Fallout Equestria: To Scorn the Earth

by tulpaman

First published

After being framed for her overmare’s murder, unicorn Lemony Cream finds herself exiled onto the wastes

Lemony Cream has never seen sunlight enter her Stable. But she has studied descriptions of it. And it's based on these descriptions, that she uses her magic to simulate natural light.

Now, after being framed for her overmare’s murder, Lemony finds herself exiled onto the wastes, where she discovers that, strangely, the Equestrian countryside is all overshadowed with cloud, and her magic is still in demand.

dedicated to kkat, stringtheory, fluttersyke, treesy, regolit, and all old friends in the comments.
This is a total overhaul of a previous story, published here in 2013 under another name.
plus/minus 60,000 words

Chapter One: Into the Howling Dark

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What an unholy change to her once kind and friendly face: now upside down and strangely shadowed, ringed around with blood already dry and flaking. Shady Sands, our overmare, lying dead behind her desk. Like a dropped object, lying there. As I looked down at the familiar features of the corpse, our Stable’s nightly prayer service was still ongoing, somewhere deeper down. I could almost hear the choirs’ voices still, and I wondered: had all our prayers and recitations to the Princesses been to prepare us each for this: the likes of such a sudden, painful test. Just the fact that our loved ones die, and die in front of us.

Oh, Luna if this is a dream: make it easier on me, please. Give me some air. But if this were a dream, how could such acute pain not have startled me awake? Instead I stood there, wracked with it.

In my life, I had never seen so much as a shaft of sunlight. But I had studied descriptions of it, from Equestria's heyday. Now in my mind’s eye I could see Shady Sands’ face in sunlight, as comfort against the pain, repairing at least in memory the sickening angle at which her actual head was cocked backwards, here. Repairing the slackness of her mouth, and her fixed, unblinking eyes, and the hole at the center of her forehead.

Luna, if it be your will, I will bear this anguish nightly: only let it be a dream. I brought my tearful face down close to the body's, to nuzzle it – despite the smell and staring eyes, I brought my face down to it. And when I touched my cheek to hers in greeting, mine came away stained, and had felt no warmth at all.

I’ll never know how long I stood there in her office, or how many more times I prompted her body for some response, before the security officers came and took me away.

* * *

“Lemony Cream?” said the solicitor: a pegasus, speaking from the other side of the cell’s thick glass wall. “I’m your solicitor.” I could barely see him: my tearful, stained face was superimposed over his, in the glass.

“Now there’s no point denying it,” he said. “You’re being framed. There’s a hearing planned for the morning, but you won’t attend (they’ll argue you’re too dangerous, as a practicing unicorn). Of course, as your solicitor I’ll have a reasonable defense prepared, but it’s only to make the prosecution’s case seem stronger. Then, if all goes as planned, the jury will elect to exile you to the wastes...”

“A practicing unicorn?” I repeated, grasping for what little I could follow. “I don’t - I mean… I only brighten up the skylight a little, in the chapel.”

“It’s not a huge leap from faking natural light to starting fires,” the solicitor said. “Or that’s what they’ll argue, to keep you in here. Notice, you have no guards. You’re under confinement, you understand. Now our Stable's government has sent me here to make it clear that we have no personal grievances against you. You’re being framed, yes, but it’s only because (after much deliberation) you happened to be chosen as the Stable’s most expendable pony, efficiency-wise. It helps also, that you’ve been a close friend of the overmare’s. We’re going to argue it was a lover’s spat, I’m sorry to say, that drove you to kill her.”

I felt dizzy. My reflection squinted and sagged, inside his outline. “Then, she’s really gone…” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “She is. I’m sorry. In the last few months, strictly within government circles of course, the overmare had been pushing an agenda to open the Stable door, and evaluate the situation topside. She had missionary interests, too, as a member of your church. In fact, she was only pursuing this idea out of charitable feeling. Not for the Stable’s sake, but in the name of whatever sad unfortunates still inhabit the surface, in whatever remains of Equestria.. We couldn’t let it go any further, you understand. Much less become public…”

“You… murdered her?”

“Well, not me personally. I’m just your solicitor. We all have our parts to play. Yours, again I’m sorry to say, will be to take the fall for this. To bear the brunt of whatever’s out there, for all our sakes.”

I pressed my forehead to the cool glass wall between us, slumping forward. Any potential feelings in me of outrage or vengeful anger died pathetically, failing to hold themselves up. I didn’t have the strength. I shook, that’s all. I was trembling against the glass. I was reminded, and ashamed to think of, being in bed alone, touching myself. When, in the very moment after being gratified - after seeing pure sunlight - I would find myself back in the dark of my room, trembling. That’s how wracked and impotent I felt then.

He was saying: “Just think of it as bearing a burden for the rest of us here, safe inside. We’ll never have to open the Stable doors thanks to you, or let those terrors in. Your hard sacrifice will mean no one else has to suffer, you see? And isn’t that a bit like what your hymns describe the Holy Sisters and their Ministers doing – Luna and Celestia, Twilight and her friends, dying for our country’s sins? I admit I don’t attend services, but I can’t help overhearing…”

“I would have rather died for her, than all of you,” I said. “If I could have taken her place...”

“Well, we don’t always get to choose how we’re going to be of service. For one, do you think I especially wanted to be a solicitor? No. In fact, it was more my father’s decision than mine. And that reminds me… Another reason we arranged to have you walk in on the overmare, and get swept up in all this: your parents. Or, should I say, the lack thereof. Not that I’m saying you won’t be missed at all…”

“Please…” I said, closing my eyes. “This is torture.”

It didn’t matter what he said. She was gone. My dear friend, and more than that, unknown to them: the mare I thought of whenever I was asked to conjure sunlight. It was her all along. Shady Sands. Since the day my tutor told me, as an exercise in lighting a room, to think of my parents smiling down at me. And while he had stuttered and apologized, having forgotten that they were dead (my mother by disease, and my father by suicide soon after), while he continued to apologize, I thought of her. And ponies had poked their heads in at the tutor’s door, to see her sudden, natural light.

“You don’t know what you’ve done,” I said.

“Far from it.” The solicitor said. “We’ve examined every possible outcome. As governing officials our duty is to this Stable first, and its overmare second. It is our responsibility, always, to control for pony error. She couldn’t be reasoned with, I promise you.”

I shook my head. I felt like vomiting. “You said you’re sending me out of here?” I asked. "Banishing me?"

“Well! You make it sound as if these are all my decisions. We’ve elected to, yes, if the jury goes our way. Just like we elected to remove the overmare from office, and more than that: to further ensure that there was no risk of protest or insurrection afterwards, on her part. We took a vote on all of this.”

“If you voted for it, you as good as did it,” I said. “So, send me out then, you coward. I can’t stay in here. You’ve as good as sucked out all the air I breathe.”

“It won’t be long, don’t worry,” he said. “A few days at the most, if the jury needs convincing.”

“If you have any feeling in you at all,” I said. “You’ll take me away from here. Tonight.”

“I’m afraid that’s quite impossible.”

“I don’t think I’ll survive the night,” I said. “You remember, don’t you, how my father died? Or maybe you don’t. They say it was only grief, after my mother passed away. But who dies of that? I’ve heard instead that he stopped his own heart, casting a spell. That he reached in and gave the whole organ one good, firm turn, or just held onto it, and stopped its crucial work.”

“But you couldn’t do that…” the solicitor said. “That isn’t natural magic.”

“I could do as much, with what I have. In effect, at least. In effect even a pegasus like you could do as much as that, with these three walls. And I fear I would. This isn’t a threat. I’m afraid I will, if you leave me here. I see my grief. Like a panther pacing in this room with me, it’s here. But as hard as this is now: I know I want to live, and think of her again. I just don’t think I’ll make it, trapped in here.”

“We’ve all lost friends…” he started to say, but stopped at the sight of me laughing, just on the other side of the glass, laughing at that.

“You really don’t understand,” I said. “You’ve killed a part of me. You couldn’t have caused me any more pain than this. Why shouldn’t I ask you for a little mercy, now? If you have a conscience, you’ll take me away from here...”

He started to shake his head, almost fearfully. “Sneak me out, now, by night,” I said, pressing him. “If that’s the only way.” But now to my disgust, he started to move backwards toward the door of the far room. “Don’t you dare,” I said, but he kept going.

“You’ve done this to me,” I said. “And you can never deny it. You killed Shady Sands as sure as if you fired the gun. In fact, it’s worse: you did it from behind your desk, didn’t you, voting? As if you wouldn’t be fully responsible that way. As if you hadn’t made the exact same choice as a murderer, in the moment. You coward. I’d rather you were hanged for this in the end, than whoever you elected as your assassin…”

But somewhere in all this, he left me there.

* * *

I didn’t sleep that night. Lying on my back instead, staring up at the dark ceiling, I made a little light play over it, as gently as I could. The kind of light, from what I’d read, that might be reflected off of a steady, passing stream. Like soft laughter in the room, this light, to keep me company. I focused as much as I could on my breathing – on keeping my ragged breathing steady. I tried not to think, because all thinking strives toward decision, and there was only one decision left for me to make. To bear this pain, or not to.

Of this long wait, I remember this much: I never doubted Celestia, Luna, or their ministers. Of course, I knew they were real, and working in my heart - for I could never have felt such pain, without such love as theirs, expressed in me. Neither did I blame them for not intervening somehow. No, the solicitor and his unfeeling government had betrayed their trust as well as mine: going against the sisters’ explicit teachings, to all ponies, to love and befriend each other. Which holy teachings, I believe, are written in fire across every pony’s heart.

I didn’t hear the door open, when it did. I only felt the light change in my cell, and looking up I saw him there again. The solicitor. I could see him in more detail now and knew we must have spoken once, under friendlier circumstances. Just to say good morning, maybe. Naturally, I knew his face – prematurely aged by dark circles under the eyes, with the hair around his ears going wiry and grey: the cost of studying law.

“I’ve decided to let you out,” he said. “But once this is over, I’ll have to tell them you overpowered me and took me hostage. They’ll take that as strong evidence, of course, to your killing the overmare.”

“It doesn’t matter to me,” I said, still on my back. “Tell them I did it. Tell them I said I did it. Celestia will forever know the truth, and Shady Sands too. She’s beyond your influence now, at least. And so will I be, any minute now, if you’d only open the cell door.”

“Now, you can’t hurt me once I do…” he said, as if it was a children’s game. “I have a pistol on me, and it's loaded. Besides: there’s a code to open the Stable doors, which you don’t know.”

“I couldn’t do a thing to hurt you, more than you’ve hurt yourself,” I said. “With what you’ve done.”

“You’re starting to make me regret coming…” he said.

“I should be grateful to you?

He seemed to think this was fair, because after a moment he moved to open the cell door. On closer inspection, once the door was open, I could tell the solicitor had had no sleep that night either. He wore a red blanket over his shoulders, and from the condition of the pajamas underneath I guessed it had been a few hours, which would mean it was now almost morning.

His pistol was practically falling out of his shirt pocket, and I was tempted to lift it off of him (it looked about as heavy as I could manage, telekinetically). Still, in my heart of hearts, I was impressed that he’d come, and I wanted him to have this chance: uninterfered with, to follow his own conscience. Because that would mean, even in the face of what he’d done, that he had some kind of natural compassion. That the minsters, in other words, were still working in him, and that Fluttershy was close to us now, interceding in his clouded heart in the name of being kind.

Wasn’t that better than hating him? To think he had just made a mistake, and gone astray of his own, true heart. It was better, yes, to think that. But I hated him all the same. And if it weren’t for the code to the Stable door, I don’t know what I would have done to him if he frustrated me, even despite Fluttershy weeping.

* * *

In the early, unworldly hours of the morning, the Stable’s passages and stairways looked just as they now felt to me, with Shady Sands’ gone: lightless, and devoid of life. No quick, bright foals, moving past us on their way to school. No laughter to speak of. I didn’t care that I had to leave. What harm could leaving do me, now? What was this place, without wonder at all? Without excitement, and without the relief of seeing her, across a crowded room. To stay here without her, was as much as to go.

And I felt I really was in danger, as if the suicidal tendency was as much passed on as fair hair, from father to child. How I would live without her, I wasn’t sure. But I knew she would have wanted me to try.

“Wait,” I said to the solicitor, stopping at a door. “This is my room.”

“You can’t go in,” he said. “You can’t take your things with you. It wouldn’t add up. Tomorrow, they’d notice. And if you had really taken me hostage, would you really have risked stopping here? And if you had stopped, then why didn’t I take the chance to overpower you? Legally it’s too complicated: don’t go in.”

“I have no clothes on,” I said.

“Is that unusual?” said he. “Sure, I mean: you’re worried it’ll be cold on the surface. That’s a possibility. But we have to keep moving. I’ll give you this blanket, at the door. I’ll give you my gun and say you robbed me. Just let’s keep moving. It’s almost morning now.”

"I didn’t realize…” I said, carefully. I wasn’t about to argue. Given the urgency in his voice, I was afraid to see what would happen if he was pressed any further. “Let’s keep moving then.”

He breathed a sigh of relief, and carried on. I felt sorry for him, almost. Was this buck really capable of murder? And if not: then how could I blame him for it? He had to be a good liar, of course. How must he have he lied to himself when he cast his fatal vote? How had he gotten that past his own conscience? Had he known the full implication of what he did? Or was it just a fault in our system, making it so easy for a buck like him to become complicit? Maybe that was it, but I didn’t feel charitable enough to pursue that line of thinking.

Anyway, we were both startled then by the Stable’s PA system crackling on. It was just music first - strangely soft, and sad. The solicitor and I exchanged a look, and then continued on our hasty way.

* * *

“We speak to you this morning in the wake of great tragedy. It is my sorry duty to inform you that our overmare is dead. With a heavy heart, I repeat: Shady Sands is dead. Security officers apprehended her killer on the scene and, barring any contradictory evidence, we will be scheduling a hearing for the prisoner later this morning. Anyone with potentially relevant information is being asked to come forward. The smallest clue may help shorten the bitter span of these proceedings. We mean to waste no time in this case, and intend to exert the fullest force of the law - for Shady Sands, our overmare, whose light was put out too soon.”

“Celestia’s bones,” the solicitor said, with the clasp that held his blanket on still between his teeth. He had entered the code for the Stable door, and already it was humming into its heavy operation. At last, I helped him with the clasp, and then put on the blanket.

“You should keep the pajamas, I think,” I said. “Now, what about your pistol?”

“It’s still in my pocket,” he said, hesitating, as if he meant to refuse me now. But I could see the pistol. There, heavy in the left pocket A .45 automatic, for all I knew then. I had to lift it quickly out and float it overhead, so the solicitor couldn’t take it back.

“I’m not going to lie down and die out there,” I said, as he struggled for the gun. At last I cowed him back with it – not aiming, but holding it like a hammer over his head. “She wanted to open the doors, you told me. She had missionary interests. She had charitable feeling. Fine. Then let me do what I can, in that spirit. And let her be as close to me out there, as she was in here, alive. Let her be the motive force that makes my heart beat, for as long as it survives. Here in this hole meanwhile, you’ll never know her, or even ever know what you cost us all. Thank Luna for that at least. Because if you knew – if you could see the bright, child’s heart you as much as strangled in it happiest days, I don’t think you could bear the guilt.”

This would make the weeks ahead no easier on his conscience. I could have cracked him over the head with the pistol, I think, and hurt him much less in the long run. The announcement overhead had made us both nervous, and I spoke hastily to him then. Still, in the moment it didn’t seem to matter what I said.

“It needed doing,” he argued back. “If the overmare had made her ideas public it would only have been a matter of time. One day, the doors would have been opened, and let all the terrors of the wastes in. We tried to talk to her, believe me… but she wouldn’t listen. So, we did what needed doing. I can see it’s hard for you to understand. You were her friend. You have a bias.”

“I have a serious bias,” I said. “And so does Celestia, you coward. Against murderers. And in favor of friends-“

“Yes. Yes, I understand all that. But the door’s open now, so what are you arguing for? You can go, and that’s because of me, remember? I’m not against you all the way. I’ve brought you here, haven’t I?”

“You’ve brought me here,” I said, agreeing.

It seemed the door had rolled aside while we were arguing. Now the air in the room was different: moving strangely under me, and over me, pricking the tips of my ears: circulating. It made me that much more eager to leave. Outside was life again, I hoped, and freer circulation. Here was only death.

“I only hope it’s not as bad as they say, for your sake,” he said, as I moved to leave.

“For your sake, I hope it is. Or else you’ve soiled your conscience in vain, and helped no one.”

If he meant to answer me, he was interrupted by the PA system fuzzing on again, and so he moved instead to close the Stable door. Not to stop me, I don’t think, but to force me out. So, with the door groaning I went for it, while from overhead came the last familiar voice I would hear there, however unfriendly:

“Alert. Alert: this is an urgent emergency broadcast. Please return to your homes. I repeat: please return to your homes. The prisoner has escaped.”

Footnote: Level up!
Perk Added: Not in Our Stars, but in Ourselves: Examining a target shows hit points, weapon and ammunition count. Your initial assessments of non-player characters may also open unique dialogue options later on.

Chapter Two: Pegasus Country

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A strange, fond yearning came over me at the Stable door, for the inanimate things I could no longer call my own. My lamp and desk, my pencils, books, and blankets. All left behind inside. What was mine now? The automatic pistol. The blanket I wore. These unfamiliar things. Shouldn’t I have pressed the issue and asked for more? My Pip-buck had been just sitting on my bedside table. Literal maps of the surface were folded away into books. Next, I was seized with sudden remorse that I had not demanded Shady Sands’ body, to bury outside under natural shade, or to burn and release as a flight of ashes on the wind.

All I had of her instead was a memory. Like a description of light, carefully studied. What I had to do now was express it: to act in her spirit or on her behalf so that in a way, from within me, she could continue to live, and to work brightening changes in the world. It wasn’t really in my nature to be helpful. I’d been too private a pony, inside. It remained to be seen if I could change now.

Could I afford it, was another question? Wasn’t it me that was more in need of help now, without food or water, alone in the dark. All the same, I found the tunnel around me lovely to be in: cool and still, with rough, dark textures all around, and visible moisture on the stalactites overhead. I could feel an intake of fresh, clean air. Actual sky, falling all the way down to me there. I decided to think of this as a place I could return to. And that was something. Some kind of possession: a place to return to, and rest in.

I started to walk against the intake of fresh air, and by shades of blue the tunnel around me lightened and lightened, until I came to a cleft in a pile of rocks, through which the light intensified: my way out.

It felt like pushing through a series of veils, so perceptibly did the light land on my lowered face and eyes. I didn’t quite know what to expect, and still I was surprised when, carefully, I looked around outside.

Clouds. More mist and cloud around me than visible land. All around, in towering structures. Yes, structures of cloud. I almost felt I could see support pillars. And all this under a broad, cloudy ceiling, uninterrupted besides a gap just above me, where high clouds were fringed with light under a view of the morning sky.

The light filtering down from this opening helped me, at last, to see the actual land underneath all this: gleaming wet sheets of rock, green hillsides with scruffy heather and low-growing thyme, and even wire fencing, which all dripped and glistened due to the mist going by. And in every bead of water, a little rainbow. The miracle of light. What a way to find water: to follow these magical reflections, as if Celestia herself were signaling the way. I felt all fear leave me. I felt I would never go thirsty, or lack for light. It was a land of plenty, I kept thinking. A land of plenty.

If only she could see it too. Or was that ungrateful? Should I have been content to have all this, and not to want to share it? How could I help wishing she was there? All the same, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. Not in the face of such a gift. So, I closed my eyes and bent my head, to pray. To think of Shady Sands, and to invite her near. And to think of the holy sisters, and to thank them. And of the ministers, each one of whose presence I could feel…

I felt Pinkie Pie in the high clouds, playing around that lighted gap, and I felt Rainbow Dash in the broad, clear expanse of sky behind. I felt Applejack in the sturdy ground, giving me a place to stand, and I felt Fluttershy in the wet smell of the heather and thyme. I felt Rarity in the jeweled drops of dew, and Twilight in the very spark of life, inside me, which told me I was here, and happy again after long hours of pain.

* * *

After gratefully climbing, grazing and licking up dew across the living, misty landscape for a while, I started to notice a definite structure to the surrounding clouds, and realized in time that this was not just bad weather around me: but a ruin. The remains of a large Pegasus city, which now pillowed and towered against the mountainside (as I did seem to be on a mountain now, where out of gaps in the cloud, I could see miles of low country below). It was safe to assume these were not the ruins of Cloudsdale, unless Cloudsdale had somehow travelled miles north. I guessed the low country I could see was the Shy, which I knew hugged Equestria’s northern border. Which would mean these were probably the ruins of Peirene.

Of Peirene I knew only that its history was long and storied, involving many wars. It predated the country’s founding, and for some time had even fallen under Commander Hurricane’s, well, command. Peirene had had some mysterious religious significance, I think, which showed. For around me now were parts of shrines and sacred statues, whose sad disfiguration put me in mind of our own, more recent War.

In our chapel services it’s said (and I believe) that the Great War came as the natural result of our species’ increasingly sinful condition. That the greedier we ponies became, and the more self-interested, the more inevitable the Great War. This means it was no accident, or stroke of bad luck. “The fault was not in our stars, but in ourselves.” Neither were Celestia our Luna to blame. To have used their full, divine power to prevent the war, would have been to prevent a natural result. Our just desserts. Worse: to have used their same power to somehow alter the sinful condition we ponies chose for ourselves, would have been to take free will from us. And however much we harm ourselves with it, we must have free will. We cannot love without it. If we’re forced to love against our will, it isn’t love. Even Luna had to learn this.

So, the War was our fault. Each individual pony’s, because of his selfish, loveless choices. The ministers too, being only ponies and not divine, had become increasingly self-interested. We think of their six actual ministries (Of Morale, Of Arcane Sciences etc.) as repositories for their vain self-interest, leading them further and further away from each other. Towards the end, they were unrecognizable as the friends they used to be. Yet all the same we worship them, for what they were in early days. As examples of a pony’s highest potential. Of what we could have been, by choosing love. Of what we were for a long, happy age.

What changed, I cannot say.

Now these sad thoughts put a damper on the new, free ranges around me, and seemed to make the mist itself drop in temperature. Suddenly now, the ruins seemed quiet. More like ruins. Yes, it was good here, and I’d been able to run and climb. But I’d been reminded now that more had been meant for us than this. Much more. And we’d somehow squandered our good inheritance, and turned against our friends. When once instead, for days without number, over and freely over again, it had been morning in Ponyville.

* * *

When I tried to check how far I had come from the Stable’s tunnel entrance, I realized I couldn’t find it. It had been a small cleft in a pile of rocks, obvious from the inside because it glowed with natural light. Now, wherever I saw rocks, I seemed to see shadowy clefts and possible entrances. All of the ones I went and checked led nowhere, or were too small for me to fit inside. I had lost it.

I tried not to think too much about this. Or of the Stable at all, because if I considered even the natural fact that it was underneath me all this time, I started to feel strangled and sick. As if all the ponies inside were as good as buried alive, already growing short of breath. I could have gone on like this for a long time, looping back around, thinking about them again, but thankfully I was interrupted.

I snapped quickly to attention at the sight of an egg, breaking violently on the rocks just next to me. Now looking up I saw, flying silhouetted against the blue gap in the clouds: a pegasus! Agile as a swimmer on the wind, and fast. It cleared all previous concern out of mind, seeing her pass.

That was all I saw for the moment, of the pegasus. It was over so fast, and out of the clouds she had cleared a furrow just in passing. An egg and spoon race, maybe? I went over to inspect the whites and yolk that now patterned the rocks. What a speed it must have hit the ground at, to splash like this! Now I stood there feeling very stodgy and academic, compared to that great athlete.

Picturing her again, the three varieties of ponies seemed far from similar. What a difference between being always grounded and being always able to fly. While to have even basic telekinesis, in contrast to none at all, meant two whole different lived experiences. And then too: the slower, more tactile relationship an earth pony had to have with every item she moved and carried, must of course affect her mindset too: training her to act economically, and not to waste effort. It seemed almost sacred and loving: the idea of turning every page in a book, without magic, just to complete it. Why should unicorns even kiss with our mouths, I wondered, when we substituted in magic for so many other tasks?

I felt very superfluous and spoiled now, being a unicorn. Very mental, and alienated from my own body in a way I’d never considered. Not sensual or attentive at all. Instead: inactive and stagnant. Of course, just what I was doing now: standing around thinking, showed I wasn’t far off the mark.

“Whoops!” said a voice. It was the same lean, graceful pegasus, now hovering high above the egg, noticing it. Next, she dropped out of sight, swooping towards me. The way she moved I could hardly follow. It made me feel two dimensional, compared to these three dimensions she made full use of, flying. “My bad.” Now she was in front of me, holding a wiry bird’s nest of blue eggs to her chest. She was about the same color too, as the speckled blue eggs. “Well, I guess that would have been one egg too many, anyway," she said. "With food as scarce as it is, you’d think I would know better than to overeat like this!”

“Still, there’s really nothing like a fry up,” she went on, as I stood there. “If you can find a few mushrooms, a couple of tomatoes from down in the Shy. A little toast. A can of beans even. Oh, baby.” I was stunned. It was as if, in the Stable, a mare had approached me with a series of exquisite gymnastics: somersaults, back-flips, and then started to talk to me casually about current events, not even out of breath. “Well,” the pegasus said. “I’m Nimble.”

“I’ll say.” After a pause, I realized she meant that was her name. “Oh, sorry. Lemony Cream.”

“Man, retro!" Nimble said. “You don’t meet many ponies named after biscuits or cake, these days. No joke: I know a stallion called Firing Line. Oh, how times have changed. Is this the way it is to be? Will we never see those diamond days, again? You know that song? Sweetie Belle. When that one plays, the party’s over, man.” She was really a fantastic speaker, the speed she went. “So, listen, don’t take offense: but are you not from around here? You seem a little, I don’t know, stunned.”

“I’ve never seen a pegasus fly like you before,” I said, simply.

“Ouch!” she said, smiling, and I felt such free admiration for her then. She seemed so warm, and game for whatever came next. “I like it!” she said. “I can take a joke. Yes, I’m a bit of a clumsy flyer: that’s just how it is. And trust me, I was the first one to find out! Most days I’d rather be cooking, honestly. But this is all still about me. And that’s a tiresome subject, believe me. I think I asked you a question, didn’t I? Where you were from: that’s it. Of course, I’m assuming you’re a pilgrim…”

“Yes,” I said, carefully. I didn’t like to lie to her, but at the same time I was afraid she would be offended or put off if I told her the truth. If she found out that, unlike her, I wasn’t a natural part of the surface world. “I am a pilgrim,” I said, robotically. “I’m from the Shy.” I gestured vaguely toward the lowlands.

“Great cabbages there,” she said, nodding wisely. “So, were you in Peirene to visit a particular shrine?”

“Uh,” I said. Then, either because of how soft-spoken I felt in the face of her, or because of the kindness she’d shown me all this time, I answered: “Fluttershy’s.”

“Well, that’s easy,” said she. “Our only town’s named after it, as it’s just near there. Fluttershy’s Lament. The town’s where all you flightless types stay, when you visit. I’d take you there, but I’m supposed to be getting breakfast ready for my father. And he’s a crotchety old creature, even after he’s been fed.”

“Breakfast?” I repeated, without thinking.

“Aha,” she said, winking at me. “You’re hungry, aren’t you? Say no more, my friend.”

* * *

She had mentioned that food was scarce, and I’d seen her lose one egg at least, and yet she took me home with her, to feed me. I felt guilty at first to accept her offer, after I’d been so well provided for all my life. Then I realized that the excesses of the Stable must only have spoiled me, while Nimble instead seemed to have benefited from the natural hardships and shortages involved in life on the surface. She seemed more natural to me, somehow. More eager to still be alive, and to give help where it was needed. I didn’t know her, and these were just assumptions, but it’s normal to assume.

In fact, Nimble had had somewhat of an easier time than most wastelanders: loved and sheltered as she had been by her impressive father. We found him in a high cleft, at the entrance of a cave hidden from view. I struggled to climb up to it over the slicked wet stone, but with Nimble’s help I managed.

Her father was an old, bird of prey-like pegasus with bleary, half blind eyes and a daunting posture. He must not have left their secluded home much now, not being able to see well enough either to fly, or to navigate the tricky wet terrain. When we found him, he seemed to be waiting angrily for Nimble’s return, but in time I noticed that whatever he did, he seemed to do angrily. So that, once Nimble prepared them, he would look down angrily at his eggs, and then eat them angrily. And then say: delicious as usual, angrily.

Neither did he seem to appreciate my being there much. I tried to keep quiet and appreciate the food, which was warm and heartening. It seemed Nimble made her own bread, which we toasted and ate with our eggs. I gathered that the Shy below us was still fertile, and bore grain.

“You know, father was a soldier in the Crop-dusters' secession,” Nimble said, after our long, silent eating. She seemed somewhat embarrassed about her father’s cageyness. I just felt sorry to have imposed. “He and I used to live above the cloud cover.” To my doubtful look, she insisted: “It’s true: we were Enclave citizens, when I was a foal. It’s mostly farm country up there this far north, but when the Enclave started to crack down on worshiping the Ministers, and coming down on pilgrimages to Peirene, well… that was the start of the Crop-dusters' secession. It’s a part of modern history,” she said, proudly.

I must have looked lost, because she tried to elaborate. “You ever seen a pegasus in armor, and a helmet with the bulging, yellow globes for eyes?” In fact, I had not. “They’re horrific. Like cockroaches, oily-looking. That’s an Enclave soldier. There’s a contingent of their army still after us here. Not very well outfitted, under the command of a total sadist. They’re just sore from losing to us in the secession, father says. But they’re the reason pegasi have to live in hiding, here.”

“You’re in hiding?” I asked, feeling far behind.

“Yes. All pegasi on the surface are - didn’t you know?” I shook my head. “Well, it’s true. You’re very fortunate: being a unicorn, you can walk around Peirene freely. And to live on the Shy, what a dream! We pegasi aren’t supposed to be here, in the Enclave’s opinion. We’re all supposed to live in the clouds. But as I say, our little group was able to get free and come here, thanks to father and his friends...”

“You worship the Ministers where you come from, little caster?” her father asked me, quite intensely.

“Why yes,” I said, glad not to have to lie. “Of course.”

“She’s a pilgrim, father,” Nimble said. “She’s here to visit Fluttershy’s Lament.”

“And what, little caster, would you say is the significance of Fluttershy’s Lament?”

“Like being called on in class,” I said, breathily. Nimble laughed, at least. “Well, sir, as far as I understand it - and I’m not a pegasus, so it could be I don’t understand – as far as I understand it, Fluttershy weeps whenever ponies unkindly cause each other pain.” He didn’t nod, or show approval. Still, I went on: “That means, of course, that no minister suffered more than her as we left more peaceful days behind, entering the War. Now today hers is the voice that pleads for peace, in every pony’s conscience. And her lament would be… well, her grief at seeing us as we are, still involved in this in-fighting.”

“What must she think of soldiers, then?” he asked.

“Of soldiers?“ I repeated, thrown. What a question! “Well, I guess if you asked her, she’d say… well, I couldn’t tell you what she’d say. But there must be such a thing, I assume, as being a soldier for peace…”

At this, I saw his glare relax. “That much I still can’t decide, little caster. How much does it hurt her to know what I’ve done? Always, that worries me. But you’ve answered well.”

“Thank goodness,” Nimble said. “You know, you don’t have to test everyone you meet, father,”

“This life’s a test,” he said. And I’d remember him saying it, sitting upright there, his bleary eyes directed out into the mist. The memory was only further intensified by what he said to me next: “Now, little caster, I believe you do hold the Ministers dear. But you’ve neglected one of them today, haven’t you?”

“Sir?” I said.

He trained his eyes on me. “Why don’t you tell Nimble the honest truth, about where you come from?”

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Cautious Nature: +3 to Perception during random encounters
You are also more sensitive to what may cause offence, in conversation.

Chapter Three: Fluttershy's Lament

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It had hurt Nimble that I lied to her, I could tell. She was quiet as she guided me toward Fluttershy’s Lament, down a grassy vale. It was as if a sheet had been thrown over her; she seemed so subdued. Her father instead had been satisfied as soon as I told them the whole truth. He seemed to know about the Stable, and had listened unsurprised as I described the recent, dark maneuvers our government had made there. When I was finished (not going into painful detail), he had given his permission for Nimble to escort me into town. He assumed she wanted to escort me. I wasn’t so sure.

Applejack, the sight of whose frowning green eyes would have ashamed me now, had always seemed to be the most maternal and, at the same time, zero tolerant of the ministers - because of course the difference between the truth and a lie is not up for argument. A pony can accidentally be over-serious, ungenerous or unkind. But how can one who knows the truth be accidentally dishonest? I for one had been fully conscious of the fact I was lying to Nimble. Worse: I did it to impress her, to make her think I was as natural here as she was. How much more unnatural must I seem to her now, as a liar? What is there in nature that lies?

“If you listen, here, you’ll hear water,” Nimble said, stopping midair. It was true: a far, crashing sound of water, which to me at first, sounded unpleasantly like static from the Stable’s PA system. “Those are the falls at Fluttershy’s Lament,” she said. “You’ll have to go on alone from here, but if you just follow the sound of the water you’ll arrive in town. Please be careful. It’s a beautiful town, but looks are deceiving.”

I worried for a moment that that last comment was directed at me, but I was right in deciding that Nimble would speak her mind if she meant to, and not cruelly insinuate. She only meant the town.

“You aren’t coming?” I asked.

“I can’t,” she said. “You won’t see any free pegasi in Fluttershy’s Lament. The Enclave have hostile infantry posted there; even a recruiting office, for civilian helpers.” At last, she laughed again, saying: “Now, no matter how nice they are, don’t sign anything! They have actual coffee in their office, I’ve heard. Sometimes I think I can smell it!”

I couldn’t bear the guilt: to have hurt such a happy creature! So now in one awkward breath, I blurted out: “Nimble, I feel like I should formally apologize -“

“Informally would be better,” she interrupted, smiling. “Seeing as we’re friends.” Just her saying that made me feel the guilt start to wash off. She made it easy: her smile alone cleared the skies of a stormy conscience. “I can see why you felt you had to lie,” she said. “You were just afraid, that’s all.”

“Well, no, that isn’t all,” I admitted. “It was more that I wanted you to like me. Because you seem like so much a natural part of this place, as much as the mist and heather. And I want to seem natural too.”

“Well, you don’t want to seem natural!” she laughed. “You want to be natural. So, be natural. Be Lemony Cream! I don’t think you’ll end up wanting the friends who only like you because of where you've come from. Take me and cabbages, for instance: I like cabbages from the Shy not because they’re from the Shy, but because they’re good cabbages! Yeah, that’s what I mean. It doesn’t matter to me where you’re from, Lemony Cream: I think you’re a good cabbage!”

I felt so bubbly and good at that, that I was almost glad I'd lied, as it had allowed me this to chance to make amends. And to think again of Applejack’s green eyes, clear and no longer frowning.

* * *

Fluttershy’s Lament was like a dimly remembered dream, with its parts all out of joint in the heavy mist, each seeming to float alone, disappearing, reappearing. On either side of the white falls at center (whose summit could not be seen), were squat stone houses arranged along two rising, squiggled paths. Or rather, the suggestion of houses: a glowing arch, a short staircase, a mossy dome in the mist. Set along suggestions of paths. The two sides of the town were linked by a delicate stone bridge: whose motionless silhouette spanned the violent falls. At the bottom of the falls, on the banks of a wide, flat-faced river, mushrooms taller than me grew in the eternal shade. The whole area was filled with a constant hush of water, of course, which smaller falls off to either side contributed to.

There was no statue or obvious tribute to the mare the town was named for (for these old stone houses predated her, in fact), but I felt the mood and spirit of her in the hush of the water over the shy, secluded town. And in its close marriage to nature around it. Approaching her cottage might have felt the same way.

But you would have had a friendlier welcome there, I think. I passed under the wide arch of the unmanned front gate, which stood alone at the bottom of the town’s leftmost path, and here found a small campsite based around a squat, portable satellite communications mast. A small generator hummed there too, and a box of tools sat vibrating slightly on top of it. It was a sad fact that the forms and textures of this artificial gear looked more familiar to me than clouds and water. A stallion in a hazmat suit was peering inside a panel of the communications mast. Nearer to me was a horrific, stallion-sized fly with bulging yellow eyes and a bottle green carapace. A pegasus, actually, somewhere inside this insect’s suit of armor.

After this, I would forever assume that the Enclave were, either now or historically, conquerors of big bugs, attacking hills and hives across Equestria, and taking this unusual armor as part of the spoils. What rational pony could have dreamed up these designs? What sane government would commission such demonic, cruel looking armor for their supposed defense force?

“I ‘aint your mama,” said the soldier, after I’d been examining him for a while.

“The audio jack’s corroded again!” shouted the stallion in the hazmat suit. “I can’t believe this. Tell me: how are we supposed to make any progress here when we can’t even communicate with our superiors?”

He came out from behind the satellite mast. “Well, I say superiors. One has to wonder, these days.” I was surprised to find him addressing me now, as if I’d been there with them for hours. He’d removed the visor of his suit, all dotted with condensation, and was looking at me with bemused eyes, nested in fine, premature wrinkles from his frequent squinting. “I mean honestly,” he said. “My education’s going to complete waste in this savage’s country. We’d be better off using carrier pigeons in such mist.”

I decided to make the most of his candor, and get some inside information. So, undaunted by the armored soldier’s steady glare I said: “What’s the purpose of your being here, anyway?”

“That’s just it: well said! What purpose?” he almost wailed. “I’ll look back on these months of my life, and find them all easily surmised in a single memory of a corroded circuitboard. Or of a wet visor. I wish we’d never rediscovered these falls. That’s what’s trapped me here, isn’t it? It’s all about the water, ostensibly.”

“Ostensibly?” I asked.

“It means apparently,” said the soldier in armor. “But perhaps not actually.”

“Thanks,” said I.

“Of course, I suppose even I need a glass of water to drink, now and then,” said the smaller stallion. “I understand it’s a valuable resource, of course. It’s just a shame that it’s so wet.”

“You’re here for the water?” I asked. “What about hunting down the free pegasi?”

“Oh, not you too!” he cried. “I hear enough about the free pegasi from our C.O. Talk to him, if that’s your game. He doesn’t care what we’re here to do, so long as he gets to hunt free pegasi for his own sport. I, madam, in stark contrast, am an academic. Learning is all that I pursue. I’m only here to perform my duties as an engineer.” Then, grumbling, he added: “weather permitting.”

“I think you’ve asked one too many questions now, girlie,” the armored soldier said to me, effectively stopping my tongue midway. I didn’t seem to have to ask, however, to be freely given more information.

“If those so called free pegasi would only let us have the water,” said the smaller stallion. “Then there wouldn’t be a problem. But no. Never mind that the Enclave could make much more efficient use of it. Never mind that we have thousands of citizens and acres of farmland to support, cloudside.”

I felt fortunate to have met Nimble and her father first. It was better to hear both sides. “Couldn’t you all share the water?” I asked. All this time we were speaking under the sound of it falling down, endlessly.

He gave a huge sigh at this question. “If only. I myself am so fed up that I’d happily come to some kind of compromise. However, there are three complicating factors. First: our commanding officer seems to enjoy fighting the free pegasi. Second: the free pegasi insist on worshiping the six Ministers as divine, which is illegal cloudside. And third: the law mandates that any civilian pegasus who has come down to the surface must be branded as contaminated, and denied continued citizenship in the Enclave. So, we could never share water with them, as surface dwellers - or for that matter, with the wastelander pilgrims of Fluttershy’s Lament. We’d need to totally occupy and decontaminate this whole area, to ever make use of its water.”

“So, no sharing then...” I said, amazed at their rigidity.

“No sharing,” he said.

“Then why,” started the soldier in armor, and I almost laughed to hear him asking a question too now. “Why aren’t we here in fuller force? Just a second contingent would get this over with, I’d think.”

“Because, my friend, this is all just a game. A pet project for a few sore losers in the Crop-duster’s secession: like our C.O. Cloudside, we have water in excess. Peirene is on nobody’s radar politically. We aren’t even outfitted with plasma weaponry for Celestia’s sake. We’re nonessential personnel here. And guess what: if the free pegasi were really so free, even they would just fly somewhere else. I mean, why not? Couldn’t they worship their ministers anywhere? But no: both sides, I think, enjoy the fighting here - don’t you know that’s why most arguments drag on, when it would really be smarter just to call it quits?”

“Well this has been hugely enlightening,” I said, now quite excited to move on.

This was the first time I had not asked him a question, and it seemed to make the hazmat-suit stallion blink and reconsider me. “Say,” he started. “Who are you anyway?”

“Oh,” I said, moving to leave. “Just an impartial observer.”

* * *

I was fortunate the two of them continued the conversation (turned argument now in fact, as the solider in armor started to defend the motivations of their C.O.) instead of barring my entry into town until I’d answered some more questions. I assumed that was their usual function, there at the gate. It seemed natural they should want to know who was coming and going, and I wondered what I would have said if pressed. Would it have been as dishonest to withhold information from them?

The rising, squiggly path ahead was of mossy cobbles, and felt pleasant underhoof. The sound of the falls dropped off as I climbed, and soon I could hear the cheerful sound of other ponies’ steps and voices. The town itself was thickly ladled with mist, and difficult for me to understand. The stone houses didn’t advertise their contents or function at all, so I had to guess at what was hidden behind each inviting arch, glowing there. One structure close to me now could well have contained either a shrine of some kind, a store, a soldier's garrison, a bathhouse, or even a private residence. And I declined to walk in, based just on that information.

Not that it was so bad being in the street. The mist gave me a feeling of anonymity, so I stood for a while watching as wonderful new kinds of faces passed around me. With splotchy noses, freckles, and coarse, sandy hair. Good advertisement for life on the Shy: these visiting pilgrims’ apparent health and gladness. Most of the ponies were dressed in plain sackcloth, and seemed quite content, passing in pairs or small, excited groups. Of course, off to either side on roofs and terraces here and there I noticed more grimly outfitted soldiers. Seeing one fly over to relieve a second from her post, I gathered that the Enclave had a heavier presence on the other side of town, across the falls: much less easily accessible to us non-pegasi.

I soon came across a little mare with endearing, froggy eyes and a sackcloth hood on, kneeling down on all fours beneath a clear view of the misty falls. Under her breath, she was saying: “She’s been so good to us. She’s still so innocent. Forgive us for the pain we cause her daily, in return. Ungrateful as we are...”

I listened, standing by in shared appreciation of the falls. The violent water made me think: if I truly felt the pain of those around me - if I had a heart as deeply feeling and compassionate as Fluttershy’s, would I be able to bear it? Or would I be crushed as quickly as if I fell under the falls?

It was too bad such appreciative thoughts of her should be interrupted. But in that very instant the air pressure seemed to drop, and I heard a kind of thud from far above me. Hoods fell back from heads as the ponies in the street looked up. Then from a soldier’s squawky, radio-filtered voice, I heard a shout.

It happened quickly: shedding first light on the town, the mist overhead was blasted clear to reveal heights beyond heights of blank blue sky, suspended there. What came from this gap, or what had created the gap, was a small, diving pegasus, growing larger fast - while behind her, the mist quickly gathered and closed again

When the diving pegasus seemed about to hit the ground (and assuredly to die on impact, at such a speed), she pulled somehow out of her dive, ruffled all our clothes as she passed, and swept up again into the mist. Like wind given a body. I heard gunfire from on one of the houses next, as two soldiers took up the hopeless task of targeting her. In the street we pedestrians stood by slack-jawed, waiting, even under the rattling gunfire, like this was just an air show. Then, as if to reward our patience, she came again.

Seeming to come straight down like a bolt, she landed in the street, as we all braced ourselves too late. I felt small pieces of dirt sting my face. I had at least covered my eyes, so I got only a glimpse of her then. She was a foggy-white mare padded with about as little armor as a kid skateboarder would wear. However, at her side she carried a heinous, elephant gun-sized gauss rifle. And in her teeth, hanging from a strap, was one of those bug-eyed soldier’s helmets.

She let the helmet fall, and when it hit the ground some kind of black ichor sloshed out of it and started to stain the earth. “Presenting: Lieutenant Firing Line!” shouted the mare, sarcastically I think. “Killed in the service of his country.” I had been slow to understand: there was a pony’s head in there.

Now a rifle fired from on a roof: one of the other soldiers, taking a hasty potshot at the mare. In a skip she turned his way and with a deep-toned thud that reduced my guts to jelly, returned fire with her gauss rifle.

She winced with pain as well, as her joints suffered the brunt of its recoil. The shot meanwhile hit the stone rim of the roof, and cracked it neatly. Still the structure had absorbed the shot, and I could only assume the offending soldier was behind there wetting his suit or sending up thanks to heaven, or both.

In the startled wake of that last shot she fired, the mare had set off running downhill, then spread her wings and taken off. She flew so quietly then. Almost slowly, but banking sideways in a steep way, which caused the soldiers' scattered rifle fire to buzz harmlessly past her, just shy of the mark. Once she’d vanished into the sheets of mist again, I looked aside to the little prayerful mare I’d been appreciating the falls with, moments before.

We met startled eyes, and nervously, I couldn’t help laughing as I asked: “What just happened?

“I guess she does that now and then,” said the little mare. “I don’t know her name – I’m not sure who here would. It’s sort of a black joke that she catches the soldiers alone when they go out to the latrine. They’ve nicknamed her Nature’s Call.”

I laughed again, in disbelief. “This has been the wildest day of my life,” I said. Then, looking up into the ever-changing mist I felt I had to add: “So far...”

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Scout: Amount of viewable map increased. You also seem to do quite well anticipating what a pony’s behavior in the moment reveals of the larger landscape of their character.

Chapter Four: Wile

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That the soldier’s disembodied head was still hidden in its helmet spared me some discomfort. At the same time, it thrilled me to see it there. I wasn’t glad that a life had ended, of course. That didn’t thrill me. It was just that now I knew, without a doubt: I was in much wilder country, far outside the safe enclosure of our Stable. Now I could see: we had not been free individuals there, but more like animals on a farm. All a part of the farm. This instead was what a free individual could do, unconstrained. What Nature’s Call had done. Acting for her own sake, out of her own mysterious volition, which no one else understood. Wilder than the violent falls, was such a violent pony’s will in action: what I had seen her choose to do.

I felt so inhibited and passive. What would Nature’s Call have done under the same circumstances as me, in the Stable? Gone on a massacre, I guessed! And while I knew this was not a solution, some element of it still seemed like an inspiration to me. As if there was a lesson there. Not in the act of massacre itself but in the fact that, if Nature’s Call had felt it needed to be done, she would have done it. While I felt more like a pawn, whose nature it was to move one square at a time. Yes, that was it. If I were to see what I wanted, would I pursue it? And if so, how fast? In contrast, what would she do, and how fast - Nature’s Call?

It was her full commitment I admired. It didn’t have to be a massacre. Or a violent murder. It could be just the opposite: an act of love for instance, undertaken with as much commitment as her show of violence was. Now: when I said I moved one square at a time, how did I know that? What did I think of? Just this: as much as I’d wanted to, had I ever once told Shady Sands how I felt about her? It seemed like I had, because she must have known, but had I told her? Had I communicated it, so that she would forever understand, in no uncertain terms?

No. I had left it unsaid. Much unsaid, and much undone. That was more obvious now that we’d run out of time. I had been shy, and only shown her my pining heart in half measures. I’d played pointless games even, pretending I didn’t notice when she entered a room, when in fact each room she entered seemed to rearrange itself, in relation to her. Shouldn’t she have heard this from me? It didn’t matter what I stood to gain from telling her. Or if she approved or not. The point was it was the truth, and I suffered unnaturally in concealing it. And she’d known all the same: if not from me, then from this nervous, unnatural behavior of mine.

All this to say I didn’t admire Nature’s Call for what she'd done, but for her lack of hesitation, because I seemed to have spent every day of my life thus far hesitating. Not quite coming through in time, before the window of opportunity closed. Meaning that the next day was the same. And the next. And I felt that if I could only do it – jump through in time! – then all my days to come would be immediately changed.

I was in too murky a mood then to realize that I had, just this morning, almost literally done this, and that I could easily have hesitated instead at the Stable door, letting it close on me, and once again leaving all my days to come unchanged. But as I say my mood was murky, and I was starting to feel unwell.

Until now I had paid no attention to the commotion and gossip in town around me, or even to the armed soldiers taking flight in careful pursuit of Nature’s Call. I looked around and was sad to find my sense of engagement gone. I would have to take a rest somewhere, until I felt less distracted. I decided to walk down to the bank of the river below. The shadowy bank, where earlier I’d seen tall mushrooms growing. It had some kind of natural attraction to me, in the mood I was in.

* * *

I went there for comfort, and found it. By the light of late afternoon, I arrived on the riverbank; given shade under the fantastic mushrooms, whose curved stalks supported undersides all grooved, soft and elastic. And I wasn’t alone there. I could see a short-haired mare close to the water, sitting in an unusual way. On her flanks, leaned forward. She had a little reed in her mouth, and a fishing line in the water. The mist was turning shades of orange (a color I had never seen in such variety), and the fishing mare was silhouetted against the hazy impact of the falls. This view in front of me looked like a full-page advertisement in a magazine, and for a while I stood there admiring it.

It was no lifeless picture, however, and soon the mare had turned her head to look at me. At this, I panicked and turned too, so that I now stood perpendicular to her on the bank, unnaturally stiff, trying to look as neutral as a cow in its pasture, even un-focusing my eyes.

“Hello?” the mare called over, in an amused voice. “Looking for something?” I glanced back at her. “You can come out of the shade, if you want,” she said. “You look like a little fawn on the forest’s edge, there.”

So, I trotted over. The mare had wispy, combed back red hair, and her coat was about the same color as the sand lower down the bank. “There you are,” she said. “Have a seat?” She had some blankets folded beside her. Quite a bit of useful equipment, in fact, as if she meant to camp there on the bank overnight. She was an earth pony. “Glad to meet you,” she said. “I’m Wile. As in wile away the time.”

“Lemony Cream,” I said, sitting down on my legs, low to the ground. “Are you not staying in town?”

“Under the Enclave’s supervision?” she said. “No thanks. I like it around here, of course. The white noise capital of the wasteland, I think of it as, with these falls. It’s just the soldiers I don’t like: always keeping watch. I guess I prefer to move unseen.” She smiled. “Same as you, hm?”

“Oh, back there?” I said, embarrassed. “I was just surprised. I was looking at you and I guess I forgot, somehow, that you could just as easily look back at me.”

“You must have been doing some thinking,” she said.

“I guess I was,” said I. “How did you know?”

“Well, I assume you usually are – thinking, that is. I know I am. Naturally, I’m a very deep thinker.” She made a brief, funny face: wrinkling her nose and crossing her eyes, as if in brainy concentration. I noticed that she had a few faint white freckles dotting her snout. “But in all seriousness,” she said. “I’ve started to suspect it’s the source of most of our misery, as ponies. Overthinking.”

“You might be onto something,” I said, on the basis of recent experience.

“I just know that sometimes I’m sitting here really fishing and other times I’m sitting here thinking, with a fishing rod. And I know I prefer to just fish.” She shook her head. “Still, thoughts keep cropping up unasked for, demanding attention. Telling me, usually for the worse, how I should feel: and why? Based on what? If you can ever just get clear, it’s a great feeling.”

I knew what she meant. Just to be a pony sitting there, on the bank of a river. Instead of a pony busily thinking, and furrowing her brow, and being only half there. Attending to what? What was so urgent that I shouldn’t be here, fully? A silence followed, as we both made a sincere effort to be present. To really arrive on the riverbank. I rested my head on my hooves. She cast her line again, into the water.

The mist had beaded the very fibers of Wile’s blankets with dew; froth was being carried over the river’s surface in continuous swirls and eddies. Wild new patterns all the time. On the far shore, I could see the distant glow of arches: more of Fluttershy’s Lament. On our shore, I saw the nearest mushroom’s great, round shadow rock forward an inch over the sand, then back, as the mushroom itself swayed gently on its stalk. I paid close, steady attention to all of this. As if I was reading a book.

Such peaceful attention, and so much like reading in my old room, that I before long I’d fallen asleep.

* * *

I dreamt I was looking for someone. And that out of crowds of ponies much larger than me, I knew she was the only one my size. More than that, I don’t remember. I came to shortly, drooling into Wile’s blanket under the glow of evening. This was the first time I’d taken a proper nap, that is: by the true light and sticky heat of day. In the Stable instead, it had been easy to shut my door and simulate night at any hour. My only job there had been to participate in the evening chapel services, providing light. So, after Twilight’s example, I’d often spent the night studying magic, and slept into the afternoon.

Well, what I called studying magic was reading any book where light was described, which gave me a lot of wiggle room. Ideally, it would have been poetry all the time (for the easiest way to conjure light, I’d found, was to think of a single happy line of poetry, along with whatever happy associations it brought to mind). Still, more often than poetry, I had read stories of Ponyville. Or even, on good nights, Twilight’s letters. And these had been the whole basis of my religious feeling. Much more so than any chapel service.

“You’re awake,” said Wile, noticing my eyes were open. “Good: I was just wondering something.” I sat up, preparing to answer. “Now,” she said. “If this is inappropriate at all, remember: it’s just bad timing, that’s all. You happened to wake up while my thoughts were tending in this direction.” She sounded different. A bottle with a black label sat close beside her. “If you’d woken up a bit earlier: maybe I’d have asked you about... the local economy. A little later, then maybe uh... high literature. As it is, though, I just thought it would be funny to ask... well, funny to ask if you had ever been caught, you know, clopping.”

“Ah!” I actually yelled, so much had that surprised me.

“Oh relax, it’s all a part of the... what do you call it? You know, the natural life cycle.”

“Is it?” I asked, still half-recoiled.

“Here.” She passed me the bottle with the black label. “This will set you more at ease, I think. Commit yourself to that for a while, whilst I give you my answer.”

“But – I didn’t ask. . .”

“The answer is yes, I have been caught in the act. Long ago,” she said. “and far away, when I was a little mare just come of age, that is, in the eyes of the court...”

Oh, how she went into detail. She seemed to pursue every tangent, and I couldn’t just sit there and nod. So, while she spoke, I started to take drinks from the bottle. Its black label said bourbon, and if I describe it as hard that should get across how it felt each time, slamming into me. It stung the back passages of my nose with fumes, and my throat with what felt like liquid fire. Still, with each wincing drink I seemed to become more and more interested in her story.

Well, not interested in the story itself. Of that I had lost the thread almost as soon as she started. What I was more interested in now were the natural cadences of her voice. It sounded like poetry to me, in my condition, when she said: “Like a little foal I felt, with my head lying in her lap.” Like a little foal I felt, with my head lying in her lap. And whenever Wile laughed, so did I. Not at what she said, which I still couldn’t follow, but more like an infant laughs: surprised at a suddenly changing face.

All this time too, to make it even better, Wile was framed by the crashing falls, which seemed to be landing right on my head and blasting all previous unhappiness away, or smoothing out unhappiness’ hard rocks. Getting some kind of edge off: which to most adults, is the well-known effect of alcohol.

“See, because it was winter,” Wile continued. “And because the wall of the seminary had collapsed on that side, it was cold, and so my breath was steaming up the whole time I did it. More and more heavily, in fact, steaming up. And only afterwards did I realize: that’s how the Mother Superior had known I was there.”

“Wile!” I said, urgently. “That’s just what happened to me!”

“What, in the same seminary?”

“In the same seminary, Wile?” I repeated, laughing. “No, Wile. I mean in my room. They found out too - when I would do it, you know. Clop. Whenever I did it my horn would light up!” We both broke up laughing at this. “And Wile, guess what?” I said. “Ponies could see the light under the door! And in the slats of the vents. I was accidentally casting spells all the time. I had to tell them I was practicing, Wile!”

“Wait, listen to this,” she said. “Listen: in a way you were!

“What!” I said. “In a way I was, Wile? Practicing? Wile, that’s too much!”

The rest of that conversation starts to get vague, but I do know that, much in the same way, she and I continued to get along like a pair of mules.

* * *

Night had fallen, and still Wile had caught no fish at all. Somewhere in the next hour of our reeling and singing (“a beautiful bride, a handsome groom, two hearts...”), she somehow prepared us some coffee and pancakes – to sponge up some of the bourbon, I think she said. And I did start to feel steadier, eating the pancakes. Less like I was on such a high and crazy flight (which, little did I know, could have ended in a lot of sickness and retching unless carefully managed). It seemed Wile was well supplied there, with a gas stove and kettle, but still we had to share her one plate, which told me a little about her usual habits. I wondered why someone as fun and social as she seemed, chose to live alone.

“I tend to travel,” she told me, when I tried to get at an answer. “I’m from mid-country, originally. You could even see an uninspiring view of Canterlot, from where I was born. But it’s ruthless down there. This might sound unfeeling, but I think the problem in the south is that too many ponies survived. Too many cities and Stables. Now, too much competition. Slavers, road gangs, cults, etcetera. The Shy is fortunate, as its based more on small households and farms – strong families, looking after their own land. Not that there isn’t thievery and violent argument, and even indentured labor in places. About as bad as Equestria pre-founding, I’d say. Still, as long as the winters discourage other southerners from staying, we’ll do fine.”

To me so far it had felt like summer, at least as I’d heard summer described. I asked: “It gets very cold here?”

“That’s the big secret,” she said. “Not in Peirene. I guess these clouds must shelter it, somehow. Or there’s some ancient countermeasure in place, weather-wise. Call it pegasus ingenuity. The point is: somehow, it’s never much less pleasant here than autumn in the Shy. In fact, it should be about mid-autumn down there now, and yet you wouldn’t know it here.”

“So, you usually come and go?” I asked.

“Usually,” she said. “You could say I winter here in Peirene. You know, like a goose. But this time, accidentally, I’ve sort of gotten invested in the free pegasi’s plight. It’s been easy to ignore, as you don’t see much of them, but – well, let me just say I’m invested this time.”

“I talked to some Enclave soldiers about it,” I said. “They seemed to just want to go home.”

“Of course.” Wile nodded. “I’m sure it’s quite comfortable there. But I myself would rather be on the surface, and free. To worship whoever I want, if ever I should be converted. To have as many children as I want. Again, if ever I’m converted.” She laughed. “To work no job: to pay no taxes. To be an earth pony, of course. And to meet unicorns...”

“I didn’t think of that,” I said. “Of course, above the clouds it must be a world of only pegasi...” This felt as far off and obscure to me as some ecosystem of the sea. And like schools of fish, I pictured the pegasi gliding playfully around pink reefs of cloud. But of course, under the Enclave they were not as wild or as free as that. It would have disappointed me to know how much time they spent indoors, in their offices.

“I guess this is why the idea of a free Peirene has started to matter to me,” Wile said. “Here around us is a defensible position, with lots of drinkable water, where all three kinds of ponies could learn with time to coexist again. Just to practice, on a small scale at first. I’m not very politically minded, but even I can see that Equestria only succeeded for so long on the strength of the same arrangement. With earth ponies, unicorns, and pegasi. Yes, after that it grew and grew and came to the Great War in the end, but all the same: I’d take another few thousand years of peace and community first. Wouldn’t you?”

“Yes, of course,” I said. “And actually, as someone who prays - I mean, who really believes that the Princesses and their ministers still have a presence in our lives, that’s just what seems most important – what you said: the small scale. Any true friendship, even between two or three ponies – well, I think that’s actually the highest offering we can make. Our greatest service to them is just to love each other, and-“

“I’m so sorry,” Wile said, interrupting me brutally, as she started to fumble around in the near darkness. While I was speaking, she seemed to have caught sight of something across the water.

She stopped digging around: she had found what she wanted. A small pair of binoculars. Comically small: the opera house gallery kind. “I really am sorry,” she said. “I’ve been on this riverbank night after night. And I never expected... Well, that it should happen now of all times!’

She turned from me, studying the opposite side of the river, where a few houses' ghostly doorways stood out against the mist. The other half of Fluttershy’s Lament, which I’d assumed had a heavier Enclave presence. Without the binoculars, I watched, and could just make out a figure in one of the lighted doorways. A stallion, maybe. He slipped carefully away into the dark, with his head down.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“My fish,” Wile said, and started eagerly to collect her things. “Come on, I’ll explain later: let’s go get him!”

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: In the Hush of Evening: With negligible effort you can cast an ambient lighting effect that simulates evening, resulting in a 30% reduction in darkness level. Further reduction demands greater concentration on your part.

Chapter Five: The Informant

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A light rain was falling over Fluttershy’s Lament, as Wile and I returned to the town at a quick trot. I cast a dim light at our hooves, to keep us from tripping in the dark. Wile did just fine; I clipped my hooves a few times, distracted. I’d never felt the velvety rain on my face. I’d never run so steeply uphill, or covered so much ground in darkness. And all this while, from on the rooftops, bulging yellow bug-eyes watched us pass with perfect night vision. I even heard a low, muffled laugh the next time I stumbled in the street.

“You’re being a very good sport,” said Wile, hearing me trip behind her, or maybe seeing the light I was casting fail briefly underhoof. “Just bear with me a little longer,” she said. “And I promise I’ll explain.”

I nodded. We had left the riverbank without discussion, and I’d followed her this far. I didn’t mind at all: in fact, I felt exhilarated. The crash of the falls, the wetness of the rain, the darkness all around: so much did these fill my senses, that I felt as if I was somehow part of them. On their wave, I guess I mean, carried forward with their same momentum. Slow and clumsy as I was, I felt fast, as Rainbow Dash must have liked to feel. This, in much higher degrees, must be the feeling she had spent her life pursuing. To feel as if you were no longer confined, but free, and a part of the greater momentum of all created things.

Wile more or less had to grab me, to keep me from continuing out onto the narrow, misty bridge that linked the two sides of Fluttershy’s Lament, crossing in front of the falls. I could imagine going pounding hard across it, driving against the damp shrouds mist. Then again, I could imagine taking off in graceful flight; but that didn’t mean I could do it. In fact, as soon as Wile stopped me, I realized I was now painfully out of breath, and my four hooves were aching, and the rain was stinging in my eyes. In fact, I didn’t feel I could run a leg further at all. I guess this must have been my first experience of real adrenaline, and the crash after the fact.

“We won’t need the light for now, Lemony,” Wile said, gently. So, I stopped casting it across the ground. She said: “Our friend should be just about to cross.” I nodded, still out of breath; with no clear idea of what she was talking about, or of what we were doing hiding close to each other in a crop of small mushrooms.

“We’ve been suspicious for some time about this stallion,” said Wile, in a soft voice that tickled my ears on the “s” sounds. “Someone’s been feeding information to the Enclave, that much we knew for sure. I’ve just been trying to find out who. See, there’s a small group of earth ponies and unicorns here, in town, acting secretly in support of the free pegasi. I’m one of them. Our friend was supposed to be another.”

“So, you think he’s the informant?” I asked. The fish she had been waiting to catch, I now understood.

“Well, we’re about to find that out,” she said. “We’ll just take a quick look and let him pass for now. Later we can confront him, in his room. If he is who I think he is, then I’ll know where to find him. More than this we can’t risk, out on the street.”

“Are you worried about the soldie-“

“Sorry to shush you, honey, but here he comes. Keep your head down!”

She didn’t need to worry about our being spotted. The stallion had a hood drawn over his head, slicked with rain, and moved past us at a hurried pace. To him we were just another mound in the darkness, that is if his eye glanced our way at all. I meanwhile was quite comfortable as we waited, next to Wile. A little longer and I could have slept.

“Well, that was the colt!” Wile said. “A slippery character. His name’s Peanut Gallery.”

“Are these your real names?” I asked, frowning. “Or just made up?”

“Well,” she said. “Aren’t all names made up?”

I couldn’t really argue with her there, and neither did I have the chance, for peering over the mushrooms at us next were two surprising, egg-shaped yellow eyes. They made us jump, the eyes, set wide on a freakish black mask, strangely bumpy all over with black beads of rain. A soldier’s helmet.

“Still busy at your prayers, little ponies?” he said, out of his mask’s filter. “Strange place for it.”

“And strange proximity, too,” said Wile, quickly. “I ask you man: what does it look like we’re doing? Or have you been a soldier so long that you can’t remember?” I was startled at her tone. She sounded more as if she wanted to start some kind of trouble with him, but I guessed the idea was to throw him off.

And it seemed to work. “... Say that again?” he said.

“You know, this is just what it looks like, man: what young lovers do. What, just because we’re two mares you think we can’t?” The soldier looked at me, then her. “Well, so what if we couldn’t?” Wile asked. “Who’s to stop us trying! You?

“I...” he said. It seemed that with precision, Wile had struck at a part of him that predated his soldier’s uniform, that had been there since he was a colt: a part that wondered at the natural mysteries of little fillies, and was embarrassed and afraid. “I don’t know,” the soldier said, with who knows what kinds of mental pictures in mind, worrying him. “All I know is you should be inside. In fact, that’s an order! Go on!”

“Oh, I see,” Wile said, and stood. “So be it.” Now with a formal gesture, she offered to help me up. “Well, what do you say, my dear: your place or mine?”

Of course I knew it was just pretend, but still: I did look shyly at the ground as Wile led me away.

* * *

We soon came to a kind of inn, whose front room was dim and squat, with chairs turned over on tables and an unmanned bar. A staircase in the corner led to the second floor. The stone walled room had a mysterious cool, blue light to it which I admired, and tried to commit to memory. It was quiet. I guessed there wasn’t much call for late night drinking and carousing in Fluttershy’s Lament, with it being for the most part a town of early-rising soldiers and pilgrims, who at the first blush of dawn (just a few hours from now) would already be committed to their drills and prayers.

“Let’s give him a few minutes to dry off,” Wile said, going around behind the bar to take a look at the bottles there, arranged in rows. “Peanut Gallery’s room is just upstairs.”

As I sat down in front of the bar, I noticed that where my tail swept the floor behind me, it cleared off a swath of dust. “Why give him time to dry off?” I asked, sweeping my tail the other way.

“I’m of the opinion,” said Wile. “That you should always give ponies an opportunity to tell the truth. Say we barged in on him still wet from the rain. Well, he couldn’t confess at that point could he? We’d already have caught him. But say instead we go in and he’s nice and dry, ready for bed, well then it wouldn’t be so obvious. And he’ll have a choice: should I lie to them, or tell the truth?” She paused for a moment, then added: “If nothing else, it just helps show us how much of a rotten egg he really is.”

“What kind of information is he passing to the Enclave?” I asked.

“Well, that depends on him. It could be softer stuff, like which of us ponies in town support the free pegasi. Or more timely information, like our latest arrangements to get food and ammunition to their fighters. Or if he’s truly heartless: the recent hiding places of certain pegasi families...”

“Wile?” We both turned at the uncertain little voice. On the stairs into the room was the darkened form of a slight, silvery haired mare, peeking down. Little more than a shadow on the stair. “It’s you, Wile, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Bottles,” said Wile. “It’s only me.” Then, to me, she mouthed: the innkeeper.

“Oh, good. That’s good.” Her little shadow started to retreat from off the stair. “Good night, then.”

“Bottles?” Wile said, and the shadow hesitated. “Quick question for you, before you go: have you noticed any of your guests coming and going, late at night? Oh, say at around this time...”

“Well, yes,” the mare answered, after a pause. “Once or twice a week. Peanut Gallery goes out for a while. But I think that’s more his business than mine. Good night.”

“Wait a minute, Bottles.” Wile stopped her, again just in time. “Any idea where he goes?” Silence first at this, from on the stairs. “Come on, Bottles, if you can’t tell me: who can you tell?”

“Well I asked him once, and he got frustrated at me,” she admitted. “He’d been to see Keats, he said.”

“Keats?” said Wile. “That’s what he told you? Now that’s very interesting, Bottles, thank you. Thanks very much.” The shadow hung there on the stairs for a moment. “Good night,” said Wile.

“Good night, Wile.”

“She’s the innkeeper?” I asked, after her shadow was gone. It seemed doubtful somehow. She’d been such a small, sylph-figured creature. I felt like sweeping the floor of the room for her, just to take care of her a little.

“She inherited this place from her father,” said Wile. “He had more of a, well, commanding presence. Sad story, really. An Enclave soldier bumped him off one night under unclear circumstances. Still not sure why. But since then Bottles has been a great help to us. You wouldn’t know it, but she’s a brave little mare.”

“And who’s Keats?” I asked.

“I’ll take you to meet him, soon,” Wile said. “We’re all of us like little foals playing a game, compared to him. He’s the reason the free pegasi have lasted so long here. Him and the mist. He’s a really clear old pegasus. Clear, I mean, in his thinking. Very few of us actually ever get to meet with him, though.”

She paused to think. “I mean, I know where to find him. A few others do too, but I doubt Peanut Gallery is one of them.” She tapped her hoof a few times on the counter of the bar, thinking. “In fact, I’m sure he doesn’t know. But then, since we’re here: why don’t we just get it from the horse’s mouth?”

* * *

Peanut Gallery’s little stonewalled room, not much more than a closet, was bare, without even sheets on the bed. “What the hay-“ Wile said, after we had searched the room for clues, without results. Next, she led us back down the passage, to the slightly open door of Bottles’ much larger apartment.

Her rooms instead were wood-paneled and spacious, with molded wooden rafters overhead, a few framed needlework pictures, a little kitchenette with gourds and turnips on a coarse wooden table all scarred from daily chopping, and two rounded windows that let in a blue light (if light’s not too strong a word, for this vague aura in the room). We found Bottles asleep on a dry bale of hay, discarded in the corner nearest the front door. It seemed her actual bedroom, however, was further into the apartment.

Not disturbing Bottles but pressing forward, we found Peanut Gallery standing there beside a girlish bed. The hood of his cloak had fallen back. He was slight for a stallion, somewhat girlish himself, with a head of dark, damp hair that fell partly over his eyes as he looked our way. It seemed he had been busy unpacking a saddlebag. “Wile,” he said, greeting her. Quite calmly, I thought. “Who’s your friend?”

“I don’t think I’ll bother introducing you,” Wile said, with a high degree of contempt clear in her voice. “Why is Bottles sleeping on a bale of hay in the next room?” she asked.

“She’s been doing my housekeeping for me, while I stay here,” he said. “She understands my work is quite important, and generously offered me her rooms.”

“Your work?” Wile said.

“Spying,” he said, and left a pause seemingly just to tease her, before clarifying: “On the Enclave. Under the guise, of course, of being an informant working for their side.”

“Then you admit you’ve been passing them information.”

“A little throwaway information, yes, to get myself into their good graces. And no, before you ask, Keats doesn’t know about this yet. The old pegasus isn’t very cunning, with all respect. So, this has all been my own ingenuity.“

“And what do you have to show for it?” Wile asked.

“The Enclave’s trust,” he said. “The abuse of which will gain me precious information, in time. I don’t know about you, Wile, but I intend to excel in this little organization of ours. I can see that, for whatever reason, Keats prefers you for now. But even he can’t argue with results.”

“This is very convenient,” Wile said. “So yes, you’re an informant, but it’s only to help us in the long run? Just what you’d tell me, I think, if you were working for their side, and I’d caught you.” Wile looked back at me then, and in a softer voice asked: “What’s your first instinct tell you, Lemony?”

“I’m not sure,” I said. “Just the gall of him taking over these rooms makes me think it’s the truth. He’s not being very discreet. And he does sound jealous that this Keats pony prefers you.”

“So, just an ill-advised attempt to impress Keats?” she nodded. “That does have the ring of truth.”

“And what about it is so ill-advised?” he asked, stiffening.

“Well, it’s a safe bet that Keats had already considered this idea of an undercover informant, and decided against it. And if it seems like a bad idea to Keats, I call it ill-advised.”

“Perhaps you’re just mad about wasting all those evenings on the riverbank,” he said, as a jibe.

“Oh no: I got some very good fishing done there,” Wile said. “I didn’t catch any fish, granted, but it was very good fishing. I enjoyed myself. Oh, and of course it’s where me and Lemony met.”

“Wonderful,” he said, dryly. “Are we done here?”

“Just about,” Wile said. “But I am going to take the liberty of searching your saddlebag, to see if this all checks out. And I will have to raise this all with Keats of course, to see what he thinks.”

“It might profit you to think for yourself sometime,” he said, as Wile moved past him.

I found myself nodding at this – not because I agreed with his sentiment, but because it so neatly seemed to sum up the stallion’s attitude. I was interested in him. His first priority really did seem to be his own profit and advancement. Another pony in his position, undertaking the same inspired mission – to ingratiate themselves with the Enclave, and to gain information of possible use to the free pegasi – well, another pony in the same position might have seemed selfless and daring. This buck, however, did not seem selfless or daring, though he was taking the same risk. But wasn’t he being courageous?

The bravest of the ministers, Rainbow Dash, had not been called the element of daring courage. Why? I assumed it was because, so often when she was brave - when she performed a daring trick or laughed at danger - there was arrogance involved. Her own high opinion of herself had given her misplaced courage. And this was not her virtue. Meanwhile instead, whenever she had acted bravely to save a friend, it was not done out of this high opinion of herself – not to impress anyone or pridefully take on the risk involved – but purely to save a friend. Out of loyalty alone. The form of courageous love she best expressed.

All of the ministers had been courageous, but courageous toward a good cause: toward telling the truth, and toward being positive in the face of pain, which took great courage. Toward being kind, always, and toward giving without the guarantee of gratitude in return. What instead was courage put toward a selfish, loveless cause? Selfish giving. Selfish laughter. Then, was what mattered most not what we each chose to do, but the amount of motivating love behind our choices? Now, Wile seemed to confirm this for me, as she performed a lower, less admirable act – threatening violence – out of higher, more admirable love.

“I think we’re about done here,” she said, having found nothing incriminating in Peanut Gallery’s saddlebag. “Of course, however much you say you need the extra space, and however convenient it’s been for you, exploiting her good nature, I am going to have to ask you to move out of Bottles’ apartment...”

“Oh?” the stallion asked, amused.

“I mean, if you like your pelvis in one piece.”


* * *

Bottles woke up in the commotion of Peanut Gallery packing up his things, and immediately moved to make us all tea. She had a little teapot and set of flowery ceramic cups that, given their delicacy, and the indelicacy of most of the modern world, must have held inestimable value now. Peanut Gallery’s tea sat going cold on the windowsill. Wile and I lounged around the apartment, waiting for him to leave, while Bottles insisted on puttering back and forth, tidying up, or offering to fill our cups again. She gave us soft white biscuits with ginger marmalade on them, the likes of which I’d never tasted, and which I chewed on in grateful awe. In fact, Bottles’ cutie mark was a little jar of marmalade with a checkered cloth over its lid.

Now, I haven’t mentioned cutie marks at all thus far, and it’s because of the attitude taken towards them in the Stable. Maybe it was the Princesses (or whatever force governs cutie marks) urging us to open the doors and emerge into Peirene, but more often than not the cutie marks that appeared on the Stable's little foals were painfully inappropriate, given the setting. Gardening cutie marks. Animal related marks. Cutie marks of foods no longer accessible (oh the yearning even a simple, earthy turnip on a flank could cause). Weather-related marks and so on. And because of this awkward, sort of painful contrast, we were warned as foals not to refer too much to our flanks to find out more about ourselves or our calling in life.

In retrospect, I took these more natural, outdoorsy cutie marks as supporting evidence that Shady Sands was right: and that our opening the Stable doors was long overdue. We were being called outside, weren’t we? And we ignored the call. Still, it was a part of how we were all raised, and the end result was that even now, I didn’t usually make note of the little picture on other ponies’ flanks.

I had been part of a fortunate minority whose cutie marks (mine, the numerals 1:1) were actually relevant to what we studied. 1:1 referred to the first line of Twilight Sparkle’s holy account of creation, as dictated to her by Princess Celestia. An ancient account, on which there are many variations, but which usually starts with: In the beginning, there was light (1:1). For it is said light is the oldest form of magic.

I was glad to be a part of this tradition, and I guess my cutie mark had given me, compared to some of my peers, a certain sense of purpose of confidence that I took for granted.

All this to say I suddenly became more interested, sitting there in Bottles’ apartment, in the cutie marks of the ponies around me. Peanut Gallery’s was a pendulum clock, which required some thought. Was he always on time – did he always act at the most opportune moment? Was he just good at repairing pendulum clocks? I didn’t know him well enough to guess. Wile’s cutie mark meanwhile was a compass, which I had noticed much earlier of course, but never considered as a mark of her natural talents. Still it made some sense to me. It was easy to think of her as always knowing where to go.

I wasn’t sure whether all this argued for or against the old idea that a pony’s cutie mark really expressed the spirit of their talents, or whether it was better, like in the Stable, to deny the mark and let a pony choose her own way. But what I came away with most from these considerations, was that we were all four of us ponies here, with some kind of guiding force behind our lives, which none of us understood.

Our all being alive felt like part of the same mystery, and while I couldn’t presume to know how or why we were created, I did know I was glad to be there. And glad not to be alone. I felt fond of the other ponies in the room, even Peanut Gallery. As if we were close relatives, at a small reunion there. Of course, we were relatives – distant, distant relatives, but relatives all the same. Family. And that natural fact made me happy just to think of: as happy as the taste of the marmalade.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Empathy: Reaction levels are shown when in an in-depth conversation.

Chapter Six: In the Lap of Legends Old

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It was time, Wile told me, to meet Keats. And because he, as leader of the free pegasi, had to keep himself obscure, the path his way was wild and potentially dangerous. Wile and I needed to be properly outfitted first. The innkeeper, Bottles, helped us there. She agreed to store away Wile’s fishing gear, and gave me some armor left behind by a former guest. That being: a dog-collared white shirt with patterns embroidered into the shoulders, and a tried and tested police officer’s vest from “Salt Lick City”. Wile also tied a little red bandanna around my hind leg for “style points.”

She had equipped herself with a scoped hunting rifle, which had a frayed sticker on its stock of three pink butterflies, and she now wore a blue, weather-worn sleeveless jacket and what looked like a child’s muted rainbow-colored scarf (her own, in fact, from ages past). Around her neck too hung a small re-breather or gas mask, which Wile later explained she used for the grisly work of skinning and gutting Peirene’s hares or for defeathering pheasants. More just to prevent herself from using her own mouth on these tasks, out of habit.

Once we were dressed, still under the cover of foggy darkness, we bade goodbye to Bottles at the side of the inn. A signpost sighing on its hinges just over the door read In the Lap of Legends Old. Wile told me that the inn was more colloquially known as the Lap, with the pun on lapping up a drink. Wile seemed to appreciate puns, and shared another with me then, in a false Manehattan accent: I was playing in the hills, when I stopped to pick a buttercup. Who leaves buttocks lying around I’ll never know!

So it was laughing, that we started on our way. “I feel like we’re really partying,” I said, being freshly dressed and fed on sugary marmalade, and feeling a slightly loopy energy from lack of sleep.

“You know what, that’s not a bad idea,” Wile said. “Just to look like we're partying, as a cover I mean: in case another soldier sees us, leaving town. Better we look hammered than like we’re sneaking around. Why don’t we sing a song?”

I was more than willing, so we started on a slow version of one of Pinkie’s:

Oh, the Grand Galloping Gala is the best place for me!
Oh, the Grand Galloping Gala is the best place for me!

Hip hip! Hooray! It’s the best place for me.
The best place for me. . . for Pinkieeee

I felt free and clear: we were outdoors again! Compared to the Stable, another miracle of this wide, natural environment was that it was ever-changing. The humidity and temperature were not controlled, but variable. And night here was not just the plain lack of light, but seemed to have its own glow of varying velvet shades, affected by the unseen moon.

I felt fresh and changing too. Maybe that’s why ponies liked to go out and feel like part of nature, because nature was almost never stagnant but lived and grew and changed. Of course, in gladder times we ponies had been much more a part of it, with traditions like the running of the leaves in fall. How did it work now? What made the seasons change? In wartime days had we automated the process with industrial-size spells which were still in operation even now? Or had nature never needed us as much as we liked to think?

Great mysteries. Too much for me to solve – as someone who didn’t even understand what formed the mist around us. Wile seemed to be in a similar, curious mood, because she asked:

“So, what is it that’s doing that?” She gestured at the faint, guiding light I was casting around us. “I know it’s a spell, but what’s happening, exactly? What’s the actual source of the light? Is there heat involved?”

“I can’t really answer,” I said, which seemed to surprise her. “I think of it as saying a word. One second you have the word in mind, and the next you’re saying it out loud. It’s almost automatic. And it’s sort of the same with a spell. I just think of a kind of light, and I can produce it as easily as - well, not really as easily as speaking – but as easily as singing, maybe. With some songs being much more difficult than others. And with their being children’s songs, I started off with. Yes, actually that’s not a bad analogy, for spells.”

“I guess I couldn’t really explain how we sang our song either, just then,” Wile said. “I mean, how it was we actually produced the sound.”

I nodded. “And if you think about it,” I said. “How is it that we can even commit a song to memory, and then take that song from memory later, and turn it into actual sound? And what is memory?” I added, getting excited. “Or, where is it? Where are all the songs I know I know? If I tried to, I could remember them. But where are they right now, before I remember them? I can’t explain. So, the way I see it: so what if I can cast a spell! There's natural magic all around, much more critical to daily life than that.”

“Well,” Wile said. “I’m sure there are books out there that go into detail about how the tongue and throat create sound. Maybe a few about memory too, I don’t know. But in all this time, someone clever must have looked into what goes on in a unicorn’s horn? How magic technically works, I mean.”

“I was never very good at retaining the technical stuff,” I said, because I had tried a few of those books. “But I didn’t make much of an effort. I mean, I use the rest of my body without knowing how it works. So, with my horn it’s the same. I’m less curious about it actually, than I am about a pegasus’ wings, or an earth pony’s...”

“Good, true heart?” she suggested. “General farm acumen?”

“Good, true heart,” I agreed, and smiled at her. Suddenly seeing her presence with me for what it was: a recent, happy accident. “You know, I like talking to you, Wile...”


“But nothing.”

* * *

In time we came to quite a narrow ravine, with walls all mossy green, and with shallow, running water underhoof. The sound of the falls at Fluttershy’s Lament dropped off; openings in the clouds high overhead (for Pereine seemed to have a permanent field of ‘wild’ clouds above it, always rearing and changing) gave me a view of Luna’s stars. And I imagined each of these distant, twinkling points as a dream being dreamt, right now, by a pony somewhere sleeping, so that each star would disappear as morning woke the dreaming ponies, interrupting their dreams. Could there be so many of us left alive, I wondered, under Luna’s nightly care?

I asked Wile - forgetting that as we entered the ravine, she had cautioned me to stay quiet: “Wile, would you say there are many ponies still alive on the wastes?”

“We’ve talked about this,” she said, under her breath. “Not so many here. More in the south.”

“As many as before?” Maybe a stupid question, but it had been a long time.

“No, Lemony,” Wile said. “Not as many as before.” She looked back at me with a pained expression. “Could you save your questions for the end of the mission?”

“Oh,” I said. “Got it.”

Wile seemed to feel bad about this last exchange, because after a minute, when we’d almost reached the close of the narrowing ravine, she said: “I’m sorry. It’s just that voices carry here, because of the ravine. I mean, whatever we say rises just to the place a pegasus would be if–“

Saying this, she had looked up, and stopped mid-sentence. Above us now on the wall of the ravine, just as Wile had feared, stood a pegasus: silhouetted against the high moonlit clouds, with her wings fanned up aggressively. Not dressed in armor, to Wile’s relief, or bug-eyed, but with a darkened, illegible face. Startled, I had drawn the .45 automatic, but now Wile made a gesture for me to lower it.

“It’s alright,” she said. “It’s Nature’s Call.”

At that, of course, I knew it had to be her. Who else could it have been? So locked in place, as if she lived like an eagle on the wall of this ravine, and we’d found her at home. With her wings spread out to catch the moonlight, and cast us into their fatal shade. Interested in us, or not: she didn’t move.

Now, based on the little picture I had of Wile, as a personality I mean, I expected her to shout something up to Nature’s Call to break the tension. Something funny like: how’s the weather up there? Or something funny, anyway. Wile would have to think of it. But instead, still all just staring at each other, Wile kept us walking. Which meant that now, without moving, the silhouette of the pegasus seemed to draw nearer, hang over us, and then pass behind at last, as we walked sheepishly by.

Say a boulder had been wedged there between the ravine walls, and was groaning uncomfortably with its own weight. Passing under that would have felt about as unnerving as passing under Nature’s Call. So of course it was a relief when Wile brought us under the cover of the cave mouth at the end of the ravine.

“She makes me think of everything I’ve ever done wrong,” Wile said, fanning herself. “Like I’m hearing the charges read.”

“What did she want?” I asked, also sweating a bit.

“I don’t think she has wants,” Wile said. “She just does what she does. I guess she must have noticed us coming Keats’ way, and followed us to see who we were? Or else she was just here, waiting. I couldn’t tell you. But she must know me as one of Keats’ friends, thank goodness, because we’ve been spared.”

I looked around at the damp cave mouth. “I feel like some kind of toad now,” I said, laughing.

“I’d rather be one of two toads hiding together in here, than out there alone,” Wile said. “Maybe when I was a teenager, I would have envied Nature’s Call. Not these days.”

“You speak harshly,” I said, just as an observation.

“Well, yes, let me admit it: I did want to be someone like her once, and it embarrasses me to think of now. The effort I put into the act! I had a rifle which I'd named, and I smoked unceasingly, and I had the piercings of course. I would have said I was a mercenary; I used to think I was a little badass.”

“Just a little?”

“A small badass, I mean,” she laughed. “I was fourteen. I could have even been a raider, I think, if I’d had the guts. That’s how much I wanted to be seen as hard. You know, not to be trifled with.” She shook her head. “Now I feel sorry for raiders, in fact. I’m sure a lot of them made the same bad choice at fourteen, and got stuck with it. That kind of lifestyle does not leave you unchanged. And I take it it’s the same with Enclave soldiers. They’ve lived and grown into what they are, all under unnatural conditions. You can’t expect them to just choose differently, and change.”

I thought of the soldier’s severed head that Nature’s Call had presented to us all in town, then thought instead of the frayed sticker on the stock of Wile’s hunting rifle. Of the three pink butterflies.

“Yeah,” I said. “I think I’d be happier too, with being a toad.”

* * *

The cave mouth led into a wet tunnel, which split into different, drier tunnels that we followed under Wile’s direction, by my light. All I knew was that we more often went the steepest way, and seemed to be gaining altitude. The climbing actually grew tedious after a while, and I passed the time in carefully grading the light around us from early morning to midday, and then to evening colors. At last, I could hear a slight sound of water falling again, and Wile said:

“Well, here we are,” sounding a little nervous. “No light now, please.”

So, it was in near darkness that I felt the tunnel open out into a great cavern around us, at the far end of which was another, taller cave mouth. This framed a waterfall, mysteriously lit, falling just outside the cavern, exposed to the starry atmosphere of the night. I could barely hear it landing. How far up were we? The question didn’t seem to matter, after what I saw next.

If I didn’t know for a fact that alicorns had horns, I would have said this was one of them here, in front of me. On a stout aerie of rock, with the waterfall like a moonlit curtain behind it, there sat a roosting pegasus, fanning his wings out at the sound of our approach. Keats. The memory of Nature’s Call paled in comparison. Luna was the only pony I could think of that was said to loom so dark and large. I couldn’t find a point of focus on his long face, overshadowed as it was, so I had to read his body for expression: his whole, frowning wingspan at once.

“Wile,” he said, in a deep but somehow mareish voice, which seemed to fill the cavern easily. “You’ve identified the Enclave’s informant. Well done, and thank you. We’ll be controlling the amount of information Peanut Gallery receives, until we’re sure where his allegiance lies.” Wile didn’t speak at this, but bowed slightly, waiting for his lead. “Now, to more present matters: who’s this you’ve brought with you?”

By no fault of his own the figure frightened me, and I stayed shyly back, halfway behind Wile as she answered: “This is Lemony Cream, sir. She’s from the Stable.”

“So, here she is," he said. "Hello, Lemony. Have you been treated well thus far?” I only nodded. To speak was too much to ask. “I’m glad,” he said. “Yours is a sensitive position. Your attitude toward the nature of our world as it now stands will be determined in these early days, outside. I wonder: will you come to think of life on the surface as worthwhile, and full of love's potential, or as a cruel and pointless trial? It remains to be seen. I for one am glad you’ve found the likes of Wile to guide your early steps. Our cause could use someone like you at the moment. If you’ll accept, I have a task well suited for you. Of course, Wile would be at your side as well, if she’ll agree to it.”

“Of course,” said Wile.

“Then let me explain,” said he. “You both know the story, I’m sure, of the second recorded Sonic Rainboom?” We both nodded. “Then, I wonder why you think Rainbow Dash was able to perform it?”

“To save her friend,” I managed to say. “Out of love.”

“Out of love, yes,” Keats nodded. With his wide wings, still just a black cross hanging in the dark. “The ministers were six ordinary mares who, by chance of meeting each other, more so than any ponies before them, gave full expression to the divine quality of love. Like six beads of dew, burning with the reflected light of this love, while others hung much duller, at less perfect angles around them. And on the day of the Best Young Flyers’ Competition, when Rainbow Dash saw her friend in danger, it was as if her bead of dew was primed exactly to catch the light – so brightly did she burn with it. Such a pure expression of this love, had she become. But why, if you remember, was her friend in need of saving?”

“It was Rarity,” I answered again. “Her wings had failed, and she was falling.”

“Her wings,” he repeated. “Yes, her enchanted wings.” He allowed that image to hang in the air, for a breath. “And that magic, at least, isn’t lost to us. We may have strayed far from the light of love, but that old magic isn’t lost. There are still those in the country that can grant the flightless, flight.”

We didn’t speak then, but waited for him. “Living in the Shy, there is an alchemist,” Keats said. “And with his potions he can replicate that same effect on any subject he so chooses. By a simple draft of potion breeding wings, wherewith to scorn the earth.” Again, the image hung in mind: this time of a multitude of ponies, playing on the air. “He’s become very old now, the alchemist. And yet he hasn’t shared his secret.”

“He refuses?” Wile asked.

“He has refused,” said Keats. “So far. It won’t hurt to ask again, however little our cause interests him. He hasn’t seemed to care much for what goes on outside his little house on the Shy, away from his alchemical instruments. He’s a stranger in the wasteland. You see, he came to us from a Stable...”

“Mine?” I asked.

“Yours,” said Keats. “Exiled over forty years ago, for his work.”

“A little before your time, I’d say,” said Wile. I shook my head, confused. I’d never heard of him.

“Still,” said Keats. “My hope is that your connection stirs something in him, and that he can eventually be convinced to teach you what he knows. Or, at the least, to listen to you longer than he ever has to us, so we can rest assured our case is made. It would be of immeasurable benefit to the free pegasi, to have our flightless allies fighting at our side. As it stands, the Enclave rarely engage us on the ground. More often our conflict goes on unseen, on the heights of these cloudy ruins.”

“You’ve fought them for very long?” I asked.

“Too long," he said. "It’s a difference, again, in our attitudes toward the world as it now stands. To the Enclave it seems frightful, vacant, and uncaring. While to us it rings with the spirits of the divines, in every laughing shaft of light. To us it’s a world of love, that was made for love. Not one of violence, that demands violence.” He shook his head. “It pains me to fight them. It isn’t natural for ponies to fight. Still, for now it’s our only realistic option– until we exhaust their Commanding Officer's allotted resources, or convince him to withdraw.”

“Then, how can we find this alchemist?” Wile asked.

“I’ve arranged for a native of the Shy to meet you, and show you the readiest way. A returning pilgrim, who needs an escort down the mountain. I’ll be trusting you, Wile, to keep her out of harm’s way.”

“Count on it,” said Wile.

“I’m grateful,” he said to her. “Of course: I haven’t yet asked Lemony, if she’s still willing.”

“Willing?” I repeated.

“Being free of your Stable, you’ll have some choices to make now,” he said. “The country’s wide, and Peirene’s only a small part of it. There are long, challenging pilgrim's trails to Canterlot and Ponyville. Simpler work, on the farms of the Shy. We can’t force you to stay and help us. Now, your life is yours.”

They both waited for my answer. “Well,” I said. “So far I’ve just been going where the wind takes me.” I looked at Wile, who smiled at me. “And it’s been very generous, I’d say. I don’t think I’ll turn against it now.”

“Very well,” said Keats. “Then it’s decided.”

And the gravity with which he said this made all the other choices I could potentially have made seem like paths behind me, darkening and falling away without the light and favor I’d given this single, delicate line, leading forward and never back. My one life.

“May your friendship preserve you.”

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Magnetic Personality: +1 to the number of party members who can be recruited.

Chapter Seven: And a Soldier, He is Always Decent and Clean

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Yours is a sensitive position. Your attitude toward the nature of our world as it now stands will be determined in these early days, outside. I wonder: will you come to think of life on the surface as worthwhile, and full of love's potential, or as a cruel and pointless trial?

A smell of seared meat thickened and sweetened the air as we returned to Fluttershy’s Lament, under the ghostly light of morning. We’d come back to meet our escort into the Shy, on Keats’ instruction. I was glad to be in his service – to have some kind of structure around me. Now Wile and I had passed the outer gate and were at the foremost houses of the town, when we came forward to find a morbid scene, which would again upset my long held feelings that life was friendly and fair.

Two soldiers stood fully outfitted in the middle of the misty street. A mare and a stallion, and attending them: a small, young pegasus dressed in parade uniform, somberly playing a military drum. To one side the broad surface of the river was covered in froth and lather. While on the ground between the two soldiers was a shaking, sobbing knot of flesh: a pony-sized, difficult to interpret form, with a glossy, seared red back. This seared skin, I soon realized, showed where feathers should have been, on stubby, butchered wings.

The ruined little pegasus lay gasping into the dirt, circled around by charred sackcloth: the remains of her clothes, with what was left of her stubby wings painfully outstretched and trembling. Her hind legs kicked backwards and struggled to find purchase, but the little mare seemed unable to lift herself off of her face. Ahead of us the nearest houses stood impassive in the mist, sometimes with a head in a window, or with a few nervous forms under an arch.

I stood by with a knot in my throat, trying just to swallow, as Wile interrupted the unnatural silence, almost immediately unharnessing her hunting rifle. This meant sitting back onto her hind legs, holding the rifle up to her eye, and almost mouthing the bit that triggered it to fire. “Someone better explain this,” she said, with the rifle pointed the soldiers’ way.

“Lower your weapon, mudpony,” said the one on the left, a stallion, unperturbed. It was true: the way Wile was positioned looked fine for shooting rabbits from on a hill, slowly, but what chance did she have here?

“You just tell me what’s going on,” she said. “Your helmets are both in piss poor condition, I can tell; I’d get a good crack at at least one of you, and I’d be satisfied with that.”

The other soldier, a mare, indulged her, raising her voice for the benefit of the few townsponies within earshot of us. “What you’re seeing here is standard procedure: the natural consequence of any wastrel pegasi being caught in Enclave territory. This one was a pilgrim, come disguised in sackcloth, knowing full well it was forbidden for surface pegasi to enter. Star-crossed little mare. Unable to pray here openly, because of her wings. We decided to solve her problem for her. She’ll be welcome now. As she is.”

“If she survives,” said the stallion. The little burned mare was breathing heavily, still with her face down. All I could think to compare it to was what I’d read of the long, full pain of childbirth, because the mare seemed not to be with us at all, but far off in a private place, grappling alone against her pain. And still I felt closer to her, than to the very adult-seeming ponies speaking around me. Nearer to her high, blank realm of pain instead, where I felt I’d been once, in a different way – weeping over Shady Sands’ body.

“Since when is this standard procedure?” Wile asked the soldier.

“Our Commanding Officer’s slightest impulse, becomes our procedure,” she answered. “Lieutenant Colonel Hereafter has always felt sorry for these pilgrims, for one. He seems to see them as little orphaned duckling, looking over hill and dale for their departed mother duck. Harmless animals. So, he very generously allows them to come and go, assuming they aren’t surface pegasi. All he’s done here, in fact, is accommodate this mare. She’s as free now as you or any mudpony, to visit us again. And you’ll notice we weren’t needlessly cruel. We removed the offending flesh by laser rifle, and carefully at that. She hasn’t bled at all. Now all she has to do is bear the pain, and she’ll live.”

“You have to give her something for it. Some medicine,” I said, in a strangled voice; my throat tightening at the little mare’s efforts to stand, as much as at the smell of her burnt feathers, hair, and candied flesh. “Please, her breathing...”

“I carry healing potions on me,” Wile said, harnessing her rifle again. “Let me by and I can help her.”

The mare in armor shook her head. “She’s to suffer out here in the street,” she said. “For your general education. Thus, the drummer.” Now again, she raised her voice: “Please, little ponies, learn from this. We’ve been very accommodating until now, don’t you think? Why should the soily, muddy-hooved likes of you be allowed to traffic the streets of our town? And worse, to whisper all the while in support of the so-called free pegasi, and for the heartless murderer Nature’s Call. Why should we be so generous-”

“Wile,” I said quietly, as the mare was making her speech. The stallion had turned a little too, toward their audience in town. I meanwhile had had an idea, watching the unfeeling eyes of their helmets. “If I cast a light over their eyes, could we get that mare away from here? If I blinded them, I mean.”

“How long would that give us?” Wile asked, quickly.

“Think of a camera flash,” I said. It was the only reference I had. “A hard one.”

“-why should the Enclave bear these flagrant insults, from you?” the mare went on. “We have, we are, but we may not forever. I urge you not to be ungrateful, and to remember who your friends are.“

After pausing to think, Wile said: “Yes. When I shout: take the shot, do it, and then follow me as fast as you can.” At that, Wile looked off toward a house in the mist, and shouted: “That’s it, comrade, do it! Now! Take the shot!

The mare fell for this trick, and turned; the stallion didn’t. So, I targeted him, using as piercing a light as I could conjure, focusing it over the bulging eyes of his helmet. It was the same idea as providing a room with mocked up sunlight – but it took closer, harder concentration. And the light must have been much brighter too, because the stallion threw his head to one side, startled - maybe even in pain.

Within the same breath, Wile had drawn and fired her rifle, and at that close range: pierced the distracted mare’s armor easily, at the knee - after somehow identifying this as a weak point in the badly aged gear. Now, like a leaden weight the mare fell forward over this failing limb, and collapsed onto her face. The little drummer fled for cover in town at the shot, as the stallion started indiscriminately to return fire, still blind. Wile had already moved aside, and took no fire.

The soldier, knowing he had missed, started to struggle with his helmet, attempting to remove it. Wile wasted no more time, but moved to lift the butchered little pegasus mare onto her back, as heavy bells started to ring from the other side of town. She took a moment to make sure I was ready to follow her and then, with the mare on her back, started at a sprint for the outer gate, all the way hollering:

“Nature’s Call! It’s Nature’s Call!”

* * *

A few soldiers swept like broad-winged vultures overhead, losing us repeatedly in the misty, multi-leveled landscape. Lancing the clouds with laser weaponry, cracking the air as if with peals of thunder. Wile knew the terrain and didn’t hesitate - throwing us over what, in the thickness of the mist, could just as well have been sheer cliff faces. I was afraid of course, but I trusted that my hooves would soon meet solid ground again, whenever we cleared an obstacle. That is, I trusted Wile. Now I stopped with her to hide, breathing like a murderer in the shade, then started off again. And gradually, the gunfire behind us fell away.

It was much easier without it overhead. Wile slowed down, and I started to realize where we were. Near where I’d first started. In fact, it was Nimble’s cave that Wile would lead us to: the sheltered cave, up a slippery series of rocky shelves. First, Wile stood listening at the bottom of this climb, then started up it carefully. The little mare on her back began to slouch over to one side, and I hurried over to steady her.

Once we’d made it, Wile lowered the ruined mare down gently outside the cave, and helped her to drink from a bottle of healing potion. She was only semiconscious now, and responded to Wile like an infant foal. Her eyes seemed glued shut with a fine, silver lining of tears, but the potion at least started to regulate her rapid breathing, which had sounded so urgent and distressing. Finally, Wile and I took a breathless drink from her water canteen.

“You don’t have to pour it on, you know,” Wile smiled, and pressed my dripping wet nose. I smiled back, but it took some effort. Beneath us, the little mare’s back was in such horrific condition.

Wile gestured for me to wait there, and went into the cave. I stood helplessly over the mare, knowing that to touch her would only cause her greater pain, wishing that she would be carried far off from it now; spared in the cloud of a dream. Wile came back out of the cave alone. “No one there,” she said. “Our bad luck. We’ll have to take care of her ourselves.”

“What do we do?” I asked, in a more panicky way than I'd meant to.

“Sit with her,” Wile said. “Give her another dose of potion, once she’s metabolized the last one. I’ll swear by them: they’re like second chances in a bottle. Of course the poor creature will still be in pain, but if she can bear it for a few more hours she should be fine.”

“And her wings?” I asked, hesitating.

“Mind you, I wouldn’t say this in front of her, but: what wings? She’s lost a lot more than her feathers, Lem.” Wile stooped to examine her. “Most of what’s left of the flesh looks to be necrotic,” she said. “But I’d rather wait for a surgeon’s help than try to prune that mess away myself.” Prune, like in gardening. And at that an image came to mind of tree, wounded by lightning. Marked forever by its senseless lashing. “Still,” Wile said. “We'll have to clean and dress these stubs ourselves, which will hurt her.”

“She deserved this, why?” I asked. “Because she hid her wings under sackcloth, and visited town?”

“It’s hard to unpack the issue entirely,” Wile said. “The Enclave - and please don’t ask me why – despise the few pegasi that choose to live on the surface. And even pegasi born on the surface, for that matter...”

“They must know they’re in the wrong,” I said. “Hiding away up there. So they work their guilt out on these surface pegasi. Just like lightning striking - like it comes from the friction all contained inside a stormy cloud, and lashes out at random. These soldiers must all be full of doubt and conflict. I mean, their hearts aren’t cold and limp: that isn’t possible. They must still feel for the ponies they've abandoned down here, in a way. Or else the guilt they’re suppressing wouldn’t be so great...”

“Well, we can’t wait around for them all to have epiphanies,” Wile said.

“No,” I said, thinking, dropping my ears. “I guess we can’t.”

Wile had taken the little mare’s head into her lap. “It’s tempting...” she started to say. “To think of killing their soldiers as a total positive. You know, as if there would be no problem with it at all. Just one less to worry about.” Until she said this, I hadn't considered that Wile must have made a deliberate choice, to spare the two soldiers we met. “But there’s more to it than that,” she said. “Because I agree with you: their hearts can’t be totally cold and limp. They can’t be. They have families and friends: they have some capacity for love. So, killing them would mean killing off that capacity, and putting out some kind of light, which must have brightened up somepony’s sky.”

“But you’ve done it before?” I asked.

“I have,” said Wile. “And I still find it hard to say, for certain, that they all deserved it.”

“Well,” I said, after a pause. “No one but Celestia can say what they deserved. I guess what matters now is how necessary it was, in the moment, that those ponies should die. And it was necessary, wasn’t it?”

“I’m never sure,” Wile said. “Besides, with all my bias, how am I supposed to know what’s really necessary?” She looked down at the wounded mare. “Weren’t those soldiers only doing what they thought was necessary.”

She was right. As much as the solicitor had done in the Stable, when he voted for Shady Sands to die. I shook my head. “I guess I shouldn’t be answering you,” I said. “As if I know what I’m talking about.”

“It’s helped to admit it to you, though,” Wile said. “So let me admit it: I don’t know if I’ve ever really had to kill anypony.”

“Maybe that’s better than being sure,” I said. “Those two soldiers seemed so sure about what they were doing. So, maybe to do what you think is right, but to always question yourself, is actually the best you can do.”

“And to refer to the holy ministers for guidance, right?” she winked at me. “What would Pinkie Pie do?

“That’s pandering!” I said, and it was a great relief to laugh again with her, however briefly.

* * *

We examined the little mare as she opened her eyes. With difficulty, we’d washed and dressed the stubs of her wings while, still unconscious, she cried out and kicked at the pain. Still, she looked healthier now, which was a relief. Her coat was pale olive, besides where it was scalded pink. And under the fringe of a dry, tangled mane, her dark eyes had a tearful, shining quality like glass, specked with rain. Her cutie mark was hidden under a sore looking brand: a familiar mark, of lightning striking. Now I noticed, with another wash of concern, that this was the same froggy-eyed mare I’d met praying in sackcloth in Fluttershy’s Lament, saying: she’s been so good to us. She’s still so innocent. Forgive us for the pain we cause her, daily, in return.

“Well, you’re awake,” Wile said to her. “Just take it easy, and we’ll tell you who we are.” The mare’s eyes moved steadily, searching Wile’s face, and mine soon after. “I’m Wile, and I carried you here from Fluttershy’s Lament. We’re still in Pereine now, hiding from any soldiers that might be out searching for us.” At this Wile looked at me, to cue me in.

“Well, I’m Lemony Cream,” I said. “And-“

“You’re the Stable pony?” the little mare interrupted, in a quiet voice. “I was supposed to meet you...”

“Ah,” Wile said. “So it’s you we were coming to find. Then I’m very sorry we didn’t get to you sooner.” Seeing the mare’s slight look of confusion, she added: “Maybe you can’t feel it yet, but your wings – the damage, it’s...” She stopped there, as the mare moved quietly to sit up and see for herself.

Her mane fell away from her neck then, and revealed it to be long and graceful. When I’d first met her dressed in sackcloth, I’d seen her damp, widely set eyes as froggy. Now, without the sackcloth hood, and with her graceful neck, they looked more like a fawn’s eyes to me: unreadable, black and bright. It was hard to tell how she was feeling, as she examined her invalidated wings.

She faced forward again, unfazed. “Thank you,” she said, flatly. “For dressing them.”

We were both surprised she didn’t say more, and waited. After maybe a full minute, Wile started to seem uncomfortable, and said: “Well, uh... well I guess I don’t know what to call you. What’s your name?”

“Perigee,” she said.

“Well, Perigee, you’ve recovered very... well. You must be hungry. Here, if you’re up to it: I made us some soup.” She had. After a little moral deliberation, we’d borrowed from Nimble’s pantry in the cave. “It’s nothing to sneeze at,” Wile said, of her own soup. And she continued speaking somewhat nervously, as she served the mare and I: “The cheese isn’t too badly aged. And yes, the bread is a little stiff and stale, but it does fine in the soup.”

“Mm,” I said, or sort of said, once my mouth was full. “It’s very good.” At this, Wile smiled faintly at me, but looked quickly back at the mare, to see if she was eating. She was. But slowly, joylessly, not seeming to register that the food had any taste at all. There was no sign of an appetite at all in fact, from Perigee.

In the end, she didn’t even finish her first portion. Wile had already started on some coffee for us, and unpacked a flower-patterned tin of stale, ginger biscuits, all while looking with open interest at Perigee.

It seemed to concern her that this mare showed so little appetite. Or, more to the point, that she was so generally calm and poised, showing so little emotion over her ruined wings. I guessed that Wile was finding Perigee more difficult to read than other ponies. I felt instead like I understood her, somehow.

It seemed as if she hadn’t quite returned from the blank, faraway place her pain had sent her to. And now the decision would be hers, whether or not she should take the effort to return at all – whether or not this fretful life was even worth returning to, or re-engaging with at all. We instead were powerless, because even with Wile’s warm, reassuring food we couldn’t reach her where she was. Not now.

No living pony could. It would take some reassuring spirit. A Shady Sands, or six. Some friendly, interceding force inside. At least, that's what I wished for her: just what I had felt, helping me - encouraging me, in spite of pain, to live. To do what Pinkie Pie would do.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Bonus Move: + Two extra APs per turn that can only be used for movement.

Chapter Eight: The Shy

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I’d never felt so cold and shivery! I experimented with blowing jets of steam out of my nose, as we descended the mountainside and the temperature dropped. I felt like a dragon doing it, sweeping down over the defenseless low country. We had left cloud-confined Pereine, and could now only guess at the great span of the land, by means of widespread landmarks: lonely windmills on the slopes to either side, misty copses of trees, a distant line of electrical pylons - all just small features of the undulating terrain. And on far off little hillocks there sat highly defensible farmhouses, with widows still alight against the foggy day.

In the distance to our left, dark pillars of rain fell. It felt like a deep breath in, this broad, uninterrupted view. It was hard to believe there was even more to see, concealed above the cream-thick cloud cover.

Our guide, the little mare Perigee, was quiet, and it sometimes felt as if Wile and I were alone, on a self-guided tour. I guessed she was still in considerable shock, and I wasn't about to press her. Whatever her reasons, she offered us no new information about the Shy, or herself. Still I was grateful that, as Keats had arranged, she would still guide us out to the old alchemist’s house, and so have Wile and I for her escort.

The further off we got from cloudy, pillaring Pereine, and the more its architectural features fell out of focus, the more it started to look, not like a pegasus ruin, but like a pillar of natural, miraculous cloud, brushed with direct sunlight – a great subject for the landscape painters of the Shy! Its whole cloudy mass was sort of nested into the middle of the mountain, so that it now seemed to have gusted and billowed out as if from inside, like the ash from an active volcano. This meant it would be impossible, at least, for us to lose our way back.

Underhoof, the grass was dry as hay. The wind blew mildly by. “It seems so peaceful here,” I said.

“Well, you know,” Wile said. “The meek shall inherit Equestria. I guess peace is what you get from a small population of ponies, minding their own business and laying low. By no means is it friendly here (for instance, you’re liable to get shot, approaching any one of those farmhouses). But yes, it’s peaceful.”

“It’s all about mindset too,” Wile added, after we’d left a long, unsuccessful pause to prompt Perigee to give her take. “If we were in the south, I guarantee that at least one of these farmers would have said to himself: you know what, I’m a great stallion: I should own most, if not all, of these other ponies' farms. And we’d have all kinds of strife, because of his ambition. Here in the north instead, no one seems to ever think of it...”

“It must not be in our nature to,” I said. “As ponies. They’re probably just being badly trained, somehow, in the south. Taught to do things against their better nature.”

“You can say that again,” Wile nodded.

“You give too much credit to the ponies of the Shy.” This time, it was Perigee speaking, and we both pricked our ears her way. “There’s a lot of cruelty here. Inside houses. Within families. It’s just more private – not more peaceful.”

She had spoken. She was continuing to speak! “And I believe it’s worse our way,” she said. “A husband striking his wife in their own home, repeatedly, is far more perverse than one group of strangers attacking another over a supply of clean water in the south. Incestual child abuse is far more perverse than a raider’s desire, even at the depths of his depravity. These households aren’t peaceful, no.”

I was uncomfortable now, and felt we had offended her somehow. At last, Wile said: “I understand what you mean. You could never hurt a stranger as much as you could your family and friends.”

And at that, for the first time in a long time, I thought of my father. More like a giant out of some dream, than a pony I’d really known. The stallion who had carried me on his back, and hung his huge, kind face over mine like Celestia’s sun. What had killed him in the end, if not my mother’s illness and death? And what pain could a stranger ever have caused him that would compare, compelling him to take his own life? Meanwhile, all a pony he dearly loved had had to do was leave, and it happened. So high was her capacity to hurt him.

“You can’t betray the trust of a stranger,” Perigee said. “In the south there’s less trust, and so less pain.”

“I never thought of it that way,” said Wile. “I guess it’s more like nature, the killing in the south. Like an eagle catches a hare up off a field. Less personal. And less about trust. Whereas what you’ve described in the farmhouses here, well... it isn’t natural.”

“It isn’t natural,” Perigee agreed. “Celestia alone knows how sorely they’ll be punished for it.”

“Uh, could you... explain that part to me?” Wile asked. “About Celestia. So, she can see what we do, and she also punishes us for it? I mean you don’t believe she’s still, well, sending ponies to the moon like she did her sister, do you?”

“I find it helpful to think of it this way,” I said, chiming in. “Celestia didn’t send Luna to the moon. Luna had put herself there already, in her heart. At that distance. At that lifeless a place, already.”

“Our punishment is to be outside of Celestia’s presence,” said Perigee. “Out of the presence of light, and love. And yes, we put ourselves there. So, while a precious few still walk the wasteland with their hearts poured full of Celestia’s light, as glad as if it were Ponyville again - most walk in darkness, unable to be with her. Just by their nature, or their choices, unable.”

“So, let’s say I’m with a friend,” Wile said. “And we’re happy, and our consciences are clear... you would say that means Celestia’s close to us?” I nodded, gladly. “And if I’m alone instead, cursing an enemy or nursing my grievances...”

“Then you’re on the moon, effectively,” I said. “You’ve chosen your grievances, over Celestia’s light.”

“So then it’s moment to moment,” said Wile. “It's happening right now.”

“And changing all the time,” I said, and she paused to think. It felt good to be telling her about this. Intense, almost. I felt my tongue at the back of my teeth, and the tips of my ears pricking up. I felt pulled into the moment, and my clothes, the clouds, the grass, the distant pylons: all seemed to hold some kind of static charge.

“And how am I supposed to get back to her?” asked Wile. “If it turns out that I am like Luna, on the moon.”

“Well,” I said, winking. “If you remember the story, that’s where the ministers come in...”

“I see,” said Wile, stopping again to think. “You wouldn’t happen to have any of the, uh, literature on all this, would you? Of course, I’m only asking for a friend...”

I was glad she asked, although I had no books of course. The best I could do then was recite for her some of what I’d read in the Stable, which I did: a letter that our walk down the mountainside had reminded me of.

Dear Princess Celestia,

I am happy to report that the dragon has departed our fair country, and that it was my good friend Fluttershy who convinced him to go. This adventure has taught me to never lose faith in your friends. They can be an amazing source of strength, and can help you overcome even your greatest fears.

Always your faithful student,
Twilight Sparkle

* * *

We walked for quiet hours, sometimes discussing the letters, until we ran afoul of some timberwolves as evening fell. Low, slouching creatures that rushed down on us from over a darkened hill, clacking along like oars as they ran. But with her rifle, Wile was able to dispatch them easily. I took it she’d done this often, hunting alone on the Shy. Now we were all three of us sitting around a fire she had started, and continued to feed, with the remains of their woody bodies. I was scared of the timberwolves at first, of course, but felt much more comfortable now. Well taken care of with a blanket around me, and Wile’s bottle of bourbon to lean on.

Under its effects, I felt especially impressed by the ponies I was traveling with. Wile, preparing pancakes for us even now, was so thoroughly competent, while Perigee seemed so resolved and smart. And the best part was that I didn’t feel worse off for it. In fact, I felt improved. Because wasn’t I a part of their team ? Weren’t we like numbers that added up? So, so what if my number was lower than theirs? I sat by observing them, tipsily, and knew how Rainbow Dash must have felt, half asleep on a cloud on a humid day. Was this what Perigee meant earlier? Poured full of light. As glad as if it were Ponyville again.

The fire seemed to play deeply in her eyes now. She, however, didn’t look very happy. “Say, Perigee,” I said, articulating quite a lot with my body. “Who’s your favorite minister, if you had to choose?”

“Hm?” she turned to me. And I felt like a wafting gas, she looked so solid. And I don’t mean to say heavy or dense, for she was light, I just mean poised and firm: like pegasus architecture. Or the ruins of it.

“Who's your favorite minister?” I asked again. “I would guess Fluttershy. I mean, you must really have wanted to visit Fluttershy’s Lament, to come there in disguise.” There was a clatter of pans from Wile at this, and I realized I was verging on difficult territory. Of course, in the end, Perigee’s last disguise had failed her.

“I went often,” Perigee said, unbothered. “Yes, I think about Fluttershy most. And I believe the minister you think about most is the one whose help you most need. The one you most need interceding, in your life.”

“You need her intercession?” I said. “You don’t seem unkind to me.”

“I seem to find it difficult to forgive,” she said, simply.

I realized I shouldn’t speak at this; in case I spoke carelessly. Over the eastern horizon, Luna’s moon was a little less than half full, and hung like a lonely sail on the first, overlapping blue waves of the night. Thank goodness for Luna, who had failed, and who had borne guilt and shame, like all of us here below. It seemed so suitable that she should govern the night, which unfurrows our worried brows and renews us - which teaches us in dreams, and prepares us for another start.

“I should tell you both about this travelling companion I used to have.” Wile had appeared with our pancakes, and laid us a kind of table on the ground. She took the bottle of bourbon from me, and poured some into a tin mug for herself and Perigee. It seemed she had an aggressive strategy to alter the mood around the fire. “He was a Brahmin, this companion of mine,” she said. “And that’s a cow with two heads, in case you didn’t know.”

“Ah,” I said, just going with it. “One on either end or. . .”

“Two in the front,” said Wile. “At least, that’s how I usually see them distributed.” Behind her, Perigee was sniffing suspiciously at the bourbon. “But that doesn’t matter,” Wile said. “Back to this companion of mine. He was a Brahmin, named Bodacious, and see: one of his heads was dead.”

“What, you mean it just hung there?” I asked.

“And how,” Wile nodded. “It was like, you know, how sometimes one twin in utero sort of absorbs the other one. Well, I guess that’s sort of what had happened here, with his heads. One of them was just... not alive.”

“Twins in a what?” I asked.

Wile sighed. “Here, look. Let me borrow your blanket for a minute.” She took it off me, and moved over to sit next to Perigee, asking her: “Would you mind if I put this blanket over us?”

“Well, it’s a little small,” Perigee said, for the first time seeming perturbed. I could see she had leaned a hair’s breadth away from Wile, and she seemed to be already blushing from the warming bourbon.

“Just for a quick demonstration,” Wile said. “Bear with me.” Next, she draped the blanket over both of their backs, and gathered it close so that theirs two heads were all that showed out from underneath it. “Look,” she said to me. “Like this.” And with that she let her head fall limply forward. “See: I’m the dead one.”

“My condolences,” I said, and heard a faint laugh from Perigee, albeit just a little breath escaping.

“So, this is what Bodacious looked like,” Wile said, still hanging her head. “We used to travel with him, and had done for some time. And he was a cow, right? So, one night when we were bored, just as a joke, well... we tipped him.”

“How much?” I asked.

“How much?” Wile repeated. “What do you mean how much. All the way. One hundred percent.”

“That’s a good tip,” I said.

“But here’s the eerie part,” said Wile, and raised her head. “He’d hit the ground hard, after we tipped him over. And when he got up: his consciousness had somehow moved over into the dead head instead.” At this she whispered to Perigee, who obediently let her head hang limply forward. “So you see,” said Wile. “That which had been dead was now alive, and vice versa. Bodacious’ heads had miraculously switched.”

“This isn’t possible,” I said. “He had the same personality?”

“Unfortunately, yes,” said Wile.

“That’s just not possible,” I said.

Well, you recited another letter to me earlier,” Wile said. “Hm, now let me see if I can remember it...” And of course, she remembered it word for word:

“I am happy to report that I now realize there are wonderful things in this world you just can't explain, but that doesn't necessarily make them any less true. It just means you have to choose to believe in them. And sometimes it takes a friend to show you the way.”

“This is total sacrilege,” I said. “Perigee, tell her.” But Perigee was still hanging upside down.

“Ah,” said Wile, checking on her. “She’s fallen asleep.”

* * *

In the morning, some geese had made landing around our campsite, and were waddling around like large, long-spouted kettles. Their webbed feet were slicked wet just from the dew on the grass. I woke to find that Wile had already packed, and was sitting up with her rifle. I vaguely remembered falling asleep, speaking to her, and I wondered if she’d slept. The remains of the timberwolves were all charred and wet.

“Oats there in front of you,” Wile said. And it was true: in a pan, hot oats with slices of apple.

“You’re fattening us up,” I said, without hesitating of course, to start on the sugary oats.

“You want me to bag us one of these geese?” she asked. “For later?”

I looked around at the honking, cockeyed geese, and I felt quite queenly and important, being deferred to for this decision. “No,” I said, with gravity. “Spare them.”

Wile nodded. “Perigee’s just gone over the hill to wash and dress her burns,” she said. “I guess she’s a little shy after all.”

“Are you gossiping?” I asked, smiling.

“Can’t help being curious about her.” She shrugged. “She seems so untouchable, and I’ve always wanted to be that way. The kind that could endure torture. You know, like, what could you do to hurt her? If you can take her wings from her and she just moves on, what can you do?”

“Well, we don’t know what she’s feeling,” I said.

“That’s just it,” said Wile. “I feel like an open book, compared to her. And with big letters too.”

“I prefer an open book,” I said, nibbling on one of the slices of apple.

Wile’s ears perked up at this. She looked at me strangely for a moment, or at the slice of apple, then cleared her throat. “Yes,” she said. “Of course, naturally you do.”

Perigee returned from over the hill then, with the stubs of her wings cleanly dressed. She had a funny little squabble with one of the geese, where it wasn’t clear which side she should pass around it on. At last, frustrated, it flapped its wide wings at her and she skipped down to our campsite in a hurry.

“You see: with us, the excitement never ends,” Wile said, smiling at her.

And I was surprised to see her smile back, still with her head down: the same kind of low, droopy eyed smile that Fluttershy might briefly have let show, in passing. I was starting to notice a pattern: the more familiarly Wile spoke to her, as in the more she joked with or teased her, the more shy Perigee seemed to become. Meanwhile in silent travel, or more serious discussion, she seemed instead to have a towering self-possession that made the two of us feel shy. In fact, because of these alternations in the little mare’s posture, it was hard to say whether she was actually taller or shorter than me.

“I did have fun,” she said to Wile. “Last night, I mean. In fact, I think I learned something.” We didn’t speak at this, but waited for her. “Just that: it’s one thing to follow Celestia’s laws,” she said. “To be obedient, and to love your fellow ponies obediently. But there’s supposed to be more to it than that. We’re supposed to enjoy it.”

“I would assume she wants us to be happy,” Wile said, nodding.

“But I always thought it should be serious and difficult,” said Perigee. “That I should struggle, for their sake. Or kneel under the falls at Fluttershy’s Lament, working up tears. When actually, it shouldn’t need to be sad, or hard work at all. Not if loving them is easy, and being most like them means being thankful and happy. When grief is heavy, and laughter is light.”

“It’s strange to admit it,” she continued. “But if it weren’t for the drink you gave me last night, I don’t know if I would have been open to all this. It was so immediate. It just seemed to lift me up a bit off the ground, so I could look down on things more clearly. And I saw you, and saw that I was glad to be with you. And saw that that was good.”

“And that’s why I wanted to ask you,” she added. “If I could come with you two. In the longer term, I mean.”

And for some reason she and Wile both looked at me, waiting. “You mean, you don’t want to go home?” I asked.

“I’m not a part of any of the households of the Shy,” she said. “In the winters I live where I can, off of what I’ve earned from the summer and fall’s day labor - all usually done for masters who take liberties, and overexert their workers. You may not realize it, but what you two have between you is very rare. I’ve felt more like I’ve been welcomed into a home here with you, than ever I felt welcome in the Shy’s splendorous houses.”

“Have you been told what we’re here for?” Wile asked.

“The alchemist’s potion,” Perigee said. “That gives flight to the flightless. To increase the free pegasi’s fighting numbers. Yes, I’ll still lead you to him. I’m asking now if I can stay with you, after that.”

“Well, it may be dangerous,” Wile said.

“It doesn’t matter,” she shook her head. “I think I’ll enjoy it. Or, I hope to try.”

I nodded at this. Weren’t all the victories that the six ministers won, over Nightmare Moon, over the dragon on the mountain, more or less just side effects of them enjoying themselves?

“I mean,” I started. “Not that it was ever in question: but of course, you can come with us. Of course.”

And her smile then was as faint as a butterfly’s wing, but just as lovely to see passing.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Pathfinder: 25% reduction in travel time on the world map

Chapter Nine: Better Homes and Gardens

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We came in time to a little basin in the hills, protected from the wind. The ground itself seemed to be giving off cold here, in the same way a body gives off heat. At the bottom of the basin was a clear stream, passed over by mirror images of cloud, and next to the stream was a peeling yellow cottage, wider than it was tall. Its windows still threw faint light across the flowery ground. The alchemist’s cottage.

“So,” Wile started. “I guess I should brief you, as they say. We’ve come to the difficult part of our little mission, girls. Here in this cottage lives an old stallion beyond the pale. He’s called Limerick, and he’s far gone. Very foggy minded. We’ll be lucky if Lemony’s being from the same Stable jolts him a bit, and gets him talking to us. All I know is other messengers have come this far and made as much effort, to no avail.”

“Now old Limerick uses their bones to make his broth,” I said, to Perigee.

“Please,” Wile said. “Let’s focus, ponies. What we’ll need most is time with him. We won’t be able to communicate at all, until the old buck’s comfortable with us. So, let’s try and be neighborly, okay?”

We nodded, and under Wile’s direction: moved in, passing first into a garden at the front of the cottage, sad and withering. The sage hung dry and flaky. One head of cabbage was all riddled with holes, from worms, while another sprouted long and creepy, flowering stalks. The soil itself seemed waterlogged and rotten. A small white cross stood, as an emblem of Celestia’s ascendant silhouette, with the name Winona written across it.

We neared the cottage door. “What’s this, a mailbox?” Wile said, for on a post there there did indeed sit a white mailbox. A plank fastened underneath it read Wit’s End. Wile checked inside the mailbox. “It looks like he wrote all of these himself,” she said, of the letters there – each of which was addressed from Wit’s End.

“It maybe goes without saying,” said Perigee. “There is no postal service in the Shy.”

Now we approached the cottage’s wooden door, which stood ajar. “Hello!” Wile called. “Hello in there!”

No one answered. Still, on entering the cottage, even as the first floorboard creaked underhoof, I could feel that someone was home. Blackened, wet firewood filled the little cave of the front room’s hearth, and still half-concealed behind the jamb of its door, the house’s grotty stone kitchen seemed to have been put to recent, clumsy use. Steam was drifting off faintly from the spout of a kettle there, and a wet dishrag sat moldy and organic-looking on the counter. To its rafters, the cottage seemed used. The front room in particular needed refreshing, that is, to be tidied and aired out. It carried a kind of funky, goaty smell.

I was curious of course, about this other, former Stable-pony Limerick. And this front room, or study, told me a little about his habits, with his most recently read books sticking out from the shelves, and even those points he most often walked across marked with creakier floorboards. I took a look at his books; those that seemed most often referred to. Old alchemical reference guides, spell books, and manuals on flight.

Arranged around the room’s hearth was a sordid set of vials, flasks and beakers, all stained or scalded with different, dirty colored rings. Beside them were a small bellows, two gas burners, a scale weighing lead against some kind of pink salt, and finally a few of the most disrespected looking books I had ever seen – with pages water-damaged and wrinkled, the lettering smudged, and inky, meandering annotations in the margins. And it was while I was standing and mourning these books, that Limerick entered the room.

At first, with his head down, muttering to himself, the old, paling earth pony didn’t notice us. He seemed quite sturdily-built and upright for his age, but he had a light, wispy white mane, like mist around a mountaintop. He wore only a dusty blanket over his back, and a pair of spectacles in front of heavily bagged, fish scale-green eyes. He moved somewhat stiffly, but his eyes were quick, shifting as if to read and consider each busy cloud of thought, behind.

On seeing us there, he reared up, spluttering: “Intruders! Winona, Winona!” he called back over his shoulder, as if he weren’t alone. “Get in here!”

“Good morning, sir,” Wile said. “I’m sorry to have to remind you, but unless I’m mistaken: Winona’s buried out in the garden. We just passed her little cross...”

“What?” The stallion scoffed, squinting back at her. “Winona’s buried in the garden? That’s absurd, I -“ Then, his eyes seemed almost literally to clear. “Oh,” he said. “That’s right.”

“You named her after Applejack’s Winona?” I asked, as it seemed like a safe question.

“Yes, she -“ he stopped again, and looked me over. Then Perigee. Then Wile at last. “Just a minute,” he said. “Who are you ponies?”

Now, what gave Wile the confidence to attempt this whole scheme, I’ll never know. But she answered: “Well, we’re from Country Life, remember? The weekly magazine. You had just invited us in.”

“I had?” he said, blinking.

“Yes,” said Wile. “We were worried we wouldn’t find you at home. So often the reader’s mailing address turns out not to be their actual permanent home address. But where were we? I believe I was just in the middle of telling you you’d won this month’s mail-in competition.”

“I did?” he said hopefully, and I felt sorry for him at that. He really was in some kind of deep fog.

“You did,” said Wile, smiling faintly. “You’re the winner. Our bachelor of the month. Your cottage came out first in this month’s A Mare’s Touch competition. Which means my expert associates and I will be staying here with you for the next day or two. That is, if it’s still a convenient time.”

“Convenient?” Limerick repeated, and looked around the dingy room. “Yes, I supposed it’s convenient.”

“Wonderful,” said Wile. “To business, then: I’m Wile, culinary arts. This is Perigee, horticulture. And that’s Lemony Cream.” She paused. “Administrative affairs.”

“You mean she can read and write?” asked Limerick.

Now he, Wile, and Perigee all looked at me, waiting for an answer. “You want to know if I can read and write?” I asked. “I mean, of course.” Little did I realize: this wasn’t a given in the country today.

“There,” Wile said. “Then I guess that’s that, Mister Limerick. With me in your kitchen, Perigee in your garden, and Lemony at your side here in the study, it’s our hope that within the next few days your unsatisfactory home life will be totally transformed. That means ambitious new recipes, renewed prosperity in the garden, laser-focused filing systems: a mare's touch, as we like to say at Country Life.”

“And what will I have to do?” Limerick asked, somewhat warily.

“Well, this is your home, of course,” said Wile. “So, we’ll want to know your habits, your hobbies – you know, what brings you joy. That’s what we’re always asking at Country Life. What brings me joy?

She let the question hang in the air, until Limerick said: “Well, my alchemy...”

“Alchemy!” Wile said. “Wonderful. Country Life had a whole edition on the meditative benefits of alchemy. You really are working on yourself, aren’t you, when you’re doing it? Clearing away the necrotic. Burning off the excess. Much like cooking, in a way. So, we’ll start you off there, shall we? With Lemony.” I could tell there was a hint for me here... “She’ll do wonders for your record-keeping, I’m sure. Why don’t the two of you start going over your books? Nothing better in alchemy than a nice, clear recipe to follow.”

* * *

It was really an inspired move, on Wile’s part. We were now all three of us immersed into Limerick’s household. In fact, with all his old moth-eaten manuscripts stacked around me now, I almost felt trapped. It had fallen to me (“Miss Administrative Affairs”) to distill all this redundant, hard-to-read information into a legible account. In the Stable, to the secretaries that worked on the terminals there, this kind of work was known as data scrubbing. And Limerick had a lot of unclean data:

Alchemical recipes interrupted by hastily written strains of semi-perverse poetry; the method of one experiment here, and the observed results much later, appended onto a different experiment's method; serious sketches of pegasi, giving the ratio of wingspan to the head's circumference and so on, but then the pegasus would have a girly, winking face, with its little tongue stuck out at me. And still no sign of the recipe I needed to find, for the potion that granted the flightless flight.

All the same, I appreciated the chance to get into another pony’s private headspace. Limerick came off in his notes as an over-educated and now unsatisfied figure. Assured of his own skill as an alchemist, resentful of how often he had been overlooked, and lonely, most of all. I found no signs of spiritual or patriotic feeling. But then, as someone who had tried to keep journals of her own, I knew that even these notes could be a performance on Limerick’s part. Because even in private notes, one lies, and hesitates to show weakness. So, for all I knew, Limerick’s heart bled nightly for our race’s fall from grace, and for the friends he was forced to leave behind in the Stable. It did seem like he dwelt most often on past failures and humiliations, and on what could have been instead. A life of longing. I suspected it could happen to me.

The old stallion was in the study with me for most of that afternoon and, to my dismay, he kept a fire burning in the hearth. It was all I could not to sweat onto the newly inked pages, as I transcribed his work. It didn’t help that I could see Perigee in the garden, outside the sealed window in the cool autumn air. Still, I could have been worse off: Wile’s kitchen looked like one of the dungeons of Tartarus, full of steam and endless toil.

She came out smiling. “For dinner, mister Limerick,” she said. “We’ll have a wonderful autumn menu: pumpkin bread and chili, with peppered green beans and potatoes as our sides. And for dessert: pumpkin pie, served with spiced wine.”

“Life on the wastes is a terrible thing,” I said.

“Yes,” said Wile. “I admit I was curious as well, mister Limerick: given the clinically depressed state of your garden, where is it all this food in your larder comes from?”

The old stallion was busy fussing at his nose with a handkerchief. “Oh, you know,” he said, absently. “One makes arrangements with the local farmers. The simple sleeping potion is always popular. More difficult memory erasing doses. Truth serums. All exploited, I assume, in their messy family politics.”

“You don’t mind what your potions are used for?” I asked, as neutrally as I could. He seemed somehow more hostile to me, than to Wile.

“Why should I mind?” he asked. “I make them just for the sake of it. Once they’re made, I’m not concerned with what happens to them. A true creator loves the creative act. Not what he creates.”

“Just ask my father,” said Wile, to deaf ears.

Limerick continued: “So, the farmers send me food in exchange, as if that’s a fair trade-off. Most of it sits in the larder and rots. Of course, they tried stealing from me at first. They had most of my instruments and books at one point, but had to return them.”

“Oh?” said Wile, her interest piqued. “Why’s that?”

“Well,” he blew his nose. “The recipes are useless on their own. You see: on that point, my dear, alchemy is far different from cooking. It takes a lifetime’s practice. As well as a natural talent to start. It’s a form of magic, of course. Think of it: you wouldn’t give a spellbook to a unicorn, and expect another Twilight Sparkle!

Wile and I looked at each other. “Not to imply,” Limerick continued. “That the famed Ms. Sparkle could make much of my books. Only an earth pony can perform alchemy, of course. It demands the same affinity for the mineral, and the natural, that makes our kind born farmers and cooks.” Now he spoke with real, seething excitement. “And that’s why, you see, that’s why alchemy was banned in the courts of Canterlot. That’s why I was excommunicated from that unicorn-governed Stable. It’s earth pony suppression. This is our secret magic. Our own magic. And yet, you never hear about it.

“I take it, then,” said Wile. “That you prefer to share the products of your art, with earth ponies alone?”

“Naturally,” said he, and Wile exhaled heavily. “If the unicorns and pegasi are so proud of their own superior magic, let them rely on it alone. The unicorns usually do. While from the pegasi I’ve had quite a few inquiries, actually.”

“Oh?” said Wile, with heavy sarcasm. “And what was the nature of these inquiries?”

At this, Limerick started to rock and snuffle a little: laughing to himself. “Very funny thing,” he said. “These were pegasi, mind you. And they wanted a potion I call The Opening Cocoon. You’ll never guess what it does.”

“Gives you wings?” said Wile, with a tired, heavily rained-on look.

“Oh, very good,” said Limerick. “You must be a lepidopterist. Yes, that’s just it. The Opening Cocoon. An early masterpiece of mine. It grants the user the most beautiful wings. And these pegasi wanted to exploit it for some stupid land claim squabble, I think. Can you imagine?”

“Somehow, yes, I can,” said Wile. “In vivid detail.”

* * *

“I’ve really cocked this up,” Wile said. We were outside in the garden, she and I, with our backs to the beam of a wooden fence. Perigee was down on her stomach, replanting a cabbage head. It was now late afternoon. “I never should have mentioned that stupid magazine. I mean, Keats told us what to do. Now this stallion’s supposed to believe you work for Country Life, and you’re from his Stable, too?”

“Well, he does have memory problems...” I said.

“Yes,” said Wile. “And we’re in a very grey area already, morally, taking advantage of those.” She shook her head. “It makes you embarrassed to be an earth pony, his kind of attitude. Let it be said for the record: we’re not all that insecure.”

“Insecure?” I asked, prompting her.

“Some of us are quite content,” she said. “We don’t all feel pangs of impotence at every sunrise, or every pegasi’s flight. He’s full of jealous feeling, that old man, I can tell. He’ll never be satisfied. He doesn’t even appreciate what he himself can do. Instead it’s just a show piece to rub in unicorn's faces, and to hide his own insecurities behind.”

“Like Trixie Lulamoon’s tricks, you mean,” I said. “That she performed so spitefully for the ministers.”

“Just stems for love to flower on, all the ponies of the earth,” said Perigee sagely, from the dirt. “If love flowers in our daily work, we’re content to work. Whatever task love flowers in, we’re most content to do. While even Trixie Lulamoon hated her own loveless, unflowering tricks, and was forever discontent.”

I nodded. I knew the feeling: of long, unflowering days, in which I did not seem to appreciate or express love at all. Days without poetry, where I hitched my focus nowhere and languished and did not grow. What would a lifetime of that, alone and hateful in an unfriendly little wagon, turn me into?

“No one’s arguing that lovely, flowery love isn’t the answer here,” said Wile. “Of course it is. But so what? That’s all very easy to say. Our problem is that yes, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. It’s Limerick’s choice, I mean, to withhold his gifts if he wants to. So, what can we do?”

The answer, we would soon find out, was to drink the water ourselves, and let him see, that reluctant horse, how much good it did us - just being friends, being free with our gifts - and how much good it might do him.

* * *

Here it all was: the chili and pumpkin bread, pats of butter, peppery green beans and potatoes, with mead from Limerick’s basement. Watery mead, but still effective! We were at a table in a smaller, candlelit side room whose windows showed off the darkening hills. Limerick sat at the head of the table, with Wile on the opposite end. At the start of the meal, Perigee and I bowed our heads to thank the Princesses for fulfilling their ancient functions, because no potato, pumpkin or green bean grows without sunlight, or without being spared the sun’s light, nightly. After this, we started on the food gratefully, thanking Wile too.

With a napkin tucked into my collar, I ate so enthusiastically that I started to feel hot in my clothes. I had never tasted real butter, and now I had buttery green beans, buttery potatoes, and buttery pumpkin bread. And in the dim heat, after the first few drinks of mead, all the day’s tightness seemed to melt away, and I felt somehow soft and buttery myself. Lighter in my chair, as if a slight levitation spell was being cast around the table, or around the whole cottage, so that it hung suspended amid the darkened hills. Perigee too, seemed to be under a similar spell. So we ate, or else thanked and complimented Wile, and said no more.

This was, in fact, all we had to do to set off the beginnings of a change in Limerick. He watched on from the head of the table, eating too: but often looking down at his food, as if to see how it was different from ours. He didn’t feel the same joyful effects from it. And he wasn't unperceptive: he could tell why, as Wile looked so gladly over us eating, glad to have made us happy by her day’s work. She had cast her care for us into the food, and we, her friends, could feel it there. But the same devotional care was not in Limerick’s meal - Wile didn’t know him: it couldn’t be. His was the same food, but without the same care being transmitted through it.

Limerick admitted none of this to us then of course. In fact, for him the table had seemed to grow longer, with us further off toward Wile’s end of it, and him left alone. He felt resentful that such crude matter as food, should earn Wile what he had all his life desired: the gratitude of others. Such immediate, grateful appreciation of her work. Yes, he was resentful. When his own efforts were at such a greater level of genius, so far above this fodder on the table. When all it seemed to take instead was simple food.

But he too had this in his power to give, didn’t he? His time, his care, his gifts, to be generous with. And shouldn’t he be? It seemed to have rewarded Wile. While he lived here alone, in bitterness.

His own work, his alchemy, had once seemed cast full of a similar care. Out of his own feelings of friendship for strange, generous nature around him, Limerick had finished The Opening Cocoon. Out of care and admiration for the butterfly’s fragile wing. And because he’d cast that care and admiration into his work, and performed it as a loving service, he had found the results beautiful, and been happy then.

I learned all this after dinner, from the horse’s mouth. Not because Limerick confessed it to me in confidence but because, as the others cleared the table, he asked me into the study again and dictated these thoughts to me, to write down for him. It seemed he didn’t want to forget.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Karma Beacon: Karma is doubled for the purposes of dialogue and reactions.

Chapter Ten: Earthbound

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Wile would camp alone outside that night, more at ease under her own care, and wanting (I assumed) to set a suspicious watch over the surrounding hills. Of course, I would have liked for us to join her, but I knew the wounded Perigee could use an actual bed to rest in. I was spoiled too, and missed the comfort of clean sheets and pillows. So, left alone in Limerick’s guest room, the two of us had washed our faces, then taken turns in the small, attached bathroom to undress.

It was a small room, arranged as if for visiting children, with its two twin beds on either side. A small, high window allowed four slight panes of light to be cast over the wall and door. Perigee now lay on her stomach in the opposite bed, so I could see the outline of her poor, clubbed wings, and felt uncomfortable at those close quarters.

“I’m glad Wile’s with us,” I said. “In general, I mean. I feel safe with her.”

“I’d say earth ponies have adjusted very well,” Perigee said, after a pause. “It’s another reason the Shy is more stable. It’s maybe ninety percent earth ponies. And they’re usually the most resourceful and self-reliant of ponies.”

“But you do think we were made to get along?” I asked. “Not to live separately?”

“I think our three breeds tend naturally to drift apart,” she said. “In the south, you’ll find unicorns often gathered in towers or colleges: closed, defensible positions. Much like the old castles. Leaving the earth ponies to the land, just as much as in the days of peasantry. And it’s obvious how the pegasi have shut themselves off, as military-minded as before.”

“But yes,” she added, after a pause. “We were made to get along. At least under the Princesses’ stewardship. That’s why they were alicorns: unicorn, earth pony, and pegasus combined.”

I decided to ask a risky question. “You don’t feel... excluded now, do you?”

“As if I’m not any of the three?” It sounded harsh, but I guess that is what I’d been implying. “No,” she said. “A pegasus on the ground is still a pegasus. A unicorn who isn’t casting a spell is still a unicorn. It’s not just our abilities that make us what we are. It’s part of the spirit.”

“I’ve read that Fluttershy had an earth pony’s spirit,” I said. “And that Pinkie Pie had a pegasuseseses... I mean, a pegasus’. Which, if you just think of her flying machines...”

“Makes sense,” Perigee nodded, and I could tell she was smiling; just to picture Pinkie Pie upside-down in the air. “I’d say there are spectrums. Which means you’ll meet hard pegasi like Rainbow Dash, and soft ones. I’m sure I’m more of a soft pegasus. It was always easy for me to conceal, and I didn’t tend to fly much. I’m fortunate now, for that at least.”

“What was your cutie mark,” I asked, carefully. “Before the soldiers caught you?”

“A falling star,” she said. “Coming straight down.” Then, to my disturbed look: “Yes, it’s eerie. I never used to give the mark much thought, until I lost my wings.”

“You don’t think,” I started. "That it means this was meant to happen to you, do you?”

“I’m not sure,” she answered. “I don’t believe that Celestia plans and schedules all things, determining the landing place of every old sparrow that falls out of the sky. But I do think she experiences time differently than we do, and already knows what will happen to us all.”

“Then it’s already determined,” I said, sitting up. “And we have no choice...”

“No,” said Perigee. “Just because she knows what we’re going to choose, doesn’t mean it won’t still be our choice, when the time comes.”

“But why would she mark you this way?” I asked. “As a filly, for future pain...”

“It’s come as some comfort, actually,” Perigee said. “It makes me feel like I’m still under her wing. Like I’m not invalid in her eyes, but just as I’m supposed to be. And however painful it was being branded, it’s meant meeting you and Wile, which I’m grateful for.”

“You’ll fly again,” I said, clumsily, perhaps not respecting the fact that she was happy not to. “Just as long as we can get Limerick’s help.”

“I’m afraid it won’t be much to look at, if I do,” she said. “I didn’t usually get very high off the ground. But at least, more practically speaking, towards the actual reason we’re here, it should allow me to demonstrate for you and Wile.”

“You really think we could learn to do it too?” I asked.

“It won’t be very difficult if your wings are already strong to start with.” She nodded. “On large, strong wings, the wind should carry you almost like a kite. Then it’s just a matter of controlling how it lifts and drops you. Or of going against it.”

“And in terms of fighting in Peirene,” she added. “The Enclave soldiers seem like surprisingly lazy flyers. Unimaginative, too. They shouldn’t be too difficult to outmaneuver.”

“Had you ever flown above their cloud cover, before?” I asked.

“From Peirene,” she nodded. “Resting often on clouds, I used to manage the climb. It was part of my pilgrimage – to see the sun again, and to be reminded that if it weren’t for ponies’ selfish influence, Celestia’s presence in the world would be much clearer. That we only doubt she’s with us now because we ourselves shroud her over with our fear and self-obsession. While all this time, in fact, the source of love has burned as eternally as the source of light, behind our coverings. And she’s been as near to us as our own hearts, if we only knew it.”

I shook my head, in happy disbelief. “I’ve never been able to put it that clearly,” I said. “But that’s what I believe, too. You must have thought about this all very deeply: you seem leaps ahead of me.”

“Ahead of you?” Perigee said, surprised. “Maybe in theory." She smiled. "Not in practice, I don’t think.”

* * *

Limerick surprised us the next morning. After we’d made a brief, happy breakfast of Wile’s omelettes and toast, the old alchemist took us out onto the surrounding hills, with us each in an old, grandfatherly bucket hat, to catch butterflies. I was tasked with jarring them, and so I was now yoked to a wagon loaded with clattering glass jars. Wile and Perigee were the catchers, and each had a net. It felt somehow like parading onto a great sports field, but without the actual fanfare.

I looked around us. Once this was all for ponies’ sport: the slopes, the butterflies. Built as if for our amusement, in service of the games we played, with the streams for our splashing, the fields for our galloping races, and the sky for daring flight. All free for us to use once, and inviting. But no longer. And the worst part was: it wasn’t the land that had changed. Not here, in the unpolluted Shy. It was the spirit that was gone. Our spirit of play. As if we’d grown out of those good old games.

This was the first time I’d felt clear, patriotic feeling, as I dreamed of Equestria in its playful prime. As a lost country, whose spirit we’d strayed far from. And now, it was with a tinge of sadness that I watched Wile and Perigee swat their nets over the foamy, autumn flowers, and chase butterflies in and out of the faint shade on the hillside, laughing. Because watching them felt as forlorn as reviewing a precious memory, of days since dramatically changed.

Limerick was near me, as watchful as an umpire over their play, and I wondered what was now stirring in him. After all, in our Stable he would have gotten more or less the same education as me. So, he must still have similar ideas about what the country used to be like.

“Have you seen much of the wasteland?” I asked him, as a prompt.

“Wasteland?” the wispy-haired old stallion said, distracted.

“The rest of the country, I mean. Have you seen much of it since you left the Stable?”

“What for?” he asked. “Ponies give too much of their attention to pretty landscapes, and leave their own mind’s potential unappreciated. The everyday miracle of memory. Or of dreams, and imaginative foresight. These are the frontiers that merit our time and study. This is where true magic’s found, not in travel over land."

I wondered what it must be like for him, then, to be losing his memory. To be so introverted , and to have a once familiar interior landscape fall away under a fog. “Then you must not have minded so much,” I said. “Being confined to the Stable. What do you remember about it?”

“That it sorely lacked for ingredients,” said he. “That the ponies there were uninspired. Too timid and unadventurous to leave, or even to experiment inside.”

“Then you do prefer the outside?” I nodded. On this, we seemed to agree.

“Yes,” he said. “The pain ponies suffer here is at least productive, just as fire engenders change in alchemy. Without friction and movement and heat, there can be no change. So, while the Stable will forever be steady, sterile and cold, with all the stressors of the wasteland instead, every day out here is full of natural alchemy. Conflict, accidental experiment.”

“And in Peirene?” I asked. “Wouldn’t you call what’s happening there alchemical?”

“Elaborate,” he said after a pause, and I could tell I had his interest.

“Well, you have your different elements: the free pegasi and their allies, and then the Enclave’s contingent. With plenty of heat between them, right? And then in the end, if all goes well, you would be left with a new, purified product.”

“With that product being?” he asked.

“An independent Peirene,” I said. “Where, without the constant, sterile Enclave, the same kind of alchemy can continue. That is, between free pegasi, earth ponies, and unicorns. Which three breeds, I would say, were the three ingredients that, under stress, were purified in ages past to form the golden agreement that was the very basis of this country.”

“Spoken like a true politician,” said Limerick.

“Maybe, but I believe it,” I said. “Without movement or heat, friendship dies. Without disagreeing elements, coming to agreement, it can’t exist. I mean, that’s just what it is: disagreeing elements, coming to agree. And after what you’ve said, that seems to me like the most natural form of alchemy there is.”

Now Limerick looked ahead, and gave no answer. The girls soon interrupted us with butterflies in their nets, and I started, with careful telekinesis, to place each butterfly into its own jar. Their timing couldn’t have been better. Limerick watched us work, and as one of the butterflies almost slipped free and we all three of us laughed in perfect time, he could perhaps see something golden and pure between us, greater than the sum of its parts. Something good in our agreement.

* * *

Inside, we stood idly by and watched Limerick work, in awe of his precision. He knew his instruments well: the gas burners, the scales, the unlabeled flasks. I had the sad task of plucking the wings off of the butterflies in our jars. Next, Limerick carefully scraped the scales off of each wing, like the tiny multicolored tiles of a mosaic. I of course had realized he was working on The Opening Cocoon, his potion to grant the flightless flight, and I tried to follow along over the old stallion's shoulder. It was hopeless, though, at the pace he was going.

Neither did I know much about alchemy, overshadowed as it had been by the more recent, practical pursuits of chemistry and medicine. It was an ancient branch of natural science, whose adherents had most famously pursued, or perhaps even achieved, the successful purification of lesser metals into gold. However, from a footnote somewhere, I did know it was a common misconception that, for the alchemist involved, this effort would have been made in the interests of some final, financial gain, in pursuit of the actual gold itself. In fact, the sincere alchemist’s motivations would more often have been spiritual, with the purification of the metal being seen as an allegory for the gradual refinement of his own imperfect soul, so that the two processes could be said to run in parallel. The gold’s value, then, would only have been as a token or sign of his own successful purification. For it was understood by alchemists that the material, observable world is only an expression of the spiritual underneath – that is, a series of interpretable signs by which the divine communicates itself to us.

So much for my understanding of alchemy. None of which helped me follow what Limerick was doing in the cottage. In fact it was a distraction, because it made me wonder what this potion meant to him. What invisible significance did he see in the outward, observable sign of the wings it granted its user? What did he see: a means to be more than we were made to be? An act of defiance against our creator, and the natural order? A chance to show ourselves off, not as limited creatures of this surly earth, but as members of a higher, more infinite category?

“You aren’t really paying attention, are you?” Wile asked, leaning over toward me as Limerick worked.

“Uh,” I said. “To this? Technically, no.”

“I don’t blame you,” she nodded. “It’s like watching a mathematician write out proofs.”

It seemed even Limerick’s cutie mark was obscure. It was a three dimensional pyramid, with the point sort of hovering over the rest of the base. From the work I’d done arranging his documents, I remembered that this pyramid was the alchemical symbol for air. Or at least, it was in Limerick’s opinion.

“I wonder how he learned to do this,” I said. “I doubt we kept many books on alchemy in our Stable.”

“He might have discovered most of it for himself,” Perigee said, appearing beside us. She had been passing in and out of the cottage, fetching sprigs and seeds from the garden outside at Limerick’s impatient command. “Maybe like maths and music, alchemy just hangs in the air, waiting to be discovered.”

“Come again?” said Wile.

“Well, if one and one make two,” Perigee said, explaining. “Then one and one made two even before somepony came around and wrote it down in workable terms. So, it was just true, always, and hanging in the air. And the same must be true of the melody of What is this Place? The melody must have existed, even before Fluttershy first discovered and sang it.”

“Peppercorn!” called Limerick, urgently. “More peppercorn.”

“Excuse me a moment,” said Perigee. “He needs more peppercorn.”

“Starting to feel like you’re waiting tables?” Wile asked her, as the little mare left us. And once she had gone, Wile lowered her voice and said: “I make jokes because I’m very confused. She said music is discovered? Like it’s just lying around?”

“Hanging in the air, I think she said.”

Wile shook her head. “I feel suddenly like I’m at the shallow end of the pool,” she said. “Compared to you three.”

“You group me in with them?” I asked, failing to hide the fact that I was flattered.

“Well, you do seem to drift off into thought sometimes,” Wile said. “And I doubt you’re just playing tic-tac-toe with yourself.”

“You’d be surprised,” said I.

“What I meant,” Perigee said, reappearing at our side. “Was that all possible created things, all songs and formulas, have to have already been created. Our creator had to have written every song, when she first brought music into being. Because to create the notes that make up music, she had to know or foresee all possible permutations of those notes. And the same goes for numbers, and even natural ingredients like peppercorn.”

“Wait,” said Wile. “You’ve said she. And I think I can guess who you mean. So, are you saying you think Celestia brought music into being? The same mare in the newspapers?”

“Well, yes,” said Perigee. “Or, the spirit which was made manifest in that mare. And which survives her now.”

“Survives her where?” asked Wile, somewhat distressed.

“In you, Wile,” I said, smiling.

“That’s, uh, a lot of responsibility to lay on a pony,” she said.

I laughed. “In all of us, Wile. Like a memory lives, in the friends of the departed.”

And Perigee said: “But it’s still a lot of responsibility. To know we bear her light.”

“But if we share the burden equally,” I said. “Together we can manage it. As a group of friends, it’s easier, not to let her down.”

“Wait,” Wile said. “Wait. Please stop completing each other’s thoughts. It’s starting to get-“

“Creepy?” we both said. And after a pause, all three of us started to laugh, and hard enough that a frustrated Limerick had to chase us out into the garden.

* * *

“You, the little pegasus,” said Limerick, meeting us in the garden after some time. “I want you to try this.” He had in his hoof a little bottle, inside of which was a sky blue liquid. “I noticed when you arrived, of course,” he said. “That your wings were only stubs. So, naturally you’ll be interested in this. The Opening Cocoon. You see, I’ve never tested it on a pegasus...”

Was that all, I wondered, or were his motives more compassionate? If so, Limerick didn’t show it.

“Arcane scientists neglect to think of magic as biological,” he said. “But not alchemists. I’ve learned from experience that magic is chemical. And so, as yet, I have no assurances that a pegasus’ natural, chemical makeup won’t interfere with the effects of The Opening Cocoon.”

“Meaning you’re not sure what’ll happen,” said Wile. “If she drinks that.”

“Meaning I can make no guarantees,” he said.

“I’ll drink it,” said Perigee, accepting the bottle from him. “Of course.”

“I should warn you,” Limerick said. “You’ll turn much faster in the air than you’re used to. If it works, that is. Your wings will be more akin to a butterfly’s, which have a broader span. It should also go without saying that you’ll be safer staying below the cloud cover.”

“I understand,” said Perigee.

“Then just a mouthful should do it,” said Limerick, and she nodded, drinking from the bottle without further hesitation, surprising Wile and I.

It started immediately, from the stubs of her wings: fine floating ribbons of an unknown material, wrapping loosely around her, lifting her off the ground. She nodded calmly down at us, as the ribbons tightened and closed over her face, sealing her into a cocoon. She hung there above us for a moment, suspended as if by a fine cord of spider web, and then with a flash: she hatched.

Her new, folded wings were dusky and earth toned - more like a moth’s wings than a butterfly’s. And as Perigee stretched them out to their full span, alarming, asymmetrical cat’s eye patterns opened out, as if for startling small prey. The wings seemed powerful and predatory: not at all like Rarity’s dainty, disco-light wings were described. But at a movement in the clouds above, and a brighter grade of light, the rings around these wings' eyes started to show off iridescent colors. Wheels within wheels, of color.

At their full span, the million scales of the wings’ membrane appeared. Like an advertisement for the many fine, microscopic spectacles of the insect world. An entomologist’s dream. The glossy, alien colors; the accidental patterns, which seemed full of forethought and intention still, as if artfully designed. And all alive and in motion, as Perigee laughed and turned in a small, quick circle: just as she had said, like a kite on the wind.

“That’s unbelievable,” Wile said. “That is unbelievable.”

And beside us, almost shyly, Limerick smiled.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Speaker: +20% to Speech. You are no better a liar or rhetorician now of course, but whenever speaking sincerely you more capably get your thoughts across.

Chapter Eleven: Wherewith to Scorn the Earth

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Wings! And with them, a new sense of lightness. Of an athlete’s nimble, effortless agility. I’d never swum at all, but to hang in the air brought back ancient memory of being small enough to float in the bath - with as much of a feeling of fun. Like grandponies who complain of slowing down, but sometimes find new energy, I felt suddenly youthful. As if the heaviness that had until now held me to the earth was only due to age. As if as a child instead, I’d flown like a cherub from game to playful game, as freely as this.

It made me nervous and giddy to be moved on the wind, as Wile’s wings and mine were filled like sails, while our now redundant hooves held no purchase on the ground. No mooring, or tether at all to the earth, and worse: with infinite room overhead to be carried off into. I was afraid, but thrilled to be afraid, and I laughed every time the breeze picked up as we started our lessons with Perigee. Wile, instead, was less willing to give over control to the wind.

“Let me land!” she said, to Perigee. “Just for a minute, let me land.”

“Ok: well, if you’d like to land, stop flapping,” said Perigee, from on the ground. We were out on a hillside, still in view of Limerick’s cottage. The old alchemist had gone inside, but sometimes appeared at his window, observing. “Wile. Just stop flapping your wings.”

Instead, still flapping, Wile started to tread nervously at the air, which actually seemed to lift her a bit higher. “No, Wile, lock your wings out flat, at their full span,” said Perigee. “And if you lean forward, you’ll start to drift down. It’s mostly drifting, involved in this. You should only be flapping to gain altitude.”

“So, why aren’t we gaining altitude now?” I asked, also flapping.

“Well, while you are both flapping quite a lot,” Perigee answered. “I wouldn’t say you’re flapping very well. Ideally, to really have an effect, both wings should be flapping at the same time.”

“So, you’re saying there’s some redundant flapping going on,” I nodded, sagely.

“Yes... in fact, you could afford to be a lot more frugal with the flapping.”

“Since we’re all throwing around f words...” said Wile. “I’ve got one.”

“Now wait, Wile: don’t fold your wings back,” said Perigee. “You’ll just drop out of the air if you do that. Fan them out instead, and lock them there, and you should drift down to the ground.”

“Look at me, Wile,” I said. “I’ll show you.” And I banked back around to face her as I landed, to which I think I heard her mutter teacher’s pet.

“The drifting part you’re quite good at,” Perigee said, to me.

“It comes from drifting through life,” I nodded. I felt confident: for the first time, my own movement seemed less stiff and unathletic. I felt physically fluent and easygoing. “What do you think, should we try some laps around the cottage, Wile?”

“How is it that suddenly, you’re a jock?” she asked. “But sure: that actually sounds safer than landing, right now. Just as long as Perigee comes with, and hangs close to me.”

So, still under Perigee’s patient tutelage, we tried it. And I could feel the pockets of air underneath me, which picked me up whenever I flapped my wings. And as we gathered a little speed it started to seem like the planet must be turning against the path of our flight, as the hillside passed underneath us, and the cottage’s garden, and the stream, then all three again.

Losing altitude once, I managed to skip back off of the flowery ground, and it was such a relief to be carried off onto the air again, as it felt fat and pillowy underneath my outspread wings. Like as real and reliable a medium as water under the broad hull of a boat. While the rolling clouds above us had a soft and peachy color, under the light of late afternoon. Maybe it was because I was happy, but all things felt weightless and soft.

That’s when Wile appeared, inching past me on the inside track of our lap, with Perigee as close to her as a sidecar.

“The last one to Limerick’s window,” Wile shouted. “Is a stinky griffon’s egg.”

“The egg of a stinky griffin or-“ I just heard Perigee asking, as they pulled ahead of me.

I was happier to watch the girls fly than to actually race them, so I didn’t stand much chance of winning. It seemed the suggestions of color across the eyelike patterns of their wings matched their heads of hair somewhat, so that Wile’s wings had a reddish tincture, and Perigee’s were plummy. I wondered what that meant. Were these wings real parts of our bodies, somehow based off of our distinguishing genetics? But I found it hard to wonder, and to fly.

I caught up to the girls as they were landing, lightly, outside of Limerick’s window. I instead almost didn’t stop in time, and so fanned a sizable gust of wind into the cottage's study as I pulled up suddenly, sending some loose papers flying off Limerick’s table and leveling a stack of books.

Somehow, this didn’t bother the old stallion. His hoary, spectacled head appeared in the window, and addressed us more than politely: “Wonderful demonstration, my little ponies. The wings seem to fly themselves.”

“They’re peachy,” I said, to a querying look from Wile. “How long do they last?”

“Well,” Limerick laughed, somewhat nervously. “That depends of the user’s size and metabolism. Much like the inebriating effect of alcohol, so I can’t really say. But don’t be so quick to worry,” he added, to the concerned Wile. “I engineered a fail-safe, of course, built into the potion. When the user’s wings are about to thin away, she’ll begin to hiccup...”

“To hiccup?” repeated Wile.

“It’s very clever, really,” Limerick nodded. “Much like a vehicle’s empty fuel tank signals for re-filling, your own body will warn you, by this signal, when the effects of the Opening Cocoon are about to wear off. It’s organic engineering. In a few hours, each of you will be given about a five minute grace period, in which to land.”

“A few hours...” Wile said. “Then we could still make it out to see Keats, tonight.” Then, to Limerick: “Listen, you’d like more ponies to test your potion on, wouldn’t you?”

“Well...” he hesitated.

“If it helps,” I stepped forward and said. “I just a minute ago noticed that the color scheme of each of our pairs of wings matches our hair. Which seems to mean that some of our own genetic information was included somehow, in the makeup of the wings. I’m not sure, but maybe that might merit closer investigation?”

Limerick took a moment to look us over, and confirm this. “Yes, that’s not a bad hypothesis...” he said.

“Then we can bring you back more ponies, to test it on?” Wile asked, of course with Peirene and the free pegasi’s plight in mind. “Think about it: the more of us flying,” she said. “The more of us defying whatever ancient prescript reserves the sky to pegasi alone. Just off the strength of your potion...”

“Defying the ancient prescripts...” Limerick repeated, hesitating still.

“I’ve found it’s made me very happy,” Perigee added, simply. “To fly again. And more than that, to fly with friends.”

And I felt somehow, without Limerick saying it, that of our three arguments it was this one, from Perigee, that convinced him in the end. I was sure it had made the old alchemist happy too, to see us flying. To have made us happy. But whatever his motivations were, he said:

“Well, why should I be hesitating? By all means, yes, bring me more ponies.”

* * *

Being novice flyers, Wile and I closely followed the contours of the land, and never dared to fly to more dangerous heights. We kept to depressions in the hills, where we were more likely to go unseen, and avoided the farmsteads of the Shy. It was just she and I now, flying by sunset, as Perigee had stayed behind at Wile’s insistence. In case we two were somehow caught or trapped in Peirene, we needed Perigee to remain free, still available at Limerick’s secluded cottage, to guide the other grounded allies of the free pegasi in their own first, clumsy flights.

I was getting the hang of it now, but we flew slowly enough that if we needed suddenly to land, we would land softly. An ewe and little family of lambs on a hillside were frightened by our passing closely by. I looked back and saw the little ones cantering this way and that, then grouping underneath their mother. I wondered if these other living creatures also longed for the days we ponies had lived and governed in love and glory. And if in a way we’d failed them, and failed all living creatures, in our role as the supposed caretakers of this once good, green country.

I imagined how I’d passed over those lambs, as an unfriendly shadow against the clouds, and felt associated for the first time, suddenly but strongly, with the terrible balefire bomb. The final declaration of our race’s selfish, self-destructive desire that, making itself globally heard, speaking for us, had said: we will be satisfied. Yes, that seemed to be our last word. That without compromise, no matter the cost, we would be satisfied.

The Zebras weren’t the issue. I felt sure we’d harbored no greater hated or dissatisfaction at the time of the Great War, than toward ourselves. For it was we ourselves that had starved and squandered our own precious lives in vain pursuits. Lived half lives, removed from love, and failed to defend even those. How long had it been since last the ponies of the Old World properly flowered, under Celestia’s light? And wasn’t it as crucial to nature’s happy procession that ponies should flower, as it was for flowers themselves to? Weren’t we part of nature, with a vital role in it, as its stewards?

So, what fell to me now? What could I do, for the lambs on the hillside? I felt somehow that I was on the right track, already. To live, and be happy, and under these conditions: to do what came naturally to me. For what comes most naturally to a truly happy pony should of course be the health and well-being of the world. While only the unhappy wish for wider ugliness and destruction.

All I had to do was look at Wile beside me, to know I cared for her. And because I cared for her, I wanted the environment she lived in to be happy and safe. And so of course I would endeavor, with what little means I had, to make it that way. And this must be how love engenders love.

“Wile?” I asked her, as we rested our wings in the shade of one tree, alone on a hillside just under Peirene’s pillar of clouds. “After all you’ve seen, traveling, would you say hatred seems more powerful than love?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “Not at all. Maybe easier to slip into the habit of at first, but nowhere as powerful. Seemingly powerful, yes, but that’s only due to the loop we’re currently stuck in. I’d just say, in recent years, we ponies have fallen into some nasty habits.”

She paused to think. “I think we’re simpler creatures than we want to admit. So, if we think a hateful thought often enough, we call it a belief. But mostly we believe it because we’ve committed it to memory, by thinking it so often. And if we do a hateful thing, we’ll call it our decision. When really, the more we do it, the more we’re becoming trapped in the habit.”

“We’re trainable, you mean?” I asked.

“Yes,” Wile nodded. “I’d say so. So a lot of it comes from our parents, or whoever was around when we were foals. But once we’re older or once we’ve gone off on our own, it falls to us, unhelped, to raise ourselves. Into whatever else we will become, for better of worse.”

“I guess the religious perspective is the same as that,” I said. “But we believe we all can still get outside help, from higher forces, as long as we’re willing to ask for it.”

“Funny then, that I never asked,” Wile said, “And yet you just appeared.”

“Have I helped you?” I asked, surprised.

“Oh, immeasurably,” Wile said, looking forward. Over the Shy in front of us, the cloud cover was slowly being drained of light. “My own old and lonely habits seem far gone now,” she said. “You’re more than a friend to me, Lemony: you started my day, after what seems now like a long, looping night.”

“It still might have been a lovely night,” I said, remembering how content she’d seemed when I met her fishing on the riverbank. How much more comfortable than me.

“Oh, sure the night was often nice,” she said. “And we all need nights, of course. With their privacy. The time alone, to think. To feel how we’ve grown by day, and to dream. For a long time, I would have claimed to need only the quiet of night, and myself for a friend. But I always knew: ponies wilt inside, by night eternal. By total introversion..."

"It’s clear to me now: I need more than just myself,” she said. “I need you, too.”

“Someone?” I asked.

“You,” she said.

* * *

We lingered long on that hillside, and so at last it was hiccuping that we flew toward Peirene’s pillaring cloud: with the effects of The Opening Cocoon wearing off. The tips of our wings had started to molt and flake off on the wind as we flew, scale by mosaic scale. Still, Limerick’s simple warning system did save us some pain, as we made safe landing soon after the hiccuping started, leaving ourselves a long, misty climb toward Fluttershy’s Lament. I felt as slow as a slug, sticking again to the ground, but all the same I was glad to be returning to Peirene.

Shafts of deep blue light hung like ghostly tapestries from high breaks in the clouds, draping the backs of winged, prayerful forms amid the region’s cloudy ruins. I could see why pilgrims came here. The place seemed to make it obvious that there was more intended for us than just this earthly life. That the veil was very thin, which concealed the divine from our eyes.

The spectral light of evening seemed to prove it now: for what must this brief life be, and these scenes in front of us, but a shifting, colorful veil over our eyes, that would one day be lifted? We were every one of us being led somewhere, weren’t we? With our eyes covered now, in the interim. And when at last they were uncovered, how short our lifetimes of blindness would seem - even as brief as a dream, after waking.

None of this was real - least of all pain and death. Nowhere as real, at least, as everlasting love, or the alluring deep blue light, in which the divine laughter seemed now to sound. Laughing not at our pain, but kindly, knowing just how safe we really were. It excited me, to almost hear it there. Just to be alive, with Celestia’s mysteries, with cherubs and Pinkie Pies, it seemed, hiding behind the shadow of every cloud, like foals who wanted really to be found – who were only waiting for us. As if this earthly life was just the painful, lonely suspense before a surprise party.

I did believe in eternal life – in us each one day returning forever into our creator’s fold, in some form or another. And this belief would save me a lot of pain. When we first came back into view of Fluttershy’s Lament, on either side of the weeping, familiar falls, the houses were squat, dark mounds in the mist, with their lighted windows like bulging yellow eyes.

“First, we’ll tell Bottles to spread the word,” Wile was saying, cheerily. “Perigee’s flight school is open for business! And free of charge, of course, for all friends of the free pegasi. Then after a little rest, under cover of darkness, we’ll go and see Keats again...”

It was not quite dark now. The sky still had a pink grain to it. I looked up and saw a broad, near-transparent sheet of cloud pulling back from off of a few first stars, like a wave that leaves behind pearly points of sand. And as they were gradually fogged over again, I got an ominous feeling from these stars, as if from far off shouts of warning, barely audible to me.

Without much of a sense of urgency, Wile unharnessed her hunting rifle then, sat back on her haunches, and aimed the rifle at the falls ahead of us. Just to see down the scope, it seemed. Without the aid of the scope, I could now make out two crosses, suspended with cables from the high, graceful little bridge that connected the two sides of Fluttershy’s Lament. I knew crosses were used to represent Celestia’s rising, silhouetted wingspan, and I assumed that that was the idea here. But these crosses swung a little with the wind, seeming somewhat weighed down.

“Luna forgive them,” Wile said, and I knew that whatever she was seeing wasn’t good.

* * *

I didn’t ask questions, but followed as fast as I could while, in a few breathless bursts of running, and without a word, Wile led me back into town to Bottle’s inn, In the Lap of Legends Old. Once inside, ignoring poor Bottles behind the unattended bar, Wile took us directly upstairs, into Peanut Gallery’s same little stonewalled room, where we had once searched for and failed to find him.

This time, the slight, dark-haired stallion was in bed, on his side under a sheet. Out of the room’s one window you could just about see the falls, and the two crosses hanging there. Now it was with urgency, that Wile unharnessed her rifle.

“Get out of bed, you scum,” she said, loudly. But the stallion didn’t stir. “I’ve got a rifle trained on you; you'd better snap to it.” Wile prodded him with the rifle's barrel, and still he didn’t stir. “I said: get up.” Now, she moved to turn him over toward us, and the stallion fell heavily out of bed. A bottle of wine on his bedside table was knocked over, and started to spurt out inkily onto the floor.

Wile swore, and harnessed her rifle. “Lemony,” she said, in a harsher tone than I was used to. “Fetch that bottle, will you? With your magic.” So, I floated it over for her to see.

Our Night Owl wine is dark, bold, and jammy,” Wile read, from off the back of the bottle. “With aromas of blackcurrant pie and bittersweet chocolate. And a smooth, lingering finish.” I cocked my head, confused. “Enjoy under an evening sky.

“It’s new,” Wile added. “It’s not prewar.”

“Which means what?” I asked.

“That it was a gift from the Enclave, I assume. And poisoned.” She kicked gingerly at Peanut Gallery’s limp body. “I guess they got all the mileage they needed out of him. He’s kaput.”

I stepped back. He looked just like he was sleeping, with his hair falling over his heavily lidded eyes; already busy drooling onto the floor. Cold, congealing saliva. “Wile,” I said, carefully. “Why did you bring us here?”

“The bastard gave them Nimble’s location,” she answered. “That must have been the throwaway information he mentioned last time we were here; what he used to get into the Enclave's good books. You remember a little after that, when we went to Nimble’s cave – neither she nor her father were there...”

“So, where are they?” I asked. To which Wile looked at me sadly. At last, she passed me her hunting rifle.

I was sitting at the window, in the frame of its faint light. Now I sat with Wile’s rifle in my lap, not using it to look. Outside, the two heavy crosses swung.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Mutate: Change one of the user's traits. It’s hard to say what the lasting effects of The Opening Cocoon might be, but with further use, your wings will grow sturdier, nimbler, and longer-lasting. Almost as if they have a save file in you, to recover their progress from on regrowth. Wouldn’t you like to recover your progress, from an earlier point?

Chapter Twelve: Combat Evolved

View Online

A day had passed of hasty preparation; now we had made our move. Our sole ambition had been to retrieve Nimble and her father, fastened to their crosses at the falls, and even this demanded almost the full extent of the free pegasi’s forces. We had them now, still lashed to their wooden crosses, but alive.

These would remain the strangest memories of my early days outside, as our fleeing and fighting went on like weather, unseen in the heights of the clouds. With the free pegasi colorful and erratic, appearing surprisingly to retaliate, and the Enclave soldiers loud, looming and terrible as thunder - obvious wherever they appeared. Often, our side would be chased out under expanses of blank sky - bright blue fields, left open as if for our fighting. For our retreating, and our returning fire. And with all the blanched, blinding cloud of the higher ruins of Peirene, it felt like a chase across dusted white peaks, with frightened retreats into ever-changing crevasses of cloud.

I found myself alone now, flying fearfully, as hot red javelins of laser fire formed holes in the cloud. The high, floating ruins of Peirene were so disorienting, with old structures all overturned: crooked forums, lopsided arenas, all complicated by breezy, changing patterns of light and shade. I was afraid to pass into and out of the clouds, in case hard, actual mountain was hidden underneath them.

I flew off in a blind panic, not sure how closely I was being pursued. Luckily, the Enclave's soldiers couldn’t afford to spend much time on me, what with more aggressive, higher priority enemies challenging them from many sides. The free pegasi were few in number (no more than a dozen natural pegasi), but seemed to multiply themselves, reappearing at odd angles. I couldn’t be sure, but Nature’s Call sometimes even seemed to appear, like a shark from under the white surf of the clouds, suddenly removing a soldier from play. Wile, I almost never saw, and so I didn’t realize how closely she was keeping watch of me, or how safe I really was.

In the thrill of the moment, overpowering any grief at how Nimble and her father were mistreated, was the gratifying fact that we had them now. That their friends had them again. I landed on a strip of mountainside, and started to run as I came down, resting my wings. Carelessly, I scattered the white flowers there off onto the wind, underhoof. I felt as light on the ground as these flowers, and as free on the wind, knowing that I could take off again at will. In all this time, whenever the thick and inky cloud of fear cleared, after I escaped another soldier, I felt a delirious sense of fun. As if all this were only sport.

Perigee was with us again, somewhere in the same fray, with the contingent of grounded ponies we sent her, all taught hastily to fly. Neither she nor I seemed to do much fighting, but served in supportive roles: she, swinging down to rescue struggling flyers, and I, casting lights over the eyes of our enemies’ helmets. I was grateful for that ability at least, for it was all I had to offer. My magic cracked up whenever I tried to fire my heavy automatic pistol (and missed) and I wasn’t confident I even had the nerve, to aim to kill.

At last, like high pressure, the weight of the pursuing soldiers’ presence seemed to lift, and we were relieved. The gunfire stopped. My heart-rate settled, and I started to see friendly pegasi, coasting quietly along. Out of a break in the clouds to one side, I could make out the ambulance procession we were all that time attempting to draw the soldiers’ attention from. The four pegasi, bearing Nimble and her father’s heavy crosses. With the tired, sagging bodies bound to them, the crosses looked eerie: like messengers in some surreal dream, descendant from on high.

I didn’t know our new allies well at all: the now winged supporters of the free pegasi, or even the more aged and weathered pegasi themselves. In fact, I almost felt I knew our enemies better, for the soldiers’ helmets all looked familiar to me, and seemed to convey the same personality. It was strange, because I didn’t hate that personality either. It seemed humorous - big brotherly almost - like the first guard I had met at the gate of Fluttershy’s Lament. Or the guard that Wile had embarrassed, when he found us crouched in the mushrooms. I was almost fond of them, and wished we weren’t fighting.

Of course, someone had lashed Nimble to a cross - displaying her sadistically. Someone had stopped her easy laughter, and changed the face I knew. One of them. On the instructions of Lieutenant Colonel Hereafter, the pegasus on whose violent stages we now found ourselves: the reason there was fighting here at all. I’d learned in our hours of preparation how resented he was even among the prayerful free pegasi. Pursuing to the disadvantage of his soul, this fruitless, painful combat.

Hereafter was a figure who seemed difficult to forgive, for all the pain his choices caused. He was almost never seen - for fear, Wile told me, of the wrathful Nature’s Call. To the free pegasi, however, he was untouchable, as the death of such an officer would only draw greater government attention to the conflict in Pereine. So, now I could only imagine the stallion, and despite the difficulty, I tried to be generous.

Maybe, far removed as he was, he didn’t realize the pain he was causing. Maybe his orders were fair, but unfairly carried out. Maybe he just gave his troops too much license. If I, like Hereafter, had a contingent of troops responding to my beck and call, how much worse would the consequences of all my sloppily made decisions be? How much more heinous and sudden the results of my own selfish, careless mistakes?

Still it was hard, with Nimble and her father on their crosses. Celestia knows it was hard, not to wish for Nature’s Call just to find the Lieutenant Colonel, wherever he was hiding.

* * *

Strange terrain, here. The mountainsides shrouded under cloud looked like hard, dark parts of faces: the bridge of a snout, a closed eye. And in the cloud itself was clear evidence of past architecture: steps and arches, molded statues’ faces, serene, mischievous or anguished. I was sore from flying, and I could appreciate this chance to slow down, here where the air seemed fat and easier to drift on.

Wile and Perigee were flying with me again, toward the free pegasi’s designated meeting point, secluded somewhere across the overcast mountain. Around us here, more rows of small, molded faces decorated the ruins of cloud. One face with forward, graceful features, the next squashed and piggish, and so on. Like crowds of spirits too, the wild cloud, the actual weather, seemed to part above us and then close. Boxed in as we were, it was easy to imagine the ruins of Peirene extending up forever, unseen, pockmarked with these same faces. The faces’ expressions, at least to me, seemed to suggest they were each bearing some kind of eternal punishment – whether gracefully, gleefully, or in futile, agonized protest.

Wile and Perigee were speaking, almost arguing -

“The reason why we have to suffer,” said Perigee, to Wile’s question. “Is that we’re disobedient spirits, confined here in flesh for now, who Celestia knows will be reformed by mortal trials and pain.”

“Fine,” said Wile. “But how are we supposed to know that? Why hasn’t she told us outright? Wouldn’t it have been only fair, or even more effective, to make it explicit what we’re here for? If the wasteland is a kind of reforming prison as per the theory, then I was born in it, grew up in it, and have lived all this time knowing no alternative. And I’m supposed to figure it out?”

“No alternative?” Perigee said. “You don’t ever get a feeling…”

“A homesick feeling?” Wile asked, beating her to it. “An out of step feeling, like I’m not quite where I’m supposed to be? Like this isn’t quite my body, and I, being actually a spirit, don’t really belong here in it? Yes, I’ve heard the line...”

“But of course you know there must be a reason,” said Perigee. “Why should you have these kinds of
homesick, out of step feelings for no reason? Why would you long for more, if there wasn’t more?”

“That’s just it: why should I?” Wile said. “What’s the point? It leads nowhere, I’ve found, and I’ve learned not to indulge that kind of dreamy thinking…” She gestured at Peirene in general, around us. “I find it more useful to think in the immediate short term instead,” she said. “You tend to get actual answers, that way. For instance, at the moment we could ask ourselves: how are we going to get these Enclave sons of bitches out of here for good? Or even more immediate: where is this accursed meeting point anyway? You see, like that. Nice, practical questions. Not riddles. And not eternally frustrating.”

Either this all went over Perigee’s head, or the argument died like a wave against her busy mind, which was still stuck on the initial question. “So, if you disagree with me: what is the reason that we’re confined to this life, and that we suffer this punishment – doesn’t one naturally wonder that, and seek an answer?”

“Wait a minute, I’m getting deja vu…” Wile said.

“And isn’t it obvious we each do have room to be improved?” Perigee asked. “Haven’t you been disobedient, too? Aren’t you in need of reform? In all this time, you don’t think you’ve done anything wrong?”

“Oh, sure.” Wile sighed. “With regularity. But as I see it, it was from birth my so called punishment started. I mean, immediately there was hunger and screaming, right? So, what was I paying for then - as a child? And if it was all deserved, how was I supposed to know that? Nevermind the fact that what lay ahead for me was a life of almost constant punishment – I mean, not to exaggerate, just the basic pain and longing involved in being a pony, alive on this faulty planet.”

“What I’m saying is it’s been Tartarus all along...” Wile continued. “From the start. Ahead of me making a single, conscious choice, I was already being punished. And hasn’t all that early pain (which I didn’t know I deserved, even if I did) hasn’t it now interfered in every decision I have actually made? At least in part, don’t I continue to sin because I’ve been imprisoned here in this arduous wasteland all this time, and not vice versa? Who’s to say, right – under different conditions, I could have been a real sweetheart.”

This struck a guilty chord with me. Under different conditions. Like after a childhood in a Stable, maybe, carefree and secure under what seemed like Celestia’s biased, protective wing. All my life I’d heard that we were being spared, there, and that beyond our little hole in the ground, ponies were suffering wrath without discrimination. How far might I have fallen short then, of my potential, if Wile who had suffered a lifetime of direct, unambiguous punishment, could still seem so moral, reasonable, and brave?

“But even despite the pain,” said Perigee. “Hasn’t Celestia’s generosity been much greater?”

Now, looking over at the stubs of her old wings, Wile said: “Strange that you should ask that.” Then she paused, and shook her head. “Or just think of Nimble now. Was that generous?”

Perigee said: “Now see, the very part of me you’re targeting with your argument: the part that gets upset, when it hears about another pony in pain… well, what must this be, if not a gift from Celestia, and proof of her generosity? Her own compassion, alive in us. Isn’t the fact that we’re alive and compassionate greater proof for her, than that we die and suffer is proof against her? Because of course, we couldn’t die and suffer and grieve unless we were alive in the first place, and already full of feeling. Celestia’s gifts come first, and so we take them for granted.”

“Here, see,” Wile said after an uncertain pause, laughing. “The problem with this kind of argument is: does your doing better in the argument prove that yes, in fact Celestia is alive, and means well for us, or does it only prove that you are cleverer than me?

* * *

We were greeted by a dour atmosphere at the free pegasi’s meeting point, on the far side of Peirene. On a mountainside overlooking unfamiliar country, in the shadow of a defunct array of television masts, there stood a lonesome, ruined and roofless church, whose far, interior wall climbed to a cracked round arch. The stony, rain-pocked cherubs’ faces of the church’s walls seemed almost to shift expression, by the flagging light. Outside, injured fighters lay out recovering in the grass, while others tended to them, all under the pink expanse of evening. Still, I didn’t care to meet the unfamiliar free pegasi now, or even to examine the unseen, southern countryside. As soon as we landed, I started to look for Nimble.

The girls and I climbed into the church interior, and there our eyes were drawn as if by vibrant fire, as we each started to examine the far wall. Gone for a breath was all previous concern. It stunned whatever part of me had until then knit my brow in concentration, to see the divine ruin, left there as if to still fulfill some final, holy function. And under the cracked round arch of its far wall, was a dramatic bas relief of bodies chalky, fair and bright, descending and ascending what looked like a stair, spiraling up to heaven’s stormy gate.

“Father?” Nimble sat below this relief, plaintively addressing the old pegasus. Her father was laid out on his back on a little cot of cloud, like the other wounded pegasi. Their two crosses had been taken off and used for firewood, and the stubs of their ruined wings, almost identical to Perigee’s, were already bandaged.

At Nimble’s touch, her father's frightened eyes, without understanding, started to search her face. Not seeming to know her. Nimble wiped his brow with a cloth, and the old stallion’s skin was pulled taut under the cloth, showing that it was only material, and too much of it: skin in excess, wrinkled as it was, hung on a shrinking frame.

Nimble tried to smile at him, and her father’s own face brightened immediately, as if at the sight of someone familiar and friendly after a long series of frowning strangers.

Her father looked up blearily again, and then started to feel around in the air for her. He had expressive and heavily bagged eyes. His mouth hung heavy and wet in the matted hair of his unshaven face. Strangest of all was how little he moved – that is, in all but his eyes. His health had deteriorated obviously. The cruel procedure, which Perigee and Nimble both survived, had wracked his old body to within an inch of its life.

“Is it you?” He asked, and started to feel Nimble’s face. “Of course, it is. Oh precious face...” Nimble lowered her face, to touch her cheek to his. “Small, precious face,” her father said.

“Father,” said she. “You’re damp all over.” For now his face was little more than a sheen of sweat and tears under her shadow, and the watery rims of weeping eyes. We three stood by uselessly, in awe of this.

“I see your mother’s face, in yours,” he said to her, and for a painfully drawn out second, he closed his eyes. “Nimble,” he said again, at last. “I’m forever with you. Your mother's with you. Part of what I still can see, in your familiar face. A secret meeting, between us two. Forever undisturbed. Alive, in you.”

“I’m passing now,” he said. To which Nimble shook her tearful head. “I’m passing.” Then he closed his eyes again. Yes, he would die. It showed on him, however difficult it was for us all to admit. The fact pressed hard on me, and pained my heart like a large, coarse pit in too small a peach.

The old stallion’s last, strangled words reached only Nimble’s ears. Or, only she could understand him, for she had heard this small and frightened shadow of her veteran father’s voice before, by night, and woken to it.

She pressed her head close to his chest, and found no pulse there. She turned her father’s face toward hers, still interacting with his lifeless body. But what was this flesh, now that all magic was gone from it? Nimble cried for help, as her father’s body started to sink into and disperse its cot of cloud, no longer enchanted with whatever subtle magic allowed pegasi alone to rest thereon.

Perigee and Wile hurried forward, and supported the body. I just stood there, feeling like the floating, unnamed point of view that watches a dream. As Nimble tried, too late, to revive her ragged father, and as the other, unnamed free pegasi rushed around us with clamor and urgency, attending to their wounded. I stood unmoving in all their commotion and stared what seemed a mile down, into the old dead stallion’s eyes.

Nimble would tell us later, what it was her father had said to her as he lay dying:

If life be long, I will be glad
That I will long obey

If short, then why should I be sad
To soar to endless day

Why should Celestia have allowed this? Why shouldn’t she have intervened? Now I felt her presence in a new and doubtful way, impassive over the wasteland, seeing the minute details of ponies' pain, and never intervening on behalf of the living. And what had I done, to deserve her protection? Why should Celestia have sheltered us in the Stable, and abandoned our nearest neighbors to this painful argument and strife? That seemed so arbitrary. How suffering was dealt out across the species at large seemed arbitrary.

Was it a test, this life on earth? And did those that suffered more somehow need stricter testing? Toward what purpose, then: why should we continue to be born? What benefit was there to Celestia, to trap more hapless spirits here in flesh, on the grounds that long life and pain would somehow purify them?

Of course, whatever the reason, I was not ungrateful to be alive. Not ungrateful for whatever vital force allowed Wile’s fires to warm me. Nor ungrateful to whoever laid the groundwork of the mountains that stood so firmly unaffected, even now. Yes: to Celestia, I was grateful.

But why put more and more ponies here, just to age and suffer, even centuries after the balefire fell? Why keep our race alive, if somewhere far away the best of us were already laughing and playing, by undying light? Why continue this strange exercise?

I loved Celestia, of course, but that night I would pray to understand her methods.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Mysterious Stranger: Chance of gaining a temporary ally in random encounters. You seem often to be spared the effort of fending for yourself, thanks to the intervention of your friends, the wrathful Nature’s Call, or even unseen helpers.

Chapter Thirteen: Life is Worth Living

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Night was winging over the southern country now, preying on the last of the high, thinning light. In the lanes of the valley below us, pale and barely perceptible ponies were running by, as quietly as cloud. These far, traveling strangers seemed almost not to be there at all, and took on a shy, retreating quality that reminded me of hard to pin down memory, always just out of reach. I watched them pass, these distant strangers, then looked gratefully at Perigee who had lain down a little ways off on the hillside; now lifting her head to look back at me.

Inside the ruins of the church, by what was left of the faint firelight there, the rest of the free pegasi’s faces seemed to hang like masks out of the darkness. Usually, in strangers you see only puppets of flesh, and not much sign of whatever vital, deeper force actually shakes that flesh to laugh. But now I was grateful, and glad not to be alone, with these other spirits in the dark. It seemed death’s shadow had swept closely over our ears here, and left us each grateful for our friends.

Nimble was sleeping uneasily now in the ruins, by firelight. While behind us, Wile was setting a pan onto the charred grate of one of the church’s ignited braziers. She followed this pan with a silver kettle, set to one side. Then, she poured some thick batter into the pan, and started to make pancakes and coffee. These were for the dozy watchponies hunched against the cold to guard our camp, and for us.

Wile served the watchponies first, with a plate of small pancakes and a tin of hot coffee each. Next, I helped her to set a sort of table on the ground for us. The coffee was black and oily, and its steaming tin cup almost burned me. Wile sat down to eat with us. I was grateful, again, just to see her. She had a round maternal face and alert, familiar eyes, which at least to me, seemed always to be bright and friendly.

Our pancakes were moist and white inside, and specked with precious honey that surprised our tongues. And soon we all were being overtaken by a warm and sleepy feeling, despite the cups of coffee. The girls and I had volunteered, to partake in this first watch.

“I still remember my father,” Wile started, for of course we all still had Nimble’s father in mind. “Or, I still dream of him sometimes,” she said. “This’ll sound strange, but I remember hiding from him in one dream. In a house over a wide, black cove. Hiding because I’d overslept and hadn’t washed, or because I’d done some bad thing the previous day. And meanwhile, outside in the wind, I could see my father preparing to set off on some kind of hang-glider.”

“A hang-glider?” I repeated.

“Like a kite, which carries a pony under its wings,” Wile said. “A bit like our wings today, actually. And this wide glider I saw was starting almost to fly, as the wind lifted and tested it. Until finally it got off the ground, and flew my father away. And I saw his glider pass down over the dark surface of the cove, visible as little more than a point of light, passing close over its own reflection. My father, I mean, this shrinking point of light...”

“And the bearing of this dream?” Perigee asked.

“It’s hard to say in so few words,” Wile said. “But I only have to think of it, to feel its bearing on me. He's gone, is the point. Somewhere I can’t follow. And it will forever feel like he deserted me, and all his bastard children.” She had taken out her bottle of bourbon, and was busy sharing it out between our blue tin cups.

I couldn’t think of a response to this. At last Perigee responded for us: “Your father did you each one great favor, at least.”

“What, giving us life? That was no favor,” Wile said. “Leaving a scattering of children behind on the wastes; who does that help?” she shook her head. “It was careless of him, to have so many. We’re just the accidents of him chasing skirt.”

Again, for me, this was at a level of intensity that I felt unable to address then, and again I waited for Perigee. “It’s no accident, Wile,” she said. “Your being here. And if your father accomplished nothing else, at least he made his contribution toward the continuing of our race.”

“Just doing his part, then,” Wile said, again shaking her head. “I wonder, would his contribution have been much smaller, if every colt and filly had cost him nine months’ heavy disfigurement, and then the pain of childbirth?”

“Much smaller, probably, yes,” Perigee agreed. “But still, all I mean is maybe it was more than chasing skirt. Maybe a part of him did care, at least, about leaving behind some legacy. Or about keeping our species alive.”

“That can be your opinion,” Wile said. “Mine is that it was all for his own sport.”

“Couldn’t it have been that he just loved his partners?” I asked, suddenly, getting their attention. “Your mothers, I mean.”

“What,” Wile said, almost laughing. “All of them?” And even Perigee looked amused.

“Why not?” I asked. “Wasn’t there time for it?”

“Well, sure it’s possible,” Wile said, hesitating. “It’s a long life, and a pony goes through changes, obviously. Multiple lifetimes, it almost feels like.” She paused to think. "Maybe he did love them each in turn. I mean, for me, I know I’m much happier these days. And it seems like a long time ago, that I had any really dark turns. Like other lifetimes, almost.”

“It’s the same for me,” said Perigee

“And me,” I said. “Or, if I was as happy before, I didn’t ever seem to notice it as much as now, with you.”

“To noticing our happy turns, then, before it’s too late,” Wile said, offering us the cups of bourbon.

“And to our friends tiding us over in sadness,” Perigee said, agreeing. “Until we’re happy again.”

* * *

I had a heated, unsteady night’s sleep. In a dream I was alone, but I could feel, as sure as another pony’s protective presence, the mountains of Peirene behind me. Overhead on either side of me were ambitious towers of humid, pink cloud, with stars ranked finely all around them, as faint as specters in the haze of morning. The same old ruined church of ours was cheered up now by a coat of flowering ivy. No sound troubled the air, besides one - broad and sustained as day – what sounded like the last, audible trace of a great bell ringing, somewhere in the valley below. Or, like water crashing down, far away and abundantly.

I was alone besides a mare in a straw hat, with a fringe of sandy hair that played in the wind, and with happy, shining eyes. Shining in their creases, her eyes, under her straw hat’s crosshatched shadow. She was tending to the flowers of the church - somehow so familiar, the mare. She came over (actually covering the distance, or just appearing at my side?). And like a baby, I smiled back automatically at her, not knowing why. My face just opening up and brightening, at the sight of hers.

She looked so clean under the sun, whereas I felt my very flesh like a film of oil and grime all over me, or like a weight of damp and dirty rags. “I’m sorry,” I said to her, half kneeling, ashamed of my condition; feeling like I hadn’t washed in days, willfully, just to offend this mare.

The mare shook her head, and smiled at me – such a rush of warm forgiveness, I was almost glad I’d committed my offense.

“I love you,” she said, in a musical way. “I love you.”

I laughed happily, and said: “I love you, too.”

It was her. Shady Sands. Uninjured here, waiting, with her own clear, light hair falling across her eyes. And in spite of her violent death, I knew somehow that she’d been brought here by a force as soft and gentle as the wind under a gliding wing. I knew that she was safe, and happy.

I felt heat and energy returning to my body, numbed before by the pain of seeing Nimble’s grief. I was happy again, and why not? This was all I could have ever wanted for a pony. Wealth beyond possession. Total, patient satisfaction - paradise. I sighed and bent to press my forehead to the earth at her hooves, on the giddy verge of laughter now. I felt so grateful, suddenly.

"I do love you, Lemony."

And at that she was gone - without leaving, she was gone.

Now, my dream was ending. The vast blue sky overhead was beginning to darken and close, and the stars shone down more fiercely, like barking dogs discovering me there, beyond the veil of the dead: trespassing where I shouldn’t yet be.

* * *

I came around to what sounded like more clamor and panic - but turned out to be celebration. In the darkened ruins of the church the free pegasi had woken, and were celebrating - wholeheartedly: for the day had been long and difficult. Now they went around with skins of wine, embracing and laughing, invoking the memory of Nimble’s father, commending him to the ministers’ eternal care. The remaining walls of the church flickered from their fires, and fell dark under their playful shadows.

I heard Perigee’s happy voice once over, laughing from inside the church. And her laughter came out in strange contrast with the cracked and shrouded, familiar silhouette of the ruins’ exterior. Overhead, the beginnings of morning were spreading as a slow, sea-gray wash. I looked around for Wile, and identified the outline of her sleeping body under a blanket, with its fibers already flecked with dew, lain out close beside a hearth of cold, wet firewood.

Creeping up the back of my neck now, came fear at the sense of a large presence overshadowing me. With wings outspread at its sides, like some agent or functionary of death. Still, at the same time another part of me was not afraid. A diminishing part of me that seemed to have seen, with Shady Sands as my guiding light, the distant country of the dead. A part of me that had been there, and remained unafraid.

The figure behind me was Keats, but even after I turned around I did not greet him. He was dark against the grainy sky, and I was too busy misinterpreting our meeting as another dream. With the faint stars around his head, Keats seemed somehow night-like against the morning. Like a residual part of it.

“Good morning, Lemony,” the great pegasus said. “Were you dreaming?”

“Of a friend,” I said, bowing slightly without thinking. “A very good friend, who’s gone now.”

“Not gone,” he said, and sat down there like a great lion or griffon, folding in his wings. How he came to be there with me, I didn’t wonder at the time. What a rare opportunity this was, I didn’t realize.

“You always recognized her face by memory, didn’t you – your friend?” he asked me. “She was already mostly memory, to you, even in life. Now doesn’t that make her almost as real and as present as she ever was, even now? She’s there in your mind, isn’t she? Almost complete, in memory. You can still be with her. You can move toward her. As toward warmth in darkness.”

“Of course,” I answered him. “The memories are there. And vivid.” It wasn’t hard at all to find her, if I looked. “The first few times I really met eyes with her, I remember, it was like looking down from a high place.”

“And by her eyes,” he said. “Were you brought nearer, or sent further away?”

“Sent away,” I said. “Yes: sent away. But toward what, I don’t know. Just something high and good. It’s like with a word where I know what it means, but still it’s hard to define. What she’s meant, to me.”

“So, after this dream,” Keats started to ask. “Has all that mysterious significance she had just disappeared? And do you really think you’ve stopped dreaming of her, just because you’re awake again? Why? You make your dreams of thought. You make your life, or at least this lived experience, all out of thought. That’s all your own identity is. That’s all hers is. So? Why shouldn’t it continue, now, your relationship with her, and whenever you wake up? Why should you say she’s gone, when she’s alive in you?”

“Thinking of her as alive,” I said, hesitating. “That would be healthy?”

“If she encourages you to live your life more healthily. If you lived more healthily because of her living memory. Why not? Call her memory close to you, if she ever seems far away. Keep her with you. Why decline her?”

I sat there dwelling on her bright memory, in a little pain, until Keats surprised me: brushing the side of my cheek with his own great, overshadowed face, and prompting me thereby to lift my head. And as I looked up, he asked me:

“What comes from the passing of a day? We start with new energy, then start to feel it fail us. The light peaks and drops away. But it isn’t all the same. All around, strangers are gathering their thoughts and speaking. And some of what gets said changes the minds of those that hear it. And those that are changed are speaking again. All the time, we’re listening and thinking. And what we think is changing how we act, and what we do is changing how we think. And in all this time, we’re growing. Even in our sleep. Life is passing through us, and it doesn’t pass without producing change...”

The longer he spoke now, the more I could feel my own ears tingling, feel the damp of tears unshed behind my eyes: the intensity of the moment, high and free. I was really here now, hearing this. Keats was here. I was awake.

“This memory of your friend,” he said. “She often appears by surprise, doesn’t she? Like a little green sapling. She grows out of you, out of what you knew of her. She stands before you as a living dream.”

“So,” he continued. “While your friend has died, isn’t the memory of her still like living material in your mind - in the garden you’re busy growing, and which you yourself grow out of? The only place you ever are. From whose soil all the joyful feelings, pleasant memories and dreams that make you happiest come flowering, by surprise; formed from where or out of what, you do not know, but formed somehow. As much as these dreams of your friend, your little sapling, are somehow formed.”

I laughed once, understanding. Even in the Stable, when I was away from her, Shady Sands would appear to me. Like a flower stands as the final, focal point on its stem: the sum of what was written in the seed, finding expression. Sustained by some better part of me. Some part allowing her to sit securely in my heart, and steadily to flower.

“It’s enough,” Keats said. “Just the outline of a personality, or a rumor of life in memory. It’s enough, if you’ll accept it for what it is, and ask no more of the dead. But for those still deeply set in their grief, who must dig and search and gripe for more: for them even the beloved's memory begins to pale, beneath their grief. And this has been the fate of our enemy: the Lieutenant Colonel, Hereafter.”

At this, looking up at Keats' overshadowed face, my vision seemed somehow to sharpen, with the brightening church ruins becoming larger behind him, and my fond and dreamy thoughts of Shady Sands clearing away. We were here on a mountainside of Peirene, still in the troubled world of the living.

“His daughter was killed in the Crop Duster's secession,” said Keats. “When we first fought for our liberty, and came to Peirene. Hereafter’s child was a fighter for their side, and I was responsible for her death.”

“Hereafter’s mind is on her always, now,” Keats continued. “Or, if not on her, then on her demise. And on her killer.” The great pegasus shook his head. “A meeker, more introverted stallion, without forces at his command, might have wrestled all in secret with the same pain and conflict. The Lieutenant Colonel instead, has reshaped Peirene in the image of his pain, little concerned with the fact that other, blameless ponies now have to share his same painful, grieving landscape.”

Keats turned his head to look skyward, and in the increasing light I saw that his face was all seared and bare and pockmarked on that side, like the lifeless, waxing surface of a planet. “I encourage you to remember your friends, Lemony,” he said. “Here and gone. You may need their reinforcement, today.”

* * *

As I waited where Keats had left me, the wind and sun worked their changes in the clouds, shifting and brightening them.

And this came to me, unasked for: please give her our love. From somewhere deep, or high, inside. Please give her our love. Yes, I realized that I was only a servant. Of something like me, but much larger, under the surface. Shown to me in dreams. Something that loved Wile and Perigee, and all ponies, much more than I could feel at once. The very source of love. Now this mind by day: my conscious life, was only a little keyhole, letting in a fraction of its light. Still, it let in light.

I found Nimble in the ruins and I embraced her, and as happy as I felt, I couldn’t help but cry with her when she started to: touching cheeks. But after this interim of pain, how gratified and glad even this mournful pegasus would be - in a dream, or memory - to find her beloved father waiting for her, outside the confined space of this created world. Still alive.

As the free pegasi lay his body out in a funeral procession, preparing it for transport back to sacred ground, I thought of what Perigee had said to Wile, yesterday: that the gifts Celestia had given us far outweighed what she would take away. I believed it even now. Nimble’s face was streaked with tears, but I trusted her to laugh again in time, after this mournful, yearning gap. To laugh.

Now red javelins of daylight were fending off the darkness overhead. Another cycle starting, so carefully made and convincing - what was the purpose of all this? Why give us life at all, and run us through this difficult program?

At the moment, I didn’t feel as if I needed to know. Not as I looked at Wile and Perigee, and at the last few stars faltering overhead, like buoys against a tide. Or even as I looked at Nimble’s suffering, which after all was only further proof that the damp, true root of a pony’s heart must be love – even if it was sometimes love unwanted, which hurt this much to bear.

Was that Celestia’s intended purpose for us here, then? To love, or to long and search for love? If so, to me, at least for now, it seemed worth our time and pain.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Gain Luck: +1 to the respective Statistic.

Chapter Fourteen: Hereafter

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Soon after the funeral procession for Nimble’s father was safely away, the Enclave bore down on us again. Almost as if they’d been asked to wait. Small, anvil-black, and suspended on clouds, a slow-moving ship announced their arrival. Or rather, from the breach it made in the cloud cover, it was the morning light that first got our attention, springing over the ruins of the church, catching every hair and fiber.

We were sitting with coffee, eggy toast, and sausages: warm, encouraging food for the fearful, far from home. Wile had even found some mushrooms to fry up. But all that was forgotten, as the Enclave’s ship descended on us, its four stubby wings and deck draped under natural banners of light.

With it, came a stallion’s voice, gentle in tone but booming down. “Words fail me...” started the voice. “That is: I cannot scarcely begin to express my pride, when I reflect on your tenacity. Your endurance, in this difficult, losing fight. And much more than this. Much more. Yes, it’s natural to endure. So, what is it that distinguishes you, the so called free pegasi, from all the stubborn mules and Brahmin, enduring too?” The voice paused, and the air seemed free and clear, without it. “Only this, and it might sound simple but... your awe of me, your enemy, and your aspirations toward my high position.”

This was the voice of Lieutenant Colonel Hereafter, and he sounded as mild as a school teacher. In stark contrast, armored soldiers were now dropping from the open hangers of his ship in steady files, forming an almost graceful ribbon pattern as they flew off to either side. I lost count at a dozen.

Hereafter said. “I urge you to consider the following hypothetical: if your poxy wasteland were ever to be populated with only mules and cattle, well... what would be the point of me, and my contingent? What purpose to this: the manifest wrath of the Enclave? Now, instead, with all of you alive and fearfully admiring us, aspiring to match us for sheer staying power, well, with you we are given glorious purpose.”

His soldiers flanked the ship, and cast wider around it now like a net. I felt shaky against the ground, watching them come.

Hereafter continued. “Our purpose... to show you the pegasus race’s high potential, and give credence to the natural order, which places us forever above you. To allow that natural order to be tested and proven, as you struggle and fail against us. As you improve yourselves, and gain friends, and continue to fail.”

The girls and I were already winged with Limerick’s potion, ahead of traveling on. Our meager forces now stood randomly distributed around the ruined church, while Hereafter’s ship seemed aimed, as surely as a weapon is aimed, squarely at Keats, amid a circle of his followers on the mountainside.

“Long has the Enclave maintained its claim to mastery,” Hereafter said. “And how could this claim ever be doubted, where we prosper so highly, above the clouds? But let all the starved and scattered tribes of the wasteland realize it too, and let them admit to what we are: that is, the only valid form of life left on this planet. Able to keep the Equestrian spirit alive and on the wing, across this dark and lonely age. The sole inheritors of that spirit. We claim this position of high honor now, in trust. But always, for those who refuse to invest that trust in us, we will be prepared to press our claim. Always, you will remain free to attack us, and to test our high position. And always, you will fail.”

The free pegasi were arming and arranging themselves on the ground, in counterpoint to the soldiers hanging ominously in the air. Perigee and Wile stayed close to me, as I stood listening.

Hereafter said: “Poor, redundant ponies, who no longer have a place; it’s natural that you should want to kick against your betters. You’re autonomous beings, after all: who in the face of the difficult truth, must still demand proof. Who will resist, and test those that descend to announce that - sadly - you are no longer needed. That you are small and functionless, and invalid. Still, I understand you need your proof. So I invite you now, to test us here again.”

Silence then, as the ship and its arrangement of soldiers hung over us, as if stalled by stay of execution. Two of our snipers trained their rifles on the soldiers, from behind blocks of ruin. We had only about seven other fighters left with us on the mountainside, counting Wile. A good avenue of escape was open, as the mountain at our backs was all misty and multi-pronged: the free pegasi’s natural element.

I fully expected the order to come for us to turn and fly, and I looked to Keats and waited. And he took off after a moment, gently, into the air. He was silhouetted against the cloud, and turned towards us, midair, saying:

“I’ve often thought about this day. When I would find no spirit left in me, for fighting. Always a part of me, even as I fought and sent ponies to fight, foresaw this. A greater, deeper part of me. Which tells me now that it would be better to die in the vain hope of compromise, than to risk another life...”

It was doubtful that Hereafter could hear this, and yet even with Keats’ back turned to them, the soldiers waited. “I’m afraid I’ve done all I can, by violence,” Keats said. “If I do not return from this parley, I ask that you spare Hereafter, for fear of the punitive consequences of his death, from the Enclave’s vast government. And because only he can choose to end this conflict, peacefully.” And he seemed to look at Wile and I, when he stressed this point.

“And I have one more request,” he said, to us all. “If I should fall today, I ask you each to search your hearts, and ask yourselves: what is it that I most need to do? What path, for me, leads most nearly to Celestia? One may want to stay and fight, and another to fly from here. I won’t decide that for you. For each of us, it’s different. Still, it falls to each of us, to choose...”

“Whether to honor our vital lives, and to search for and follow our appointed path,” he said. “Or to block life’s great dignity out instead. A choice: either to curse and hurry life along with easy habits, or to treat it as sacred, and to help it be felt. To live this life as seems best to us, or not to. To go climbing after it, looking for it everywhere, even in this wasteland, or to turn and hide our eyes.” Keats shook his head. “I leave it to you, my trusted friends. Be truthful, and live as you see fit.”

Then he rose unarmed to Hereafter’s ship, whose hangars remained opened to him.

* * *

Perigee and Wile sat close to me, on either side; Wile with her tail over mine. We were afraid. Of violence and of accident, and even age – of every force that separated friends. Of Hereafter’s force, we were afraid. And we all waited in suspense, on the ground, as our two leaders met. The Enclave soldiers too had landed, positioning themselves on shafts and perches of the ruins. They now sat brooding over us like large vultures, arriving in time with the slight rain starting just to bead the tips of our ears. So slight a rain, that the free pegasi’s fires still burned in the shadow of the church’s soaring arch.

“He’s dead,” Wile said, more to herself. “He’s as good as dead already.” She stood and started to pace a few meters back and forth, looking up at Hereafter’s steady ship. “Without Keats,” she said. “We’re finished. Peirene's theirs, and Hereafter will be free to do whatever he wants.”

“I wouldn’t say that’s freedom, exactly,” Perigee said.

Wile rounded on her, almost aggressively. “Come again?”

“To do whatever you want,” Perigee repeated. “I wouldn’t say that’s freedom.”

“You know, I think I must be a little plugged up in this ear– I don’t think I heard you right…”

“Hereafter,” Perigee said. “He doesn’t seem free to me.”

Wile shook her head, and I felt for her. It didn’t quite seem like the time to split hairs. “This stallion,” Wile said. “Hereafter. He sends his winged soldiers out, to hunt us for his sport. He sits there in comfort on the Temerity, and drinks his preferred wines by evening. He can’t be killed, for fear of attracting more Enclave attention. And in all this, he doesn’t seem free to you?” Simply, Perigee shook her head. “Then, uh, forgive me, but: who does?”

“The pious dead,” Perigee said. “Safe under Celestia’s wing. Whose sport and wine alike are love eternal. Theirs is a whole other kind of life. We can’t understand,“ she added, mysteriously. “Still, I wouldn’t turn it down, if I were you.”

“I already have,” Wile said, rolling her eyes. “Or, isn’t that the idea? You either embrace and serve Celestia, or else turn her down and please yourself. It’s supposed to be as easy as choosing, right?”

“As simple,” Perigee said. “Not easy.”

At this, Hereafter’s voice came down again over our heads:

“My little ponies,” it said. “What am I, but a heart that bleeds for you? That would rather you were killed than face another moment's pain, in your illegitimate lives? I know, in the secret depths of your own hearts you understand: you want this to be over. You know you don’t deserve this strain and torture.”

I looked around me at the free pegasi, points of color across the rain-darkened ruins, and I remembered what Keats had said. It’s a difference, again, in our attitudes toward the world as it now stands. To the Grand Pegasus Enclave it seems frightful, vacant, and uncaring. While to us it rings with the spirits of the divines, in every shaft of light. To us it’s a world of love, that was made for love. Not one of violence, that demands violence. And that was what made the difference, wasn’t it? What would make Hereafter a prisoner whether he won or lost here, and what made the free pegasi, already, free.

“I’m only here as a comfort, to you,” Hereafter said. “As a mere assistant, in fact, to that part of yourself that most cares for and pities you, and searches always for a quiet place, where you can let your burdens down, and die. Inside, you know life isn’t worth this strife and effort. So, here I am, for your comfort, in accord with your own secret desire.”

“Who has commanded you to live and suffer?” he asked. “Celestia? I ask you, even if she were real: why should you obey her? When she’s allowed the pains of this wasteland to wrack even the most innocent children with oversized, adult pain: much more than they can bear. Why should you think she still sees you now, when she seems not to care whatever she sees? Take my word: I’ve done the research, and I can assure you now... Celestia lies dead in the ground.”

“For him,” Perigee said, bitterly. “Yes.”

Another soldier exited the ship then, alone, and came descending almost gracefully down toward the ruins.

“Your master’s come to me now, in the name of peace,” Hereafter said. “And he’s asked that I spare your lives. Of course, I will accommodate him. You’re free to leave Peirene, and live. But I leave the option open to you all as well, to attack us here and die. To end your invalid lives. I only ask that you wait a moment to choose, as there remains one final item of business between your master and I. As soon as that’s complete, I’ll hear your choice: to leave Peirene, or to perish, as should seem most natural to you now.”

As the voice fell silent, the lone, descending soldier made landing in the church, at center, fully vulnerable to attack. Of all our fighters, Wile seemed the readiest to start gunning back at him, if he should fire. But the soldier had not, in fact, come bearing the order to attack.

“Lemony Cream?” he called out, generally. “You’re wanted on the Temerity.”

* * *

The soldier agreed to take all three of us with him, once we discarded our weapons, and Wile signaled to the free pegasi that we were going up willingly. I knew that she and I were due to lose our wings soon (Perigee's seemed always to last longer), but Wile had taken to carrying a flask with at least a dose of Limerick’s potion in it.

It felt strange to leave the ruins after so much time there. Worse, to leave it for the so-called Temerity, being mysteriously called there.

“How could he have known my name?” I asked Wile, as we followed the soldier.

“I can only assume Keats is asking for you,” she said. “Which must mean he's still alive in there.”

Once inside, the ship felt like a sweaty nightmare of the Stable: its passageways choked with pipes, throaty and black. The ship was all but deserted, and seemed to groan on the wind. Given how close the broad, open air outside was, it felt impossibly dark.

Our escort was limping, as he landed and led us down a passage. “I heard what your master said to you,” he said after a time, without looking back at us. “About you each choosing to do what’s best for you, after he’s gone.”

If he goes anywhere,” Wile said.

The soldier stopped and, as far as his helmet could express emotion, looked sadly back at Wile.

After a loaded silence, he said: “I can’t excuse myself for what I’ve done, or what I’ve allowed to happen, but I do know I didn’t understand it all. Not fully. At least, I wasn’t asked to think about it. Not like your master asked of you. To think, and choose carefully, for yourselves.”

Next, he looked with strange intensity at Perigee. “We were just another generation of soldiers, raised and sent away, to live on ships like these. Our government sending us off in glory, passing on congratulations, to graduating classes like ours, it was all part of a tried and tested script. And we were trained to follow it. Scripted behavior, scripted by habit. I hope you understand me...”

He was speaking directly to Perigee now, earnestly. “Language as precise as theirs was, leading us all listening straight toward a certain attitude to the wastes and surface dwellers, telling us our own opinions, quickly shutting off any second thoughts. All to reassure us against what should have been clear all that time: that we were being farmed and used for other ponies’ dirty work.”

“Some upbringing,” Wile said at last, still wary of the soldier, who we didn't yet realize we knew.

“I’ll be in your debt for life, you know,” he said, this time to her. “I’m the one you shot in the knee.”

Wile and I both lowered our heads, as if he’d threatened us. Because of course this small admission implied much more. I’m the one that caught and cruelly branded your friend. I’m the one you spared, instead of killing.

“Your master gave me your name,” he said to me, in answer to our surprised silence. “There should still be time to save him, I think, so take this.” He unholstered my automatic pistol, which he seemed to have taken after I discarded it. “The Lieutenant Colonel’s at the rear hangar of the ship,” he said. “It’s just down this passage. The door at the end.”

He stepped aside, leaving the passageway open. “I can’t fight my own contingent, but I’ll serve no further beside them,” he said. “It’s clear to me now: this life of service has been spent in vain.”

“Not in vain,” Perigee said, to our surprise, and the soldier’s head turned quickly toward her. “Not if it’s lead you to this point. Or if it lead me to where I am, because of you. I've learned a similar lesson, I think. It seemed to me, suddenly too, that life is supposed to be lived, and that laughter and friendship and shared experience are all somehow worthwhile. More than mere obedience.”

Now the two of them looked gratefully at each other, and I finally understood. We were being turned loose, to act.

“Keats!” Wile said suddenly, catching up too. “Come on, let’s go!”

So, we left the soldier there, with Perigee and I waving back at him. We set off down the passageway at speed, full of sudden, wild enthusiasm. To face the unseen figure there behind a door, who had so far overseen our fighting. The figure that had seemed so bureaucratic and removed, until now.

Funny thing: Wile left the soldier seeming much more animated herself – almost shivering. More full, it seemed, of energy. With her dark and congested mood suddenly opening out, for in her mind now Keats was still alive, and I saw a silvery, backwards-running tear streak her face as she ran, and she was laughing.

I reached forward telekinetically and opened the door to the Temerity’s rear hangar, and the girls and I almost fell over each other, entering. All this to show how dramatically our momentum disappeared on the other side, where Wile’s face turned blank, and her laughter died on the air. Where an image stark and forceful embedded itself forever into my memory.

Silhouetted before the open hangar, a large body lay out dead, dropped by whatever vital force once animated it. Like a great old animal of myth, found, hounded down and killed. Posed almost sculpturally now - with its head stretched back to show off a long, naked throat, slit and bleeding forcefully. It was Keats.

And there sat old Hereafter, hunched and morbid behind Keats, cradling his lifeless head.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Cult of Personality: Ponies will always view you favorably, regardless of reputation or alignment.

Chapter Fifteen: I'll Fly Higher

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Children's stories hold back what, exactly, to spare the child? What is it that’s supposed to be censored out, for their sake? In children’s stories you'll hear about blushing and hoofholding, but never immodest desire. Arguments happen between friends, but they are always resolved. The characters have lapses in judgement, but it's only to learn from them. And any unfair abuse or mistreatment must always come from figures with a dark or toxic mark: established bullies or goblins, who have willfully turned against happier society.

So, what's being withheld for the sake of the child? Just ambiguity? Just the long uncertainty and suspicion involved in adult life, where the motives of our neighbors are unknown, and arguments often leave behind trace grievances, even between friends. The loneliness of adult life, where no one necessarily catches our daily lapses because we more often lapse alone, without the forgiveness and improving guidance of a Celestia-like figure. Without a guide, to catch us lapsing, and to guide us. Without the parental figure who clears ambiguity away, but falls behind us as we run ahead, to become adult.

We’re all of us like little foals playing a game, compared to him. Wasn’t that what Keats had been? Like a parent to the free pegasi.

The girls and I didn’t stand a fighting chance now: we were as good as bound and gagged, at the sight of Keats’ corpse. Two unusual soldiers stood on either side of the Temerity’s rear hangar, in glossy blue, dragonfly-like armor, armed with plasma weapons. The hangar’s door was open to a view of far, unknown landscapes, and Keats’ neck was slit down the middle, spilling spurts of paint-thick blood onto the floor.

“I find myself alone here,” Hereafter said, still cradling his rival’s great, lifeless head in his lap. “Alone, and failing under the weight of my endeavor.”

Wile and I were shrinking back, embracing each other, with Perigee like our leader now in front, somehow able to bear the sight of Keats’ body. The open hangar door partially silhouetted Hereafter, behind Keats. He was a middle-aged stallion with a barber’s pole mane and large, dark eyebrows over tearful eyes, which now reflected dots of light from an unknown source. The collar of his officer’s jacket was unbuttoned, and his hair was curling and sticking to his forehead, from sweat.

“I look down on my own feelings just the same as I look down at the page when I write,” Hereafter said - to who, it wasn’t clear. “I seem to say things, and do things, but inside… I’m only watching. None of it’s sincere, since she died. Always, I turn my head to look around me, hoping to be affected: slighted, irritated, wronged, and so to become upset. Just to pass the time. To be distracted from this long, painful vigil, over my darling Daymark’s grave.”

Was he speaking to us? One of his guards shifted uncomfortably, also unsure.

“I thought slitting her murderer’s throat at last would change things,” Hereafter said, speaking freely, as if we were all of us on intimate terms. He shook his head. “I remember first seeing her infant face,” he said. “She was the very bliss I felt I’d lost, long ago in life, growing out of childish things. Now, even as I’ve aged and lost enthusiasm, memories of her remain, disguised in dreams, giving color to my life, like flowers on the tomb of youth.”

“You’ve disrespected her sacred memory,” Perigee said to him, firmly. “Doing this.”

The Lieutenant Colonel looked down at Keats now, too. “I know,” he said. “I can see that, suddenly. I see myself much better, now, for what I am.”

“And what’s that?” Perigee asked, pressing him.

“Another pony that should not be alive,” he said, without hesitating. “Where instead I used to cling to life, and tell myself I’d been unfairly cheated by it. But I haven’t been cheated. I get what I deserve. I’ve been afraid to understand: I choose this. I’ve clung to my unhappiness. This unnatural life, without her…”

“It should have been your own throat, then," Wile said, teary-eyed but speaking viciously. “That you slit open.”

“Too easy,” said Perigee, shaking her head. “Choosing to die, rather than to really change.”

“But why should I live?” Hereafter asked, looking not at us but through us. And at last I understood: he was speaking to us now as you would speak to the figures that meet you in dreams, where no one is a stranger, but all seem somehow familiar. Avatars of your own shame and guilt. You yourself, laughing at your own nakedness.

“Aren’t I as invalid as the mobs of the wastes?” he asked us. “A parent without a child. No wonder I’ve suffered so long: sad, unsatisfied. It’s the natural punishment for my trespassing too long here, alive. The proof of this not being my natural home, anymore, without her.”

“Then, where should you be instead?” I asked him, over the knot in my throat.

“With Daymark again,” he said, and looked down at Keats with great fondness. Or, at the shroud of death that covered him. He said: “Given it’s a doom and guaranteed: in a way, I’m already dead. More dead than alive. It’s that certain. But see how I pretend, making my days out to be of lasting consequence. As if my actions in this short interim matter. Meanwhile, what is there to do, here? It’s all just more game playing and protesting against. Like I first protested being born. So, why shouldn’t I die, and return to whatever darkness I was pulled from? Why shouldn’t I go back to her, there, now?”

“Safe travels,” Wile said. “You scum. You’ve done a lot of damage figuring this out for yourself, you know that?” She parted from me, stepping forward. On either side, Hereafter’s silent guards braced themselves. “You’re to blame, for the shape our part of the wasteland’s in. If it’s as warped or unstable as you are, it’s your fault.”

“It’ll feel like flying homeward, to die thinking of her,” Hereafter said, not seeming to hear Wile. “She’s as close to me as my own heart. She’s already with me, the actual me. While I’m still a little ways off, and traveling their way...”

“Why won’t you think about what you’ve done?” Wile asked, really mystified, speaking with aggression. “Why didn’t you question yourself, all this time? It wasn’t right. Striking out always at the free pegasi, for stepping out of bounds. Why? You could have made it all different. Left violence out of it. Made concessions. Not kill them. Why kill them? What a difference it would have made, if you’d been gentler.” As she said this, she was still concealing tears, eyes stinging.

“That’s all only distant memory now,” Hereafter said, obtuse to Wile’s pain. “I’ve felt far above of life, and all of you. As far removed as a pony is from the beast folk, or the beast folk from the plants. Yes I remember, I felt so far above it all. Not a shaft of light from Keats, or any of you, could reach me in my selfish cloud.”

“Then you realize you were selfish?” Wile asked, surprised.

“Oh, yes,” Hereafter said. “I realize that. It’s all much clearer now with Keats dead, and no goal to turn my thought towards. It feels like waking up from long sleep, in fact, but as a younger pony after all this time, still in this stiff and heavy body, whose life is spent.”

“There’s still time...” I said. “Your soldiers would change after your example. You could lead them out of Peirene...”

Hereafter shook his head. “I’ve caused too much damage already,” he said, and then almost prayerfully: “Let my life end. Finally, let it get clear and away from my wasteful influence. Out of my hooves, and away from my tampering. Take this life away from me, away from my damaging hooves.”

And I’d never seen a prayer so quickly answered.

One of Hereafter’s guards was knocked off his hooves then, and thrown to the wall beside us, as the percussive round of a gauss rifle suddenly penetrated the hangar, and made its ruthless impact. I knew the cause; I remembered the feeling, like my guts had been turned to jelly. It was Nature’s Call, far off out of sight, but bearing on the ship.

“Leave it open!” Hereafter shouted, as his surviving guard moved toward a console, to close the hangar door. “Let her in.” The soldier hesitated for a breath, but obeyed.

Outside, I could see her now: harrowing the clouds, homing our way, glinting in the very sunlight she revealed in her disruptive wake. Word must have reached her somehow that Keats was aboard the Temerity, for here she came. Gleaming in the light now, like the leading edge of a sword.

I made my choice quickly, pushing past Hereafter’s remaining guard, and prompting the hangar door to close at the console. Another gauss round landed hard, close behind this second guard, inciting him to gallop forward and go sweeping out of the now closing hangar, firing a volley of plasma rounds. Puny-seeming rounds, as they vanished into the sunlight. It wasn’t long before this second soldier was thrown abruptly off course, on lifeless wings.

Hereafter had abandoned Keats’ body now and was pacing excitedly, facing Nature’s Call outside. It seemed the heavy door would close in time to shut off her attack. Not, however, before Wile could hurry forward, and push Keats’ corpse gracelessly out of the hangar. Trusting the free pegasi below, to catch it. Or perhaps hoping that Nature’s Call would abandon her attack, to dive down after it.

For ours was a strange assignment: to spare our enemy Hereafter, as Keats had asked us to. But more than sparing him ourselves, to somehow spare this enemy from our own wrathful friends. He had to live, to have time to change, and choose again. There would be no peace in Peirene otherwise.

Here for the moment, at least, he was safe from Nature’s Call. I had made a choice, and set my will against hers. Now with the heavy door groaning safely to close, I was reminded of my last moments in the Stable, with its own heavy, closing door.

There are very short-lived moments of joy. Very short-lived. Like glimpses of bright, cathedral mountain peaks through a veil of mist. And where once I felt foggy, shortsighted and unsure, this last moment of choice had seemed to clear the mist, and shown me sky clear and blue. It felt like I’d been taken out of a room, cramped and dark, and put outside. Like my old, small life was over somehow, taken by ambush.

I felt for the first time, although it had always been true, that my life was mine. That I determined the nature of my days. And I felt this in me like a waking, magical gift: the power to choose.

* * *

As we moved Hereafter back into the Temerity’s choked, dark passageways, we felt the ship start wildly to bank to one side, with its unseen pilot taking evasive maneuvers. The motion threw us against a wall, with Wile and I both already hiccuping for lack of potion, and with heavy, half-open cabin doors swinging dangerously down the passageway. Outside a sunny porthole on the now slanted wall, I got a glimpse of the soldiers and free pegasi fighting below, as if for rights to the church ruins. We seemed to be pulling away from them. The ship was righting itself, and Nature’s Call’s appeared to have eased off, for now.

“This isn’t good,” I said. The girls, Hereafter and I were all of us splayed out on the floor, around the oval of light from the porthole. We had brought Hereafter with us by force, thumping and pushing him to follow. The wracked old stallion was in no condition to refuse, or to defend himself. “She’ll kill him,” I said.

Hereafter’s undershirt clung almost transparent to him, under his jacket. He was on his back now, just lying in the light there, vacantly. To one side, Wile had such contempt in her eyes, for him. On the other, Perigee too was looking queasily down. Nature’s Call had either lost the ship, or was still pursuing it from afar, for it no longer shook from her onslaught. I felt I was alone in feeling sorry for Hereafter. To have lost a child...

“What was she like?” I asked him, as the quiet settled briefly over us. “Your daughter, Daymark?”

The Temerity seemed to have broken out over the cloud cover now, into the windless, crystal spaces above, for the sun continued to shine in interrupted from the porthole, as I waited for Hereafter’s answer.

“It felt as if... I was her closest friend,” he said. “Her playmate, when she was small...” Now the great, high leagues of sky outside seemed not to move at all, even as we sped passed them, fleeing north.

“My life started over,” Hereafter continued. “I lost all my bearings, as soon as she arrived. All previous accomplishments shrank away, and the past looked far off or half familiar, as if seen reflected off of glass. While the present instead - the little filly in front of me, whose hair I would wash – that became so clear. Naked there under drops of silvery water, a living miracle. And I had no knowing commentary to add, and no expectations, and so I stood by gratefully. Just glad to be there, alive and in sight of her.”

“You said you felt like playmates,” Wile said, softly, surprising me. “Like little children, together?”

Hereafter nodded. “Passing days in games and pageantry, as playmates, she and I.” He seemed so ready to divulge his every thought. I started to feel like we were close. That we had met.

How could it be that this same fondness and grief, which he and I both felt for our lost loved ones, could appear in two separate ponies? Like the same species of mournful flower springing up, on opposite ends of the earth. Yet identical, almost.

“My own childhood...” Hereafter said. “I have only partial memory of. And what I do remember seems out of place somehow, as if only seen, not lived, like glimpses into the life of another creature. One of smaller size, with a smaller face, whose eyes seemed to fix on every fan and spray of light, across every windowsill and frond. When I was happy.”

We could see him searching, thinking back, and we waited for him to speak again. “Yes,” he said. “She taught me what it means to be like a little child. She showed me, that as children. . . we each knew that we were small, and that we had no influence or say, so we delighted in what we were given instead of what we could take. Less able to take for ourselves at all. Less able to assume the lead and feign control, or to hold ourselves in great esteem. As little children, small and grateful, prepared to learn, aware that the wealth of the world's information belongs not to us: but is passed down by generous transmission.”

“Humility,” Perigee said. “She taught you. Lower sights, and happy mediocrity. To be mediocre, among fantastic things. Never to jealously compete with the wheeling light of day, or to aspire to Celestia's majesty...”

“Yet see what I’ve made of it?” Hereafter said, his eyes seeming to cloud over. “Worm that I am, I've competed for acclaim, and waited to be celebrated. Always, I've wanted validation, or else felt resentful because I don't receive it freely. In daily outpourings of unambiguous praise. Now I’ve killed old Keats, who was so loved. I’ve lived in a self-preserving panic all this time. The same long, background panic over the invalidity of my life. All around me, the deep, blank night - and here I am, slinging off little flashes of panic and feeling, all failing quickly or eventually against the dark, with no one to catch or see them. No one to really hear a word I say, or to register one tremor of my pain. As my every thought drifts into the dark...”

“But she’s there,” I said. “Daymark. Her memory is still with you: your bright, unfailing friend. You must keep trying, for her sake. Your life is still worth living, and friendship and laughter and shared experience are all still permanently worthwhile. All pleasing to Celestia, if Celestia still lives...”

And of course, she did.

“If there is a final purpose to our life on earth,” I said, to him. “Or to our expressing love and gratitude, we cannot know for sure. But I believe it. As much as I believe a flowering tree should flower, as it’s been made to. Because that’s clearly what it was equipped to do. No, it isn’t an accident that we’re alive… or even if it was, then a happy accident. Far from a mistake.”

“A happy accident...” he repeated. Just words, but they seemed to have reached him. By his eyes, where his guard seemed all let down, I felt sure that he had heard me, and known I was sincere. That somehow, I’d gotten my thoughts across. And seeing this, I felt almost as if Wile, Perigee, and I had been purposefully arranged in this way, here around the Lieutenant Colonel.

An ominous thud interrupted us, from outside, as the ship was hit again. Now the floor seemed to fall a few inches out from under us, as the Temerity dropped on the air. Into our clothes, under our ears, applying upward pressure, the sky itself seemed to flood in, all this time so broad around our meager ship.

We continued steadily to drop. I tried to catch my breath, and failed. I suddenly felt small under our view of the sky, stretching out so high and full, but which I now seemed unable to draw breath from. The porthole clouded over, and its soft little oval of light on the floor disappeared. Already, any lasting warmth the sun had lent our little space was slipping away, like a living spirit, leaving us.

Rain started to speck the glass. Soon the windows were slick with sliding water, or else darkened with overgrowths of cloud. Next, we were slammed to the floor as the ship steadied itself, chugging head-on against the turbulent cloud cover. Then, the Temerity started to gain altitude again.

Inside meanwhile, it felt as if I was being forcefully held down; my pounding forehead to the floor, still trying just to breathe. With my legs folded under me and hair over my face, I stayed there, not registering Wile calling my name for a response. It felt like my lungs were being squeezed dry.

At last, we crested back into the light above the clouds. Or, so I thought at the time: in fact, we had reached the furthermost rim of the cloud cover. Our country's northern border, across the Shy, where even the Enclave's influence reached its limit. Now the shadow of a single, high-flying pegasus passed quickly across the porthole, and over the backs of our heads.

There was another heady thud. Another round from Nature’s Call. Then, like a bird with its wings wide on the wind, meeting sudden turbulence, the Temerity trembled dangerously again on the forward-leading line. And whatever usually righted it, whatever system was supposed to keep it steady, failed it now. Instead, the ship went dropping off of its appointed course, like a bird falling limp off of the wind.

Our bodies were floating an inch again, off the floor. Spots started to appear at the corners of my eyes, seemingly hovering around my friends, and around Hereafter, as the ship fell. And I still wasn’t breathing.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Action Girl: Additional action point available in combat.

Chapter Sixteen: Sunshine and Celery Stalks

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At the corners of my dizzy eyes, scattered, glassy diamonds of color seemed to appear out of the broad, clear sky, as I lay breathing on my back. Like Celestia’s intervening ministers all in flight, coming down. And around me on the earth, the Temerity’s ruined engines and its wreck, and the trunks of narrow, sooty trees, where the harsh gas fires had flared and died. Under these, on the periphery of sight, wildflowers grew, even now attracting butterflies with cat’s eye patterns on their wings.

Minutes passed, with me looking dizzily into the sky. The remaining fires of the wreck cast flickering light over the wildflowers, until finally Wile came running, and found my forehead hot to the touch.

“Wile,” I said, still looking up at the glassy, widely cast colors overhead, on the periphery of sight. “They’re almost here.”

Wile shook her head, not needing to look to know no helpful spirits were descending. “Listen, drink this,” she said, giving me water. “Here. You’re in shock, that’s all. It’s just shock.”

Slowly, tears were falling now, down my face, sticking in my eyelashes. “Where are we going?” I asked, and at last, Wile looked back superstitiously, as if she’d felt a shadow falling on her from behind - as if something was there that she could not see, but that my wet and happy face was staring into: speaking to.

“Where are we going?”

* * *

I was still resting there come midday, on a simple mat in the shade of one of the Temerity's wings; waking with just the top of my head warm under the bare, clear sun. Over distant hills, I saw clouds of the cleanest white, crashing down on themselves like quiet, wintry avalanches. And watching them then, I thought I saw two fine white lines bolt out from behind a cloud, rising diagonally, in perfectly coordinated flight. Contrails? I watched the white lines of exhaust extend in parallel.

“Wile?” I said, sitting up and finding even this difficult. “Come look.”

And Wile, elsewhere in the crash site, had been listening for my voice, and came quickly to my side. “Wonderbolts,” I said.
And following my eyes, Wile scanned the high, blank air for any movement.

“Lemony,” she said, carefully. “There’s nothing there.”

“No: there," I said. "There.” Signs of civilization, again. Of true rescue after all this time.

But Wile had looked and seen no movement, and spoke almost harshly then:
“Listen, Lemony, you know as well as I do there’s nothing there.”

Saying nothing to this, unoffended, I continued to watch the contrails, until they winked out into the blue.

* * *

You might have felt this way before. After moving quickly from one place to another, busy in some cloud of thought or trance, and then coming to your senses, looking around. What brought you here; what were you doing? Weren’t you just somewhere else? Now in the same way, where was I?

I felt frightened, almost - like I’d been shocked awake from a long and sleepy flight, only to find myself falling wildly, out of nowhere, toward nothing. Hot, salt tears appeared on the brims of my eyes, but who was I crying for?

“You’re coming around again,” Wile said, with her cheek brushing coolly against mine. “Just breathe evenly.”

I looked around at the wreck of the Temerity. We were on a hillside, somewhere under pure, blank skies. My face was wet. I was tasting the salt of my own tears, and the natural, grounding taste seemed almost to calm me down somehow.

“There,” Wile said. “You’re back, at last. How do you feel?”

“Funny,” I said. My hooves kneaded weakly at the ground. I'd had some kind of slip, mentally, and Wile had had to take care of me. I felt like I'd wet myself, but when I opened my mouth to start saying I was sorry, even before I could speak: Wile forgave me.

“It’s alright,” she said. “It’s over. We made it, is all that matters.”

“And Perigee?”

Wile shook her head. And at that, I sat up urgently. Or tried to, as pain went forking down my back at the effort.

“No, no,” Wile said, lowering me back onto the ground. “I’m sorry: I only meant she isn’t here. Not in the crash site with us, I mean, which is good. She still had her wings, remember? So, if she did fall out when the ship started to come apart, it was probably for the best. She's probably already looking for us now.”

I nodded and breathed out, gratefully. Then, I tried to look down at my body. “Am I badly hurt?” I asked her, for the pain had started to prickle up again as I tried to move.

“You’ll need a little rest, that’s all,” Wile said. “We’re somewhat low on food, but quite well off here otherwise, for loot. Stealthbucks, ammunition. I even managed to forage some medical kits off of the remaining walls of this wreck. You’re already well dosed up on healing potion, in fact.”

“I do feel a little loopy,” I nodded.

“That may just be you,” she said, smiling fondly at me.

I looked up at her face, and it seemed more familiar, somehow, than ever it had before.

Who was I being reminded of, now? What does an infant feel toward the large, loving faces that relieve its fear and hunger? What does it think its mother and father are? Who was I seeing a part of here, above me, in Wile? A figure I knew, yes. But from how long ago? Who had carried me high over the ground, as a foal? Who had played with my ears as I was falling asleep? And weren't they still with me in a way, whenever I felt safest, whenever I was being saved from fear? Whenever I felt most at peace, and grateful? Weren’t they a part of the flowers and cloud, and a part of Wile - with me always, whether or not I was able to see it? In every particle of light, in every breath. The hum and tremor of an unfailing Love. Not just the spirit of my parents, but the spirit of Life itself, which had passed from them to me.

I’d been showered in gifts all my life, and my gratitude for them seemed to come all at once now. Yes, I’d been grateful often, for water after thirst, for my father once, and for Wile. But grateful to who? To the water and to my father, and to Wile, yes. But even more, to whatever gave me life, and arranged it around me still…

* * *

Within an hour a soft, sudden rain had woken me, and put out the last fires of the Temerity’s wreck on the hillside. Wile had sheltered me under what was left of one of the ship’s stubby wings, from beneath which I could see movements of smoke, and the now pronged, ruined points of tree trunks. I seemed able to sit up, or at least to turn over and lie on my belly.

The lowlands below our crash site were now a blur behind veil after veil of rain, and our crash site seemed far removed, suspended safely there. Silently, Wile came and sat down with me, looking over the hills into dark country uncrossed, that no lantern gave even the shortest shout of light.

Yes, it was evening and raining, but I felt an absence still. Where was the rush and shake of travelers’ torches under-hill, from wood to wood, or in the shadow of some distant, rigid, rain-dark structure? Where was the life passing overland, frightened and quick under the rain? Where were any, or even one, of Celestia’s children, carrying inside them her guiding light, her calming breath, giving witness to the landscape?

Still, with Wile the whole nature of this unknown country seemed nicely changed, just by her being in it. It seemed safer and smaller with her sitting near me, or creating a little current, getting up and sitting down, going out to investigate creaks and noises from the wreck. As my head got gradually heavier against her side, the rain let up, and stars came out fluttering like distant flags. I could feel I was falling back to sleep.

“Lemony,” Wile said, to my slight breaths in and out. “You know, my life felt very dry, before you. Until you came like rain into it." She didn’t look down, but ahead, as I slept against her then, half-conscious. “Suddenly,” she said. “I wasn’t worried only about myself. I felt there was some better part of me, which wanted to intervene in what I did. In how I treated you. And I was grateful to have it intervene, when in the past I’d only seemed to drain, desert, and leave worse off whoever I met. When the wasteland had seemed bleak and bland, and I’d assumed that, since I’d grown out of it, I could only be as bleak and bland myself. That a pony’s spirit had no option but to starve, under those conditions.

“Now,” she said. “With you instead, in every lining of the clouds there seems to be a message. Not saying much - only that there’s more to this life than I’d assumed. That if I’m lonely, and desiring love, well, that must just mean it’s really out there, for me to find. That there must be an end, to this desire of mine...

“To be really known and felt - not as a fake, but as an actual creature alive in the world. To be discovered by a partner, finally, beside me: seeing me, and proving me. As if I wouldn’t be there, unless she observed me. That’s all I’ve wanted. Some reassurance that I’m a creature, too. A created thing. As much a natural, intentional part of this planet as a diving hawk, or the filigree of a flower. Or you…”

My heavy head started to fall against her. “Yes,” I said. “Beautifully.”

Wile sighed. Her warmth made it seem almost like the two of us, along our edges, and even then only slightly, were joining or shading into each other. She leaned over and kissed me on the head. To which I smiled in my half-sleep, encouraging her to do it twice again. And the sound was like two more drops of rain, falling alone there under the shelter of the wing.

* * *

There went the balmy waters leaving lather on the sand, and the shining crests of waves, seen from the beach. To me at first the dream felt like sulfurous Tartarus, and the stars above seemed like cracks of daylight let in through a high, high ceiling. Worse, the beach was long and losing its fiery color ahead of me, as night fell: with my apparent path to safety becoming darker, smaller. It almost made me sick, the clapping and rushing of the eager waves. Yet even in that darkened place, I could feel Celestia’s protection around me. I was being well taken care of, still. I had within me, behind me, a patient, protective guide. A Giant, much older than I was. Closer to me always than my poor, blind eyes could see.

Still, on turning around, I found no one. I seemed to be alone on the beach. What should I do? It was hard to think. And for some reason, tears were freckling my cheeks. Frustration at my own failure to concentrate came in a few weak sparks.

“Wile?” And now my tone was soft and searching, changing automatically. Wile? I had always seemed to ask it as a question. “Wile?”

I knew she must be here, as she wouldn’t have abandoned me. So, I started to walk, as humid breezes and the foam of the waves vied for my attention. I knew I couldn’t afford to lose momentum in this place. The truth was I was afraid. I didn’t want to face any danger alone. I wanted to be with Wile. Yes, my secret was out. I was a small pony, who wanted a lovely big pony like Wile to lead me always, as my guide.

I went weakly along the beach, already needing rest, wanting to give in to what now felt like a corpse underneath me; a stack of meat walking forward, which wanted to fall. Equestria, if this was Equestria, once meant for the living, seemed lonelier than a tomb now. Our species’ once secure position on the planet had grown lighter and lighter, lifting off. Now, one heavy wind could mean our race went out like a film of flame from off the surface. Never to appear again.

I pressed on, sails sagging, losing heart. Now the sea lay flat and cold beside me. The beach stretched level and quiet: absorbing the lonely signals of my snuffling nose and light hoofsteps. What if Wile wasn’t here? What could I do? The only answer I could grasp for was to walk. So, I continued forward, mindlessly.

My back was sore. My face felt strangely numb. Still, the fine red veil of evening lifting slowly, slowly off the sand ahead made my physical complaints seem small and temporary.

To be alive in a body, joined by a mysterious bond to this beach. To all beaches, to all mountains. To the material world. How could there be no purpose in that? To speak and laugh with other created beings, all gathered here, materially. To find Wile, and sit close to her. What greater purpose? I didn’t need to ask for any more strength now; it came to me.

Well ahead of me on the beach, sunlight was still brushing the sand, and as high, quick, shadow-casting clouds passed, the light would fade and brighten across the sand, almost as if it were signaling to me. I walked down the beach toward it, crossing the dim remainder in an effort to reach this brighter sand, with my expectations high.

The beach went rolling away and away, as I attempted this last drift forward toward what looked, to me, like release at last. My stamina seemed spent now. My breathes came short, as I walked the endless strait. I knew now that this could not be real: that I was not on a natural beach, with natural limits, but in a dream.

Still, I followed each step with another, and before long I had started to run. Faithfully, down the beach. Towards, it now felt like, the nearest door out of this dream. Towards reunion with every friend I had in the actual, natural world – with every leaf and flower of creation.

Somewhere not far from me, where I actually lay sleeping, wildflowers were growing and attracting butterflies too, I knew, with cat’s eye patterns on their wings. All of them good company. There alive with Wile and I on the hillside, and all as good as gifts, unasked for. And there as well were we, we two, like all created ponies, unasked for. We all woke up, once, for whatever reason. We all were woken up.

* * *

I came to - but after what effort, and how long? What had I been dreaming of? Whatever it was, I felt relieved now, as if at the end of long traveling. The details of the dream escaped me: the kind of memory that one can feel is there, but which evades capture. Like a name I think I know, but when asked for, I cannot seem to give. Where does this kind of memory move, when it moves out of our reach?

I had no answer. But I wondered if in the same way then, we might catch glimpses of Celestia’s reassuring ministers too, on the periphery of life, always just escaping our notice. Just out of reach, but whose friendly presence we still suspect somehow, like teasing memory. Or laughter, almost heard. For weren't they around us, always: wasn't it some spirit of friendship that held every atom to its neighbor?

I lay there in the Temerity’s crash site, now awake but lying still, listening to two friendly voices speaking:

Legend has it that on the longest day of the thousandth year, the stars will aid in her escape,” Perigee was saying. “And Luna did return, on that day. So, surely that's proof enough, that prophecy is possible?”

"Listen," Wile said, disinterestedly. "All I'm saying is I personally don’t believe in it.”

“Well, you don't have to,” said Perigee. “To see how it’s useful for other ponies, to believe in.”

“Oh?” Wile said, dubious. “How is it useful?”

Perigee paused for a moment to think. Below us and the Temerity’s wreck, where the land flattened out, I could see the small, thirsty tributaries of a stream (mostly dry mud now, but with tresses of water that still shone hot and gold), and trees on the banks that creaked tall and dry, seeming almost to ache for wildfire and relief. Still, the view of this dry, unfamiliar country looked broader, brighter and happier behind the figures of my friends, and I was content to listen.

“How I’d put it,” said Perigee. “Is that a hopeful enough prophecy presents a golden thread in time, leading forward, changing this long, empty post-war period of ours into something that seems to actually be, you know, progressing. It presents the hope that we’re really moving toward something. That there’s something to prepare for, at the end of all this.”

To Wile’s thoughtful silence, Perigee continued: “Among the pegasi of the Shy, for instance, it’s said a certain mystic dreamed of a day, after certain conditions were all met, that a Lightbringer would unfurrow the clouded brow of heaven, and reveal Celestia smiling openly again on her country.”

“Hm,” Wile said. “Well, I will say this: there was one night, in the privacy of my own room… when I also had a dream.”

“Go on,” Perigee said with sincere interest, as Wile allowed a pause.

“I hesitate,” said Wile. “For fear of being ridiculed. This dream was a premonition, you see. And the fact that I was sent information about the future, ahead of time… well, that puts me in a sensitive minority, you understand, as a potential prophet.” Now, what Perigee still didn’t seem to notice was the huge sarcastic charge involved in every word Wile was busy saying. “If I reveal my dream," she said. "You may very well decide to persecute me, after the fact."

“Please,” said Perigee. “I’ll listen with an open mind. I won’t think any less of you.”

“Well, I guess I’ll tell you,” Wile said. “In the aforementioned dream, a wide variety of snouts and noses were there, all around me. Moving around, going places. Just snouts and noses, but all with different personalities. Some bulbous and red like a drinker's nose. Some male and proud, some feminine. But all of them, it seemed, preoccupied. With somewhere else to be, I mean. Or with a schedule to keep. I was on a busy street, it felt like, of noses. And I kept getting in their busy way, upsetting them.”

“And the bearing of this dream?” Perigee said. “How could you tell it was prophetic?”

“Well,” said Wile. “The next day I smelled terrible.”

After a moment to review, and to realize that it had all been an elaborate joke, Perigee booed, while Wile laughed almost maniacally.

And I found myself laughing too, throatily from there on the ground like a toad. Surprised, Perigee looked over at the sound. In the peachy light of morning, her face was slightly flushed, and bright thread of hair swept away from her cheek. A healthy, living cheek. And it occurred to me for the first time that she must be younger than us two.

“Oh, thank the ministers,” she said, to me. “You’re awake.” And to my surprise, she came down and greeted me fondly, touching cheeks, touching foreheads.

It felt so nice. More often than not, I took myself for granted as a living thing. But now I felt the warmth behind Perigee’s face, as she felt the warmth behind mine, and I knew we each were living, growing things. Each little points of heat, here.

“You’re feeling better?” Wile asked, as Perigee stood back. And I nodded happily.

“All the same,” said Wile. “You should probably rest a little longer.”

“You’ve been very kind to me all this time,” I said. “I haven’t thanked you.” Wile shook her head, seeming embarrassed. “It feels like we've been on a trip,” I said. “Just here in the crash site, I mean. Like we were traveling."

"So, now that it's over, are you in a new place?" Wile asked.

I nodded again. “Yes,” I said. “I am.”

A new place. All doubt was gone. All despairing thought, gone. I would have difficult dreams again of course, and encounter doubt, but all I had to do was hold fast and be patient, and eventually the trouble would clear, unveiling this great, steady framework underneath me, always there, and always secure. The mesh, or the grid, that held the stars in their loyal orbits, and hemmed the seas back at the beaches. The ties of friendship, fundamental to our world. Our very bindings, here.

In the Stable, I didn’t think I deserved days that were full and good, or to ever feel at home in other ponies’ company. I'd led myself down a winding, self reflexive way. Without a place to stand, it seemed, and without security. As if I was somehow unnatural or out of bounds, or not as much one of Celestia’s creatures. But it was alright now. I had somewhere I felt I belonged. That I was bound to.

Wile and Perigee, my friends, had changed me - were changing me now, even after all this time. And I wanted, sincerely, to be changed.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Lifegiver: Additional 4 Hit Points on level-up.

Chapter Seventeen: Flutterwonder

View Online

South of the crash site, Equestria-bound, we followed a long and sandy riverbed, with a meager stream winding down its middle, and with banks tattooed by the lofty shadows of the spare, surrounding trees. I was wounded to the point that it hurt me to walk. However, we'd found out a curious fact: that I could now rest on clouds, like a natural pegasus.

So, Perigee had fetched some clouds, still clinging to the wreck of the Temerity's wings, and made me a little cot. Some residual effect of Limerick's potion, or some more permanent transformation it had worked in me (and in Wile, as it turned out) allowed me to ride in convenience: on a small, very low-hanging cloud, which I drifted forward telekinetically, feeling a fraction of my own weight.

So, we travelled this way, and the sun seemed to hit us in soft, slow waves, as the bright stream wobbled along, leading the way. Sometimes, where the waters pooled, Wile and Perigee went wading or swimming. Or else, stayed lazing with me on the banks. From Wile’s supplies, we chewed on tough dried apricots, and stale ginger biscuits.

We lounged the longer, later part of the afternoon away in sleepy retirement, sapped of our strength, each almost falling asleep with a happy, heavy feeling. After a while, Wile went and tried to catch us a fish downstream. Next, she started a fire on the bank, and loose blue fish scales gleamed in the sand as we waited to eat. Soon, we were eating the seared fish, and drinking the last of Wile’s bourbon, and it wasn’t long before we’d each lain down, falling asleep in the sand; with Wile and I under one blanket like twins in a womb, and with plenty of light left behind in the high, wild pastures of the sky.

In the Stable I’d retreated so often into spaces all artificial, formed in and limited to pony intelligence. In books, on terminal screens. Incestuous, pony-made spaces. Whose mysteries and wonders must be limited, of course, to the intelligence of their authors. Works of artifice which in fact, at best, can only remind us of what lies outside, without limit. In real life. In the wild world - this more complete work, without errors - where the dewy shell of every snail opens new depths of mystery. Actual gaps. Actual mysteries. In the spiral of the snail’s shell, or the delicacy of shadow there, or the hair’s breadth of the light: seeming proof of intelligence beyond our own, whose limit we cannot know.

We had laid our heads aside like heavy pitchers to dream our individual dreams, sometimes dreaming of each other, linked as we were by shared memory. There out in nature, but remembering that the mind is nature's highest flower. For where does more apparent proof of Celestia’s love flower and wait to be found, than in the grateful mind? Contact with which mysterious proofs, of course, must be the source of all poetry and song. Of all our fumbled attempts, to describe the divine.

Now in a dream: I was peeking through the crack of a door, into a room whose walls were decked with light and twiggy shadow. A small room, like a foal's - with little furniture, and drawings pinned up. And passing quickly in the hallway outside, Shady Sands came, alive again, with a happy, healthy face. And we were, in this dream, little straw-haired, jam-faced schoolmates again.

Somehow there, I made her laugh. And hearing her laughter, I knew I had had no higher purpose than this. No other worldly concern more worthwhile than making positive contact with this creature, or than moving another mind, like mine, to greater joy. And I heard, or was reminded of:

My name is Pinkie Pie (Hello!)
And I am here to say (How ya doin?)

I’m gonna make you smile and I
Will brighten up your day

It doesn't matter now (What's up?)
If you are sad or blue (Howdy!)

Cause cheering up my friends is just what Pinkie's here to do

Cause I love, to make you smile, smile, smile.

I hadn't realized: remembering this song, I would always think of her. Shady Sands. By what light do I see her in dreams, in the dark of night, with eyes closed? With what light? Nearer than near to me: a part of me.

The next morning, dry and clear, I was first to wake. I looked down at Wile and saw her sleeping close to me, and I was tempted for a moment to slip back under the blanket where it was warm.

“Lemony.” Strange to hear my name, so early. It was Perigee, addressing me. “Take a look,” she said.

And I found her standing over Wile’s saddlebags, which lay open and clumsily gutted, missing food.

“It seems we’re not alone."

* * *

Once upon a time, long before the peaceful rule of Celestia, and before ponies discovered our beautiful land of Equestria, ponies did not know harmony. It was a strange and dark time. A time when ponies were torn apart... by hatred!

During this frightful age, each of the three tribes – the Pegasi, the unicorns, and the Earth ponies – cared not for what befell the other tribes, but only for their own welfare. . .

It was with this cautionary tale in mind, that we three went, short of food, relying solely on each other. We passed the next day in hard traveling, broken up with grateful rest: on our backs in the shade, hearts beating, saying nothing. Wile seemed to have a natural aptitude for reading the terrain, to find the easiest way forward. It came from long practice walking in Peirene: never too steeply uphill, if it could be avoided, or into the thickness of the mist.

Perigee, being uninjured, had the most stamina of us three, and we often saw her waiting further ahead on that climbing, blustery landscape, like a little flag to mark our way. Now, looking ahead for her again each time, I felt like a birdwatcher searching patiently for something small, swift and obscure. And I was pleased to catch sight of her, each time.

Wile had figured out where our missing food was going, for it continued gradually to disappear, as if a fourth pony was feeding slowly off of it with us. At last, she explained her theory to me, softly:

“It’s Hereafter,” she said. “Using Stealthbucks from the wreck.”

And I knew of course that it was true. Perhaps unable to fly after the crash, watching us all that time. Hereafter.

“You take this,” Wile said, and slipped me her flask of Limerick’s potion. Our last dose of it. Too little to carry all three of us back, to Equestria. “Just in case.”

Still, we made no effort to uncover or catch the Lieutenant Colonel, even knowing he was there, invisible, potentially within earshot. It seemed easy now to forgive him for all the pain he caused far off from here, in Peirene. Pursuing in vengeful combat what those violent means could never achieve: an end to his grief.

He was not different from us. Not another kind of creature, darker and heavier, but the same – just not as well taken care of. Alive and worthwhile, and not beyond repair. As deserving of forgiveness and fair treatment. With as much of a conscience as all ponies have, if he would listen for it. Not forever disconnected from Celestia. But as close. Waited for, too.

Whose behavior is ever really unimpeachable? It’s difficult to stay steady for long, and on an even tack. Always, being full of temperamental energy, a pony must take pains to watch herself. To watch for wild energies - the daily sway of strong, upsetting memories and grievances, or lower, meaner thoughts and impulses, feeding on those happy things at play above them. Dragging down joy. As my own father had been dragged to despair, by his own grief.

All this to say that as I felt Hereafter following us, I knew that parts of each of us must resemble him somewhat, in his unstable grief. And I wanted to take care of him as well as we each would want our own unstable parts taken care of, and made calm. So, we went a little more hungrily along, for the old pegasus’ sake.

* * *

After about another hour’s traveling, from on a hillside at the mouth of an unnamed valley, we were surprised by a view of vast wetlands, where the naked water caught no light (it being late in the afternoon), and the sun only barely flecked the heads of the creaking reeds, or caught the flights of sweeping cranes, which my eyes followed. The sky in the east was pinkening and soft as a peach, and wracked by distant lighting, presumably wasting itself over the sea on the coasts of our continent.

We could see a little fire burning, down in the watery wetlands. A part of the Temerity, black and unnatural there, which we would never have noticed but for the width of our view. It was one of the ship’s turbines, dropped off here. Now, we traveled down together to it, with Hereafter still unseen.

The gas fires of the turbine flashed back at us from across the shallow water, playing over its surface. And there in front of the discarded turbine, like a sword planted roughly to its hilt in the mud, lay Nature’s Call. Face down, wings hanging strangely at either side with feathers loose, and sticky with congealing blood. With as little dignity as a seagull, dead on the beach, already rotting, she lay there.

After a pause, we heard a voice shakily exhale from somewhere in view of this carnage. Hereafter, invisible behind us. Relieved to see his hunter dead. Conveniently taken out of play by some midair collision with the Temerity’s debris or, for all we knew, succumbing to her injuries after day’s long combat with the ship’s missing pilot.

Nature’s Call. My friend, it now felt like. And, even with tears starting to speck my eyes, I almost laughed to look down at her there. Not because she lay dead, but because I was realizing even as I looked at her that, of course, I’d thought of her also as a friend.

So easy to make friends, if what counts is any leverage from outside the mind, which happily tests and engages it. Which gives it life, and makes it grateful to be engaged. So, here around me: all manner of friends. With Wile and Perigee close and dear to me, and even Hereafter, further removed, and out to the smallest, unknown star, appearing overhead. There above me: another sudden, canter-levering friend. Sparking off further gladness and engagement, in me.

Just what was I catching happening here? Appreciation for these many, living surprises around me. A degree of urgent happiness, or mirth, high-flying and unsteady as a laugh, spurning the nearby shadow of death.

When I was content and calm, how must that different from this giddy feeling? What must that be? Well, a longer, more peaceful happiness, like mirth but on a longer, redder wave.

In the longer run, deeper down, it seemed I would be happiest when I could see the whole construct of the world, and all its happenstance, as a steady, surprising friend to me, which of course could never die, but must outlive me. Making me laugh always, like this, but much deeper down than could escape as sound, and more calmly than could shake my body. A longer, redder wave, that went on and on.

I felt both now. This urgent laughter passing, and lasting gladness underneath. And I realized, in the very winking of the star overhead, why there had to be loneliness, why there had to be unhappiness, and what it was the many pains life on earth were given in payment for.

Wasn’t it good, in fact, that we had each been created? Singled out from the rest of creation, and given our own place to stand? Feeling separate, yes, and suffering some pains from our separation, but needing to be separate in order to exist at all. Because what was I if not separate; if not a single point, removed? Removed at birth. Turned against the rest of creation passing, so that it passed around me, and so I saw it pass? And so that sometimes, as now, I had to see it pass away?

It was the burden of form! Which divides the seer from what he sees, and the lover from his beloved, as each by needs must occupy its own space, and close off this space for itself. But sweating on a run, or swimming in water, or sunbathing under a steady beam, there has been ambiguity, where I felt the division close. As when Wile and I slept closely, and met each other up on passing, airy stages, in dreams. When we were joined, as toward a single star, folding in on itself forever: the heart of life, heaven itself. And after death, without these forms, to what might we be more securely married, there?

I understood: for now I had to stand as if opposed to all creation, even to see it. The day I was turned back around would be the day I ceased to be. This was duality. Otherness. And at the cost of some loneliness and fear, this was what allowed me to know Wile and Perigee, and all my friends, and to ever laugh at all.

All this to explain why I stood there, on the giddy verge of laughter, over the demise of Nature’s Call.

Her days of opposition had ended: her tireless flight against the odds. Now her life was over, and she had returned onto the wind. But what a miracle that she had lived at all, and that I had seen her brief passing.

* * *

We carried Nature’s body over to the fire of the turbine, and passed it into the fire. We stood back from the new burst of heat, and looked up to admire the smoke that flew off and thinned away; admiring too the now starry gaps in the free moving cloud – the sky arranged over our heads like another, upside-down landscape opposed to this one, with smoky valleys of cloud, and twinkling black lakes and streams. Like the surface of another planet, passing close to ours. Or, a reflection of our own.

In silence we watched this great arrangement pass, or spin away, over our heads. And in time Hereafter appeared, sheepishly at our side, to watch in silence too. Without his clothes and guards or the bulk of the Temerity around him, fallen from his high position, he looked like any ageing stallion of Ponyville.

“After what I’ve seen, following you...” he said, after some time. “I’ve started to feel sorry for what I’ve done.” I noticed that his wings were sorely damaged: healed by potions stolen from Wile's saddlebags , but unusable all the same.

“I’ve had only friendships of convenience,” he said. “Political friendships, for professional gain. I've never put much stock in the stories, of the famous old summers in Ponyville. But maybe the heartfelt friendship that seems so high and good in those stories is just private: difficult for an outsider to see. Maybe it can only be caught in glimpses. For wasn't it in privacy too that Daymark and I lived, in her youth, and our happiest days?”

He spoke as the fire burned and spat, as if in elegy for Nature’s Call, saying: "I’ve seen you now, in your privacy. The evidence is there, so shouldn't I trust that love and happiness prevail? Here, yes even here. Shouldn’t I trust that their fullest expressions must be private and precious, and forever less obvious than all this death and pain? Less talked about. Still, privately in your little tribes, you ponies must be being sustained, somehow, by some encouraging force."

"Why else would you still insist on living?" he said. "Willing to take this risk, or with no other choice. To be brave. To struggle again, and to sigh at the end of your efforts, believing that it's been somehow worthwhile. I've seen you, now," he said. "So full of faith. So much more credible and valid, than I've been."

“Will you take a message, for me?” he asked, after a pause. “Back to Peirene.”

And the girls left it to me, to answer him. Clear in mind now, I remembered sunlight filling the clear, airy windows of the Temerity. Of course, Hereafter had lashed out there, and left that broad, condemning evidence down Keats’ throat. But the evidence of the Lieutenant Colonel's goodness, of his daily warmth and care, of his games and singing all his daughter’s life, was unavailable to us. And to Daymark, his daughter, maybe this better evidence, redeeming him, would have seemed infinitely clearer. So, who were we to condemn him now, given our limited experience? No, that task didn’t fall to us, thank goodness. What business was it of ours? In fact, even Celestia was reserving judgment!

I nodded, to let the old stallion know at last that we’d hear his message.

“Then tell them...” he said. “That the Grand Pegasus Enclave cannot feel love. That we soldiers live in service to it: providing hosts to sustain its old ideas. Winging out, spreading death in its name. Almost unaware of what we do.”

“Where did it start, where does it come from?” he asked. “Our government is so vast now, preventing any true return to the old and gentle ways. Ensuring the country’s surface population may never rise again to much more than a few divided tribes. It’s another plague on this planet, the Enclave. Trapped in its last function, falsely treating us all, this country, as if it loves us in the slightest.”

“But doesn’t it start to seem like a toy’s love, when you look at it?” he asked. “This government is not alive, and cannot choose to love us for what we are. It doesn’t choose, and is that love? We’ve only been devices of it, and in return it’s sheltered us pegasi from harm. But yes, it makes a toy of love. And now... at least to me, to suffer seems better; and to be changed. Instead of the Enclave’s easy, spoiling love, for the pegasi to bear our rightful burden, rather – to return, and to bear our happiness as well as sorrow as it comes. Here, on the surface. To have difficulty. To feel remorse. To suffer these things, and not to be indulged.”

“You understand?” the old stallion asked us. “I’m choosing to stay on the ground. Tell them I want to stay. Without all the safeguards I’ve had, to place me above life. Without wealth, without position. Without the illusion that I am somehow more than another mortal creature. And yes, even without all this, I don’t think I will be as miserable. Why should I be, if life in a pony is natural and good, and he is meant for it? Meant for nature, and for his family and children. Meant to live…”

“Meant for his friends,” Perigee said.

“And for his friends,” Hereafter nodded. “Will you tell them?”

Now, without his clothes, I could see that Hereafter’s cutie mark was a heavy-looking manuscript, turned to a half blank page toward the end. The book’s margins were decorated with minute, flowery illustration, and with gold flaking that even at this murky hour, caught a light somehow. A hopeful mark. Always, there was more to come.

Yes, we had yet to hear the final word. Here was another moment, now. A chance to choose again, and to choose differently, perhaps. Look! How immediately the present dissolves, evaporates, and is scattered on the wind. How immediately it passes under that fount of quick, clear waters, which wash the present and make it new. Yes, the passing waters are always quick and always clean, and the present always new.

“You do it,” I said, and presented him with Wile’s flask. The last we had, of Limerick’s potion, to grant the flightless flight. "Get to Peirene if you can, and tell them what you've just told us."

Wile took a half step forward at this, but stopped herself there. I knew what it meant. She would shoulder the burden: with or without the Opening Cocoon, she would get us home somehow. So, with Wile’s consent, Hereafter took the flask from me and, after a moment’s hesitation, deciding to trust me, drank from it.

The effects were sudden, and lifted the old Lieutenant Colonel off the ground. Soon, he had dropped Wile’s flask, and his wings, until now mangy and dogeared, were rounded out with new, living material. Given new margins, brightly decorated, like those of an illuminated manuscript. Much like his own cutie mark, in fact. With flowery illustration too, and what looked like gold flaking, which even at that murky hour, caught the light.

And in time, after some short, happy practice, shouting back to us in thanks, Hereafter swept slowly away, glad to fly on youthful wings again; heading south under the wide span of evening, following the still fiery, mirrored paths of the wetland’s waters. And Wile, Perigee and I sat around the last of the Temerity’s gasping fire, watching him go.

Footnote: Level Up!
Perk Added: Flower Child: With this Perk, you are less likely to be addicted to chems (50% less likely, actually), and you suffer half the withdrawal time of a normal pony.

Chapter Eighteen: Flight Dream

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One summer, I’d had a teenage phase when I used to pull all-nighters, alone in the moonlit Ponyville valley. Passing up and down, too early to meet traffic, and then sleeping by day. My bored, goading sense that there must be more to life than this somewhere, I’d tried to satisfy then: altering the too-familiar valley as far as possible, letting its fields become blue and vacant. And often, at the first suggestion of dawn, I had felt satisfied: finding what I’d most desired in the first airy, golden beads of light on the rim of the clouds in the east, so distant, and safely beyond reach - and by this distance given special mystery, as if really somewhere else. Half-revealed and out of reach. More than this.

My name is Lemony Cream, and I’m a student in the little town of Ponyville. Or, I was. As a matter of fact, I just graduated. But I can’t say I’ve made much progress this summer, since then.

Well, that’s not strictly true. I have written some poems. Nothing special. Want to hear one?

Little rocking horse, you have seen better days
Wasting away
in the yard

That’s how it starts.

Little rocking horse, now you rock in the rain
And your beautiful mane
Loses paint

That’s the middle, then it sort of ends with:

But by your eyes, I learned the color green
By your eyes, I learned the color green

What do you think? You like it? Well, would it surprise you to know that I stole it. Or rather, that I adapted it from a song my father used to sing to me, before he passed away. Some poet that makes me, hm?

So, what does a recent graduate who admires no one more than the great poets, and yet who can’t write a poem, do for a living? If you can tell me that, I’ll be in your debt. I’ll owe you one poem. How’s that?

Sorry, let me get back to the point I was struggling towards earlier. Today’s the morning of the Summer Sun Celebration. It’s approaching dawn, and so I’m reminded of that phase I had with the all-nighters. But the difference is, this time, the whole town’s committed to it. And I have to admit I’ve had a good time, even with all the neighbors out, gossiping.

Yes, we’ve passed the night in idle talk, which until now I’d never seen the appeal of. Of course, now I realize: it doesn’t matter what ponies talk about, grouped around each other. The content of their conversation doesn’t matter. We’re each just constructs, prompting each other for novel responses: different animals of personality, playing together on a field out of sight. Unseen besides in our changing faces. Our tones of voice, our laughter, brought out from where? Mere expressions of what? Spirits, interacting through these outward forms. So, what does it matter what is being discussed?

I remembered quietly standing by in school, with almost derisive feelings about what trivial matters the conversation landed on. Superficial-seeming conversation, at a superficial glance. Meanwhile, the ponies around me there were busy joking and disagreeing, testing each other and being surprised, really communicating; however often it passed over my pompous head as I stood by, thinking of poetry.

But think of poetry! How high and strange it sounds. What kind of a mind must it be, that produces such musical, intelligent speech? To have strains of thought this graceful and coherent, first of all, then to write them out with such efficiency. Angelic speech, expressed as if from mind to mind, and even then: between minds so graceful, heartfelt and articulate. Isn’t poetry, then, a kind of simulation of how an intelligence more than mortal would sound? Of how an angel would speak? But how could our species simulate that, if we haven’t made some kind of contact?

So, here’s what I believe: the higher spirits and angelic figures of dreams and poetry, being parts of the mind, must as much be parts of nature also, and as real as dandelions. Because the mind of course is natural, and real. No matter how much more deeply it goes down, out of sight, and no matter what manner of spiritual creatures we each brush against, inside.

So, when I looked at the ponies in town and saw more than flesh, and listened to their laughter, and heard more than sound, should I not think of them, these ponies, as the only earthly housings of the angels? Hints of which I could read and see there, in these more familiar outward forms. There, the highest, known miracles of nature, revealed to me? The root and stem of poetry’s flower. Reassurance of divine love. Wasn’t it there, in what I saw of other ponies, that the most obvious, suggestive mystery lay? Approximations of the divine.

When I saw Nature’s Call practicing tricks over a hillside outside of town, or little Perigee, hovering just off the flowery ground like a butterfly, watching her. When I saw cheerful Daymark poking fun of her old father, in the street. Or Wile at her stall, making pancakes and coffee at a little stove, with Shady Sands there too: giving freely of her time, to help her. Weren’t these higher spirits, here already? Yes, I’d seen it tonight.

Customarily, I’d gone complaining on the hillsides of Ponyville, or on the lonely bridge in town, that I was bored of my surroundings, concluding that there was too little to do here. Becoming plain by repetition, these days without wind or bearing, by long midsummer - where with the high, still weather, time doesn't seem to be passing, even, but drags.

Yet all this time, here with me were other minds: systems I could query or challenge, but which I could never test to their limits. No, no artificiality or flaw would ever be found, no infidelity to reveal them for fake, or less than total. In fact, these were whole other perspectives. Entire other minds. Open to my querying. To my curiosity, and efforts to understand. And what had I done? Assumed they had had little to say, or that I already got the gist of them. Just in the same way, in school, that poetry’s dismissed.

But what was Nature’s Call’s perspective, on the nature of our world? What guiding principle did she live by, that had made her practice and practice until she was so physically fluid? Why was Perigee so thoughtful, and considerate in her speech, so that no careless assumption escaped her lips? Why did Daymark treat her somewhat proud and austere father in all playfulness – how was she so aware that he had once been a laughing colt, and that this same colt survived in him, prepared to laugh again?

And if for Wile the dark and close and cool (as on the shaded riverbank) seem as special and dear as the bright, airy and clear seem to Shady Sands (like the crowning light over the pines, or around Canterlot, more dimly, by evening), how many other variations might there be? Where for some ponies tranquility lies in long, flowery midday, for others it must be in the longer, bowing span of night. But whether it should be in speedy, playful day, or in retiring night: to each their own.

There's the advantage of our weather system, which changes as the weather changes here. And of those diverse callings, which call us each to our careers. This way, the great engine of the world lets us all delineate and follow our own preferences, and yet to learn from each other all the time, and to augment ourselves thereby.

Now, seeing this - the great host of individuals, of friends, ever-available in the world - my life: like a shallow little cove that's filled in a rush with an unusual pitching of the tide, so that all of a sudden there's the movement of water in and out of it, and afterwards the sand of the waterline is left slick and glistening, and the usual, squatting seagulls are sent up in suspension out of their established places -and what is generally stable, dry and unresponsive to the light, starts responding wildly! That's what I feel I've caught happening, here to me. The welling up, and its shining watermark. What was congested, opening out. As I saw the high potential of our kind. The depths of thought and laughter in every other pony, and my faculty for discovering it.

Reading. Close reading. And hadn’t that been my chief interest, after all?

* * *

In a dream as I was resting, if I recall, I saw what seemed like a memory of the Ponyville valley from afar, on the very brink of the Summer Sun Celebration: still cast over by a pall of cloud, but where, by a few prodigious shafts of light, kites and banners were appearing, and little foals went kicking up daffodils, running up the hills. A place outside of time where all friends met, and over which Celestia still presided, peacefully.

Still, as soon as my eyes fluttered open, suddenly my dream was gone; confused and disappearing, like one pony becoming indistinct in a surrounding crowd. But even with that said, I felt better somehow.

What ministering angels must visit us in our sleep? Undoing much of the ageing that's been done by day, but not all. We cannot comprehend. Softly, still, help descends as from a blue twilight, to visit us in sleep: to nurse us back again to health, against another long foray. Alone again, across the lonely wastes of day. Is it so bad to live? No, not so bad, but much worse than what awaits us. When for the last time these helping angels visit us, in our final bed, and we no longer have the strength to cling to life, but pass instead into their eternal care, welcoming their help, and recognizing, laughing as we recognize, how well we know our helpers. How often we’ve dreamt of them.

Now, by the sky I could see it was just nearing dawn. I was in a fetal position on my same small cloud, and all I could really see was blank sky. Yet from nearby, Wile was singing:

Little rocking horse, you have seen better days
Wasting away
in the yard

What did that remind me of? I tried and failed to find the answer, and seemed to feel as I searched the lowest branches of whole, staggering trees of unconscious memory, far out of reach. But I knew the song from somewhere, didn’t I?

Little rocking horse, now you rock in the rain
And your beautiful mane
Loses paint

“Ok,” Wile said, I assumed to someone else. “Now the chorus!” Yet she started off on it alone: “But… by… your… eyesss, I learned the color green! By your eyess, I learned…”

“That song…” I said, in a weak voice. “Where’s it from?”

“Ah, look’s like our little gremlin’s awake,” Wile said, her face hanging over me, against the morning sky. “You’ve missed a few hours of hard travel, I’m sorry to inform you.”

“The song?” I said, sleepily.

“Oh,” Wile said. “I heard it somewhere. Probably a standard.”

I sat up on the cloud. A few pines stood on the beginnings of hills around us, with their tips not stirring at all against a fine and peachy, windless sky.

I remembered now, as if reminded somehow: I’d had a teenage phase where I spent the nights awake, alone in the Stable (passing up and down, too early to meet traffic), and slept by day. I’d had a goading sense then that there must be more to life than this, somewhere, and I’d tried to satisfy it: altering the familiar passageways of the Stable as far as possible.

But here, at these first suggestions of morning overhead, I felt that same desire satisfied: finding what I’d then searched for in the first airy, golden linings of light on the Equestrian cloud cover’s northern rim, ahead of us, safely beyond appraisal: and by this distance given special mystery, as if really somewhere else. Half-revealed and out of reach. More than this.

Still, it wasn’t where the body went, but how highly the imagination reached, to find this high, free feeling. How light and free the spirit was, to rise. And I felt free and clear now, accompanied by my friends. It was early, and no direct sunlight fell on the land. Perigee was there to the one side, steering my cloud along.

“Lemony,” she said, nodding, greeting me. And she gave me a shy smile at that, which was freely returned.

I felt grateful, and safe, seeing her again. I realized I’d been sheltered all my life, from lack and illness, and even worry. With Shady Sands for years, like a great, guiding balloon, leading me to gladder days, in our long friendship. So that clumsily my own hooves could land, light and aimless on the ground, one after the other, and yet I never fell. Thanks to her steady help. She had cared for me without condition, and made me happier than I knew. So, I’d been guided and protected, first by her, and lately by these new, good friends, well protected.

“We’ve been alternating with the cloud, Perigee and I,” Wile said. “You were as quite as a patch of cabbages in there.”

I nodded. “Thanks for bringing me along. When did you start out?”

“While it was still dark,” Wile said. “Turns out neither Perigee or I are very peaceful sleepers.” She winked at me, adding: “You must have a clearer conscience somehow, hm? So, any good dreams?”

“I think so,” I said. “I’m trying to remember.”

Wile nodded, and said no more. I sat and stared forward, searching my memory. Something was there: brief as a silvery kite-string, catching the light and then vanishing. Some happy dream, there and gone. I couldn’t trace it. Yet all the same, I felt very happy. To be awake, here, with these two ponies.

Now here came a big sigh of sunlight overland, and in the slight heat our clothes started sticking to our backs. I could see the far, frowning front of Equestria’s cloud cover ahead, covering what remained of our race. That entire country where growing families of ponies, long gone, had grown. Supporting Perigee and Wile as children, even, that land. Where we all of us stemmed from, even in the confines of the Stable. Our home country, under shadow. I looked at it now as similar to a forest: dry and dead by winter, but still ready, waiting, to take in joyful, buoyant life again. As sure as the tubes of trees, unfreezing, take back in pulsing water.

“My father used to sing that song, I think,” I said. “Little rocking horse. It was from a book, in the Stable.”

“Then it’s pre-war,” said Perigee. “Strange that it survived outside, as well as in your Stable.”

I looked at them, and the sunlight in their manes. These good ponies, alive after all this time. My friends.

“No,” I said. “Not so strange at all, that it’s survived.”