept herself aloft. Her wavering stare steadied itself, fixated at the cleft between a pair of mountains in the horizon, only to flicker when the burning glare of the sun struck her irises, her hoof immediately jerking up to shield her eyes. She blinked and blinked, squinting long and hard to chase away the flashing circles dancing in front of her face, before realizing that she was convulsing with the lightest of chuckles.

"We did it..." she finally found the words, shaking like a leaf as her eyes swiveled to regain focus. "We actually did it... By the princesses, we actually did it! Soar! We did it! We actually did it, we— Soar?"

Silence.

"Soar? Soarin'?"

Silence.

"Soarin'?" she yelled, whirling around and about, gaze frantically darting across the clouds. "Soarin'! Soarin', where did you—"

A loud thud rung in her head, followed by a screeching ring.

Her head shattered, the thoughts contained within swiveling over and over and over into oblivion. The clouds spun rapidly above her, so much so that they all became a frivolous blur. She felt herself plunging backwards, her hooves gracelessly scrambling about in search for a grip, only to have it be constricted. From the edges of her eyes came the darkness, blotting her world like ink spots, black rivulets slowly spreading, slowly growing, slowly devouring the last of her vision, before the blackness burst all at once from the dam with one last bang.

The last thing she saw was Soarin's grin, as the darkness swallowed her whole.









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" S❍a̸r̴in "

Soarin' didn't have to turn back .

He didn't need to.

He didn't want to.

" S❍a̸r̴in • ɬꝏk • at • ᵯe "

He glanced back to the clouds hanging in the sky, watching them unfurling and undulating inside out, some of them flickering and shimmering from the errant clamors of lightning it was cooking up. They've stopped drifting some time ago, instead just content with staring down at him, scowling and sneering at the one pony who took notice of their dormancy. He couldn't help it — there was nothing else the sky had to offer anyway, nor was there anything worthy of note around him.

That's what he told himself, anyway.

" S❍a̸r̴in • ƿle⍺𐌔e "

"I can't."

" WĦ⅄? "

"You're not her," he muttered, his neck tensing. "You have her voice, you have her... her rasp, her tone, her attitude, everything, but I-I know it's not you, Rainbow Dash. That's not you, Dash, that's... you're not the real her."

" Яænḅ⚬w Dα𐌔ℏ "

Celestia, the temptation! The sweet, irresistible temptation! Every muscle, every tissue, every tendon in his neck, taut with urgency, with... with the need— no, the hunger! The hunger to recall... to remember... and all he needed to do was to just take a peek. All he needed was to sneak a peek at a face— her face. How did it look like? How would her eyes sparkle this time? How would her mane fall across her cheeks? How would she... how did she...

" S❍a̸r̴in¿ "

"You know, Rainbow Dash had this way of smiling," he began, striding down the endless balcony with his hoof trailing across the glass railing. "It wasn't cute or anything like that. It was just... I guess you could call it just an ordinary smile, but just a little more... special, probably." A brief chuckle. "Sorry I can't be of much help. I think if you'd ask anyone else, they'd say her smile's nothing more than the usual shtick. They'd say I'm just seeing things, and they're probably right, I might've been. That's before all this insomnia crap came along too. Yeah, might just be me."

" SɱɪL𐤄 "

"It's funny. I take my eyes off her smile for more than a couple of days, I can't piece it together anymore. Sometimes, when I think I have it... I don't know, it just doesn't feel right. It's not perfect. It's not her smile, you get what I mean? It's just not something I know Rainbow Dash would ever conjure up. It's below her. It's... she's something else." Soarin' sighed dreamily, stopping in his tracks as he struck an epiphany. "It must be... times like this when you realize you're in love with somepony. I think that's what they meant when they say that. I don't know how, I don't know why, I just know it happened and... I guess that's how things are now. Yeah, not much for sappy talk, but I'm a Wonderbolt, after all. That's just not what we do best. At the very least, she understood that."

" ŁoꝞe "

"What else could it be?" he muttered, gritting his teeth. "I'm not the strongest pony in the world, I know that. Not the smartest either. Rainbow's better at both of those than I am, if you'd ask me honestly, but..." Soarin' almost turned back to face whatever it was. "She wanted to try this out. She chose to. That must mean something, doesn't it? I mean, third date in, she basically just trusted me with her life and I just—" he paused, quietly grumbling. "That's why if I turn around now and look at you — you, her impostor, her doppelganger, the false Rainbow Dash — I might be inclined to believe that you were as perfect as the real thing when in reality, you're nowhere close to the Rainbow Dash I know. You're nothing like her, not even by a sliver of her hair. You're nowhere close to who she really was and what she represents, and for the life of me, if I knew what those things were, I'd already be turning around and yelling them right into your face but I don't. I knew if I turned around, I'd see her face again and I'd fall in love without harboring a second thought. I'm not as strong as her, I'm not as smart either, but I know one damn thing."

" S❍a̸r̴in "

"You're just a shadow," he snarled. "You're just an ugly, desperate, distressed, fanatical, brooding shadow. The last thing I'd ever do is to fall in love with the likes of you."

And with those coarse words, the sky burned black.

And with it, the world sank its fangs.




























Soarin' woke to the sound of the buzzing sun.

The warmth felt distant. A manic chill swept underneath his wings and carried him up onto his hooves. Sweat covered his trembling form from head to hoof, soaking him in an oily sheen that would be the death of him in the days to come. His parched throat clung onto the faint humidity wafting in the air, his tongue hanging out as he panted like a dog. His head was searing madly, yet it was the least of his worries as of now.

Rainbow Dash was lying next to him. Soundly asleep, thank Celestia for that. Feverishly trembling though. Her hoof twitched and jerked about the ground, bearing small cuts and bruises she earned from pummeling through some branches. Her wings were fine, fortunately, save for a few larger cuts, but nothing life-threatening or dream-shattering, thanks to him catching her in time. Had he reacted any later, she would have to kiss her Wonderbolt dreams goodbye and join him in retirement, and though the last part does strike his fancy in the strangest way he could ever imagine, he'd rather she do it of her own volition instead.

Retirement would've been a big deal for Rainbow Dash.

He would know.

His gaze, however, was heeded towards the skies, blanketed fully by clouds with not a single ray of sunshine in sight. He knew the moment they emerged that this was not the forest they had traveled through before, as evidenced by the lack of smoldering green that should've been surrounding him. He would've warned Rainbow about it, though it was only a second too late. Whatever monster that swooped in and struck Rainbow Dash was still hovering somewhere up there, warily waiting for them to fly again just so it could slug them back down. He could hear it screeching and slobbering like a strangled pheasant, scratching at the petrified barks of the silver trees, sometimes even crying out for him with her voice. Her voice.

As if it hasn't done enough already.

"S-Soar—"

"Hey, hey..." he muttered, quickly shuffling to her side. "Don't get up yet, Dash. You need some rest."

"Wa... water... water..."

With a nod, he rummaged through their satchels before pulling out a half-empty canteen. Gently, he tilted her head up, let a single thread of water slip through her cracking lips and trickle down her throat. Despite its flowing scarcity, Rainbow took her drink in large, eager gulps visible on her neck, and when she was done, she was smiling weakly at him as he spun the cap back onto the canteen.

"Feeling better?" he asked.

"Totally..." she groaned, wincing from another pang in her head. "This stupid god of darkness just... doesn't know when to quit... d-doesn't he?"

"Yeah," Soarin' chuckled, his left hoof latching onto hers while his right gently settled on her forehead. "Dammit, you're still burning bad up in there..."

"You're... burning up... too... aren't you?"

"One of us has to take care of the other," he muttered, swallowing. "Besides, yours is bad. Really bad. Way worse than mine. If mine's a heater, yours is the sun itself..."

"Heh, cheesy... and you're the r-retiree among us two..."

"Retired Wonderbolt... doesn't mean I stop taking care of my marefriend now, don't I?"

Silence.

"Don't lose to this, Rainbow Dash. Just don't."

"I w-won't.... I promise..."

Silence.

"Good."

"I try to be," she jested, earning a laugh from him. "This... this is stupid... isn't it... I thought we'd get the artifact, but instead, we get... this... all of this..."

"You're still thinking about that, huh?"

"I can't... nothing else to... it's just..."

"Fourth date's gonna make you forget all about this, ya hear me?" he promised with a grin, planting a kiss on her forehead. "Get some rest now. You need it more than ever."














"S-Soarin'?"

"Hmm?"

"I..." she trembled. "I'm scared..."

"Me too, Dash," he replied, trembling alongside her as the screeching started once more.

"Me too."










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"Remember the first day of the tour?"

Rainbow looked up from her glass of swirling wine. "First day of which tour?"

"Precision, I like that," Soarin' chuckled with a smirk, his wineglass meeting hers with a charming clink. "The Cincinneighti-Baltimare tour, two years ago. You remember that show, don't you?"

"My first show as your wingpony," she groaned and shuddered before downing her drink, earning a loud laugh from her coltfriend. "Ugh, can never get it out of my head even if I wanted to. Celestia, the things Spitfire yelled into my ear that night... I still get nightmares about them from time to time."

"Well, you kinda did bungle it up pretty badly."

"Yeah, thanks for the reminder," she gruffly snorted. "Also, 'pretty badly'? Wouldn't even remotely cut it to what really happened, Soar."

"I mean, sure, you steered in the wrong direction during the sharp turn, but most ponies still thought it was part of the show—"

"Because the rest of you guys steered away in time, that's why. It's either that or the whole team gets knocked out of the sky. I could've sent the entire team into the ER, Soar." Rainbow sighed glumly. "You're thinking I would've nailed my debut performance as your wingpony, aren't you?"

"No, not really."

"Well, I think I should've. I should've nailed my debut. I should've did that and... be awesome, I guess."

"You're already awesome, okay? Sure, wingpony debut went awry, but no one's gotta breathe down your neck about it, Miss Element of Loyalty."

"Geez, can you stop calling me that?"

"What? I thought saving Equestria was always on the list of awesome stuff you'd do every other day?"

"Yeah, it's awesome, but I have a name, you know?"

"Does it rhyme with 'awesome'?"

Rainbow Dash couldn't hide her smile even if she tried. "Not exactlyyyy, but it sure does sound like it."

Soarin' grinned. "There she is," he cooed, making her giggle. "Ever receptive to sweet talk, you."

"Not just anyone's sweet talk."

"Is that a compliment I hear?"

"Hmm, I don't know..." her eyes glinted. "Maybe~?"

"If you ask me, that sure sounds like one," Soarin' nudged coyly, leaning in. "You know, you should dish out a few more of those. Give as much as you take, if you catch my drift. Makes you a lot more—"

"Awesome?"

"I was gonna say something else, but awesome works too," he chuckled. "Man, that's like, what, five instances of the word 'awesome' already."

"Six, actually," she corrected smugly. "Dude, the night's just getting started and you're already feeling the buzz."

"Well, I'd rather be drunk a glass of wine than count how many times you're gonna say 'awesome' tonight."

"How many times we're gonna say. You're no lightweight in that department either."

"I can't help it! It's contagious, you know? You saying it just makes me wanna say it!"

"Dunno why you have to go and make it my fault."

"I didn't say it's a bad thing now, did I?"

Before she could muster her reply, Soarin' leaned in and nuzzled her cheek, which quickly surged with a scarlet warmth. She opened her mouth to speak, only to be hushed before she was given the chance to do so. For the longest time, Rainbow Dash sat there in silence, the stiff tension in her joints and spine far surpassing those that would rattle her nerves moments before another air performance.

"Uh... Soar?" she finally managed. "You hanging in there?"

"Barely."

"Heh. You wanna head back? Or..."

"Nah..." he said, dismissively waving his hoof. "Let's just... stay here... right here... for tonight... forever..."

"Don't get too comfy on your second date. That's my cheek you're resting on."

"This is the best cheek I've ever had the honor of resting on."

"This better be the only cheek you'll be resting on."

"Possessive. I like that," Soarin' said with a grin.

"You gotta get my permission first though," she deadpanned cheekily, hoof prodding at the very top of his head. "Off."

"Fine," he groaned, only to flop his snout limply against the fluff of her chest. "Better? Please?"

Rainbow rolled her eyes, her lips meagerly creasing with a quiet sigh before giving away into a smile.

"Better."



















"No time... n-no time..."

How did it end up like this?

"Dammit... dammit, dammit, dammit, dammit—"

How could she let this happen?

" Яænḅ⚬w Dα𐌔ℏ "

"Shut up," she snarled, watching the rumbling skies above the towering spindles of fossilized wood, their barks and branches creaking with every telltale sway in the churning wind. The glass leaves scattered about the porcelain forest floor danced between her hooves, clattering as they whirled across the ground. Steadily she galloped through the trees, running past the clumps of white feathery grass brushing against her sides.

She stopped for a breather, wincing at the buzzing ache in her forehead, wrapped as it were by a makeshift bandage, courtesy of the grass she had plucked from the ground, that had stained into an unrecognizable, gruesome auburn. Restively, she gazed up to the fallow skies for the umpteenth time, seeing nothing but dormant clouds sneering down at her, crackling and cackling all at once. With a deplorable sigh, she resumed galloping down this endless path, knowing not where it would take her, much less if it would even bother doing so.

" Яænḅ⚬w Dα𐌔ℏ "

Temptation rapped at her dangling eardrums, sweet and sour all the same. Gritting her teeth, Rainbow tried steering her head forward, though it would always teeter back to those scourge of fallacies in time. The sky laughed thunder at her predicament, once or twice yelling to make her jump up to the tip of her hooves. When at last her skin wore thin, burned down to the very last layer, she clenched her eyes shut, marching onward only to halt abruptly when it came sweeping from behind once again.

" Яænḅ⚬w Dα𐌔ℏ "

"WILL YOU JUST SHUT UP!! SHUT UP!! SHUT! UP!"








Silence.

There was no one behind her.

No one but her own shadow.

"Shut up..." she shivered. Sniveled. Shriveled. "Shut up... just shut up..."

" Яænḅ⚬w Dα𐌔ℏ ? "

The fires raged once more.

"What do you want from me?"

" S❍a̸r̴in "

"He's not here..." she clinched her watering eyes. "He's not here, okay? If he's here, I'd know, because... because he's Soarin', for Celestia's sake! He's not here! He's gone! Long gone! He was there with me, every single step of the way and... I don't know how, I don't know why, he was gone. Just... gone... without a word, without a sound, without... without even a goodbye... and whose fault is that, huh? Whose fault is it?"

Silence burned.

"Soarin' would never do this to me," Rainbow hissed, hoof jabbing at her bandaged forehead. "That wasn't him. That wasn't Soarin'. No, that Soarin's gone now... you... you did something... to him..."

" Яænḅ⚬w "

"You stole him away from me. You stole Soarin', took him away as yours and hidden in somewhere you'll think I'll never reach. But guess what, chump? I'll get there. I'll find him. I'll know where he is and I'll bring him back. And when I'm done with getting to him, I'll get to you next. I'll make sure it'll hurt, and it will hurt. I'll promise you that, right here, right now."

Silence flared.

"I will never, ever forgive you. Ever."

In the stillness of the forest, came a passing tremble.

With that, Rainbow Dash marched ruthlessly onward.




























"Did you hear that?"

"Hear what?"

Soarin' glanced up at the trees, his ears perking in the deathly silence. The soft grass beneath him bent in the wind, the sky above him glinting in its ceaseless thunder. His glance shifted towards a cloud, then to another, then to another, and for a moment he thought he saw a colossus of black behind them, looming over them, leering at them with ghastly eyes of pallid white. A blink later, however, all he saw was the blistering gray, trembling in tranquility. With half a smile, he returned his tender eyes to the mare resting by his side, his voice but a shadow of its former self.

"Probably just the clouds."


















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In the stillness of the forest came the roaring of the clouds.

It began, perhaps, as rumbling thunder. A glance up, one would believe that nothing was amiss, what with the plentiful streaks of light shattering the facade of the gloomy sky, perfect as a visual accompaniment. Somewhere down the line, however, it began taking on the gangly form of a vulture's shrill warble, almost akin to the harrowing screeches that would occasionally come ringing out from the edges of the world. Now, without a moment's rest, it had warped into an unrecognizable degree, becoming this... sound, if one could even call it a sound anymore.

How would anyone even begin describing it? How, with it operating on the principles of senselessness? Sometimes, it's as if a barrage of spiders crawling across the insides of your skull. Other times, it's like a flurry of wasp stings resounding from inside your liver. Sometimes, it's like a splurt of wax and ink spilling from your throat. Other times, it's like a syringe of laughter, constricting and convulsing like tapeworms ready to slither out through the needle jabbed right into your veins. Sometimes, it's silence strangling. Other times, it's scrutiny screaming. Each and every time, however, all he could see embracing the world were those plumes of apathy dotting the fields of gray, fallow apart from their fiscal flickering.

Within the blackness of his clenched eyes, Soarin' held on tightly onto the swinging threads that make up the lattice of his uneven mind. He scowled, then winced with a hiss, and for a second he seemed to have lost his grip, only to regain it a moment later. The blistering white sizzles between the silver trees, like wriggling termites, ate away at his decaying vision, and in their trickling embrace, he stumbled once more onto the porcelain floor.

"Soar?! Soarin', you okay?"

"Huh, wha... sorry, I was... I don't know..." he stopped, a chuckle forcing its way out of his mouth. "R-Reminiscing, maybe. Probably that. Maybe cause I needed to. Done it a few times already. You know, just looking back to the past, conjuring something up to make sure I don't..." The words fell short, quickly forgotten with a shake of the head. "Never mind that. Y-You feeling better? Fever died down?"

"I-I think..." she muttered softly, hoof grazing over her forehead. "Yours?"

"Probably. I don't know. Had it for so long now, it probably became a part of me that I've learned to live with," Soarin' laughed halfheartedly, then silence. Only after an uneasy glance to the frigid sky did he find the courage to speak again: "But I guess it's not all bad, isn't it? I mean, at least I'm stuck here with you, aren't I?"

"I guess so..."

"I... know so..." he managed with impoverished breaths, propping himself against a craggy, silver bark. "We'll make it out, you know that. We always do. And after we do, we'll head to the nearest bar, order as many mugs of... cider as... we can handle and... well... we'd waste the next few days away. Hangover's gonna suck, but that's just part of the deal.

"That's if we actually get out."

"Just gotta be optimistic, I guess. We'll find our way out, one way or another."

"And if we don't?"

Soarin' worked his strained head. "Well, I..." he paused with a gasp, hoof running through his mane. "I-I guess we'll have to make do with whatever this place has to offer then. It's not that bad? I think? Nice scenery, at least. Pretty strange, but... nice? Clean? Maybe a little bit too clean in some parts for my taste. Not really colorful either. Matter of fact, you and I might be the most colorful sight to see for miles. We'll have to do something about that."

"How?"

"Well, we'll figure it out."

"Seriously, how?"

"We're pegasi, Dash. We wing it like we always do. Just gotta go with what we have."

"But there's nearly next to nothing here, Soar! We ran out of food ages ago, we're running out of water soon! How would you even think about making sure we finally get out—"

"I don't know, okay?!"

The forest trembled. The earth rumbled. The clouds thundered once more. Those fabled words lunged into the air like a rabid hound from his lips, vicious and venomous. "I don't know..." he muttered before sighing a fractured sigh, the simmering heat crackling from his head and seeping down into his bones. His skull crumpled when the screeching started again, clawing from inside his ears for the umpteenth time. Fire and water snarled and shrieked between his eyes, and herewith he stumbled back, shuddering before their might.

"S-Soar? Soarin, you're—"

"L-Listen to me, Dash," he managed, blinking profusely as his hooves began to wobble. "This... this is no... nothing we can't handle, right? We'll get out of here... no matter... no matter... doesn't matter... no matter what... okay, Dash? Just... we'll get out... then... then I'll..."

The angels screamed from the stratosphere. The glaring whiteness snapped at his joints. After all those days of striving onward, Soarin' collapsed within a matter of seconds, the steadfast spirit that he had been clinching on for so long reduced to dust as he howled and bawled in agony. The shadows danced around the bonfire breaking his bones, the smoke clawing the walls of his throat. Panting, gasping and screaming at the same time, the material world was a spectator and nothing else. All hope remaining, however false it may be, rested on a frayed voice, and from it, he achieved tranquility.

"Soarin'?! Soarin', you okay?!"

"I'm... I'll be..."

"No you're not! Okay okay, uh, what should I do, what should I—"

"D-Dash..." his voice slipped with a shiver, his pleas as earnest as if it was really her. "Just... p-please... don't... please don't... please don't...


















"Please don't leave me behind."

"Shut up."

In the silence of the white woods, Rainbow Dash marched onward.

"You don't know where you're going."

"Shut up."

In the shadows, it followed closely behind.

"You know it's not safe, kiddo."

"Don't you dare," she hissed, still maintaining her caustic stare ahead as she stopped in her tracks. She could hear it breathing. She could feel it even, the air brushing against the back of her shoulder blades. It was bristlingly close. Hair-raisingly close. She could swing back and slam it into a nearby tree if she wanted to. "Don't you try that with me, you... monster... dammit... dammit, Soarin', I can't do this any longer..."

"Dash, look at me."

"You think I'm that stupid? You think I don't know what you're doing? You think I don't know what you'll do to me the moment I turn around? Who do you think you are?" she snorted, voice tinged in acerbic defeat. "Just because you have his voice... j-just because you're using the words he'd use, just because you figure out the way he uses them, that doesn't make you him, that just... it doesn't work like that. It never does. If.. if I turn around and look at you now, I... I know that I'll—"

"SHALL LOSE EVERY LAST BIT OF YOURSELF."

"Who's there?!" she yelled, whirling around.

All that met her was silence, save for the disquieting echo of that new, unfamiliar voice ringing in her head. She couldn't tell where it came from, though she was certain it would be getting closer. Treading lightly, Rainbow surveyed the looming forests, watching warily the multitude of shadows dancing from within the glint of the silver trees between the lines of pitiful sunlight. "Who's there?" she called out, as she craned her neck, searching for any sign of brisk movement.

It returned, perhaps, as rumbling thunder.

"CONSIDER ME A FRIEND."

"A friend, huh?" she snarked. "And why would you say that?"

"I CAN HELP. I SHALL."

"Really? And how do I know you're not the... thing that took him away? How do I know you're not trying to get into my head as well?"

"Because we share a common goal, you and I."

Rainbow Dash leaped from where she stood, eyes wide and breath hitched in her throat as a figure stepped out into the open from behind her, seemingly sifting from the landscape itself. She couldn't deny he was a pony — a mulberry-furred unicorn sporting a white, silky mane, to be precise — yet there was just... something about him that was just... wrong. Perhaps it was the way his immaculate, resplendent black suit he was wearing seemed to be hovering above his coat. Perhaps it was the fact that he was brandishing a cane that resembled a sawed-off street lamp, the mystifying blue candlelight drawing in a company of fluttering moths. Or perhaps it was that gleaming stare he was wearing, brimming with the unlikely sight of sheer confidence and intent.

"Rainbow Dash."

"How do you—"

"By manner of observation," the stranger hummed. "Certainly, to observe is to attain knowledge, and with that knowledge one can do a couple of surprising things, surprising you being on that list. Oh, and before you surrender to your recklessness and from it make an inquiry, I've an unpronounceable name, though in the language of you Equestrians, I figured the closest equivalent, and also the name I decided upon, would be Nightingale. Henceforth, you shall call me as such."

"I... uh... Nightingale?" she muttered in contemplation, which was quickly torn up and tossed aside by a passing thought. "Wait, what do you mean 'us Equestrians'? Aren't you a pony too?"

"I merely took a form of one to approach you. My true self, one could say, is immaterial to an unorthodox degree. To some extent, I was seen as horrific, ghastly even. You'd be quick to refuse my proposal should I reveal myself to you. Xenophobia does compel you lot to do that sometimes, especially one so impetuous as you are. Always muddying the waters of a good, if not beneficial, deal."

"How would you know that?"

"You would," came his firm, somewhat-threatening statement, though that only served to ruffle her feathers even more. "Some topics are better off untouched, love, just as some places are better left unexplored."

"So that's how it's gonna be, huh? You're gonna say that I deserve it? That this is all my fault for coming here?"

"You're doing a rather fine job at it already, there's no need for me to replace you."

"Good to know," Rainbow spat as she began strutting away.

"Now now, never did I say this conversation was over."

"Oh, it's over alright. I have better things to do than talk to somepony who has nothing better to do than—"

She couldn't even finish a sentence before she was yanked backward, falling fast with a shriek as she tumbled into a flash of white and out in the middle of the sky. Her wing, injured as it were, flailed and fluttered helplessly no matter how hard she tried. The silver trees on the distant ground stuck out like spears piercing the clouds, with the glinting tip of one of them seemingly narrowing in on her. Hopelessly screaming in the sky, Rainbow Dash plummeted towards the forest, tears soaring up from her eyes as she clenched them shut.

"CEASE."

And just like that, everything stopped.

By the time she gathered her shattered courage and opened her eyes, she found herself stranded in the sky, just a matter of seconds away from impalement. A feverish gasp slipped from her lips when her swiveling vision recovered enough to see Nightingale trotting up towards her, his hooves striding across the emptiness as if it was laid out for him, before he came to a halt to leer at her shivering form. The grin on his face, she could only describe it as mischievous, if not malicious, though she found herself inclined to believe it was the latter when he stuck out his lamp of a cane and, with its menacingly sharp, scalding tip, raised her head by her chin.

"You've screamed beautifully, love."

"What... what are you?"

"Thus, the eternal question. I would love to provide you an answer, though I do recall you mentioning our conversation being over—"

"I didn't have time to talk, alright?!"

A chuckle. "How precious. Fine then, I shall reconsider. What am I, what am I, hmm...." he hummed in mock contemplation. "Well, your little friend had a funny little name for me. Wholly inaccurate, but I do fancy it, and since you fancy him, it does make it all the more fanciful. Yes, indeed, let's go with that! Suspenseful, thrilling, spectacular even!"

"What do you—"

"Vampire."

Rainbow's breath hitched in her throat, her jaw falling in a silent gasp.

"Nevertheless, wrong" he continued nonetheless. "Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, very, very, oh, so, very, wrong~! I am no vampire, nor am I a deity of the shadows. In fact, I have more in common with you ponies than you think. Not physically, mind you, just... well, in terms of circumstance."

"I don't get what you're—"

"Of course you don't," Nightingale snapped. "No one ever gets it. Right then, I'll get to it: I'm the reason you're here. I'm the reason you and so many others who really need to learn how to take a hint. You lot, who thought it would be a good idea to skip into a temple in the middle of nowhere, thinking it's all just a simple journey to grab something from some stone pedestal rising off the ground with nary a care nor thought that something might be awaiting them at the end."

"W-What are you talking—"

"You're looking for an artifact, aren't you?"

"Y..." she hesitated, if only for a moment. "Y-You know where it is?"

"What do you think?" he scoffed, glaring down at her in disgust. "Well, you know what it looks like, don't you? Care describing it for me, love?"

"I... but..." Rainbow sighed, clearing her throat. "It's... some sort of figurine. Like a small stone statue or something, I don't know. My... friend, she said that it might be a little ancient, so the shape might be a bit off, but she said it's supposed to resemble a bird, like some sparrow, or a bluejay, or a... a..."

Her voice slowly trailed off. Her eyes glistened. It was in the throes of perplexity that she finally saw the sparkling flame dancing furiously in his eyes. Having noticed her realization, Nightingale's snide grin grew wider, giddily giving his cane a festive spin before kneeling down to meet her.

"Hello there."

"Y-You're..." Rainbow gulped. "You're it... you're the artifact..."

"Surprised, aren't we? Don't worry, it's a common reaction."

"But... but h-how—"

"Can't a little statuette grow a sentience? Not everything's limited to you equines, you know. I'd rather not get on with the details, particularly when conversing with one of such, let's call it, indifference. No, no, instead, let's discuss something we both want to achieve, yes. Let's talk about something we have in common."

"Which is?"

"The yearning to leave this place behind. To escape. Return to the bowels of civilization. That's what you want, yes. That's what all of you want. Always yearning to find a way out, always hoping to leave without consequence, yes, yes, such naivety, but— oh yes, there's a but in all of this! You can't leave unless you leave something behind, love. Tit for that. Nothing personal, just the order of the universe. Way things are, yada yada, what what."

"W-What do you mean 'leave behind'?"

"Oh, you know very well what I mean by that, love. Very well indeed."

The glare that was softening returned in full force.

"No," she huffed, voice straining. "No, no, no, no—"

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes!" his cheerfulness erupted. "Yes, and nothing else! No second answers! No refunds! No 'if's, 'but's and 'maybe's! The law is key, and the key to leaving is by following the law! As per stated! By royal decree!"

"I'm not going to leave him behind!!"

"YES YOU ARE!!"

Ferocity raged against ferocity; mare against monstrosity. The eye of the storm swirled in the glare of the one who called himself Nightingale, yet Rainbow knew this wasn't the first time she was looking into one, and she was well aware that he knew it as well, down to every chip of the bone and every tear of the skin. The raging winds around her swirled faster and faster, tossing about the glass leaves into the sky to circle around them like a cyclone of blades. One of them even swooped in and left a cut on her cheek, wresting from it a scarlet thread to be swallowed by the voracious clouds. Nevertheless, in all the furor and cacophony, her stare remained firm, if not hardened.

"This is the way of things, love."

"No, it isn't," she snarled. "It isn't unless I say so."

"Your obstinacy will cost you dearly."

"You think I care? I've stopped caring a long time ago." Days. Months. Years, maybe. "I walked in this forest for so long, I don't even care if I could never go back. All I wanted... all I wanted was to make sure that Soarin' was safe, that's all I wanted now... that's all I ever wanted... I brought him here, I wanted to at least be sure he's alright, that he won't lose himself down here, that he'll... he'll be the Soarin' that he always is... always was..."

In the cyclone of shards, Nightingale's scowl darkened. For a moment, the fire in his cane seemed to burn a little brighter, the embers almost breaking out of their glass cage to lunge at her with its tangled claws, though he stunted it with a tumultuous hiss. Much to her surprise, Rainbow was instead carefully lowered down onto the porcelain floor, her gaze never leaving him as he followed suit, grumbling all the way in their descent.

"W-What are you—"

"We share a common goal, ultimately," he groused, dusting the glass shards off his suit. "It is perhaps best that I lend my aid to my fellow prisoner, however short her tenure may be. You'd rather perish here than escape without him, and though it would be amusing to see you suffer, I require your assistance in escaping myself."

"But isn't this place... doesn't it belong to you?"

"It was a place built to keep me in, love. Simply put, there are forces beyond the edges of the universe that seek to feed off on all of us. I was built as a charm to ward these demons away. I was even given a sentience to ensure my powers aren't so easily deactivated, you see. That is why when I was stolen away, I was placed here, in this flawless construct. Any who came upon the entrance to this world — the temple, that is — would be swallowed up by the darkness, as you and your coltfriend had demonstrated so eloquently."

"But then, if that wasn't you that took Soarin' away, then—"

"That would be the guard dog, so to speak," Nightingale grimly stated. "You need not bother with what it is as well. All you need to know is that it has a ravenous appetite and it has your lonely little coltfriend in its sights. I imagine that suppertime for it would be coming any moment now."

Rainbow bit her lip. "But you know how to save him, don't you?"

"Fortunately for you, love, yes," he said with absolute confidence, yet she could still see the darkness in his eyes even as he glanced away. "The good news is should you do everything I say, you can rescue Soarin' and we will all be able to escape from this forest together."

"Okay... okay..."

"The bad news."

She stopped short of a relieved sigh. "The bad news?" she squeaked underneath her breath, which began trembling when Nightingale turned to face her once more, his eyes burnished with the sourest varnish of what she could only perceive as pure pity.

"You will not like it," came his grave warning. "Not one bit."














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Consider the clouds.

Look at them. Now, now, don't fret, just look.

Marvelous, aren't they? Floating up there, drifting along invisible tracks, those cotton-white locomotives in the sky. At times, they would swell. When they do, they would tremble; they would howl; they would frown their ugliest frown. From ugliness comes their power, and from that come the showers, and from that, the flowers of life blossom bright.

They're a ceaseless bunch. Stubborn as well. Soaring high, diving low, flying fast, crawling slow— my, my, you'll never know. One moment, they whiten the sky; the next, they blacken it. One moment, they bore; the next, they burn. See them shiver, hear them chatter. Now, feel their passage: their voyage across the vastness languid and lush with loneliness. Feel them drift between your ears.

Consider the clouds.









"Rainbow?"

Black silver burned bright from what little light that fell upon the forest. A mere glimmer or two, nothing worthy of note. There came hope with it once upon a time, though that was quickly set ablaze like moths to a flame. Lackadaisical, but what was one to do? What else can one do but to wonder and wander across this pearlescent eternity until they reach their end? If there even was an end?

"Rainbow, you awake?"

"Yeah..."

Starless. Moonless. Sunless. If there had been anything else other than the clouds above his head, Soarin' would've been none the wiser. He missed it, the celestial trinity. He missed them all. Then again, he missed so many things: home, the academy, his family, his friends, the thrill of flight, the taste of pie, the warmth... the warmth... of the above, he knew he missed the warmth most of all. The warmth of life, the warmth of the day, the warmth of everything else that came with it... he missed them.

His shivers were violent tonight. Tumultuous and numerous. The heat had all rushed to his head, so much so that everything else just... ceased, or were ceasing. Every joint, every tendon, every part of him felt like they were fading away, crumbling and turning to dust to be blown away in the wind. The clouds trembled, its synchronicity blatant, and had he been stronger, he would've cast his curses to the sky at their eager snickers. Instead, he was stranded in the cold, the ice already freezing up his cords until he could do no more than whimper and bemoan.

"How long has it been? Since we're down here."

Silence.

"I don't know... I don't know..."

"You sound so defeated," he chuckled, reaching out. "Dammit..."

"Soarin'?"

"You know I... I always wanted to... ask you... just... what did we do, you know? Why us? Why here, why this place? Why not... why not somewhere familiar, at least. Somewhere where the rest could find us and..."

"Soarin', stop it."

"Hehe... sorry, I thought..." he stopped himself. "You know, if I had a chance... a one in a millionth chance, at this point, but if I had it... I think I'd... I'd fly with you again... with the team... all of us... one more time... you know, just one more time. Hear the screams, the shouts, feel the thrill, remember why... why is it that I enjoyed it..."

"Really?"

"Really... I mean, retirement, it's a... it's a hell of a step to take, I... I don't..."

"You don't want to?"

"I want to, I just... it's just... not like this... not here... not like this..."

"Soarin'?"

Desolation was aplenty. He could see it in the smoldering rays of daylight, those golden locusts seeping through the silver forest. He could taste it in the iron scent of a passing breeze. He could feel it rippling through his coat, his body fading... no, decaying. That's what it was. Decaying. That explains it.

"Explains what?"

The silence that followed was as brittle as his bones. "I said that out loud, didn't I?" Soarin' choked on his laugh. "Good to know we come full circle on this. It's just... Rainbow, I know I'm the one that said... that demanded we shouldn't give up... if you're even here at all... I just...I can't do this... I can't do this anymore..."

"Soarin', snap out of—"

"SHUT UP!"

Silence.

No less brittle, no less poignant.










Consider the clouds.

Look closer. Don't worry, they won't bite.

See that? That single tremble? That flicker in the soot? Listen now: hear it crackle. There's a fire in them. A hungry fire. A vivacious fire. A violent, arrogant fire. A vengeful, vain fire. Now, smell it. Give it a whiff. Pungent, isn't it? That stink of humidity? That pluvial stench of liquid enmity? Imagine the rage. The wrath. Imagine the fires you're hearing, burning in its eyes as it unleashes its storms, spilling the bubbling broth churning in its guts out into the open world.

Imagine how furious it could be when its dramatic display of its ferocity was met by nothing more than admiration.

Fear is what it seeks, yet this is all it always gets: sheer admiration. 'Oh, how terrifying,' you always cry, always sounding so... amazed. Awed. Pfft, admiration. It cuts deep, you know that? All that effort, all those days of pent-up anger, all that energy coalescing into a clash of the ages, and you think only to admire it? 'This is why I like rainy days', you say? Are you hearing yourself? Don't you realize how ignorant that sounds? How ignorant you sound?

You can't deny it.

You've said it more than once, I've seen it.

I've heard it.

I've heard it all.

I'm hearing it now, in fact.

Clear. As. Day.









Silence.

That's all that ever was by his side.

Deep, dreadful, deceitful silence.

Perhaps he knew it deep down somewhere. Perhaps his fragmented mind found the right shards and pieced it together then. How long had it took him to figure it out? Days? Months? Years? Decades? Surely not decades? Or centuries even? It could be. Perhaps even longer than that. Knowing how much there is to conceive from eternity, he just didn't know anymore. Or perhaps he didn't care. One or the other, that he was certain. One or the other.

Soarin' missed the warmth.

The warmth of life. The warmth of the day. The warmth of home. The warmth of friendship. The warmth of family.

The warmth of love.

The warmth he so desperately clung on to, even when it had been forcibly pried away his side.

"Soar?"

"Shut up," he hissed once more, clenching his eyes shut. All he could hear in his head were its screeches. All he could see were the fluttering shadows ravaging the corner of his eyes. All he could feel was the cold sawing into his bones. He needed not pity, for he had pitied himself endlessly in this aimless journey of his. No, he needed salvation. The warm, blistering light of salvation. He wanted the golden swarm to swoop in already, to nip him bit by bit, tear into flesh and bone until his will, well tempered by his time in the Wonderbolts, would taper off. He wanted to stop the suffering.

For why should he live any longer when the warmth had long left his side?

"Soar, it's me."

"No, it's not." How much pain must a stallion go through for salvation? Just how much? How longer must he suffer as he stumble along this cold wasteland? "Don't do this to me... please... I don't want to hear it... to hear her..."

"Soarin'? Soarin', come on."

"Leave me alone..." Too weak to shout. Too weak to fight. "Just go away... go away... get out of my head... please..."

"For Celestia's sake, Soarin', look at me!"









Ah, but I don't blame you.

You don't know the clouds like I do. None the wiser, as they say. You can never comprehend its rage. You can never comprehend its fury. I can, but not you. You'd beg and plead, and even after I gave an answer, still you won't get it. Nothing is ever that simple. No cloud is fully black or fully white: there's always a blend of both. Comprehend that, then maybe you still have a chance, though I'd admit it would be the same chance everyone else has.

Consider the clouds.

Yes, yes, again. Now, consider them.

Take a step back. Look at it all, the big picture. Marvel, if you will.

See the spiral? The large one the clouds are making? Yes, the big one.

Rather lovely, isn't it?

There's a pattern to it, you know. A mathematical logic. You haven't realized it yet, but it's been staring at you the whole time, watching as you drift further and further away from it. You think you've escaped, yet you should know that there is only tranquility in the eye of a hurricane. There is only calm, yet in that calm rests a calculating mind. Now, go back to the spirals surrounding it. Take a look at the proportions. The clouds ravaging en masse. See it yet? See the pattern? The numbers?

Count them with me.









Silence.

Brittle. Brusque.

A second after that silence, Soarin' shed away his reluctance and gave into the demand.

A second after that, he spotted her.

Panting.

Wheezing.

Withering.

Sweating.

Sputtering.

Crying.

"What... what is this..."

"Soarin'?" A shriveled smile. "S-Soar, it's me... it's Rainbow Dash, it's me, it's... it's really me..."

"What are you trying to do..." His eyes shimmered. "What are you—"

"I'm here... I'm here to save you, Soar. I'm here to get you out of here."

"To save me... to get me out..."

"Yes! Yes, to get you out... to get you..." A cracked gasp, then a shattered cry. "Celestia, what did it do to you? What the heck did it do to you?"

"What are you... talking about..."










Don't be afraid now. Follow the spiral, outward from the center. Count the clouds with me, my love.

One.

One.

No, I'm not wrong, you're wrong.

Oh, don't be daft. You think you know better? You think everything is all linear for you? You want to see the big picture or do you want to resume your little wallowing in that well of yours? From what I know, you don't have much time anyway! Water's rising up to your neck already! Matter of sink or swim!

Your move, Rainbow Dash.









He couldn't see it. Of course he couldn't see it.

She was warned about this. She knew what to expect the moment she came straggling here. She knew the state she would find him in when she galloped through the woods. She was perfectly aware of what she would stumble upon the moment she finds him. She knew. Nightingale told her, so she knew. She knew, in full, glorious detail, just what this rescue expedition would entail.

"Rainbow..."

She knew. She knew.

"R-Rain... Rainbow..."

She knew, dammit.

"Soar..." she choked on a sob, staring down at the pony she had called her coltfriend.

That is, if he was even a pony anymore.

The stallion she had marveled and admired from afar had become nothing but a withering, writhing carcass, living and limp on the forest floor. He was all shriveled up, with what remains of his flaking skin clinging and bulging around the bent fibers of his bones, the shape of his ribs stabbing against the crumpling flesh. His hooves had been emaciated, resembling more of dead leaves tapering in the wind. The feathers that flourished upon his wings had rotted away with most of the skin beneath it, leaving behind only the white spindles that once supported them.

What's more gruesome and gut-wrenching, however, was the culprit behind this visceral atrocity.

It was there, as Nightingale said it would be. It was still clinging onto him, or more specifically, his right shoulder. It was this... amorphous mass of brooding violet, expanding and contracting slowly and irregularly. It looked almost as if it had erupted from Soarin's shoulder, with its fat tendrils stretching along his sides and down his spine. One of the tendrils even seemed to have begun clawing to dig into the walls of his throat, convulsing to the tune of his raggedy pants and ghastly croaks.

"R-Rainbow?" he managed despite all of that. Somehow, he managed. "Rai... Rain..."

"Soar, l-listen to me." she knelt down, her tears dripping. "Listen to me, okay? Everything will be fine. You're gonna be fine. This is all just... just a nightmare... a very bad nightmare..."

"Night... mare..."

"That's why I need you to do something for me, okay?"

She glanced down at Soarin' lying on the forest floor, too tired to move, to even utter a sound. Gritting her teeth, Rainbow hauled his limp form and propped him against the nearest tree, unwrapping the stained bandage that had covered around her forehead— a little too grimy for what she was about to do, but if Nightingale's words were to go by, it should be fine. She ripped the bandage in half with her mouth, taking the longer strip of the two first and wrapping tightly Soarin's frail body to the tree with it by the waist. The shorter one was twisted and fashioned into a thick gag which was then tied around his mouth.

"Ra... Rainb... wh-what are you..."

"I told you, didn't I?" Rainbow wore a misshapen grin. "I'm... getting you out of here... I'm getting the both of us out of here..."

"Getting out... getting out..."

She held back a sniffle as she took out from her satchel the best thing she could find to finish the job: a shovel. The sight of it alone, however, was enough for her knees to crumple underneath her as the first few tears slid down her cheeks. "D-Dammit..." she muttered underneath her breath, picking herself up and making her way to her barely-conscious coltfriend, stopping only to shiver at the sight. It was hard seeing him like that: half-alive, bony, blistered and bound to a tree, not to mention the writhing growth on his shoulder— a parasite of some sort, according to Nightingale.

A parasite that needed to be removed.

"Rainbow..." his voice shimmered, frigid and fractured. "Rainbow, what are..." his gaze remained petrified at the sight of the shovel clasped between her hooves. "Why are you..."

"I'm sorry..." came her equally broken response. "I'm sorry..."

Silence.

He spoke first.

"Don't be... don't be, it's not your fault..."

"I have to do this... I h-have to, you know I have to—"

"Rainbow."

"—but it... it'll hurt, Soar. It'll hurt. I'm gonna hurt you. Badly..."

"Come... come here..." he muttered, to which she complied, making her yelp, the shovel falling from her grip with a clank when he suddenly planted his snout against her neck, taking a deep whiff of her scent. Tensed up and agape, she just stared down at him, before she finally spoke.

"Soarin', what are you..."

"I missed this." The certainty that permeated from his voice was pungent. "I missed you."

Rainbow smiled her first genuine smile in the silver forest. "I missed you too."

"We're..." there was a strength left untapped. A strength that was now surging through his veins. "We're getting out of here... right?"

A firm nod.

"Then... get us out of here... get us out..."

With their twin sighs came the moment they dreaded, she more than him. Stepping from his side, shovel in tow, Rainbow Dash convoked her glare to the tumor growing on his shoulder; the growth sapping everything it could from her coltfriend; the monster that had the nerve to steal him away from her. "It'll hurt..." she found herself uttering, glancing to the stagnant clouds in the night sky. "We don't wanna wake it up but... but it's gonna hurt. It's gonna hurt really badly."

"Okay..." he grunted, shifting in his bonds with a pained groan. "What do...gah... what do you want me to do?"

With that, she knelt down and firmly stuffed the gag into Soarin's mouth before she stood up and readied the shovel, quavering as she pointed it downwards to the parasite on his shoulder, her instructions clear and concise conveyed in three simple words.

"Bite down. Hard."

With it came the first plunge out of many.










Try again.

One. One. Two. Three. Five. Eight. Thirteen. Twenty-one. Thirty-four—

Ah, you've realized it, didn't you?

The universe has a logic. It adhered to that logic. It had to, in order to belong to this universe, otherwise it would be thrown out. So from that logic came the spirals, and thus, it adapted. Now, say a storm is brewing in all of the clouds. A storm of time and space. A storm — the largest in a long while — is brewing in this silver forest. When that happens, know this: it's because it knows what you're doing. It has gotten wind of your plan. It knows what you want. It knows that you're trying to set yourself free, that you're trying to set him free. It knows very well that you're with me, and when you're with me, our escape is a real possibility. However, it knew you wouldn't leave without him, and with that knowledge, it created this storm.

That's why you have to do it when it's asleep. And you have to make it so that it stays that way.

What's 'it', I hear you ask.

The gatekeeper, of course. The guardian that presides over this realm.

The guard dog.

Yes, it's looking at us right now. Yes, it's listening. Closely, I might add.

Where is it, you say? Why, it's right there, all along.

What do I mean, you say?

Do I really have to— ach, but of course, of course. I never understand what lies in the minds of a fleeting life that keeps you lot going sometimes, but it's... admirable, let's put it. I'm amazed.

Let me put it rather simply for you.

That's not the sky you're looking at, love.









"Yes. Yes, I've warned her."

"Night... Nightingale!"

"Yes. Well, you're her friend, you know how rambunctious she is, what do you think happened?"

"Nightingale!" she needed only to yell once more to get his attention. "Nightingale, I got him!"

A grin at her approach, then a twirl of his staff. "So it would seem. Now, lay him down beside me. Quickly now."

"I'm trying," Rainbow cussed underneath her breath, crouching low and tipping her disheveled coltfriend off her back. He landed onto the floor with a splat, flecks of red whipping across the floor with most of it gushing from what remained of his right shoulder. He was groaning and huffing in pain, trying his damnedest not to just scream out his agony to the heavens. She wearily glanced to the crimson trail of blood she made in her squalid journey here, snaking between the trees, towards a place she was willing to forget. "He won't die, right? You said he can't die here."

"I said that, yes, if only because I'm confident you'd saved him from certain death."

"O-Okay..." her voice lurched. "That was enough, right?"

"Hmm?"

"I left something behind," she stated. "That's enough, isn't it?"

"Not exactly, my love. There's more to it than blood and... shoulder, was it?" Nightingale's chuckle sent a spark across her head. "Oh, but... how should I put this... we had some help. External help, one could say. Unlikely, I know."

"What do you mean?"

"A friend of yours, so she claimed." Nightingale snorted. "Really, the things you lot would do for mere kinship. I shall admit, your friend had certainly piqued my interest. Rather compliant as well, more so than you. I had her arrange a few things to ensure the success of my arrival — your return — to the material world. Mind you, this all wouldn't need to be done had you been willing to give up this coltfriend of yours here as a snack. After all, there's so many fish in the sea, as you lot coined it?"

"There's no way I'm leaving him here, you know that," she growled, glancing over at Soarin'. "He... he means a lot to me."

"I suppose that notion is true. Nevertheless, there shall be consequences to your actions, Rainbow Dash. When you come to, you will find that your actions, however righteous it may be, has its own fair share of consequences. There is a toll to be paid, after all. Nothing more, nothing less. All I'm wondering now is whether you're prepared to face them, my love."

"Why? What did you do?"

"Like I said," he answered with a most menacing grin. "I made sure the toll was paid."

Before Rainbow could question him further, she heard a screech in the air. The night sky started to flutter, before it suddenly erupted into a bright blue that washed over the pool of black, blinding the both of them in the glare of false daylight, if only for a moment. The clouds, once dormant, had begun graying and swirling above them violently, lightning streaking from its harrowing edges. Another screech tore through the shuddering world, sending a pang ricocheting in the depths of her head.

"It knows he's gone," Nightingale scowled. "It knows you took him. It's angry. Very angry. Downright furious."

"Then what are we waiting for?! Let's go!"

"Hmm? Oh yes, yes, right. Leaving. That's what we're doing, yes. Freedom! Taste it, love it, live it! May we three birds fly far!"

With a gentle sparkle of azure, Nightingale whipped his lamppost of a staff in an arc, the blue flames dancing inside spilling out to form a burning circle around the three. Cautiously, and with the injured Soarin' around her shoulder, Rainbow stumbled over to his side, watching as the fires began eating away at the ground around them. A riveting screech tossed our gaze up to the air to the clouds, her breath hitched in her throat when she saw what could only be described as a tunnel filled with swiveling silver teeth, whirring and fizzing with sparks.

"Nightingale, we have to—"

"Ooh~! Lovely weather we're having today! What a view, don't you think?" A pompous cackle from Nightingale, his excited glance sparkling at the abyss descending upon them. "Wowie! I've seen so many being devoured by it but who could've known that I get to see it up close myself? Is this what you ponies feel before you die? This thrill at the edge of life?"

"Nightingale!!"

"Ach. What a bad sport, this one, eh?" Nightingale laughed one last time, before giving the monstrous pit a tip of his top hat. "Toodles, my love! No hard feelings!"

With that came a second twirl of his staff.

And in a burning flash of bolstering blue, they were gone.










You understand now, don't you.

Those aren't clouds you're looking at.

Those are its eyes.

All of them, yes.

So, my last piece of advice? Consider the clouds.

For they very well might be doing the same thing about you.









Night Eleven

View Online










Ten days.

They had only been gone for ten days.

She didn't believe it at first when she was told that this morning, having just woken up from what felt like the longest nap she ever had. Nevertheless, Rainbow knew better than to doubt the words of Twilight Sparkle, who, by a stroke of good fortune, decided to take the train here from Ponyville, initially just to retrieve the artifact so that she and Soarin' could spend a little more time around Vanhoover. Upon her insistence, there was a search party sent from Vanhoover to look for them, though it was apparently by sheer chance that the temple they were trapped in was even found in the first place. They were discovered in one of the temple's chambers, starved thin and severely dehydrated, not to mention trapped in some sort of magically-induced coma. Had they been left there any longer, they might not have made out of there alive. It was a miracle then that they did.

Nevertheless, they did not emerge unscathed.

"I made sure the toll was paid."

It was with that thought swirling in her head and a grimace simmering between her cheeks that Rainbow Dash sauntered aimlessly down the pristine hallways of Vanhoover General. They were alive, both Soarin' and her, that's a given, but it came with a cost unlike any other. She refused to believe it when Twilight first disclosed it to her. She wouldn't want to. She wouldn't dare. Still, Twilight continued explaining. Still, Twilight persisted, and... to put it simply, she shouted at her friend. Screamed even, at one point.

In the end, however, it wasn't her fault.

It wasn't as if she wasn't warned anyway. Twilight may have been the one who sent her to retrieve the artifact, but she was the one responsible for how it all went down. She knew that there might be something dangerous, she was well aware of the dangers that could lie in an ancient temple, and still... she should've been prepared for it, she just should've. Maybe if she treated this more like an expedition instead of a third date, then none of this would've happened. No one would've gotten hurt.

Sacrifices wouldn't have to be made.

"Mind if I join you, love?"

The sordid silence she served sufficed nevertheless.

The trotting from behind hastened, slowing down only once it reached her side. Her hefty glare rose to meet the troublesome grin of none other than Nightingale traipsing on the ceiling, free from the clutches of gravity, or anything else for that matter, being the intangible creature he was.

"What are you doing here?" she groused.

"Take a guess."

"I'm not in the mood, Nightingale."

"Wet blanket, this one," he snickered, hardening her stare. "Your dear friend Twilight sent me to see how you were doing. She had concerns that you might be doing something... drastic, let's put it."

Rainbow's frown darkened. "It's not like I can do anything anyway."

"That's what I told her, but that mare can be inexorably worried at times. You'd think a princess of her caliber would have some semblance of soundness in that sophisticated head of hers." Nightingale gave a mock sigh, flipping onto his back and paddling above her as if he was swimming in the air, his bright blue eyes glittering down at her. "You know, you ponies... what's the word... mystify me sometimes."

"Twilight can get serious too when she wants to," she scowled. "If it weren't for her, you'd still be trapped down there in that stupid temple, you know."

"That's what you'd like to think, but the reality is that it just so happened she needed my help. The reality is that even if you weren't sent by your friend to come here and retrieve me, I could've been saved by someone else instead of you. If I am not needed yesterday, if I am not needed today, then there is always tomorrow. That's the reality of this universe, Rainbow Dash."

"You're talking to the wrong pony for this," she responded bluntly, earning a chuckle. "Look, why don't you leave me alone and just... do whatever you and Twilight are supposed to be doing, alright?"

That made Nightingale stop in his tracks. "Wait, so you went ahead risking your life and the life of your coltfriend without knowing what's it for?" he asked, to which she shook her head. "Unbelievable. Un. Be. Lievable."

"Yeah, yeah. Bite me," she rasped.

The snide grin he proudly flaunted quickly faded from his cheeks. "How quaint. I do have a conscience, you know. I can tell if someone's been bitten one too many times." The shadows dancing behind his eyes leaped forward. "Your bitterness towards me will not change anything, you know that."

"Then what do you want me to do? Just act as if nothing happened?"

"Well, for starters, you should stop dawdling and go see that coltfriend of yours you were so eager to save. It's really, really hard seeing you trying your best to avoid him, you know that?"

"I wasn't—" Rainbow stopped short when she remembered where she was. "Look, I'm just... I'm figuring this out, okay? I'm trying to... I want to make it count."

"You being there counts, Rainbow Dash."

"And if it doesn't?"

"You think he cared so little for you that it wouldn't?" Nightingale's grin returned. "I'll have you know that I wasn't solely observing you back there in the forest, and from what I've seen and heard, I can say with absolute certainty that he cares for you deeply, no matter what you think of yourself."

Stunned at his sudden sincerity, if only for a moment, Rainbow's gaze soon tapered towards the floor. "I just..." she bit her lip. "I just wished things were different, that's all."

"Rightfully so. Nevertheless, this is the way things are. You had to make a choice, and it was losing a part of him to a parasite, or losing him entirely. From what I know, you've picked the better choice of the two, love. That's a fact. Now then, with that out of the way, I believe you have a visit to schedule, my love. When would it be appropriate, you think? Immediately, I believe? As of this moment, perhaps?"

"Okay, okay, I get it, now can you just tell Twilight I'm fine and go back into that statue of yours?"

"Awwww. You sure you don't need the company, love? I can make a good shoulder to cry on, should you need it."

"I don't want you pestering me all the time, so no! Go away!"

"Like I've said," he uttered with one last snicker before fading away. "Wet blanket."

With a gruff sigh, Rainbow Dash continued down the empty hallways, this time with a firm destination in mind. She soon came upon it after a few turns, and as she neared the door, the fuzzing crack in her chest widened. Hesitantly making her approach, she readied her quivering hoof, her mind broiling in search of something to say. What should she go with first? An apology? A hug? A simple, awkward 'hi'? Would he even want to see here anyway? He would want to, right? Nightingale said so! Then again, what would Nightingale know about him at all? About them?

"Rainbow?"

The muffled voice sent her thoughts veering themselves off the edge.

"Rainbow, is that you?"

Leaving a soft sigh at the door, Rainbow gingerly opened the door with a stiff smile at Soarin'. He was seated on the side of his hospital bed by the window, his eyes facing the glorious moon hanging high outside, before he turned his head to welcome her with a genial grin. A light seemed to have briefly flickered in his eyes, as if he had just went through an epiphany, though the uneasiness beneath it quickly swept over her instead. Meekly, she stood there, just a few steps away from his bed, the tension and uncertainty freezing her hooves in place.

"Hey, Soar," she blithely mumbled. "How'd you know I was outside?"

"Nightingale told me. Said you might be a little bit nervous and need a little push too."

"That stupid..." she coughed. "Didn't know you two were best buds already."

"Well, you know how he is." Soarin' chuckled. "Always poking his nose into other ponies' business."

"Ugh. Glad Twilight's the one handling him now."

"He's alright, I guess. A little... much, but he's a fine guy."

"Statue."

"That too." Another chuckle, albeit more cautious. "Still think it's strange. You know, that he's just this... small bird statue. Like, how does he even... become himself? How could he even exist? You know what I'm asking, right?"

"Soarin'?" Rainbow interjected with a shaky sternness. "C-Can we talk?"

Silence.

"Well uh... we're talking now, aren't we?"

"No, I mean about your..." Rainbow gulped, inching closer. "Your wings."

The smile he had been wearing began to fade.

"Straight into it, huh?"

Rainbow bit her lip. "You really can't... feel them anymore?"

"I can. It's just..." Soarin' squirmed in his sheets, his back shifting about. "It's just this feeling of... empty numbness that won't go away. It won't respond to anything I want it to do, it just... sticks out, you know? I tried everything with it, I tried stretching it, I tried fanning it all out... I couldn't move a feather even if I want to."

"But you remember using them, don't you? You remember that, right?"

"Yeah, I did. I remember how I flew with them. I remember my performances, I remember the moves, I remember everything that I've done with these wings, and yet..." There was a crack in his voice. "I don't remember how I did it. I don't remember how to use them. It's like it's all... gone... wiped out off the top of my head... like one whole chunk of my life that's just been eaten up while the rest had been spat out." A frazzled sigh. "That's just pretty much how it is right now."

"I... okay..."

"But look on the bright side!" he exclaimed, quavering nevertheless. "For some reason, I think my insomnia went out of the door with it as well! Stars above, haven't slept this good in ages! Like it was never there at all! Now that's on a whole new level of awesome right there, Rainbow."

"Okay... okay, but we can make this work. We can."

"Rainbow?"

"I can help you with that! Of course! Pretty sure I can! I mean, I'm probably the best flier around that could help with that! Sure! Why not, right Soar?"

"Rainbow."

"Well, we'll have to start simple and slow first. It's just like what they taught us in flight school, right? Just h-have to... have to follow whatever it is they taught us back then. Start with the basics and... and from there, we... we..."

"Rainbow." Soarin' bit his lip. "Rainbow, it's okay—"

"It's not, Soarin'."

She didn't shout this time. She didn't scream. She only whimpered. She — Rainbow Dash — whimpered. It was the one thing she hadn't done all day, so why not now? It wouldn't hurt anyone else any more than they've been hurt already anyway. Shouldn't hurt to try then. Still, she remained stoic. Even with the shivers grappling her body, she remained stoic. Even with the abundance of tears spilling from her eyes and streaming down her cheeks, Rainbow remained stoic.

She had to be.

For the two of them, she had to be.

However broken she might be inside, she had to be.

"It's not okay. It can't be okay."

"Rainbow, come on—"

"I can't... I c-can't let this be okay... this isn't okay..."

"Rainbow, stop it."

"You can't fly anymore, dammit! You can't fly, Soarin'! How the heck's that okay?!"

That's when Soarin' pulled her into a hug.

A gasp left Rainbow's lips when she felt herself being embraced by those tender hooves, a serene crimson wave of warmth erupting from within and blossoming across her from head to hoof. "Soar, what are—" she stammered, desperately wriggling in his grip. "Soar, I... I-I..."

"You don't have to apologize."

A whine. "But I-I let this happen... I did this..."

"No you didn't, Rainbow."

"I did thi—"

"No you didn't. You didn't, Rainbow. You didn't."

A trembling silence. "But I could've—"

"You couldn't have done anything even if you wanted to," he muttered assuredly, his own voice trembling. "Listen, Rainbow, this whole thing... is six degrees of messed up, okay? This isn't... this isn't right... I should be able to fly, but I can't, and I'm not okay with that, alright? I can't ever be okay with that."

"T-Then—"

"But you know what I'm not okay with? This being all your fault, because it's not. It's not your fault, it's not mine, it's just... it's just how it is, just how things happened... and this is just something we have to handle right now and that's... that's fine with me, okay? As long as we know there's a way out of it, that's fine! This is fine! We're fine!"

"Soar..."

"You know what I'm not okay with? You making it sound as if it should've happened to you."

Rainbow stopped shaking there and then, wide-eyed at the words that had left his mouth. Nevertheless, Soarin' flimsily pressed on, even despite the crackle in his throat. "I'm not... like you, Rainbow. I'm not as strong as you, I'm just not. Even back there in that stupid forest, I just... I gave in, Rainbow. I didn't want to go on like that down there all by myself, so when it came for me, I just... I listened. I knew it wasn't you and yet I... I just..."

"Soar—"

"But you? You kept going. Even when I'm gone, you just kept. On. Going." Soarin' let out a fluttering sigh, whether out of amazement or regret, she wasn't sure. "You got us out of there, Rainbow. You got us out. That's gotta make up for something somehow. You could've left without me too — and rightfully so, since I knocked you out of the sky and everything — but no, you went ahead and got me out as well."

"I couldn't just leave you down there!"

"I couldn't if it was you as well. But among the two of us, you're the one that really wouldn't come what may." Another sigh, this one tinged with the clear pigment of shame. "I'm not strong enough to do that, I'm just not. If it happened to you, I don't think I could've done what you've done."

"But still... your wings..."

Finally, a chuckle. "My wings? I'm a retired Wonderbolt, remember? I'm just happy enough that I escaped with my life. It just... it takes time getting a bit used to it, but look at me! I'm still living and breathing, happy as ever. Maybe I can relearn flying too, as you've said. Yeah, go back to flight school with the little colts and fillies. Spitfire and the rest of the gang would go nuts over that."

"Heh, can't argue with that."

Soarin' grinned. "That's the loveliest smile I ever had the pleasure to witness in a while, Miss Dash."

"Glad you liked it." Rainbow giggled. "I... I'm sorry, that's what I wanted to say. I'm just... sorry..."

"It's fine, Rainbow. Thanks to you, I'm fine. Oh, and one more thing."

"Huh?"

"Just.. thanks. For being here. For being with me."

A smile. "Anytime."

Once more, underneath the solace of mellow moonlight, the two pegasi leaned into each other's embrace, their shared breaths flourishing through the night air as they nuzzled their snouts together, a fuzz fizzling in both of their hearts. Their eyes echoed their sentiments of yearning, their cheeks glowing in unison, before Rainbow Dash leaned in to plant a brief yet equally bountiful and beautiful kiss on his lips; a kiss he all too cheerfully reciprocated.

"Love you," he muttered breathlessly.

"Love you too," she responded, beaming, if only for a moment.

Her gaze had grown despondent, having fallen towards the other bed in the room, with Soarin' soon following suit. There was a mare resting there, neck-deep in a destitute slumber, even despite all the noise they've made. She was a mare both of them recognized, yet she was certainly a mare neither ponies had expected to ever see again, especially not since her graceless exit. Nevertheless, if Nightingale's words were to be trusted, something had to be left behind. There was a toll that needed to be paid, the only surprise being that everything was all done with her consent.

"She'll be fine, right?" Soarin' scratched his head. "She... what's her name again?"

"Lightning Dust," Rainbow answered firmly and earnestly, watching said mare lost in her tranquility, her name still ringing as clear as it did on the day they've met. "Twilight said she'll be fine. She and Nightingale worked out a way to make sure she's fine, so she has to be. She has to be fine."

"Why... why do you think she said yes? She... she knew what would happen. She knew what she was signing up for. She knew, didn't she?" Soarin's gaze shimmered. "W-Why would she do that? For us?"

"I don't know," came her best answer, yet both Wonderbolts knew the best was always never enough.

"I don't know."
























"They're safe, right? Both of them?"

A little worse for wear, but yes, perfectly safe, my love. All thanks to you.

"Good... good... okay..."

Now then... ready, love?

"Ready as I'll ever be. What do I have to do first?"

Silence, before the brightest grin burst forth from his lips.

"Consider the clouds."