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I

“It’s only the beginning now,

...a pathway yet unknown,

At times, the sounds of other steps,

...sometimes we walk alone.”

-Gertrude B. McClain, New Beginnings

        Darkness.

        He needed to get his bearings, but he just couldn’t see anything. His hooves scrabbled against the ice. Searching. Moving over the floor. He tried to drag himself across the ground. If he tried to stand, he might step on it.

        Where is it? It should be here, where is it?!

        Cold.

        He was shivering. He’d lost his jacket. His wings were covered in frost. He could barely feel his hooves anymore. There was a terrible numbness in his forelegs.

        Move. Keep moving. Never stop moving. Stop, and you freeze. 

        Pain.

        His back ached from the fall. His hooves burned and stung with the cold. His face was dribbling blood. Wiping it away, he tried to catch his breath.

        Don’t panic don’t panic don’t panic don’t--

        His foreleg brushed against something warm and metallic. He breathed a sigh of relief. The lamp was still here.

        Running his hooves over it, he found the handle. He lifted it, and felt across its sides and bottom. A slim smile spread across his face as he found the smooth glass unbroken. He shook it gently. A soft sloshing told him it was still full of oil.

        He heaved an easy breath as his fear slowly faded. He was fine. He was going to be fine. He would not die in this cave.

        Sitting up, he reached back and slipped his pack off of his shoulders. Roads rested the oil lamp on the ground, set the saddlebags beside it, and dug into them. He felt around inside it until finally his hooves found a small wooden box. Matches. Thank Celestia.

        After sliding the thin wooden cover off the box, he drew a match and struck it. Hefting the lamp, he lit the wick and tossed the match aside. Squinting as his eyes adjusted to the light, he got to his hooves, picked up his jacket, and looked around.

        He was standing in a narrow, icy crevasse, stretching far past the edges of the lamplight to his right and left. Just before him was a steep, jagged wall. Too steep to climb. Glancing upwards, Roads caught sight of the ledge he had fallen from. It was twenty feet up.

        As he put on his jacket, he shook his head, giving a grim whistle. It was a lucky thing he was a pegasus. An earth pony would’ve broken something. Then again, an earth pony probably wouldn’t have found this cave in the first place. And if he were a unicorn he wouldn’t even have to live in this damned forest. He could be sitting by a fire in Canterlot right now...

        Roads felt a twinge of bitterness rise in his stomach. He gritted his teeth and tried to tell himself it didn’t matter. Living in the Everfree Forest had taught him more about magic than most unicorns learned in their entire lives.

        And besides, he thought, unfurling his wings, can a unicorn do this?

        With a leap, he launched himself into the air, feeling himself grow nearly weightless as he stretched his massive wings to their full span. He flapped once, twice, then grabbed the ledge above him, and pulled himself over. Tucking his wings against his back, he flopped over onto the ground. He rolled over and pushed himself to his hooves, feeling the odd shifts in his balance as his body regained its natural weight. Princesses, how he hated that feeling.

        Then again, he didn’t really like flying all that much to begin with. It was too much like exercise, and if there was one thing Roads hated, it was exercise. No, if he was going to strain himself, he would rather the effort be mental. And inside. Preferably in a library somewhere, with good books and a warm hearth. None of this ‘tramping around in underground caves’ nonsense.

        But then, he thought as he hefted his lantern a bit higher and continued deeper into the cave, work is work.

        And it was better than nothing. His job had its downsides--long hours, miserable conditions, isolated living--although it was better than weather patrol. Or, Celestia forbid, factory work in Cloudsdale. He really should have been more thankful. At least out here he got to study magic, to write, to research...

        Not, he reminded himself, that anyone respects my research.

        It was true. His theories had been met with near-universal rejection almost as soon as he had published them. The academics in Canterlot had requested he give up research.

        Stuffy old bastards.

        But he could always prove them wrong with the next book. He had more data this time. Or, he would, anyway. Especially if this cave panned out.

        It would. Of course it would. The prickling along his back and legs was practically nauseating. There had to be something here. A font, at least. Maybe even a nexus.

        It’s certainly cold enough, he thought, glancing around as he walked.

The whole passage was slick with ice. Here and there, icicles hung from the ceiling, casting ephemeral shadows in the flickering light of his lamp. From somewhere behind him, the steady dripping of water from the walls echoed through the chamber. The sounds mingled with the heavy clacking of his hoofsteps as he wobbled across the slippery floor.

        He was heading deeper into the earth, and it was getting colder as he went. Roads was shivering now--though that might have been apprehension. If there was something here, the trip would actually be worth it.

The descent grew steeper, the air even colder, the passage narrower. Roads gripped the walls to steady himself as he tried desperately not to fall again. He didn’t want to tumble into another crevasse. He might not make it out again.

Before long, he reached a small ledge which overlooked a wider tunnel. He paused, listening. A deep droning had filled the air around him, faint but resonant. Curious. The fonts he had seen before didn’t give off sound...

Spreading his wings, he glided down onto the other path, and peered down it in each direction. To his left, it grew wider and steeper, and he could just make out hints of light glinting off the ice. Checking the oil in his lantern--plenty left, nothing to worry about--he teetered off into the tunnel.

Within moments, the ground leveled, and the walls widened as he came to a sprawling antechamber. Roads let out a low gasp as he entered the frozen rotunda. The walls here gleamed with an unearthly blue light, the ice sparkling bright as day. Intricate patterns of frosted stalactites lined the ceiling, quivering with the baritone hum that echoed through the room, now loud enough that he could feel the sound in his chest. In the center of the room, hovering just above the ground a massive blue orb was shaking with the force of the din.

A nexus... 

Roads was awestruck. He had only seen fonts before, nothing with this kind of strength. The surface of the orb shifted and rippled with power, and the backs of Roads’ legs and head throbbed in resonance. He stared into it, transfixed.

Finally, he thought. Finally...

His reveries were interrupted as the nexus flickered, letting forth a burst of cold. Shivering, Roads set to work. Sitting, he unshouldered his pack, and pulled from it a lengthy copper contraption, covered in gleaming tubes, wires, and gauges. Smiling, he held it up, admiring the way it caught the light. An arcanometer. His very own, built from scratch, using his own schematics and everything.

Flipping open a tube on its underside, he jammed a rolled up length of parchment into it, set down his lamp, and crept carefully towards the nexus. With each step, the air got a touch colder, and his breath, a touch faster. It was imperative that he didn’t get too close. He didn’t want to lose a hoof...

Finally, he stopped, as close as he could get without risking his limbs. As gently as he could, he tossed the arcanometer into the nexus. It rolled directly under the orb, then sat, motionless and quiet. Roads’ brow furrowed. This couldn’t be right, the arcanometer had worked on all of the other--

A loud bang. A blast of force. Roads was sent flying backwards.

He landed on his wings with a muffled thump, and when he looked up again, the orb was shifting, coiling into a loop. A mighty roar filled the cavern as it bore down against one end of the arcanometer. The light of the nexus grew blinding, reflecting off the walls so harshly that Roads was forced to cover his eyes. Laying on the ground, he cowered in fear. This was not supposed to happen. None of the fonts had done this.

None of the fonts had been this powerful.

Roads swallowed, curling into a ball as the temperature in the room dropped further. So, he thought. This is it. This is how it ends, freezing in a cave, killed by the magic I just wanted to study. Fitting. Dad would be so proud.

Then it was over.

Roads blinked. He lowered his forelegs from his face and looked around. The nexus was gone. The cavern no longer hummed or glittered with light. There was only the quiet drip of water and the flickering flame of Roads’ lamp. He stood up, and walked over to the arcanometer. On its surface, a needle was pointing to the third dot on one of the gauges.

Three. The entire incident had lasted little more than three seconds. Roads let out a low whistle as he flipped the device on its side and pulled out the piece of paper. A scattered mass of numbers and letters, so small they were almost intelligible, was now scrawled across the page. At the bottom, he found the line he was looking for.

Amb: -90 E, Curr: -12o E

Roads smiled. Perfect. He whipped out his notebook, jotted down a few notes on what had happened, and tucked the page just behind the leather cover. Sliding the book back into his pack, he picked up his lantern and strolled out of the chamber, whistling a jaunty tune. For once, it looked like something might just be going his way.

He made his way out of the cave more quickly than he had come. Roads was familiar with its layout now--or at least, familiar enough not to fall into any more pits. Within moments, he was outside, blinking in the light of the fading afternoon sun.

Roads looked around and frowned. Was it getting dark already? He had so much more work to do! With a sigh, he checked his watch. He let out a groan as he saw the time; if he left now, he would be lucky to be home by sundown. Everything he had left to do would have to wait until tomorrow. Roads wasn’t getting caught outside in the Everfree at night. That was when the manticores came out.

Roads shuddered. There were things in the forest he wouldn’t want to be within a mile of, then there were manticores. Dreadful, beastly things, with teeth like daggers and claws like... well, larger daggers. Roads had long since decided they were only one step down from chimeras on his long mental list of things to be afraid of. And, of course, they woke right at sundown, emerging from their dens to scour the Everfree for food.

No, no, no. He was not sticking around out here any longer.

Flaring his wings, he kicked off again, flapping hard to gain altitude. Within moments, he was soaring above the trees, dodging densely packed clouds. They were such a nuisance out here where the weatherponies couldn’t control them. One wrong move and you were liable to--

Crash.

Something in the air hit him in the side, something fast and heavy. Flipping onto his back, Roads went spinning out of control, spiraling towards the ground. Something was grabbing at him, pulling at his chest and jacket. Flailing wildly, he pushed it away as he struggled to gain control.

He closed his eyes and braced for impact. It was no use. He was falling too fast.

Then, suddenly, he wasn’t. Roads opened his eyes. A pair of warm, gold ones stared back at him. Or, rather, one warm golden eye stared at him. The other stared at something a few feet above his head.

“Ditzy?” he cried, looking around to find himself laying atop a cloud, the walleyed mailmare sprawled atop him.

“Roads!” she replied breathlessly. “I’m so glad I ran into you! I was just looking for you!”

“Well, that’s great, Ditzy Doo, but could you, uh, you know...?”

She stared at him absentmindedly, a wisp of blond mane hanging between her eyes. “What?” she asked.

“You’re crushing me.”

Ditzy blinked. “What? Oh! Sorry!” she said as she finally hopped off of him and helped him to his hooves.

“Thanks,” he said, looking her over.

Hat, check. Jacket, check. Mailbag, check. Everything seemed to be in order, except...

“You forgot one of your horseshoes again,” Roads pointed out.

She frowned and glanced down at her hooves. “Oh, no! It must’ve slipped my mind. I just had so much stuff going on this morning, and I totally forgot because I had to deliver to, uh...” she paused to think, ticking off names as she remembered them. “...Mrs. Cake and Mr. Rich and--”

“--Ditzy--”

“--Mr. Merriwether and--”

“--Ditzy--”

“--Mrs. Merriwether, they don’t live together anymore, and--”

“--Ditzy!” Roads shouted, interrupting her.

“What?” she looked up at him, confused. “Oh. Monologuing again. I’m sorry.”

Roads sighed. “It’s fine, don’t worry about it. You said you were looking for me...?”

“I did?” Ditzy asked, cocking an eyebrow.

“Yes, just now!”

Roads groaned inwardly. Every time she brought the mail, it was the same thing. She would crash into him--or a tree--or his house--tell him ‘good morning’, and then promptly forget why she was there in the first place.

Ditzy Doo, the most absent-minded mare in Ponyville. And of course they send her with my mail.

Her eyes lit, suddenly. “Yes! You’re right! I did. Because I was. Or, am. Right.” 

Roads heaved another sigh. “Great.”

She nodded, then stood there, staring at him. He glanced from her face to the mailbag on her shoulder.

“Well...?” he asked.

“Yes?”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

Roads shot her a look, exasperated. “Why were you looking for me?”

“Oh!” she said, finally catching on. “Because you have a letter. Or, had a letter. We--or, well, I--kind of had a mix up down at the post and lost it--”

“--Ditzy!”

“--but then I found it again this morning! So I thought I would bring it to you as soon as I could,” she finished.

“As soon as you--it’s almost sunset!” he cried.

“Well, it’s a long way out here from Ponyville!” she protested. “And then you weren’t at your cabin and I had to look all over the forest for you and then I found this frog and I really wanted to catch it but it was too fast so I--”

“--Ditzy...”

“Oh! Sorry. So, uh, it took me awhile,” she said.

Kneading his brow with one hoof, he closed his eyes. “Well, do you have it?”

“Yes!”

Roads stretched out a foreleg, waiting for her to hand him the letter. He waited for a moment, then looked up at her. She stared back at him innocently, and he realized his mistake.

“Well, hand it over, then.”

“Oh! Right, yes, sure, definitely...” she said, taking off her mailbag and digging through it as she mumbled affirmations.

Roads stood for a moment, waiting, as she sifted through the bag. He stared at her for a while, until he realized this was going to take a while. Kneeling, he began scooping the cloud below him into a makeshift chair. Just as he finished and was about to sit down, she whirled around again, triumphantly clutching a tattered envelope.

“Found it!” she cried.

“Thanks,” he said, taking it as he sat down.

Before tearing open the letter, he glanced at the wax seal holding it closed. His heart leapt as he realized it bore the mark of the Princess.

A letter from Celestia!

His hooves shook as he ripped open the envelope. Trying, failing, to calm himself, he pulled out the letter, unfolded it, and read it aloud. As was their custom, Roads read it aloud so that she could follow along. She was his only friend, after all.

“Roads, please excuse my delays in responding to your last letter, things have been awfully busy around Canterlot these days. I fear I cannot go into it all in detail here, but rest assured I shall give you a full account when next we meet. I am sure you will find certain recent developments quite fascinating--”

“What?” Ditzy asked. “What developments?”

Roads shrugged. “No idea.”

“--speaking of recent developments,” he continued, “I was pleased to hear that your current line of research is going well. Rest assured that I look forward to hearing of your findings, and will spare no expense in lining up a publisher once again. Perhaps, though, be sure that you have more data this time--while I have had no issues with your last book, you and I are both aware of how the so-called ‘old guard’ of academia can be. But I am sure that the work you are doing now will persuade them to see things your way.

“However, I regret to inform you that for the moment this work must be put aside. As you are well aware, I have many close ties to the Royal Expeditionary Aggregate. As such, when they discovered that some ‘errant natural magiks’, as they so crudely put it, had been wreaking havoc on expeditions of late, they came to me asking for help before sending out their latest crew. You’ll be pleased to hear I volunteered your services.

“The Aggregate, you see, is attempting to map out Starbeard’s Triangle, and, due to the nature of the area, I assumed that your latest line of inquiry would benefit from a research trip there. I trust you have come across the Triangle in your studies and understand why--”

“Wait,” Ditzy interrupted again. “What services? What’s the ‘Starbeard’s Triangle?’”

“I’m not really sure what he wants me to do, but I have read about the Triangle--just about as much as there is to read. Which isn’t saying much, given that few people ever travel there, and even fewer come back and write about it. What I do know, though, is that the whole place is absolutely brimming with natural magic. Even more than the Everfree,” he explained.

Ditzy crossed her forelegs, thinking. “So... is it like... here, then?”

“What do you mean?”

“The weather, and everything. You know, no weatherponies controlling the weather, no tenders working the plants. You know... wild,” she explained.

“Oh. Yes, actually. The natural magic there changes the seasons, weather, and wildlife, just like it does in the forest. And wrecks expeditions, apparently. Which I suppose is why they’re sending me in,” Roads said.

“Sounds creepy,” Ditzy said, peering off the edge of the cloud to the forest below. “I mean, somewhere being even weirder than the Everfree.”

“There’s nothing ‘weird’ about the Everfree. Everything that goes on here is completely explicable! Did you even read my book?” he asked.

“No.”

Roads sighed. “Yeah, neither did anyone else.”

“Yeah, but I can hardly read,” she pointed out.

“Oh. Right.”

He glanced at her uncomfortably. She stared innocently back, utterly unphased.

“--so,” Roads continued, “you will be shipping out with a crew headed into the heart of the Triangle. You will need to head to Canterlot as soon as possible, as they cast off from the Skydocks on the thirtieth, at noon. Your purpose and the specifics of your assignment will be explained to you upon your arrival. I have already been in touch with several pegasi who will be happy to take on your duties as Warden of the Everfree during your trip.

“Sun shine upon you, Celestia.”

He glanced down at the letter again. “Hey, there’s a postscript!”

“--P.S.” he read. “Due to the impending monsoon season, you will only have around a week in the Triangle. As such, I have arranged for quarters for you in the Castle. Tell whomever is manning the gates your name, and that I sent for you, and they will direct you from there. I look forward to seeing you again.”

“And... that’s it,” he finished. “That’s all there is.” He looked up at Ditzy, beaming. “I can’t believe it, I really can’t! I’m going to the Triangle--this could be a huge opportunity for my research!”

Ditzy’s face fell. “Yeah, but... that means... when I come to deliver the mail...” she mumbled, staring at his feet.

“Relax,” he said. “Didn’t you hear? It’s only for a week! Besides, I’ll bring you back something exotic from the tropics.”

Ditzy’s characteristic smile returned to her face. “Promise?”

“Promise.”

He was taken aback as she threw her forelegs around him, embracing him--and grinding the mailbag into his ribcage. In a moment, she drew away and kicked off from the cloud, drifting slowly away from him.

“Thanks, Roads! Have I told you you’re my favorite stop on my route?” she said.

Roads smiled. “I’m pretty sure you say that to everypony on your route.”

“Only because it’s true! I have to get back on my route, though. Goodbye!”

“Bye, Ditzy,” he said.

He stared after her as she flew away, turning violent corkscrews in the grey winter sky. She waved at him as she zigzagged back in the general direction of Ponyville. Roads waved back, mildly impressed--for all her erratic flapping and lack of coordination, she moved absurdly fast. He was convinced she could give a Wonderbolt a run for his money--if she could ever learn to fly in a straight line.

The Wonderbolts... Roads shuddered. Don’t think about that. Not today... You’ve got other things to do. Things like getting home before the manticores wake up.

He needed to get moving. Pulling out the envelope, he prepared to stuff the letter back into it when something caught his eye.

“...Skydocks on the twenty-seventh...”

What was today, again? The twenty-seventh... when was that? Surely it wasn’t--

Tomorrow.

Roads stomach dropped like a cinderblock. He had to be in Canterlot by noon tomorrow? If he flew all night--even if he could fly all night--he would be lucky to get there by sunrise. How long had the letter been lost at the post office?

He felt his temper begin to rise. If Ditzy blew his one chance at a research breakthrough, she could cost him years worth of work. How could she be so thoughtless? How could she do this to him?

No. He took a breath. Don’t blame her. Don’t panic. You can still make it. There’s a ferry out of Ponyville that runs all the way down the river to Canterlot every night and gets there the next morning. If I can make it to that, I’ll be fine.

He would need to move, though, and fast. Most of his equipment was at his house, he would need it if he wanted to get anything done. Fortunately, his house wasn’t far. It would be flying all the way back to Ponyville in the dark that would be difficult.

Folding his wings, he let himself fall through the cloud. For a moment, he let himself free fall, wings tucked tight against his back. Then, as soon as he was moving fast enough, he flared them again, swooping low over the trees, speeding back home. He soared easily over the forest, gliding made easy by his massive wingspan. His oversized wings were one of the few things he had in common with his father, a former competitive flyer, a former Wonderbolt, whose impressive physique had won him countless races. That was before his injury, though, before the middle-aged pegasus had been forced to retire from the team, and had gone to work at the weather factories.

Roads could not recall exactly when the stallion had given up his dreams of returning to the team. He could, however, still remember the day in his father's recovery process when he had decided that if he couldn't be a Wonderbolt, then his son damn well would.

He remembered being called down to his father's room, being told that he was going to be a Wonderbolt, that his dad would teach him to live the dreams of so many other pegasi. He wouldn't just flop around in the air as he usually did. No longer would air travel be just means to get from one place to another. His old stallion would teach him to fly, to really fly! His only response:

"I don't want to fly."

Wrong answer.

Roads shuddered and tried to shift his thoughts to lighter things, determined not to let his memory cloud what was shaping up to be a wonderful day. He had found a perfect endothermic nexus, he had gotten a letter from the Princess, he was headed out of the forest. Things were going as well as he could possibly hope, why be unhappy?

Because even after you leave the Everfree, you will always be alone, a small voice in the back of his head told him.

He was about to retort, about to find something to refute the tiny voice, when the clearing around his cabin swept into view beneath him. He smiled at it, a burst of gratitude for the Princess rising in his stomach. The alicorn had set him up with the house as soon as she made Roads the Warden of the forest around it. The house represented everything the Princess had given him, from his education to his job.

And what a job it was--the forest was wild, and as such, there was little to do besides make sure no passerby ventured too deep into its depths. Celestia had gotten him the job knowing full well it would give Roads a stable income as he worked at his research. And then she’d built him a house to go with it.

Leaning forward, he swooped into a dive as he approached it. He angled himself into the descent, wings tucked into his sides, steadily gathering speed. The earth seemed to rush up to meet him, and after a second he was almost to the ground. He unfurled his wings, trying to shift his course a bit more forwards and a bit less... into the ground.

It didn’t quite work. He angled one wing too steeply, and as it caught the air he found himself flipped onto his back. And he was still falling.

Roads had just enough time to realize how much pain he was about to be in before he hit the ground. As he crashed into the dirt and rolled into a tree, he found his estimate was about correct.

His estimate being: a lot.

Still, nothing was broken. Or seemed broken, anyway, after he gave himself a cursory inspection as he dusted himself off. Thank Celestia for pegasus resilience. Centuries of crashing into mountains and falling out of the sky had left Roads’ ancestors with a keen resistance to blunt force trauma.

Not that it didn’t still hurt, but aside from a small gash on his elbow, Roads was fairly sure he would be fine. Shaking off the crash, he staggered over to the door of his cabin and pushed it open to reveal the miniature disaster inside.

He really needed to clean this place up. He had spent the entirety of the past week rewriting old magic manuscripts, and had completely neglected housekeeping. Now, books, music orbs, clothes, quills, and parchment were strewn haphazardly across the floor of his den, an untameable mess, the product of a mind equally unruly.

Yep, definitely needed cleaning—later. He had more important things to do.

Stepping over a pile of half-molded towels--how did those get there?--he made his way through the den to a stairway in the corner of the room. Pulling open a flimsy wooden door, he made his way down a dusty set of stairs into his basement.

The cellar was ill lit and damp, its stony walls half coated in cobwebs and mold and its hard-packed dirt floor uncomfortably moist under Roads' hooves. He stumbled blindly over to a wooden cabinet that stood against the far wall, and, feeling around beside him, lit a nearby lamp. Finally able to see again, he pried open the cabinet doors.

Roads was immediately assaulted by the pungent odor of musk and brewed magic. Trying—and failing—to hold his breath, he searched through the tiny collection of mixtures and herbal remedies until he found what he was looking for: Attunement potions, wedged between weak camouflage elixirs and his flask of amontillado. He thanked the Princess he had brewed so much yesterday. Had he been out, it would’ve taken hours to round up all the necessary ingredients, and even longer to actually make the concoction.

Scooping the potions into his bag, he breathed a silent thanks to Celestia for his good fortune, then turned and scurried back up the stairs. Rushing up to his room, he packed all of the clothing he thought he might need--he would dress lightly, this was the tropics, after all--as well as a few quills and notebooks and some research equipment.

He glanced in the mirror, checking his appearance. There were deep circles under his eyes, visible even through his light grey coat, and his dark mane was as disheveled as ever. Roads considered running a comb through it, but thought better of it. His mane hadn’t lain flat a day in his life, why would it start today? He turned to leave, then realized something. Turning, he pried open his cabinet and drew out a flask of whiskey. He stuffed it in his bag and closed the door.

Then, he promptly pulled it open again and grabbed another. It was best to be safe. Who knew how much he might need?

Packing finished, he headed back downstairs and burst out the door, only to see that the sun was setting. Dismayed, he clapped his hooves to his forehead.

No, no, no, no!

He had an hour to get to Ponyville. Maybe less. Spreading his wings, he took off again, racing for the city. He flapped as quickly as possible, moving as fast as he could stand. Roads was a weak flyer, and tremendously out of shape, but desperation spurred him on. Dodging cloud after cloud, he zipped through the sky, panting and straining, but forcing himself to keep going.

After half an hour of flying, he thought he might die. His breath came fast and shallow, and his wings and back were aching, his coat laden with sweat. His mouth was dry, and he was fairly sure that at some point he had accidentally swallowed a bee. Still, he had to keep going. The sun was low on the horizon, now, and swiftly getting lower. The ferry would be about to leave the dock. Exhausted and hurting, he pressed on.

By the time a full hour had passed, the sky was completely dark, but the lights of Ponyville flickered in the distance. Finally! he thought. He had never been so happy to see the town, not once in the six months since he had moved from Canterlot.

Swooping lower, gaining speed, he dove into the town, headed for the banks of the river. He passed the taverns and homes and shops indifferently, hardly giving them a second thought as he rushed for the port. Within moments, he had passed over all of Ponyville, and he landed hard on the wooden docks at the outskirts of town.

Stumbling, he collapsed against a wooden post, out of breath and on the verge of unconsciousness. He sat for a moment, wiping the sweat from his brow, trying to slow his racing heart. Roads was fairly certain it was going to explode. It was precisely the kind of thing he would expect from exercise.

Finally, though, he caught his breath and looked around him. The port was empty, save for a lone, mint-green earth pony sitting at the end of one the docks, lazily flicking a fishing pole. Roads groaned. After getting to his feet, he stumbled over the the fishermare.

“Have you... seen... the Canterlot... ferry... lately?” he panted.

The ancient mare turned and peered at him curiously. When she spoke, Roads could smell apple cider on her breath. Princesses, could he use a drink right now.

“Yep, Ah seen it. Went headed down the river three, maybe four minutes ago. Weren’t long. Yeh could prob’ly cetch it, if  you fly fast enough,” the mare said, slumping against the post beside him.  

Ah, sweet Celestia. Rural dialect.

“Yeah... thanks...” he said as he struggled for breath.

Turning, he peered down the river. In the distance, right on the horizon, he could see the dim flickering that just might have been the steamboat. If only he had been a little bit faster. Any other pegasus would have made it. Ditzy could probably make the trip in thirty minutes, and she couldn’t tell a right turn from a loop-the-loop.

With a groan, he unfurled his aching wings and lept from the dock. He was so tired he could barely stay airborne, but within moments, the ferry was within view. Sweeping low over the water, he gave his wings a few last pumps, then let himself fall onto the boat. He didn’t even bother landing. He simply collapsed onto the deck. Closing his eyes, he rested his burning wings.

Thunk.

He opened his eyes again, twisting around to find the source of the noise. An arrow had embedded itself in the deck of the boat, just inches from his head. It took him a second to realize what had happened, and in that second, another arrow buried itself in the wood of the deck. It had come so close to his foreleg that it sliced open his jacket at the shoulder. With a shriek, he leapt to his hooves and turned to dash for cover.

As soon as he turned around, he found himself face to face with the business end of a lethal looking saber. He barely retained continence. Screaming, he leapt backwards, falling to the ground and curling into a ball.

“Don’t hurt me! Take whatever you want, just don’t hurt me!” he cried, forelegs wrapped tightly around his head.

A grunt came from somewhere above him. Roads flinched, waiting for something sharp and deadly to rip into his flesh.

The blow never came. Sliding a foreleg away from his face, he peered cautiously up to see an earth pony wielding a wicked looking blade scowling down at him.

“You’re no pirate,” he said, an unsubdued hint of condescension in his voice.

“Uh--uhm--what?” Roads stammered.

“Ah said, ‘you’re no pirate’,” the stallion repeated, somewhat louder this time.

Roads stared up at him, confused and terrified. A grizzled, elderly stallion in a weatherbeaten fur coat stared back at him from beneath a wild, matted shock of grey mane.

“Well... no.”

“Hmph,” the earth pony said. He sheathed his sword, looking rather pleased with himself. “Thought so. Pirates don’t usually scream when they see weapons. Well, sometimes they do, but usually not like small children.”

Roads felt a pang of humiliation rise in his chest. “I was just--I needed a ride,” he stuttered.

The stallion nodded, and looked away from him, speaking to someone Roads couldn’t see. “Just a passenger, Wensley.”

From somewhere behind him, a disgruntled-looking unicorn levitating a crossbow sauntered into view. He stretched out a foreleg, and helped Roads to his hooves.

“I figured you were just a pegasus who was late,” he explained. “But these days you can never be too careful. Boarding parties are all over the place, and its almost always birds.”

Roads bristled at the slur, but did not say anything. The stallion was holding a crossbow, after all. He nearly leapt out of his skin when the earth pony beside him extended a foreleg.

“Calm down, son,” he said, shaking Roads’ limp, trembling hoof. “Ah’m Brindle Young, the captain, an’ this here’s Wensley. He’s the ticketmaster an’ head crewman. He’s also the only crewman, ‘side from the engineer--but then, if you see him out of the engine room, then start runnin’, because somethin’s about to blow up.”

“Uh--” Roads started.

        “Welcome aboard,” Brindle said, then raised his crossbow, aiming at Roads. “Now, it’s fifty bits for a ticket.”

        “Fifty? Normal fare around here is only fifteen!” Roads protested.

        “Fifteen’s for folks who’re on time. You weren’t. Now, unless you wanna go for a swim, Ah’d suggest you hand over the money,” Wensley interjected.

        “I, uh, I don’t even have fifty bits...”

        Wensley prodded him in the chest with the tip of the crossbow. “Oh, you have fifty bits, alright,” he said, a steely edge in his voice.

        Glaring at him, Roads reached into his bag, dug out his coin purse, and handed over the money. “Crooks,” he muttered as they took the money.

        “What was that?” the captain asked, hoof on his sword.

        “Nothing,” Roads said with a sigh as he stalked off the deck.

        Throwing open the heavy wooden door he found at the aft, just below the wheelhouse, he made his way below the deck of the steamboat, into a lengthy hallway lined with open cabins. Moving down the hall, Roads peered into the narrow cabins, checking for open bunks. He found none, until the very last cabin at the end of the hall. Stepping into it, he glanced around at the quarters.

        It was nothing special, little more than four hammocks strung up against the walls, with a rickety wooden table half-collapsed between them. Two of the hammocks were already occupied, one by a giant, brick red earth pony with his face buried in a newspaper, the other by a unicorn reading a book. She glanced up at him as he entered, and he noticed a Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns crest on her jacket.

        “You a student?” he asked, pointing to her coat.

        “Hmm?” She looked down, following his gesture. “Oh, at the CSGU? Yes, I’m just about to graduate. I just have to head back for one last visit.” She glanced back up at him. “Oh, where are my manners? Chelsea,” she said, shaking his hoof. “Chelsea Sparks.”

        “Roads,” he replied.

        “Roads...?”

        “Just ‘Roads.’” he said.

        “Ah...”

        There was a brief pause as Roads struggled to think of something to say.

        “So... uh... Celestia’s School...” Roads said finally, nervously taking a seat in the hammock across from her.

        “Yeah... great school,” she said quietly.

        Roads winced internally. Why did it go like this every time he introduced himself? Couldn’t he, just for once, have a comfortable conversation with someone new?

        “It’s my alma mater, actually,” he said.

        She laughed at that. “Good one.”

        “What?”

        “A pegasus, at a magic school. It’s a funny thought, you know?” she explained.

        “No, I actually went to school there. I studied magic for years.”

        Another awkward paused. Roads cringed inside. This was not going well. He glanced over to the earth pony on the hammock. The stallion hadn’t moved. His eyes were still locked on the paper. The two might as well have been alone.

        “I didn’t even know they let--”

        “--They let pegasi in, on occasion. I had special permissions from the Princess. ‘Extenuating circumstances.’ There’s legitimately enough material available that it is possible to graduate without actually performing any magic. Well, as long as you’re exempt from the exit exams,” Roads explained.

        “Huh. I didn’t even know that was possible.”

        “Well... it is,” he finished hesitantly.

        The uncomfortable silence returned. Roads considered digging the whiskey out of his pack.

        

        “So... uh, what does a pegasus like you actually, you know... do?” she asked finally.

        “Uh, what?”

        “With an education in magic, I mean. What kind of work do you do?”

        Finally, something he could talk about.

“Well, it’s kind of tough to explain, actually, not many people are familiar with the field, but, ah, you know where magic comes from, right?” Roads asked.

        She stared at him blankly. “Yeah, it’s just arcane energy that you can use to create movement at various levels of organization of matter, what of it?”

        Roads fought back a smirk. “No, you didn’t answer my question. That’s what magic is, that’s not where it comes from.”

        Her brow furrowed, then she seemed to realize something. “You’re talking about ley lines.”

        “Precisely. Lines of arcane power that run through your body and feed off of your metabolism.”

        “So... you work with anatomy?” she asked. “Like, unicorn physiology?”

        “Not quite. I work with ley lines, but not the ones in ponies,” he explained.

        She narrowed her eyes. “Oh. You’re one of those guys.”

        Roads sighed. “No, not ‘one of those guys.’ I study natural ley lines, and I study them scientifically. I put as much rigor into my research as any other academic.”

        “What’s there to even research? Evidence for natural lines even existing is scant at best, and even if they did exist, it’s not like they actually do anything. Everypony knows that,” she said, with accompanying eye roll.

        “No, everypony thinks that. Or, thought. Anypony who’s been reading the newest publications knows the consensus has moved in support of the fact that natural lines exist. It’s how they work that’s got everypony confused,” he pointed out.

        “That’s because they, you know, don’t.”

        “Really?” Roads asked, leaning forward. “Come on, didn’t you ever wonder just what it was that made the Everfree tick?”

        Chelsea crossed her forelegs. “I thought that was--”

        She was cut off as another unicorn entered the room. “Chelsea, have you seen my--oh, who’s this?” he asked.

        “Just somepony from the boat who wandered in. He says he went to Celestia’s School, too,” she explained.

        “Really? Well, how’re you, then?” the unicorn offered his hoof.

Roads stood and shook it, eying the other man. He was handsome looking, in an odd sort of way, with square jaw and a crooked muzzle that looked as if it might have once been broken. He was also big. Much bigger than Roads, who was as short as he was thin. With his light, characteristically pegasian frame, he felt downright scrawny next to the dark blue unicorn.

“Roads,” he said, barely meeting the other stallion’s eye.

“Cobalt,” the unicorn said. “When did you--”

There was a horrible pause as Cobalt caught sight of Roads’ wings. He felt the stallion’s eyes move over his forehead.

“You’re a pegasus...” he said quietly.

You just now noticed? How did you miss the lack of horn? Or did you just think it got lost in my mane? Roads thought sarcastically, but instead he just said “Um.”

“You’re a pegasus and you went to the CSGU...” he continued.

“Yes, I did, and I can assure you that I--”

“So you’re a race traitor?” Cobalt finished, a deadly calm in his voice.

        Roads’ jaw clenched. “Now really,” he said, desperately trying to keep his temper in check. “In this day and age? And headed to the capitol nonetheless...”

        Cobalt’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t take kindly to race traitors. And I know for a fact they don’t put up with race traitors in Canterlot.”

        “Really?” Roads challenged. “Because I lived in the capitol for six years and I can tell you they sure as hell put up with me.”

        “Yeah? And why is that? Family connections?”

        “Uh... Well, I haven’t exactly got any...”

Cobalt cocked an eyebrow. “What happened? Lost your parents? Orphaned?”

Roads gritted his teeth. “Disowned,” he said quietly.  

        “Well, well, a race traitor and a bastard.” He grabbed Roads by the collar, pushing him roughly against the wall. “You picked the wrong cabin to come nest in tonight, bird.”

        Suddenly, a red hoof separated the two. Roads looked up to see the massive earth pony standing between them, towering over both of them.

        “You, unicorn,” he said. “That’s enough. Ah’ve got a paper to read, and Ah don’t appreciate the noise.”

        “Like you could even read, oaf?” Cobalt sneered.

        The stallion’s eyes narrowed, and he took a menacing step towards Cobalt.

        “Pardon?” he demanded.

        “...nothing,” Cobalt coughed feebly.

        Roads cocked an eyebrow. Even a unicorn like Cobalt wouldn’t dare tangle with an earth pony that big. Not in close quarters, anyway.

        “And you,” the earth pony said, turning to glance down at Roads. “You’d best sleep somewhere else tonight. Ah don’t wanna spend this whole time breakin’ up fights.”

        Roads nodded. He wasn’t one to bite the hoof that fed him. So, he took his pack and dragged himself out into the hall, humiliation and shame settling into his stomach. He moved into the stairwell, and set down his things. He cracked open the porthole and laid down, resting his head against his bag.

        He heaved a heavy sigh. Another night alone. It was no different here than in his cabin in the woods. Sure, there were people all around him, but for all intents and purposes, he could have been by himself, out in the woods for all the good it did him. Roads simply wasn’t made to be anything other than just ‘alone.’ Always had been. Always would be.

        Rolling over, he pulled the flask of whiskey out of his bag. He poured himself a small helping into a cup he had brought with him. Why not? It had been as bad a day as any other...

Twisting back over, he stared out the window, looking at the stars. At least, he thought through the grim haze of his abjection, at least it's a beautiful night. He held up his glass. Cheers to you, Luna. Kudos, wherever you are. He took a doleful swig of whiskey. Outside, the stars hung resplendent, dancing gleefully through the scopic cosmos.

They mocked him in their splendor.

The words “bastard” and “race traitor” ringing in his ears, he looked up into the night as long as he could, admiring the stars until he could stand it no longer. He shifted his gaze to the abyss between them. From the chasm of his mind words began to echo in his ears.

Why are you so useless?

It was his father's voice. Quiet, only a hiss. Roads took a sip of whiskey, emptying his cup.

You aren't a real stallion. You'll never be one.

Roads refilled his glass.

My only son, an embarrassment...

He took a swallow of whiskey. Half of the glass disappeared down his throat.

What kind of pathetic excuse for a pegasus doesn't like flying? What's wrong with you, boy?

Another swig. The glass was empty again. He refilled it.

You're the reason your mother is gone.

He drank the entire glass this time.

You make me sick.

Another glass, gone.

It wouldn't hurt a real stallion. Stop crying, boy.

He drank straight out of the flask now.

Love you? I could never love something like you.

He drank until the flask was empty.

You will always be alone.

The last voice was his own. Roads threw the flask through the open window. He looked spitefully up into the sky, then sank into a fitful state of drunken unconsciousness.

Far above him the stars shone brightly on, basking in the tranquility of another perfect night.

        

        


Roads groans as he opens pale blue eyes. Looks out and sees a small pond. Around it, thin, bright green ferns and towering oak trees. He stands slowly, his entire body aches. His coat is matted with dirt and blood, wet from recent rain. He is covered in bruises and cuts. One wing hangs limply from his side, twisted painfully, possibly broken.

He is not sure how he got here, but he remembers being hit. A hoof to the face, to the side, all over. Then falling. A storm. Striking tree branches on the way down. Nothing more.

He is young. Younger than he thinks he should be. Just a colt, coated with mud. Everything dripping; there has been a storm. He picks a twig out of his mane and inspects his surroundings. A forest. Bright green, slightly blurry. Lots of brown. Bushes, trees, ferns. It is very bright, the sun is rising. It moves up from the east, towers over Canterlot.

Roads is not sure who he is, not sure where he is, not sure he dislikes it. It is nice here. Pleasant. He has never been to the Ground before. He likes it better here. The air is so harsh in Cloudsdale.

But he can't stay. He has to go east, to Canterlot. He knows he needs to hurry, but isn't sure why. He moves as swiftly as he can bear; he is not yet fit to travel. He drinks from the brook, looks for the right plants. Healing Ivy. It should be here. His books have told him it should be here. He searches for a while, finally finds a long patch of it. He picks it, crushes it, mixes it, makes a poultice. Binds the mixture around his wing. Over his wounds. Rubs it against his face. Holds it still with reed stems.

Numbness. Blissful numbness. The plants take away the pain.

The ivy is a path. Following a ley line, but he doesn't know that  yet. Someday.

Roads follows. He is led to a grove. An aura in the center, billowing, it beckons him. He does not know that it is a font.

Not yet. Someday.

He steps into it. It surrounds him, resplendent, shining. He feels some of his cuts begin to heal, some of his bruises begin to fade. A bone begins to mend.

But the aura is weak. Its energy drains into him, then it fades. He is confused, but content. He feels better. All will be well, in time. He sets out. Heads west. To Canterlot. To safety.

The forest is not expansive. An hour of walking, he emerges. Soft grass under his hooves. A blue sky, bright, clear. No clouds. He sees a road in the distance. He goes to the road, stares down it. A long walk. One hoof in front of the other.

Suddenly, a speck on the horizon. Coming in from the west. Fear. He knows the speck. It flaps dark against the sun. Coming for him.

No, not yet. He can't be found so quickly. But he is. The speck grows closer, larger. It is a pegasus. It calls his name.

"Roads!"

The voice is dark. Malignant. Vicious. He fears it, he knows it. Far away, faint, but getting closer. He hears it again.

"Roads!"

It is different this time. Softer. Closer. A deep baritone. He likes this voice. It calls again.

"Roads!"

Very close now. Good. Comes with a sudden shaking. A world rising. Fading. A third time, very loud.

"Roads!"

The world shimmers away. The speck is the last to go. He is waking.

II

"And not by eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light;

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!

But westward, look, the land is bright!"

-Arthur Hugh Clough, Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth"

Roads awoke to warm sunlight streaming through the open window, birds chirping high in the air, and a throbbing, miserable headache. A headache that was definitely not being helped by the captain shouting in his ears and shaking him awake.

        “Come on, now, get up!”

        Brindle gave him one last, forceful nudge, pushing him into the wall. Finally roused from his groggy slumber, Roads sat up, palms over his eyes, and groaned. He had really overdone it last night. An entire flask of whiskey, gone, and now he had to meet his new co-workers hungover. Great.

        The captain’s voice interrupted his thoughts. “On your hooves, now, let’s go. ‘Less you figure you wanna pay fifteen more bits for another ticket.”

        Roads looked up at the captain, confused. “What?” he asked, staring blankly. “Why would I need another ticket?”

        “One ticket per ride. ‘S mah policy,” Brindle explained.  

        “What? What ride? What are you talking about?”

        The captain grabbed him under the shoulder and hoisted him to his hooves. “We’re about to head back to Ponyville. You wanna come with us, you gotta pay.”

        “Wait--why are you--we’re in Canterlot already?” he asked.

        “We’ve been at port for four hours, son. Everypony else already up an’ left. Walked right past you, but Ah guess you never woke up.”

        Roads clapped a hoof to his forehead, staring at the captain in open-mouthed shock. “Four hours?! What time is it now?”

        “Oh, about half-past,” he said lazily.

        “Half-past what?” Roads demanded.

        “Noon.”

        Roads didn’t know whether to panic or cry. He thought he might just do both. He sank against the wall, shaking. How could he miss this opportunity? How could he be so stupid. Why did he always have to--

        “Are you gonna pay, or what?”

        Roads stared up at the captain. “No.”

        “Then get the hell offa mah boat!” he said, grabbing Roads by the foreleg once more and hauling him up the stairs. Roads barely managed to grab his bag.

        In an instant, he was tossed roughly onto the dock, where he got to his hooves and stood, blinking in the sunlight, feeling as though he were about to be sick. He wasn’t sure if it was because of the hangover or his nerves. He didn’t particularly care. Instead, he walked to the edge of the dock, fell to his knees, and vomited into the lake.

        Rising, he wiped off his mouth and turned to peer at Canterlot, a sinking feeling settling in his stomach. The mountain city rose high above him, jutting through the clouds into the sky. Around its base was a sprawling metropolis, near its summit, the Royal Palace. On the other side of the mountain were the Skydocks, the wooden ports where he was supposed to be.

        Well, if he wanted to even try to make it onto the expedition, that is. It was a lost cause, after all. His chance was gone. He had missed it, screwed it up, the worthless miscreant.

        Although... he might as well check. Just to be sure. But he wouldn’t get his hopes up.

        Spreading his wings--and wincing at how sore they were--he took off, headed for the top of the mountain. It would be freezing cold at the peak, and the low oxygen up there would starve his lungs. He would have to fly all around the top of the mountain, instead of straight over. And that would take time, time that he didn’t have. He would never make it.

But... he needed to be certain. He had to know they had already left. Going and finding the Skydocks deserted would be bad, but giving up without making sure would be even worse.

Straining stiff wings, he pushed harder, racing towards the top of the mountain. As he rose, the air thinned and chilled. Though the temperature on the ground had been tolerably warm, as he ascended, a sickly cold washed over him. His teeth chattered as he flew.

It was not long before he approached the summit. He burst through the clouds near the top of the mountain to find the entire Palace gleaming beneath him. It sat, stoic and resplendent, in a rocky cradle between the two peaks of the mountain. It was beautiful. Roads ignored it. There were more pressing things to worry about.

Banking as a burst of wind caught him in the side, he angled around the mountain. Soon, the Skydocks were within view. A powerful, complex wooden framework anchoring a series of massive platforms to the side of the rocky slope, the Skydocks were a feat of masterful earth pony engineering. They looked so spindly that it seemed they might blow away at a moment’s notice, but in reality they had weathered many a storm with impunity.

It wasn’t long before Roads reached them. Swooping low, he landed gracelessly at the end of an empty dock, and sat for a moment, trying to catch his breath. The ascent had been rough. Hell, the whole past two days had been rough. He hoped it was worth it.

Standing up, he glanced around at the nearby platforms. They were nearly all empty. A few tourist’s enchanted hot-air balloons here, a row of military airships there, but no expeditionary vessels to be found.

It was over. They were gone. They had left without him. He sank to the ground, sitting against one of the massive wooden beams, cradling his head in his hooves.

He’d known it. He’d known it was too good to be true. Him? Pull off an opportunity like this? It was laughable to think something wouldn’t go wrong. If only he hadn’t drank so much. If only he had woken up, he could have--

The tip of somepony’s hoof nudged him in the ribcage. “Hey. You. You’re the new guy, right?”

Roads looked up to find an annoyed looking unicorn standing over him.

“Uh... what?”

“What, don’t understand Equestrian?” she asked. “You’re the guy, right? The magic expert they sent us. They showed us your picture at the expedition briefing.”

“You’re--you’re with the expedition? You’re part of the crew?” he asked.

She laughed, leaned over, and pulled him to his hooves. “I am the crew,” she said, extending a hoof. “Summer Dew, cartographer extraordinaire, pilot, and the noble leader of a fearless crew of two. Or, well, three, counting you. You're the Warden from the Everfree, right?”

He shook her hoof, looking her over. She was almost as tall as him, and athletically built, her body rippling with lean muscle. She stood with a jaunty, at-ease posture, leaning against the pier rail, forehooves crossed. He noticed that her forelegs were covered in unhealed scrapes and cuts, as well as a number of small scars and marks that stood out against her cyan coat. It seemed the scars, though, didn’t stop at her forelegs. Instead, most of the her body seemed slightly scarred or nicked somewhere. This was not a pony who lead a relaxed life.

As he peered at her, she sized him up with light green eyes, staring out from under a loosely cut green mane, streaked with white that might have been attractive had she bothered to fix it. In fact, Roads was pretty sure she might be striking--if she had thought it worthwhile.

A moment passed as the two stared each other down. Roads realized he was probably supposed to say something--but as soon as he opened his mouth, she cut him off.

“Try not to stare, new guy. I know I’m gorgeous, but you’re gonna have to keep your eyes--and hooves--to yourself.”

“I wasn’t--”

“Sorry bud, I don’t get with coworkers. So don’t go falling in love with me, Romeo, or I’ll have to shove you out of the zeppelin a couple hundred feet up,” she said, shooting him a haughty smirk.

A flicker of annoyance rose in his stomach. She’d been staring him down--he’d just responded in kind.

“Gee, what an inconvenience to a guy with wings,” he said, not minding to check his tone.

Summer cocked an eyebrow.

"Sarcasm? I like that. Maybe having a new guy won't be absolute hell," she faked a sigh, clearly relishing what she got to say next. “Still though, you could never replace the last specialist the Aggregate sent. If only he hadn't lost a leg on our previous trip..."

A what? No... no, that couldn’t be right. He must have misheard her.

"He... he lost a—?"

"A leg, yep. There was a rockslide, it wasn't pretty. But hey, nothing to worry about, right?"

"Uh..."

Oh, no. What have I gotten myself into, he thought.

“That’s what I thought. Now, what was your name again? Ronin, was it?” she asked.

“Roads.”

“‘Roads?’ Huh. Weird nickname, how’d you get it?”

“It's my given name. My parents decided to call me 'Roads' because I was born on the side of one,” he explained.

"Huh. Interesting folks."  

"You don't know the half of it."

There was a brief silence.

“So, where exactly is the zeppelin you mentioned?” he asked finally. “I was looking around, I couldn’t find it.”

“I figured as much. The Aggregate’s got its own dock. See that crook down there?” she asked, pointing to a spot where two steep cliff faces met to form a sharp bend in the mountain.

“Yeah.”

“It’s over there. When you didn’t show up on time, I realized no one must have told you we were parked around on that side. Figured I’d wait around here and see if I could find you,” she explained.

Roads saw an opportunity to save face. “Oh. Yeah, right, no, I was just waiting here--I showed up at twelve, you know, and wasn’t really sure if--”

“Nah, you were just plain late,” she interrupted. She winked at him, seeing the dismay that crossed his face. “I saw you fly up from a mile away. No worries, though--no one’s at their best after a night of drinking, right?”

His brow furrowed. “How did you know that I--”

“They’re called breath mints, rookie, use ‘em. I think everyone on this dock probably knows you’ve been hitting the bottle like a freight train.”

“Uh--”

        “Well, are we just gonna stand here and chat all day?” she asked, turning and walking down the dock. She gestured for him to follow.“Daylight’s burnin’, you know. Chief got a head start while we were waiting on you, but we’ve still got some more cargo to load onto the zeppelin before we can head out,” she explained as she led him along a walkway around the side of the mountain.

        Before long, they came to a long, solitary dock, at the far end of which was moored a massive zeppelin marked “Royal Expeditionary Aggregate.” At the near end of the dock, a pallet of cargo crates sat, waiting to be loaded. As they approached it, Summer directed him to help carry the wooden boxes aboard.

Mutely, he grabbed one of the lighter boxes and started down the platform, the words “lost a leg” ringing in his head. He stared at the ground as he went, worrying that he might be in over his head, unaware of where he was going.

With a thump, he walked into something bulky and solid. Unbalanced, he toppled to the ground, the container landing heavily on top of him.

When he looked back up again, he found himself face to face with the largest earth pony he had ever laid eyes on. The chestnut-colored gargantuan glared back down at him, two beady eyes peeking from under a close-cropped mane. A frown crossed his twisted muzzle, bent in two places where it had been broken. His face was half covered in pinkish scars, one of which ran all the way down his nose, across another that ran horizontally across his head, narrowly missing an eye.

They also covered large portions of the rest of his body, which was covered in dense, heavy muscle. On his flank was a cutie mark of a sword crossed over a shield, and on his face was a horrendous scowl. When he opened his mouth a voice gravelly and disdainful rang in Roads’ ears, a voice that carried more grunts that actual speech.

"Watch it," he growled. He fixed Roads with a scornful glare, then whirled around to keep working. Somehow, he was just as menacing with his back turned.

"Uhh... sorry," Roads said as the gargantuan marched away.

"I see you met Chief," a voice beside him said. He turned to see Summer standing just behind him, smiling, watching him pick himself up off the ground.

"Chief?"

"That's his nickname. They call him that because he once wrestled a buffalo chief into submission somewhere in a desert south of Appleoosa. Most folks think he doesn't even have a real name," she said.

Roads couldn’t tell if she was joking again. He decided it was probably best to assume she wasn’t. Better safe than sorry.

"What does he do?" he asked.

"He's ex-Royal Guard, the Aggregate pays him to protect my expeditions. In case we end up somewhere where the locals—or the animals—are less-than-friendly. He's also an expert survivalist, and he does whatever else calls for serious muscle."

"I think he hates me."

"Of course he does. Chief hates all the newbies. A word of advice: stay out of his way, and work hard and he might just resist the urge to punt you across Equestria."

She spoke amicably, but what she said still scared him.

These were the people he was traveling with? Into the middle of the tropics? With no one around to hear his agonizing screams as Chief slowly murdered him?

Seven whole, glorious days with a dagger-tongued sadist and a murderous giant--he was loving it already.

        "Hey," Summer said, interrupting his inner laments, "help us load up the rest of these crates and we'll be on our way."

She gestured to the stack of dark wooden boxes, each marked "Property of the Royal Expeditionary Aggregate" in large black letters. Roads walked over to one that was only slightly larger than what he had been carrying when Chief knocked him over. He grasped its rope handle and struggled to lift it. It didn’t budge. It seemed most of the cargo consisted entirely of bricks. How useful.

“What’s in these?” he asked Summer after letting go of the box.

"Erm... supplies. Surveying equipment—sextants, sun compasses, A-frame range finders, optical transits and that sort of thing, a good bit of food, a number of cases of fresh water, in case we can't find any and... hmmm... a few odds and ends. First aid stuff, tents, blankets, mountain climbing equipment—"

"—mountain climbing equipment?"

"You never know. A lot of the islands near where we're going are volcanic, and the older ones have mountains in their centers. Granted, the area where we're going is totally uncharted, so we don't even know if there are any islands..."

"So what do we do then?"

"Basically, we head out, and map whatever we find. If there's an island, we land and map it. If there's not, we note that there isn't an island. Basically, we're heading out to add as much as we can to the map in seven days. And you're supposed to do... whatever it is you do with all of your magic stuff."

"Research."

"Research, sure. Research it if you can, and stop it from killing us if it's dangerous. I'm pretty sure that's what they said you'd be doing." She paused for a moment, as a thought occurred to her. "Hey, wait, if you're a pegasus, how exactly are you the magic expert?"

“Well,” he said as they loaded more crates onto the zeppelin. “Have you ever heard of ley theory?”

“Sure,” she replied.

He blinked. He wasn’t expecting that. “You have?” he asked.

“Yep. When they told us you were coming along, I read your book. Well, I read the inside cover of your book. And the author bio. Actually, the first few lines of the author bio, then I got bored and left the bookstore.

“So you only know the basics?”

“I think ‘basics’ is putting it a bit strong. I know you think there are a bunch of ley lines all over the place, and Celestia thinks that has something to do with all of the expeditions in the Triangle that’ve gone to shit in the past few months,” she said.

“Well, that’s the short version, anyway. But, to answer your question, I’m the magic expert because I’m one of the only CSGU graduates that’s interested in studying natural magic. Because, you know, it’s the only field I can even be on the same par as anypony else in--well, except for alchemy, but alchemy is about as interesting as watching paint dry.”

“So, how exactly do you plan on helping us, you know, not die?” she asked.

“Well, I’m not actually entirely sure what the Princess wants me to do about it, but I do have an idea of what your problem is.”

“Which is?”

“Nexi.”

“Which are?”

“It’s hard to explain succinctly, but basically... for the most part, natural lines balance each other out. No one line in nature enacts too much change on the land around it, because it’s constantly being hampered by other lines in the area. The way they do that is insanely complicated, so I won’t even try to explain. But there are cyclical shifts in which lines are the most powerful. That’s why places like the Everfree have shifts in seasons without pony intervention. Ley shifts control everything out there.”

“And what, exactly, does this have to do with ‘nexi’?”

“Well, whenever ley lines aren’t in proper balance, cyclical shifts can cause some lines to become so strong that they physically manifest at certain focal points. Ley theorists call these manifestations ‘nexi’ and they can be insanely powerful. You wanna know what’s wrecking your expeditions? I’d guess the other crews ran abreast of some seriously powerful nexi,” he explained, grabbing a particularly heavy crate and struggling to carry it over to the zeppelin.

“Wait... do you have any plans at all for helping that not happen to us, then?” she asked.  

Roads was about to reply when he was interrupted by Chief, who had just slammed one last box onto the floor of the zeppelin's undercarriage.

"That's it. Let's go," he barked.

“Time to move out,” Summer said. “You can explain the rest later.

She grabbed Roads’ crate, lifted it easily, and moved up the gangplank, into the zeppelin’s boxy metal underside. With a flap of his wings, Roads followed her up, flying through one of the paneless windows and landing on the floor of the undercarriage.

It was a sparsely furnished metal expanse, bolted to iron plates on the bottom side of the zeppelin’s balloon. On one end was a navigator's table that was conjoined with the control mechanisms for the gargantuan propellor affixed to the zeppelin. In the center of the room the stack of boxes rested. Apart from that, it was bare, just white-painted metal slats and rods. And the two lunatics he was spending the week with.

"Everyone ready?" Summer called, manning the controls.

"Yeah," Roads said.

Next to him, Chief gave an affirmative grunt.

"Alright then," the unicorn said, releasing the aircraft from its moorings and steering it into the sky.

Summer piloted the craft away from the pier and through a cloud bank. Roads peered out the window. As the zeppelin rose and he stared out into the roiling fog, into the misty banks of the unknown, he wondered once again just what he'd gotten himself into.

___________________________________________________________________________

A/N: Thanks for reading! I'd like to take a quick moment to recognize my editor, Secondaryspine, for the countless hours of work he put into this fic, editing and/or making vulgar comments about my characters. His help was and continues to be invaluable, and I am incredibly indebted to him. Thanks, man.


A quiet night. A colt entering an old house, bags laden with library books. A light on in the kitchen. He enters it and finds his father, sitting in a stool at the table, a glass in his hoof. Amber liquid sloshes inside the cup. Whiskey. Again.

"I'm home."

Silence.

"Where's mom?"

"Gone."

"Gone where?"

No answer. The stallion takes a long, slow drink from the glass.

"Gone where, dad?"

"Away."

He knows something is wrong now. Very wrong. A chill runs down his spine.

"Dad?" The voice is quieter, more hesitant, a whimper.

"What?"

"Dad, where is she?"

"She didn't come home today.”

“Dad...”

“She's not coming home anymore."

There is a hollowness in his voice. Something in the colt’s stomach sinks at that.

"Why?"

"She left. Went to Fillydelphia." The deeper voice is slurred with whiskey and dripping with disdain.

"Is she coming back?" he is almost crying now. He knows he musn't.  He fears he won’t be able to hold it back.

"No."

"Is it because you were yelling—"

"—no—"

"—and because of the other night when you were shouting about losing your job—"

"—no—"

"—and because of the black eye?" He is crying now.

The stallion is furious. This is disgraceful; nothing is weaker than crying. To have a son so emmasculine is embarrassing. He can fix that. He has to.

"No!"

"What did you do, Dad?" The words are coming all at once now. He knows he should stop them but he can't.

"I didn't do anything!" A glass slammed down on a table. "You're the reason she's not coming back."

"What?"

"Isn't it obvious? She couldn’t love you!"

He has to say that. It has to be the fault of the child. It can't be his. There's nothing wrong with him. There can’t be. They’re all wrong, he’s fine...

"Why?" Crying, whimpering, blubbering. A son pathetic in his father's eyes.

"Just look at you. Weak, scrawny, miserable...” He stares, searching. Looking for a reason. It has to be there, it can’t be him...

“And those!" A hoof pointed at the bags. The books are to blame. She left because the boy is a race-traitor. That must be it. It’s all about the damned books. Without them the son would fly. Without them the son would be great. Without them things would be fine again, alright again, happy again. A family again.

"There’s nothing wrong with them!"

"I told you!" Shouting now, in a rage, a blind frenzy. “No more of that in this house! It’s useless! They're useless! All of it, worthless, shameful! Don't you get it? You're a pegasus! You don't do magic--you can't do magic. And they know, all of them! Don’t you see how they look at you? How they look at me? Damned race-traitor, that’s why she’s gone! It was you, it was always you! Why don’t you just listen to me, why don’t you just let me teach you? Don’t you want anyone to care about you?"

“Stop, just stop--”

The stallion grimaces. The boy’s mind is corrupted. Warped by the damned books. Well, he can fix that. He will fix that. Will make everything right again. He has to.

The bags are ripped away, the books are spilling out. The father is walking to the fireplace, the son too small to hold him back.

"No, no, no—"

Pages falling into the flames.

"Get off me!"

A kick.

The books are in the fire and he is sailing across the room...

III

"And not by eastern windows only,

When daylight comes, comes in the light;

In front the sun climbs slow, how slowly!

But westward, look, the land is bright!"

-Arthur Hugh Clough, Say Not the Struggle Naught Availeth"

Roads was bored. Unequivocally, inexorably bored. They had been flying all afternoon, and he was sick of it. At first, soaring slowly through the mountain range of Canterlot in the gargantuan aircraft had been fun. What could be better than a bird’s eye view of the frosted peaks’ stark beauty?

Just about anything, it turned out. So now he sat, leaning against a tall stack of wooden crates, preening his wings, staring out the windows, and waiting. As he looked out at the snow-tipped peaks, he was sure that the mountains had been majestic to him once. They had definitely once held a timeless beauty.

That had lasted about an hour. Now, they were just big stacks of rock, and he was tired of them.

He was not in the mood to just sit, think, and wait for the zeppelin to arrive at-- well, wherever they were going. He wanted to talk to somepony, to converse--but Chief and Summer did not seem to share the sentiment.

The former seemed to be wrapped up in doing... whatever it was he spent his time doing. At present, this appeared to be simply checking the inventory of the shipping crates. Roads wasn’t fooled, though; he was sure Chief was actually secretly plotting his demise.

Summer, on the other hoof, was busy piloting the zeppelin. She had warned him shortly after they took off not to bother her. Apparently these balloons took concentration and skill to keep steady, and she didn’t want to be distracted.

She certainly seemed focused at the moment. Glancing at maps and compasses, Summer danced frantically about the controls, steering the balloon around mountain after mountain as it descended, horn glowing as she guided it.

Wait, why was her horn glowing? Was she piloting the vessel—turning the propellor and rotating the air fin—all on her own?

Leaning on the boxes, Roads studied the busy unicorn. Her horn gave off a blue glow as it worked the engine. The rotor of the propellor, though, gave off a light red, nearly pinkish light. Which meant that—no. Could this be what he thought it was? Surely not. That type of thing was absurdly expensive.

But Roads had to know, even if Summer was busy. Hooves clacking on the iron floor, he walked across the undercarriage to her.

"Hey, Summer?”

“Mmm?” She didn’t look up.

“I’ve got a question—is this a Zephyr?"

Ordinarily, she would've just waved him away, but this got her attention. It  was surprising, coming from Roads. She hadn’t pegged him as the mechanical type--he was so bookish, so indoorsy.

"Yeah. You know about that sort of thing? But you're just a spec!"

"'Spec'?"

"Specialist. Anyway, you know about aircraft?"

"Usually, no. The only airship in Equestria to make common use of fully integrated magical machinery in a base model, though? Definitely. I studied them in a few mechanomagical engineering classes that I took back in school," he said.

"Of course you did.” She glanced up at him, a thin smirk on her face. He was so excited his wings had fluttered open.

"I never got to see them, though, because of the price tag. Oh, this is awesome! This one has a crystalline powering system right?” he asked, peering at the humming metal column behind the navigation table. “A gem enchanted to produce powerful movement spells wrapped in a magically conductive copper matrix? That's what's turning the propellor, right?"

"Yeah." Summer grinned despite herself. His enthusiasm was amusing--and understandable.

The Zephyr line of aircraft had been heralded in the Equestrian aeronautical community for its innovative use of enchanted, rechargeable crystals to turn propellers and steer the vessel. It was a job that had previously been done by either a powerful group of unicorn aviators, or by a less efficient, less durable, and far heavier steam engine. However, society as a whole--save for pilots and aviators--ignored the breakthrough, because Zephyrs were simply not commercially viable. 

Because they packed a massive price tag due to the rare gems that powered their engines, they were a rare buy for anypony without a government check. For those with the money, though, the Zephyr were reliable, versatile craft, suitable for expeditions in areas too distant for normal vessels, or in waters too dangerous for most ships. The Zephyr were some of the rarest magitech systems in Equestria--so much so that when Summer had first seen the zeppelin, she had been almost excited as Roads was.

"Can I see the energy core? Please?" he pleaded.

Summer gave a small sigh. As fun as stomping on the rookie’s dreams would be, should she really deny him now? His enthusiasm was almost amusing, and perhaps she could reward him for brushing up on essential knowledge before the trip. Most secs never even bothered.

"Fine," she sighed.

Summer slid a panel above the controls open to reveal a pulsating scarlet stone, glowing with the red energy she had been directing into the rotors. Roads let out a gasp as he glimpsed it through the copper wiring. He stared into the heart of the glowing stone until the vessel shifted suddenly, throwing him off of his hooves and into Summer.

As the zeppelin tilted wildly, they tumbled over the control panel and crashed to the floor. Summer cursed violently, and shoved Roads off of her as she stood up, desperate to regain control of the craft. On the other side of the deck, Chief, who had been tossed into a pallet of crates, let out a snarl that would put a manticore to shame.

"Dammit, Roads, these things take a lot of concentration to fly," she growled as she struggled to right the floundering aircraft.

"Hey, you're the one who stopped paying attention—"

"And you're the one who distracted me. I told you, these zeppelins are unstable, and if I can't concentrate on controlling it, it'll wreck, so stop bothering me!" she said, clearly frustrated.

"I was just trying to see if—"

"I said stop bothering me! Do you want us to crash?"

Roads could tell that he had been beaten. As the balloon restabilized, he walked dejectedly back to the front of the undercarriage to look out the window once again. He sat for a moment, staring off into the distance.

Glancing over his shoulder, he saw the mountains receding in the distance, giving way to the forest that was now below them. He glanced down over the rail, inspecting the green tips of the broad trees that swayed below.

Life on a balloon, he decided, was perhaps the dullest thing he had ever endured. Sitting and waiting simply wouldn't do. If he couldn't converse with Summer, then that still left... Chief.

He could talk to Chief. Why not? Somewhere, deep, deep, under that gruff exterior, there had to be a pony. A pony he could talk to. It couldn't be that hard, could it?

Just walk up and ask him something about himself. Everypony’s favorite subject is himself, he mused.

He took a deep breath and walked around the stack of crates to find the earth pony staring off into the horizon. Chief gave no indication that he noticed Roads’ presence.

"Uh, hey," Roads said timidly as he edged towards the gargantuan. "I don't think we've been properly introduced. I'm Roads."

He stuck out a hoof. Chief’s eyes flickered down to the outstretched appendage, then back to the horizon. He was silent for a moment.

"Chief," he said in what was more a grunt than a voice.

He didn’t move. Letting his foreleg drop, he tried desperately to think of a conversation starter—perhaps if he could get Chief talking, he might worm his way into having a relationship a bit less... hostile.

"So, uh, how long have you been working with Summer?" he asked meekly, hoping Chief wouldn’t snap his spine for attempting to speak with him. There was a lengthy silence. Roads wasn’t sure whether Chief was trying to remember the details of his work history—or to decide if he should hurl this new intrusion over the railing. Finally, he gave a curt reply.

"A while."

"Oh... fascinating," Roads replied. That was vague. Whatever. I can talk about that. "So, uh, what’d you do before this?" he asked.

No response.

"You were in the Guard, right?"

No response.

"I just figured you were because, uh, Summer said...”

Still nothing.

"Just wondering, you know, what your work was like..."

"Classified." Chief said finally. 

"Really? Wait, so were you in one of those secret units? You know, the ones that do all the undercover stuff--spying, espionage, that kind of--"

"Shut up.”

So much for that. 

There was a long pause. Finally, Roads piped up. “Well... see you around, I guess,” he said, edging back around the pallet. He cringed as he rounded the corner. That definitely could have gone better.

Nothing to be done now, though. Nothing but sit, and wait. Resting back against the crates, he looked out into the distance, and realized that they were quickly approaching the ocean. The pungent scent of fish and salt wafted up to him as he stared out into the waves. He forced himself to relax; there was little else he could do to fight the boredom.

With a sigh, he gazed out over the railing into the rippling waters, allowing the scents, sights and sounds of the sea to wash over his senses. He let himself slip into his own head, getting lost in his own thoughts. He reminisced, memories flickering through his head, wispy shadows on an old cave wall. He saw himself, reading; himself, in school; himself, failing a flight lesson.

Books in a fireplace... a bleeding eye... his father shouting...

Oh, please not this again...

His concentration was broken--just in time--as his eye caught swift movement below him. Roads stood up and peered over the railing, curiosity piqued. He stared at the water as a familiar tingling feeling worked its way up his back.

It felt almost like a ley line--but that was impossible. After all, he hadn’t drank an Attunement potion since yesterday. And besides, there were only two places where he should have been able to feel a line. One was the Wilds, and that was miles away. And the other...

The Triangle. But surely they weren’t anywhere near it yet.

He peered out over the bow, searching. If it were indeed a line this strong, it would surely have a nexus somewhere along the—wait, there it was! Nearly a mile away, the waters converged into a raging maelstrom. He shuddered.

It was far larger than could have ever been produced naturally. Even from so far away, Roads could make out an eerie whitish glow that stood out against the fading sunlight. Above it, an ominous formation of clouds rotated along with the water below.

Perhaps he had been zoned out for longer than he thought. Perhaps they were in the Triangle after all...

"Hey Roads, you seeing that?"

The pegasus turned to find that Summer had noticed the storm, and was pointing to it in the distance.

"Yeah," he replied, crossing the undercarriage and making his way past the crates to the navigator's desk.

"What is it?"

Just a nexus, Roads thought, and was about to tell Summer the same, when suddenly he realized what it really was.

"It's the Sea Legs Maelstrom," he said in a whisper, now even more interested in the whirlpool.

"The what?"

"It's a famous nexus, named after Sea Legs, the sailor from the First Era who discovered it on a sea voyage in this area. Of course, back then, they didn't know what it really was; so everypony thought it was just an exceptionally large maelstrom. Well, actually, not everyone believed in it because the maelstrom doesn't manifest constantly--it surfaces and sinks all the time. So when sailors went back into the area, it was gone. Everyone thought Sea Legs was making it up.”

“Huh. I wish,” she interjected.

Roads shook his head. “I don’t. I mean, everypony thought it was just a myth, so if you think about it, we've just discovered a legend!" he said, thrilled.

Summer was somewhat less than impressed.

"Well, that's great, Roads, but your little myth over there is pulling us off course, and I'm not sure if there's anything I can do about it."

She looked so unconcerned that Roads didn't immediately grasp what she had just said.

"What do you mean?" he asked happily.

"What I mean is that this zeppelin is bulky and slow, and catching a lot of wind. Which means we’re headed right into that."

She gestured to the cloud formation roiling over the water. He looked over to see that they had indeed drifted far closer to the maelstrom than Summer had probably intended. What had been at least a mile away was now much closer.

"Well turn around, then! Don't fly through it!"

Roads felt panic rising in his chest. We're going to fly through the most famous kinetic nexus in Equestria?!

"Too late now,” she said with a shrug. “Hey, maybe if I would've seen it a bit earlier, we probably could've turned around. But at this point, the wind is at our backs, and if we turn sideways it'll be cutting across the whole side of the balloon. This thing is made for endurance, not maneuverability, you know."

She sounded entirely too unconcerned. They were beginning to pick up speed now, moving swiftly with the air that was being sucked into the nexus.

"So that's it? You aren't even going to try?!"

His fear was building; he didn't want to die in the first few hours of the trip—or at any other time, for that matter.

"Yep. Just figured I'd let you know. You might want to hold on to something so you don't get blown out. Tie yourself down, maybe," Summer said calmly.

“It’ll tear us to pieces!”

Summer shrugged. “We’ll survive.”

"You're crazy! Completely crazy! Chief, do you hear this? Tell her she's crazy!" Roads now had to shout over the sound of the wind.

Chief glanced over at them from the other side of the zeppelin and shrugged. He opened a crate next to him, drew a few lengths of rope from it, then began tying down their cargo.

"Oh that's just great. Wonderful. A few hours into the expedition and I'm already about to die at sea. That's just great," he fumed.

"If it helps, we've never lost a spec this early on," Summer said. "So you get to be the first. Now, don’t you feel special?”

Roads glared at her. The clouds were nearly upon them now, drawing closer as the zeppelin barrelled towards them. He turned and grabbed a rope that was strung around one of the larger boxes, anchoring himself down. Gritting her teeth, Summer hunched over the controls as Chief reached up to grab some of the metalwork on the undercarriage. There was a palpable sense of anticipation in the air as each of them finished securing themselves.

They didn't have to wait long.

After only a moment, the sound of the wind grew to a roar as the zeppelin began to shake and quiver with the force of the turbulence. The craft pierced the grey clouds, rain whipping violently through the windows as the balloon moved deeper into the dark abyss of the storm. Roads braced himself against the cargo as the vessel was buffeted by the winds, ears pounding with the roar of the wind. Lightning cracked across the darkened skies just outside of his window, thunder booming in his ears.

The zeppelin nearly turned sideways and he was thrown against a crate, the edge slicing into his forehead. The streaming blood obscured most of his vision. Still, he could barely make out Summer struggling with the controls, straining as she tried to keep the vessel on course. He wasn’t sure, but she seemed to be smiling.

She really is crazy, he thought, just before a gust of wind caught the front side of the balloon and jerked it sideways. He lost his hold on the rope and careened into the railing.

The backside of the balloon tipped steeply and sent Roads sliding backwards on the rain-soaked metal floor. For a moment, he was terrified that he might fall out of the balloon. Flight would be impossible in a storm this violent. He managed to catch himself on an anchored piece of cargo, and he held himself there, clenching the crate in fear-stricken hooves. He looked up to see that he had slid right next to Chief.

The earth pony hadn’t moved an inch.

The vessel quaked once again, more violently than before, and he heard a wrenching metallic sound. Somewhere above him one of the metal struts that held the balloon together was ripped from its base. To his right, several cargo ropes were shorn, letting supplies spill freely into the storm. The balloon gave one last shudder.

Suddenly an unsettling quiet came over them. The wind died, the zeppelin was still, and for a brief moment Roads thought they were out of the storm. Until, that was, he felt a horrifying tingle that spread throughout his body, a twisting, stinging feeling the likes of which he had never experienced before.

Moving to the side of the undercarriage, he stared out in awe. They were in the eye of the storm. A sickeningly large wall of clouds circulated around them, but there was no more wind. Instead, there was only a glowing mist and a strange magical hum.

Roads gazed down to see that they were hovering over the center of the vortex, its heart glowing in the rippling water. The nexus... A formless mass of magical energy that moved everything around it with a force unparalleled. It was massive and terrible, beautiful in its interminable power. The ultimate vindication of his study.

The peace was broken as quickly as it had started. The zeppelin soared into the other side of the cloud bank, and was jostled and buffeted even more intensely than before. As biting winds cut through the cabin, Roads clumsily made his way back to the center of the deck. He grabbed another rope as the floor beneath him heaved and shook.

There was a loud crack as another piece of the metal framework was shorn from the underside of the balloon. As the undercarriage lost another support, it tilted crazily. In his peripheral vision he could see that Summer was now slumped over the control panel. She had tied herself to the nearby navigator's table to keep from slipping away. The crystalline engine was running at full power, the propellor straining to move the vessel out of the storm. They were being sucked backwards, but Summer managed to keep the  zeppelin angled into the wind, giving the air as little purchase on it as she could.

As the unicorn strained to keep the craft upright, they moved steadily away from the heart of the storm. They flew more and more easily as they increased their distance. After a while, they finally escaped the pull of the tempest.

As soon as they were clear of the raging storm, Roads and Chief moved to help Summer. She had collapsed onto the control panel, horn glowing feebly as she strained to keep the vessel in line. It seemed she had used every last iota of energy keeping the zeppelin under control.

"Are you okay?" Roads asked.

"Yeah," she panted, a smile spreading across her face. "That was awesome."

Roads rolled his eyes. "You’re insane."

Her only reply was a shrug.

"What do we do now? We can't really keep flying, not like this," Roads said.

He gestured around at what remained of the cabin. It was in shambles. Most of the cargo had come loose and was spread across the floor, the contents of the boxes sopping wet on the metal floor. Above them, the latticework that held the zeppelin together was twisted and mangled, many of the iron struts ripped from their bases.

"Now?” she asked. “We land, I guess."

She pointed out the window, and Roads followed her hoof to see an island rising in the distance.

In the fading daylight, he could barely make it out. The sun sank behind the massive stretch of land as it set, painting its trees in a bloodred glow. In its center was a cylindrical, volcanic mountain, covered on all sides by trees waving steadily in the dying light, casting long, flickering shadows across their fellows. Pockets of darkness, hidden away from the sun, flickered serpentine and ethereal through the trees. The entire island was moving, eerie in its splendor. For a split second, Roads wanted to resist her suggestion.

"Why there?" he asked, eyeing the land in the distance.

"Why not? It's exactly the sort of thing we were hoping to find out here."

"What do you mean?"

"Here, look at this," Summer said. Opening one of the waterproof drawers of the navigator's table, she pulled out a map and spread it across the desk. She pointed to one area.

"We're right here, right in the middle of a part of the Triangle that's totally uncharted. See that island? It's not on the map. And it's huge. Even if we hadn't just nearly torn the Zephyr in half—"

"—You mean, even if you hadn't nearly torn the Zephyr in half..." Roads pointed out.

"—that would still be the sort of place we would need to set down and map out."

"And, if it's this close to that one line, it's sure to have more run through it..." he said, now a bit more optimistic about the prospect of exploring the island.

"Uh... Sure, I guess," Summer said, one eyebrow cocked.

"Well, alright then," Roads said, satisfied. He walked back across the zeppelin, leaving Summer to pilot the vessel.

_________________________________________________________

Within an hour, they had reached the island. On one side, there was a vast beach, where they landed and moored the zeppelin. It was designed to be docked in any environment, thank the Goddess, so they had little trouble.

Roads stepped quickly out onto the sand, glad to be back on dry ground. He lay down, exhausted, legs splayed, wings open.

His rest was interrupted when a heavy box landed in his lap. He looked up to see Chief scowling at him.

“Get to work. Gotta unload what’s left while the sun’s still out.”

Roads stood and helped Summer and Chief as best he could. As they unloaded food, water, surveying equipments, and the tents, he idled along, carrying whatever he could manage. It wasn’t much. He was dismayed, however, to find that his tent was missing.

"What do you mean it's gone?" he asked Chief, who towered over him, holding the inventory list.

"We lost a lot of cargo, your tent included. You'll have to go without it."

"But—"

"Allocation of resources goes as follows: Summer. Me. You. Got it?"

"But—"

"Don't argue," Summer chimed in, "There are two tents left, and good luck taking mine. If you want, you can see if Chief'll let you double up in his."

Roads looked up at Chief. Chief glared down at him.

"I'll sleep outside," he decided.

"Alright then. We'll sleep here for the night. Tomorrow we can move camp further inland. The light's fading, no use doing it now," Summer told them.

So they set out their tents while Chief disappeared into the woods on the edge of the beach to go get firewood. Roads and Summer popped the tops off of the food crates and set up the tents.

A moment later, the earth pony returned hefting a stack of logs.

        Roads looked at him curiously. “You didn’t take the axe.”

        Chief just stared at him.

        

“How’d you do that without the axe?”

        Chief set the logs down in the sand and shrugged. “They just break off,” he said.

        Roads blinked. He opened his mouth to say something more, then stopped. It wasn’t worth the effort. Turning, he saw Summer magically build a small campfire between the tents. He walked over and sat down on a rock beside it.

She rummaged through her sack, dug out a few tins of beans and a pack of dry rice, cooked them, and offered a plate to Roads. He took it and ate heartily, starving after such a rough day.

Chief, on the other hoof, happily found himself a few “dry ration bars”—which to Roads resembled nothing more than slabs of concrete—and retired to his tent, chewing contentedly.

The other two sat and ate silently, Summer too exhausted to make small talk, Roads too distracted by the scenery to care. Eventually, Summer finished her dinner and, taking a swig from her canteen, moved to her tent with a quick ‘goodnight.’ Roads returned the gesture, took a sleeping bag from one of the crates, and spread it across the sand.

He lay down on his back and gazed up into the moonlit sky, wondering what mysteries hid in the jungle, waiting to show themselves in the days to come.


His saddlebags are full of ashes, and his face is full of shame. His father says he has to bring them back. Atonement, he says.

He also says the glasses will hide the bruises. He stands in front of the library and tries to force himself to go in. It takes a while. Two cloud-doors open and he is standing in the building. He looks around. Empty, only a librarian and the books. Tomes with high faces, looking down on him with scorn. Their fellows are cinders and he carries their remains.

Roads finds his way up to the reception desk and rears to look over it. A librarian, turning to greet him. Smiling, auburn mane, shining spectacles. Finally, somepony happy to see him.

"Roads." A voice full of warmth.

"Miss Quill." The words echo with guilt.

"Here to return the books you borrowed last week?"

A nod. Slow and hesitant.

"I'll take them."

No movement. A sinking in his chest.

"Well, give them here."

No response.

"Roads?"

Bags opened slowly. A gasp. Ashes spilling out on the floor. Soot and shame collecting around his hooves.

"Roads, what happened?"

"I dropped them." Quiet, only a whisper. As if lies unheard are somehow better.

"In a fire?"

A nod. Her face looms before him. No anger, only confusion.

"I thought you were more careful than that..."

"I'm sorry."

"It's fine, dear."

She knows the father.

The compassion shocks him. The tears are coming now. Relief, not sorrow. He moves the sunglasses to brush them away. No one must see. Tears are shame.

It is all in vain, the glasses fall away. A black eye bared to the world, another gasp hanging in the air.

"What happened? Are you alright?"

"I fell down the stairs."

"You live in a one story house."

He averts his eyes and inspects the ashes around his hooves.  

"I fell down the stairs."

She nods, thinking.

"Why don't you find something else you like. Feel free to stay in here to read as long as you need. I wouldn't want anything else to end up in a fire." A wink.

A slow, sniffling nod.

"I'll be right back. I've got... uh, a letter to write. Pick out something off the shelf."

He goes to the bookshelves, she to the mailroom.

Roads will never see her letter. It will save his life.

IV

"Am I to doubt and yet be given to know

That where my demon guides me, there I go?

An island? Be it so.

For islands, after all is said and done,

Tell but a wilder game that was begun..."

-Edwin Arlington Robinson, An Island

A hoof nudged Roads awake. He jerked into consciousness and found that he had shifted in the night; he was lying with his face in the sand, almost in the coals from last night's fire.

"Rise and shine, sleeping beauty. We've got a lot to do today."

He rolled over to see Summer staring down at him.

"What time is it?" he groaned, wishing he could go back to sleep. He looked over to the horizon to see that the sun had only just risen.

"I dunno. Morning. Chief and I have been up for about an hour; you got to sleep in because we figured you'd wake up by sunrise. Seems we were sorely disappointed... but then, nopony ever made a mistake overestimating how soft specs can be, so we probably should've known better."

"It's too early," he said, rolling over. Had he not closed his eyes just then, he would have noticed Summer's devious grin.

"I'm afraid it doesn't quite work like that, spec," she said.

The orb of cold sea water she had been levitating behind her back crashed down into his face. In an instant, Roads sprung to his hooves, sputtering and shivering.

"What the hell? Why did you do that?" he shouted.

Chief looked up from across the camp and gave a small chuckle at the soaked pegasus.

"You didn't get up fast enough. We've got work to do today, spec, and I needed you awake," she explained, clearly relishing his discomfort.

"Mmff. Any coffee?"

"Nope. We had some caffeine tablets, but we lost them in the storm. If you really need to wake up, I could always just douse you again," Summer said.

"I'm good, thanks," he said with a groan.

A whole week without coffee? He couldn't remember the last time he'd started a day without a cup. Was it even possible to function without it? He wasn't sure.

"Hmm... well, if you're sure. If you need to, bathe in the ocean," she said, tossing him a bar of soap. "But be quick about it. We've got so much time and so little to do. Wait," she paused, thinking. "Strike that. Reverse it."

Trying to shake off his sleepiness, Roads walked across the beach and waded into the water. His skin went numb and his muscles quivered; the ocean was frigid. After a quick cleansing, he emerged, now awake—but freezing.

"Cold?" Summer asked as he walked back to camp. She sat on a stone, cooking breakfast over the fire she had built atop last night’s coals.

"Freezing," he replied.  

"Mhm. It's like that this time of year. Something to do with the currents or something—I never really paid attention in oceanography class back in school. Eggs?" she asked.

"Sure," he said, taking a plate. He glanced down at the greenish-yellow mass Summer had lumped onto his dish. “Uh, are you sure these are eggs?” he asked.

“No, not really,” she said, pausing to glance down at her plate. “But they were in a tin marked ‘edible,’ so they should be fine.”

He sighed and took a bite. "So, what exactly do we have to do today?" he asked between bites.

"Well, we've gotta move the camp inland, for a start. If we keep having to come back to the beach every night, we'll never get anything done."

"And after that?"

"Then we start the fun stuff. Surveying. I've got to get a basic map of this half of the island laid out, then start doing some rough topography estimates, then we'll move on to the other half."

"And what am I supposed to do during all this?"

"Well, after I get the groundwork laid, you can go on and do your whole 'island magic' thing. Today, though, you're on herbological detail. Magical plants and the like are apparently all the rage in Canterlot, so usually we bring a naturalist. You know, gotta find new species and such. Unfortunately, the Aggregate wouldn’t send more than a three pony crew. Weren’t willing to lose any more than that, I guess.”

Roads paled. “Uh—”

“—They said you were a passable alchemist, though, so we figured you'd do. Then we wouldn't have to bring along another spec, you see. It's a fairly simple job, really. Basically, if you see any weird plants or something out there, you write it down and take a sample. You should be able to handle it,” she explained.

"Hold on, I'm not wasting a day picking flowers for you! I've got six days to study magic out here, nothing more."

"And tomorrow you'll have five."

Roads groaned. "If I can't finish my research now, I'll have to wait months to get another chance to study this island!" He scowled, feeling his feathers ruffle as tension roiled in his stomach.

"Too bad," she shrugged. She hadn't even moved from her rock. Instead, she had reclined, forelegs crossed behind her head.

"That's it? It's the only reason I'm out here, and you're just going to dismiss it? Just like that?" he asked.

"Pretty much. You're just a spec. What you do out here isn’t exactly our highest priority."

"Maybe I'll just go out on my own then, and get some real work done!"  

"Well, if that's what you want, feel free to go off exploring this island by yourself. Chief and I can map this place out while you get lost.” She paused, eying him. “Or eaten."

Roads glanced over to the darkened edge of the forest, into the shadows of the swaying fronds, and a shudder passed through him. As much as he hated not getting to study the island, he wasn't going into that jungle alone.

"Fine. I'll handle herbological detail. But only for today, " he said, grudgingly.

Inside, he still fumed. Plants grew everywhere; the magical properties of this island were unique, and he was missing a rare chance to study them.

"Good. I was hoping I wouldn’t have to lose another spec.”

She turned to Chief, who had replaced the cart they had lost in the storm by fashioning a makeshift sled out of a medical stretcher.  There was little enough of the cargo left that he had managed to pack most of it onto the sled.

“Ready to head out?" she asked.

He gave a stiff nod, and Summer quickly folded her tent, draping it over her saddlebags. Roads rolled up his bedding, stuffed it in his pack, and hefted it over his back. Summer's dismissal left a bitter taste in his mouth, but he trudged up to meet his comrades at the edge of the jungle, anyway.

At the edge of the sands rose an impressive wall of flora. Thick ferns sprung up under massive ivy wrapped trees, vast palms that towered over leaning branches of bamboo. For a moment, Roads was inclined to stop and find an easier path inland, but Chief simply crashed headlong through the plants, a thunderous snapping noise announcing his entry into the forest.

Roads turned to see Summer following closely behind the earth pony, hacking and slashing with magic at anything green in her path. With a sigh, he trudged over and began to plod along behind the two, walking hesitantly in the trails they left.

"Where exactly are we going?" he asked.

"To find fresh water. If we find any near the middle of the island, that's where we're setting up camp."

"How are we supposed to find it? By just cutting our way through the jungle until we come upon a stream?"

"Nope. There's water about a klick north of here," Summer replied.

"How do you know?"

"Freshwater detection spell. One of the only advanced spells I ever bothered to learn."

"Not big on magic?" he asked.

"Not big on anything that requires reading. Too stuffy. I'm more of the outdoorsy type," she said, tearing her way through a particularly dense fern. "If you hadn't noticed."

"Never would've guessed."

 As they progressed, the jungle grew darker. Roads looked up to see that massive tropical trees had formed a dense canopy far above them. The foliage here thinned, choked by the lack of light.

What was left, though, was massive. Flytraps with gleaming white pods towered over them, hanging above gargantuan hoya flowers. Still larger were the wide-fronded ferns that fell before them, crushed against giant habisci. Roads wondered if the size of the vegetation had something to do with the innate magic of the island. It was disturbing. The size of the flora made keeping track of their surroundings difficult. He felt lost, disoriented, anxious.

The feeling wasn’t helped by his physical discomfort. This place was nothing like the Everfree—it was hot and muggy, so humid Roads wasn’t breathing, so much as he was slowly drowning in the open air. His legs burned from walking, and every so often he would step through a patch of brambles or sawgrass and feel the plants cut into his calves.

Before long, he realized the blood from the cuts attracted mosquitoes. That, or the parasitic bugs just found his shins excruciatingly appealing. Roads heaved a sigh as he slapped away a swarm of the flies. This wasn’t what he had expected at all. He had hoped for more people, and less jungle. Or, at the very least, to be able to actually do the research he came all the way out here for...

Eventually, the party made its way into a depression cut between tall, craggy ridges. They opted to travel through the gorge rather than climb over the steep hills.

The ground here was soft and soggy, teeming with pale mushrooms and verdant mosses, nothing to impede them. Before them stretched a path that was several hundred meters long and nearly ten wide, isolated from the rest of the jungle. For a moment, the trio stopped to catch their breaths and take a break.

As they rested, Roads began to get the uncanny feeling that he was being stalked. He shook it off.

It was probably nothing.

"That stuff's thick," Summer said, panting.

"Seen worse," came Chief's reply.

He unhinged himself from the makeshift sled, drew out a few strips of bandage, and set to work covering the scrapes and cuts left on his chest and forelegs by the thick underbrush.

"Doesn't that hurt?" Roads asked.

"Used to it," Chief said as he patched himself up. Suddenly he stiffened and glanced around, head swiveling, eyes wide. "We're being watched," he growled to Summer.

Roads felt the blood drain from his face. Summer didn’t even blink.

"I know,” she said, her tone even. “They can't tell we've seen them, though. Where?"

"What are you talking about?” Roads butted in. “What's going—"

"Shh," Summer said, cutting him off. "Chimeras, they're—"

"What?!" Roads shouted.

"Shut up!" Summer hissed. "Don't let them know we’ve seen them yet. Chimeras prefer to ambush their prey, they won't attack yet—unless they know we're on to them. Act like you don't know they're there."

"Chimeras?!" Roads' wings flared open, ready for flight. He could barely force himself to stay on the ground.

"What? You're surprised to find predators on an island this big? Really?" Summer asked.

"Well..."

"They're all over these islands," Chief said. "Clever little beasts. Always trying to get the jump on the prey. Probably hunt in this gorge all the time."

"Where?" Summer asked.

"Two on the ridge, two in the front, two behind. Hiding for now." Chief replied.

"So we're trapped?" Roads asked.

A few beads of cold sweat trickled down his neck. He had read about survivors of chimera attacks. He had read even more about those who had died in them. The only thing they liked more than jungles was the taste of pony flesh. They were lion headed, snake tailed, dragon middled, fire-breathing beasts that stood almost as tall as Summer and only left behind the mangled bones of their victims.

"Don't worry. I've seen 'em on islands like these before,” Summer said. “Haven’t been eaten yet. Just back up, real slow, against the wall. Don't make any sudden movements yet. Try to keep your eyes open, and either me or Chief in between you and anything with pointy teeth. You're just a spec, so don't try to get in on the fun of chimera wrestling just yet.”

Roads gulped as he backed against the wall, eyeing Chief and Summer as they faced opposite ways down the path, moving slowly and carefully with a confidence and grace he utterly lacked. His knees knocked as he waited; he could feel the eyes of the beasts upon him.

He remembered reading a book about how predatory animals always targeted the weakest of a pack first. What was the example again? Something about lions picking off the sickly gazelles in the savanna. He'd always felt pity for them, unable to defend themselves against their impending doom...

"Alpha, leading down the gorge on this side," Chief called.

"It's starting.”

"Yep."

"I'll make the first move," Summer said.

Roads took a panicked breath, and shut his eyes.

"I see the first one from this side. I'll take it in three... two...”

The sound of rocks falling echoed through the gorge.

“He's down!" she shouted.

Roads’ eyes jerked open when he heard a feral roar. He twisted his head to see one of the chimeras fall to the ground, trapped under a boulder Summer had magically ripped from the canyon wall.

All at once, predators descended on them, some leaping down from the ridge, others sprinting down the gorge. He barely saw the beasts rush down at him, howling and screeching, before panic enveloped him.

His vision grew tight—he panicked. He felt death closing in at all sides—adrenaline pumping through his system—taking to the skies—leaving behind Summer and Chief. The roars of the animals filled his ears—visions of their massive teeth and claws tearing at his flesh—shooting out of the gorge like a bullet—flying faster than he ever had before. A sick feeling welled up in his stomach as he barreled away from his companions.

_________________________________________________________

Far below him, Summer had already dispatched two of the animals. One lay on the ground, unconscious after being thrown into a wall; the other was motionless, trapped under the boulder. A third leapt at her, teeth bared, mouth gushing flames. She barely had time to erect a magical barrier before the beast reached her. The chimera crashed into the enchanted wall and it folded in, shattering. The animal fell onto Summer, stunned from the collision, but still very much alive.

Meanwhile, Chief had already downed his first attacker, one of the smaller, more foolish predators who had charged him only to have its skull crushed by a massive hoof. Now he faced down the two remaining chimeras. The alpha and his mate. They kept their distance, lashing out with claws and flames, though Chief stayed well out of range. Eventually, the smaller one got too close, and found itself tackled by the earth pony. His back hoof crushed its snake headed tail, and as it tried to bathe him in flames, Chief collapsed its windpipe with a blow to the throat.

Still, the beast found purchase with its draconic claws and raked his underbelly, opening wide gashes as the pony grunted in pain. Chief thrust himself off of the animal as its companion charged towards him, opening its jaws for a fatal strike. The crushing bite met only air. Chief dodged away from the attacker, bashing its side as he retreated. Ribs broken, the thing roared in pain as its underling gagged and hissed on the ground, trying desperately to breathe again.

The alpha male charged him again, flames pouring from its mouth. This time Chief darted into the fire, head down, baring the brunt of it with one shoulder. He winced as his coat singed away, but quickly caught the chimera around the throat. Momentum carrying him into the air, he pulled the animal off the ground.

For a moment the two hung almost still, the chimera clawing at his legs as he crushed the life out of it. After a second, the two hit the ground, Chief on top as he slammed its head into the dirt. The thing hissed and roared, its venomous tail pinned underneath it, desperately slicing with its foreclaws at Chief. He beat its head once more into the ground and the beast ceased its struggle.

Chief rose, and, seeing the other chimera trying to rise, ended it with a swift kick to the head. As roars and shouts echoed across the canyon walls, he turned to see Summer struggling with the last animal. She lay on the ground underneath it, desperately pinning the serpentine tail with her rear legs as she held its head away from her. Fortunately for her, its two foreclaws were pinned beneath her back, harmless beneath their combined weight.

Sprinting over to her, the earth pony bit down on the back of the chimera’s neck, and with a flick of his neck, hurled it away. With a sickening thud, it smashed into the rocky wall and fell motionless to the ground.

He helped up Summer, who, with but a few mild burns and gashes, seemed only slightly worse for the wear. Trudging over to the boulder-trapped chimera, he leaned down and quietly brained it with one hoof.

"Sweet Princess, Chief, doesn't that hurt?" she asked, looking him over.

He glanced down to see that his right shoulder was burnt to a crisp, and his coat was stained red with blood.

"Used to it," he grunted.

He found the first aid kit he had been using earlier, handed it to Summer and eased himself into a sitting position to let her bind his wounds.

Thank the Princesses for stitches and burn salve...

"You gonna be alright?" she asked.

"Yeah. You?"

Summer shrugged. "I’ll survive." She patched the major wounds, then looked up and realised something.

"Hey, Chief? Where the hell is Roads?"

"Flew off," he growled.

"I’m going to kill him," she growled.

Chief grunted in agreement.

_________________________________________________________

Panic. Distress.

His heart beat loudly in his chest—louder than the wind in his ears. His mouth was dry, his eyes wide—flying frantically across the island—heading for the beach. Behind him, the roars of the chimeras faded. His terror remained. Every shadow between the trees was a predator; every cloud a bird of prey, swooping in to devour him—everything fading into a haze of hysteria and terror.

Finally, he reached the beachfront—fear passing slowly—near where their camp had been the night before. He wasn’t sure why he had come here—he could be attacked on the sand as easily as anywhere else. Nowhere else to go.

Folding his wings, he landed hard. He whirled around to stare at the jungle, breathing heavily with aching lungs. For a moment, he thought he would be sick. Eventually, though, his fear began to subside, fading away as he gazed into the forest. Roads tried to collect himself and his thoughts, but his mind continued to race.

Princess alive, they're going to be pissed that I left them there! Was I told that I had to stay? I think it was implied—they'll skin me alive when they see me again! Unless the chimeras got them... he gasped as a second bolt of fear ran through him.

What if they're dead? What if I left them and now they're dead? What will Celestia think? How will I even get back home? I can't pilot a zeppelin, and I sure can't survive by myself out here long enough to be rescued. Even if I could survive I'd never get rescued; no one even knows where we are! I'll have to go find them...

He dreaded returning to the gorge, but he had to know if he was going to be alone on the island. Unfurling his wings, he took off once more.

It took him a while to find the canyon; he had been so terrified before that he could hardly recall where he had been flying. Finally, though, he located the twin ridges that formed it and dove towards the gorge. As he flew closer, he noticed two spots, brown and blue, moving below him.

They were alive, thank Celestia! Perhaps they wouldn't even notice he had left them. What was he even supposed to do anyway? He was scrawny and helpless, utterly unsuited for combat. How was he supposed to defend himself? Surely they would understand that he had simply recognized that he couldn't further the situation, so he removed himself from it. Fear never entered into it. Never. He was just doing what was logical.

How he hoped Chief would see it that way.

When he landed, he was greeted by an icy smile from Summer. Perhaps she didn't mind his absence.

"Oh, Roads, so glad you could join us."

Perhaps not. Her voice was cold and malicious, burning with a disgust only thinly veiled by a disturbing pleasantness.

"Oh, uh, hey. Good to see you're alright. I see the chimeras have been dealt with..." he said, looking over the bodies of the predators. He attempted a grin, but could manage only a sheepish grimace.

"How nice to see you're concerned with our well being. Have a nice trip?"

Her voice dripped with sarcasm and her eyes bored into him. If she could kill with a glare, Roads would've died then and there.

"Um, yes, well, sorry about that."

He could not meet her gaze.

"Oh, quite alright. The penalty for desertion is normally death, you see, but—"

"—desert? I never deserted! What could I have done? I was just leaving to let the two of you—" he tried to explain, but Summer cut him off.

"Stop. Stop right there. You’ve screwed up once already, don't you dare feed me an excuse!” Her voice rose with unbridled wrath, a cold fury that left Roads feeling tiny and insignificant, an ant about to be crushed. “You will take responsibility for your actions on this expedition. No excuses. Am I clear?" All pretenses evaporated. Her false smile was gone, leaving behind a burning scowl.

"Y-yes," he said with a gulp.

He was not sure she was right, but he was not going to make the mistake of voicing that particular opinion.

At that, Summer restrained herself once more, and when she spoke again, her voice was lowered. "Good then. As I was saying, the penalty for desertion is usually death. That's how I wanted to deal with this. But you got lucky. Chief was in a particularly merciful mood today, despite being charred nearly to a crisp. Isn't that right, Chief?" she turned her head to look at him.

From his seat on the medical stretcher, Chief gave an affirmative grunt as he brushed dried blood off his face. "So," she continued, "instead of being beheaded, you've only been demoted."

"Demoted? What do you mean?! You can't do that, I just—"

"Shut up," Chief growled. "You left your team. Coward. At least take your punishment like a stallion."

Take it like a stallion... Roads had heard those words before. They echoed loud through his mind. All of his explanations and excuses faded away as he realised just how wrong he was. Something sank in his chest, and he hung his head, not willing to look Chief in the eye.

"Where was I? Oh, yeah. Demoted. Right. Anyway, since you've made it very clear that you can't handle being a spec, you've been field demoted. And you might ask, in your ignorance, 'but Summer, what station could possibly be more degrading and base than that of a lowly spec?'

“Well, I'm glad you asked, Roads, because I've an answer for you: pack mule. Here's how this works: you carry our stuff—all of it—wherever we go, and in return, we don't tie you to a stake in the middle of this gorge and leave you to rot. Maybe if you work hard enough, you can get re-promoted. Or not. That's up to you. But—listen carefully, I’m only saying this once—if you ever even think about pulling shit like this again, you're done. Over. Capisce?" Summer asked.

Roads nodded his head, feeling a sudden pressure on his shoulders as Chief strapped the sled across it. The other two tossed their bags onto the sled, and their weight ground it into his back. Roads gave a small sigh. 

I deserve this, he thought. His mistake was clear to him now, burning in his mind, all of his excuses replaced by a seething self-loathing. His father had been right the whole time. He didn’t belong out here, or even deserve to be on the trip in the first place. He was weak. And now Summer and Chief knew, and now they hated him. Wonderful. He’d had something perfect going, and it had only taken him twenty-four hours to blow it.

Great job, Roads, bang-up job, he thought. One day into a research job and you already alienated your coworkers and got yourself demoted. Fantastic work.

"Ready to go?" Summer asked, eyeing him.

"Sure," he sighed.

The two turned to leave, and Roads struggled to follow them. It took him a few tries to get the sled moving, and once it did it dragged heavily across the ground. Under its weight, he had to strain to move at a pace just slower than walking.

Chest heaving, he managed to walk all the way to the end of the gorge, where the ground steeped into an incline, merging with the flattened ridges. Halfway up the slope, though, he could pull it no farther.

"Can you help me out?" He called to Chief, "I can't move this."

"Don’t tell me you won’t. Just move."

"I didn't say I wouldn't, I said I couldn't!"

"Same thing." Chief glared at him and turned away.

Roads sighed. Seemed he would be on his own on this one. Gritting his teeth, he pulled as fiercely as he could. Slowly, the sled began to move, inching its way through the mud as he clawed his way to the top of the hill. After nearly a minute, he had moved fifty feet to where the incline leveled off. He stopped for a moment, panting, and wiped the sweat from his brow.

"Let's go," Summer said, "daylight's burning."

With a shrug he moved on. As they moved away from the canyon, the foliage thickened once more, and Roads was forced to follow the narrow paths left by Chief as he struggled to drag his new burden. Legs aflame as he pressed on, all Roads could think was 'I deserve this.' Periodically, Summer would look back to make sure he was keeping up with the group.

Each time she did, his face burned with shame.

They walked farther and farther, making their way to a lake Summer estimated was only a half-mile away. As they moved, Roads breath grew ragged and heavy, his back aching, his neck sore. He wondered if he could make it all the way to the new campsite, but he knew he could not give up. Even as his body threatened to collapse, he pressed on, muscles exhausted, mouth dry, silently desperate to prove his worth to himself and to his colleagues. The weight of the sled was nothing compared to total humiliation.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, the party came upon a wide, steady stream. They followed its bank a ways to the north to find a small, glistening lake. It was perhaps the most beautiful thing Roads had ever laid eyes on.

Cool and clear, the trees around it thinned into a rocky shore that lined smooth, glassy waters that sparkled under the sun. On one edge, the bank was interrupted by a series of asperous cliffs that jutted from the water, towering over the rippling pool. By the time they reached it, Roads felt as though he was on the verge of passing out. His legs wobbled underneath him. He couldn’t get his eyes to focus, and he was beginning to gag on his own tongue.

"We done?" he asked Summer, his voice slurred from exhaustion.

"Not yet. I figure it'd be best to set up camp on the other side of the lake."

He couldn't tell if she actually meant it, or if she was just tormenting him. He groaned inwardly, but made an effort not to give off a sign of his despair.

"Alright then."

Had he been less delirious, he might have noticed Summer studying his reaction, but at the moment, he was having trouble even standing up properly. If she was satisfied with his answer, she didn't show it, instead turning around and continuing around the lake. He followed her to the opposite bank, stopping where the shoreline met the cliffs. After Roads moved next to one of the stony outcroppings, Chief unhinged him from the stretcher and he collapsed. Dragging himself a few feet to the edge of the lake, he drank greedily from the fresh, cool water.

Having drunk his fill, he got to his hooves and staggered back to the new camp, where Summer and Chief had already unpacked their things and arranged the tents against the cliff. They stacked the now unloaded cargo around them, forming a circle around a firepit Chief had dug and lined with large stones.

Roads made his way into the camp and collapsed onto one of the rocks, his legs numb and weak from the trip. He closed his eyes as he lay against the stone, resting. It was cool and smooth, comfortable against his aching limbs. He was just getting settled when he felt a hoof nudge his ribs.

"All right, we've got more work to do, I've got an island to map, and you've got some herbs to pick. Ready to be a spec again?" Summer asked.

"I guess," he said, opening an eye to look at her.

It seemed his punishment was over. Somehow, it didn't feel over. He still cringed with humiliation under Summer's scrutiny, chest tight with shame.

"You guess?" she asked, eyeing him closely.

"Yeah."

Summer looked down on the pegasus, who seemed to shy away from her words like a dog expecting to be hit, and gave a sigh.

"Alright, then. Let's go. We've got a good bit of area to cover. Check the crates for sampling equipment and our ecological journal, then let's head out."

Roads nodded and struggled to his hooves. He rolled out his sleeping bag and emptied the contents of his pack onto it. After making his way to the cargo, he found an odd assortment of clippers, vials, mounting pastes and papers, and a miniature plant press. He shoved them in his pack and heaved it over his aching shoulders. Groaning as the newly filled sacks weighed on his back, he tottered over to Summer. She stood at the edge of the lake, marking down a series of numbers and illustrations as she peered through what looked to be a small, tripod-mounted telescope, replete with a complex array of tiny knobs, levers, and levels.

"What's that?"

"Theodolite. Measures horizontal and vertical angles so I can get precise information on distances and such. Makes mapmaking easy."

"I see."  He didn't.

After a moment, Summer pulled away from the 'theodolite,' and her horn began to glow, casting a translucent blue aura around her eyes. She stood still for a few seconds, staring at something Roads could not see, then turned abruptly.

"This way," she said.

Chief, who had been assembling a makeshift barrier around the camp out of logs and sharpened sticks, heard her and rose from his work to meet her at the edge of the forest. Summer marched confidently off into the jungle, levitating a sun compass and the theodolite behind her. Fortunately for the now heavily bandaged Chief, the jungle was thinner here. He and Roads were able to easily follow Summer as she made her way through the trees. Every so often, she would stop, set down her equipment and take a few minutes to mark down illegible scribbles onto one of the sheaves of papers she carried with her.

Whenever she did this, Roads found himself free to scout out the area for anything green, interesting, and unusual. He did so silently and compliantly. It was hard to feel entitled when he was so busy kicking himself for screwing up.

It helped that he found the job not entirely dissatisfying. As he worked, he came across a wide variety of enchanted plants, most of which were not uncommon. Every so often, he would come across an herb he didn’t recognize, but for the most part, the magical plants here were similar to those in the Everfree—though larger, and much more potent.

He found this especially true when the group was forced to circumvent an entire field of dark brown flowers that grew almost to the height of his chest and gave off a foul, rancid odor. Chief cracked his neck and stepped forward, ready to thrash his way through them.

“Stop,” Roads called out, grabbing him by the tail.

“What?” the earth pony grunted.

“It’s baneweed. Walk through it, and you won’t be able to keep food down for three weeks.”

“Roads, that’s not baneweed,” Summer said. “I’ve seen that stuff before. Baneweed flowers are tiny and grey, nothing like this.”

“Maybe in some places, but in the Everfree, it looks and smells just like this. Only smaller.”

“See? ‘Smaller.’ Stuff’s not baneweed.”

“Have you noticed that every plant on this island is about twice as large as it should be? You think the poisonous stuff is going to be any different?”

Summer narrowed her eyes. “Fine. Better safe than sorry. Let’s head around it, Chief.”

He noticed her mark a few coordinates on her papers along with a large 'X.' He carefully took a sample of the plants, then the three moved on.

They worked for hours, following Summer as she wandered across half the island, stopping frequently to work on her map. Roads did his job as quietly as possible, ego still smarting from his punishment. He tried to draw as little attention to himself as he could, and was happy his two colleagues were virtually ignoring him.

After a while, he had nearly filled his bags with samples of magical herbs. The size and potency of the plants intrigued him. Roads wondered if it could have something to do with the powerful magical properties of the land itself. He was hesitant to make any judgements, however, as his Attunement potion had long since worn off, and he was unable to tell anything about the magic of the island.

Still, one couldn't help but wonder...

The island did seem to have plenty of places suitable for nexi. As he followed Summer through the green overgrowth of the jungle, they came across numerous geological aberrations. The unicorn seemed to sense the presence of grottos and springs and craggy fissures; she led them to numerous areas where the grass and trees appeared to have been cleared by magical forces.

Finally, Roads had to ask.

"How are you doing that?"

"What?"

"Finding landmarks like that. Stumbling across them is one thing, but you're leading us straight to them."

"It's called an eagle eye spell. Lets me see nearly the whole island from above."

"I've never heard of it."

Roads was not an expert on arcane magic, but in his reading he had still come across almost every type of spell imaginable.

"Figures you wouldn't have. It's not exactly useful to your average unicorn, so it doesn't get brought up that much outside of cartological circles."

"Huh. Still, I should’ve at least heard of it."

Roads made a mental note to look up the spell later. Summer just shrugged and went back to work.

Eventually, after the three had covered nearly every inch of the island on one side of the volcanic mountain, the sun began to dip slowly across the horizon. Summer declared them finished for the day, and the group turned to make their way back to camp. Trekking across streams and fallen trees, they came upon a strange grove they had not discovered before.

Here, rows of squat trees grew in perfect lines, each of them covered in odd yellow flowers. The trio moved into the grove slowly, perplexed by the unnatural pattern of the flora. Besides grass, no other plants grew along the bases of the trees, which were each spaced almost exactly five meters from each other, creating a perfect grid.

Summer immediately pulled out her papers and began to scribble down notes across them. Moving tensely between the trees, Chief stalked about the grove like a tiger, scowling as he searched.

"Something's not right here," he said, measuring out the distance between the trees and finding it even. His eyes darted this way and that, head swiveling at every sound. "The trees didn't just grow. They were planted. Cultivated."

"This island is uninhabited," Summer replied. "It wasn't even on the map."

That did little to ease his tension.

Roads, on the other hoof, didn’t share his companions' apprehension. As they discussed the grove, he turned and lurched away from them, inspecting one of the trees. Approaching it, he reared and grabbed one of the branches, bending it down to inspect one of the flowers.

It appeared to be a sort of lotus, round and yellow, the tips of its petals open wide, circling around a gleaming white core.

That's strange, he thought, lotuses don't grow on trees. I've never seen anything like it.

Dripping with a strange nectar, the flowers gave off an odd, sweet scent that made Roads' stomach growl. Some of them had borne fruit. He picked some of it, suddenly intensely hungry in a way only the mysterious pome could satisfy.

Ordinarily, he would never have eaten anything off of a strange tree growing on a magical island, but the longer he held the fruit, the harder it became to think straight. The inhibitions faded away as his brain became increasingly addled.

Before he could think to stop himself, he stuffed half of the fruit into his mouth, chewing voraciously. The fruit was sweet and juicy, better tasting than anything he had eaten in months. The sensation was surreal, and as he ate, a warmth and contentment spread through his body. Hunger sated, he walked back over to Summer and and Chief. Sitting down next to them, he swallowed, an odd euphoria washing over him.

"...it's not natural. We aren't alone here," Chief was saying to Summer.

"Hey, guys..." he said, his voice slurring, a strange smile spreading across his face as he took another bite of the lotus-fruit.

Summer turned to him, and was about to reply, when her eyes grew wide.

"Roads, what are you eating?"

"I dunno," he said, swallowing the last of the fruit, "I found it on one of the trees. It's really good, you should try it."

"What?" Summer leapt to her feet. "You ate Apathy Lotus? What were you thinking?"

"Is that what it's called?"

Roads couldn't understand her alarm. Why yell? Everything was so wonderful. He felt enveloped in a warm, content glow, and as he looked around him, his surroundings seemed softer. Hard lines disappeared, dark colors tuning into bright, happy hues. He wanted to stay on this island forever. It was so pleasant here.

"Idiot," Chief said gruffly.

Roads turned to look him. Such a nice pony. He'd never really noticed before just how charming Chief could be; he had such a way with words. So handsome, too. Those scars really complimented his physique. He couldn't think of anypony who could possibly be a better friend—he was always ready for conversation, always ready to listen. Roads was glad they were conversing. It was just... nice.

"Thank you," he said with a smile, his eyelids drooping.

Chief gave a dismissive snort.

"Roads, that fruit you ate was magical. It causes delirium and euphoria. And total, utter, uselessness. But then, I guess that wouldn’t be much of a change," Summer said.

He looked over to her as he laid down on the soft, cushy grass. Wow. She was so beautiful. He hadn't caught that before. With her partially matted, uncombed mane, and stiff, efficient movement, she was the essence of feminine grace. So lovely.

“That’s okay. Everything’s okay.” He stared at her and smiled. “You’re really nice. I’m glad we met.”

She buried her face in her hooves. That was cute. She was cute. She probably had to beat the stallions off with a stick back home. He'd never really met a girl like that. Except for maybe Ditsy. And also, Chelsea. And everypony. Everypony was just so great. He really liked everypony.

"You know what I'd like to do?" he asked his companions.

They didn't ask what he would like to do, so he continued.

"I'd like to give the world a hug. I mean it. All of it. I just wanna hug the whole world, and everything in it. Starting with you, Chief." Roads made a slow, unsteady movement towards Chief, forelegs wide, and was bowled over by a hoof to the face.

"Close enough," he said.

He smiled euphorically up at him from his spot on the ground. He tried to stand again, but all of his muscles seemed so loose. Like gelatin.

He liked gelatin.

Summer slipped a foreleg under one of his and lifted him from the ground. "Let's get you back to the camp," she sighed, steadying the pegasus as he swayed on his hooves. Chief nodded as Summer magically lifted Roads into the air and draped him over the earth pony’s back.

"Why thank you," he said, giggling from his spot on Chief.

Summer was so helpful.

"Hey Summer?" he asked.

"What?"

"You wanna go with me to the ball? I don't have a date yet."

He tried to flash her a winning smile, but his lips didn’t seem to be working properly. The end result was a lopsided rictus grin. Good enough.

"What are you talking about?" she asked flatly.

"The island ball. Where all the islanders dance. At the ball. On the island."

How had she not heard? He thought everypony had heard. He'd most certainly heard, though he couldn't remember when. Come to think of it, he couldn't remember much of anything. Oh well. It wasn't anything to worry about. Nothing was anything to worry about.

"No," Summer replied.

"Okay then. Suit yourself."

"Why couldn't he have eaten something that would shut him up?" Chief grumbled.

"Eaten what? Do we have food? Can we stop? I'm hungry. I think I'd like a hamburger," Roads said. He had very suddenly found it difficult not to say whatever popped into his head.

"You'd like a what?" Summer asked.

"A hamburger."

"What's that?"

"I dunno."

Summer sighed. For a moment, they walked in relative silence, only the sounds of the island birds and bugs breaking the stillness. Then another thought occurred to Roads.

"Hey, guys, did you ever think about birds?" he asked, eyes wide.

"...no?"

"Because I was just thinking... like, what if there were birds that could talk? Did you ever think about that?"

"...no." Summer said flatly. "Don’t talk so much."

"Okay." Roads nodded sagely, then stared off into the distance, eyes unfocused, lost in his own mind.

Summer eyed him as they walked. She supposed it wasn't his fault that he had eaten hallucinogens—he didn't know any better—but that didn't make him any less annoying. Though she supposed it was entertaining to watch him get under Chief's skin; at the moment, the earth pony was nearly trembling with suppressed rage and frustration. She chuckled at him for a moment, then looked up to see that they had reached the camp.

"Home!" Roads babbled excitedly.

Chief shrugged him off of his back, dumping the pegasus into the dirt.

"Got anything that'll fix him?" he asked.

"I don't think Roads can ever be fixed—but I do know a way to reverse the effects of the lotus," she said with a smile.

Her horn glowed, and Roads was enveloped in a blue aura. The magic lifted him off to the ground and sent him sailing into the lake. For a moment, the water was still, then Roads burst through the surface of the pond, hacking and gagging.

"What the hell?!" he cried between coughs.

"Well, that was easy," Summer remarked to Chief.

He gave a dismissive grunt and lumbered over to his tent.

"What's going on?" Roads shouted from the water as he paddled to the shore. "What happened?" His eyes grew wide as memories from the past twenty minutes made their way slowly back into his brain. "Oh, no. No, no, no... What was I talking about?!" he asked in dismay as he climbed out of the lake.

"No idea," Summer replied, sitting down to start a fire.

"I'm an idiot," he said, drying himself off. "A grade-A moron."

"Yeah, well, that's what Chief kept telling you. I believe you said something along the lines of 'thank you.'"

"What was that stuff?"

"Apathy Lotus. Grows occasionally on islands in the Triangle, and never anywhere else."

"I'd never heard of it, I swear!"

"Well, I figured."

Summer popped open a cargo crate and began cooking dinner. Moving over to the fire, Roads sat back against a rock, resting aching legs, and sighed.

"It doesn't matter though. They say ignorance is no excuse for stupidity."

Summer looked over at him, unspeaking, and cocked an eyebrow. She had figured something like this would be coming.

"And that's all I've done today, isn’t it? Act stupid and drag your stuff around," he paused for a moment, pressing a hoof against his forehead.

"Geez, I mean, it was just one thing after another. First desertion, then I nearly passed out walking to camp, then this? And I never even got any real work done. Never did what I was sent out here to do. Never mind that I was supposed to be picking herbs—I mean, I didn't even do that right! I got high off the plants I was supposed to be taking samples of.

“It's stuff like that that makes me wonder if I should even be out here. I mean, it's obvious I don't belong out here, on an island. And, really, I don't belong with you guys."

He looked up at Summer, who stood next to the fire, cooking dinner. He wasn't sure if she was listening, but he continued. Talking put him at ease, loosening the tightness in his chest.

"It's just like Chief is always saying, you know? I'm 'soft.' Not all outdoorsy like you two, just a soft, squishy race-traitor who never should've left the library. I don't fit in out here, and you guys hate me for it. I mean, really hate me. And why shouldn't you? I'm a screwup. Have been all my life..."

He stared pensively into the fire. He was quiet for long enough that Summer finally looked up at him.

"Oh, is that it? Done feeling sorry for yourself? Is the pity party over, or should I wait a bit longer? Do you want confetti?"

Roads just shrugged. Summer sighed.

"Look, spec, you're right. Mostly. You've spent most of today messing up this expedition, and that kinda ticks off me and Chief. But no, we don’t hate you. That’s stupid. Up until right now, I thought you might actually be able to hold yourself together on your first day, which I thought was kind of decent. Obviously, I overestimated you, but that's irrelevant. Catch my drift?”

Roads shook his head. Summer sighed again.

“Look, what I'm saying is, you gotta get over yourself. If Chief and I are tough on you, that's only because we think it'll help you out. Because in case you haven’t noticed, we need you to be on your game out here. There’s only three of us when there should be six or seven. That means we can’t carry your weight.”

“Neither can I,” he mumbled. “Too soft.”

“Yeah, Roads, you’re soft. Really, no denying that. But honestly, if there're two ponies in all of Equestria that can get you to get over that, it's me and Chief. I mean, if we didn't care, we wouldn't even bother, now would we? You might just have a shred of potential, spec, and it'd be a shame if you wasted it by going around moping.”

He looked at her, confused. Potential? Him?

“So, if you're done being all pathetic and whiny, then the food's ready. I'm about to crack open some booze, and you're free to join me. Otherwise, roll over, go to sleep, and I'm just gonna hope you wake up tomorrow morning with your head on straight."

Summer stood and offered him a bowl. He looked up at her, simultaneously insulted and complimented by her speech, and, after a moment of reflection, took it.

"You're right, I guess. And thanks, it really helps to hear that you c—"

"Alright, whatever, spec. Don't be getting all sappy on me just because a beautiful woman tossed you a compliment for the first time in your life," she said with a grin.

"I don't really think 'beautiful' is the right word—though you do have a sort of rugged, masculine appeal that some guys might find attractive. Y'know, if they're into that sort of thing."  

"I oughta slap you," Summer said.

"You wouldn't dare.”

A magical blow knocked him off the rock he was sitting on. Groaning as he stretched sore muscles, he pulled himself back up just in time to catch a flask Summer tossed him.

"What's this?"

"Rum. I'm not the best cook, so that's what you get to wash your meal down with."

“You? A bad cook? Really?”

“Just drink it, spec.”

Roads took a sip. "Huh. Not bad. Pretty strong."

"Yep. Try not to give yourself a hangover. Splitting headaches and tropical climates do not mix well, trust me."

"I see." He turned to Chief, who was emerging from his tent to get his nightly fill of D-ration bars. "Ugh. How do you eat those things?" he asked.

"Tastes good,” he replied. “Like a boiled potato.”

"Suit yourself, I guess," he said. He raised the flask. "Want some?"

Chief turned and glared at him, suddenly scowling heavily. Summer's eyes grew wide, though Roads didn't notice.

"No. Never. It's weak. Stupid. Don’t need it." He spat the words, voice dripping with derision.

"What are you talking about?" Roads cocked his head to the side, raising an eyebrow.

"Can't deal with the world on your own. Need alcohol. Stuff gets ponies killed," he growled almost incoherently.

"What? What is he talking about?" he asked, turning to glance over to Summer.

"Drop it," she said tensely.

Roads turned around to look at Chief, who was still glaring at him.

"Never mind," he said, dropping his gaze.

"That's what I thought," Chief replied. He turned and stomped back to his tent, muttering something about 'distractions' and 'escapism.'

"What was that all about?" he asked, shocked.

"Long story, really personal. He'll tell you when he's ready. Or when he thinks you're ready. Or never, most likely. Don't worry about it, just remember that Chief can get touchy about alcohol."

"Touchy? That’s 'touchy'? He was furious! I didn't even do anything!"

"Try not to think about it."

"Fine." He sat quiet for a moment, eating and drinking as he tried to think of something to talk about. Finally, something occurred to him.

"So, how long have you been doing this, anyway?" he asked, breaking the silence.

"Just about forever, it feels like. Something around eight years—that's when I left vocational school."

"Vocational school?"

"Yep. Enrolled after I got this," she said, gesturing to her cutie mark, a red and blue compass rose.

"How’d you get that?"

"It's kind of a long story, but basically, there were these woods out by this one house I lived in for a while, and whenever I got bored or felt like being alone for a bit, I'd head out there and explore. Got to where I knew just about every inch of it within a mile of the house.

“One day, though I decided to see how far out I could go. I ended up getting lost for two days straight. Had to live off the land, all that jazz. Anyway, it took me forever, but I finally found my way back, as soon as I did, I realized something. That this was how I wanted to spend my life. Out, where no one had ever been, just finding my way around. Just... surviving. By the time I made it back in town, this had appeared.”

"No one noticed you were missing for two days?"

"Ehh, my folks weren't the most attentive bunch. What about you, how'd you end up a magic expert? Not exactly common for an pegasus, is it?”

He gave a bitter laugh. “No, not really. It’s... it’s a long story."

"What, you think I’ve got somewhere to go?" she asked. “I mean, the island ball isn’t for another few days...”

“Island ball? What are you—oh. Right. Hilarious, thanks.”

“Any time, stud. Seriously, though, I’m curious. What’s your story, spec?”

"Okay," he said, wings ruffling as a nervous pang worked its way through his stomach. "I'll just, uh, give you the short version. So, when I was younger, I used to spend all my time reading. I read just about anything, really, and never exactly thought a whole lot about it. I just sort of picked up whatever was available around the house.

“This one day, though, my mom took me to the Cloudsdale library and I stumbled across this book on magic. It was the best thing I'd ever read, and after that, I spent all my time studying magic at my house instead of practicing flying like the normallike everypony else.

“That's basically how I spent my childhood, really. Locked up in my room studying because my parents—because I didn't have any reason to come out. Anyway, eventually, the local librarian took a notice to my habit and penned a letter to the Princess.

“Apparently she found out there was some program at Celestia’s School for Gifted Unicorns for those who were considered 'gifted' but not... well, unicorns. I ended up getting really, really lucky and getting an audience with the Princess herself. After passing an oral exam, she let me into the school. I studied hard, graduated, and went into the only field I thought I had a chance in. Ley magic," he finished, out of breath.

"That's the short version?" Summer asked.

"Yep."

You don't know the half of it, he thought, contemplating how much he had managed to omit.

"Well, good for you. I'd been meaning to ask about that, by the way. The whole race-traitor thing. What's with that?"

"What, you’ve never heard about that?”

“I thought people stopped saying that years ago. Before we were even born, you know?”

“Nope. It’s definitely still a thing. At least where I’m from. Read a magic book as an pegasus? Race-traitor. Tend a crop as a unicorn? Race-traitor.”

“And if you work in a weather factory as an earth pony?”

“Not a race-traitor. Because no one’s gonna call an earth pony who can cast a cloudwalking spell any names.”

Summer laughed at that.

“So, you’d really never heard anypony talk about that?” Roads asked.

“Not in a long time. Not since I heard you say it just now. If you work where I work, with the ponies I work with, you find out pretty quick there’s only one thing that’s important: how well you can do your job. Doesn’t matter if you’re a pegasus, a unicorn, an earth pony, hell, even a zebra. No sweat.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. In our world, you can’t afford petty differences over stuff that doesn’t matter. That stuff, that’s for folks who don’t have to worry about survival.”

"Huh."

"Yep."

They sat in silence for another moment, dinner finished, each taking small drinks from the flask. Another thought popped into Roads' head, one he might have felt silly for asking, but now the alcohol was beginning to take effect.

"Hey Summer, do ponies really sing campfire songs on trips like this? You know, out in the woods... drinking and singing..." he asked.

"No. That's just a stupid cliche."

"Oh. Right."

“You read too many books.”

“Yeah, I guess I do.”

"I mean, why would anypony ever do that?"

"I dunno.”

“It's silly, really. If you think about it."

        “Yeah. It’s dumb. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Silence fell over both of them once more, until Summer, taking a large gulp from the flask, spoke again, softly.

"Mockingbird... fly away now..."

"What? Sorry, I didn't catch that."

"...You have no cause to stay around me now..."

“Are you—?”

She her voice was louder, now, and more musical. She must have had more rum than he thought. Roads smiled. On the next line, he joined in.

"...Mockingbird... fly away..."  

Her voice was loud and clear now, lilting as it easily carried the tune. It was actually rather nice, in an odd sort of way. Fortunately, it drowned out much of Roads' tone-deaf drawl.

"Tomorrow... he could hear you...

He’d rise and see you there in the morning light

Mockingbird... fly away”

Their drunken voices intermingled, full and rich and slurred with alcohol.

"There’s no time... you should go now...

Take his gift and soar away from here

Mockingbird...

Fly away..."

        “I love that one,” Roads said as Summer let the last note die.

        She glanced over at him, a strange look on her face. “Yeah. Yeah, it’s a good one. I haven’t heard it in a long, long time...” she said, staring into the fire.

        “Really? I used to hear it all the time back in school.”

        “Yeah,” she said, almost absentmindedly. “It was popular around then, wasn’t it? Guy I used to know taught it to me, back when they first wrote it. I hadn’t thought about that in a long time...”

        Roads stared at her. Her brow was furrowed, hooves rubbing at the stone beneath her. She was still staring pensively into the flames.

        “Uh...” he started to say.

        She glanced up at him. “You know what?” she asked. “I think I’ve had a bit too much rum for tonight, I’m gonna go ahead and hit the hay.”

        “Yeah,” he said quietly. “Yeah, me too...”

        “Good night, Roads,” she said as she wandered off to her tent.

        “Yeah,” he said, laying down in his sleeping back. “You, too.”

        That was strange. That was definitely strange. But really, the whole day had been strange. Hell, the whole island was strange.

        Strange islands, strange ponies... There was so much he didn’t understand, so much he didn’t know. He had hoped the journey would bring answers, but instead there were only more questions.

        He turned over, his eyes fluttering shut. The rum was making him drowsy. He felt himself drifting off to sleep.

        Maybe... he thought as his mind raced to darkness. Maybe tomorrow will bring an answer. A small one, just one. Maybe...

_________________________________________________________

A/N: I’d like to give a very special ‘thank you’ to my editor, Secondaryspine, for his hard work, dedication, and good humor.

        

I would also like to thank Secondaryspine’s liver, for not giving out after all that whiskey. Shine on, you crazy organ.

Thanks for reading!

 

        


He can hear the storm raging below him. Thundercracks. Rain falling to the earth under a twisted sky. Above, on the tops of the clouds, a temporary peace. The sun dipping across the sky, Cloudsdale cast in a deep red glow. A quiet afternoon, for now.

        He stands outside the house, stares up at the door. A different sort of storm waits for him inside. A hoof—tentatively raised—moves and the door slides away from him. Inside, the cloud-house is dark. A malevolent stillness, brooding, waiting.

        A voice breaks the silence.

        "Where have you been?" An accusation. A glare. An indictment.

        "School."

        He pauses, takes another sip of whiskey.

"Liar. I checked." His words are slurred. He is already drunk.

        The lie is not repeated. The child stares at the ground.

        "Where have you been?" A gaze penetrating, a sternness unwavering.

        "Library."

        "Library... always at the damn library... studying up to trade in your wings..."

Why can't the boy see the problem? If the books were gone everything would be all right again. If he would fly right, if only he would fly right...

        He is so tired. Tired of passing the old stadium in defeat. Tired of his factory job. Tired of the injury. The shame, the humiliation, the pain. A bum wing and a shattered reputation. He knows they laugh at him behind his back. They are too quick to be caught, but he knows. The boy could fly like him, he knows it. Could make the Wonderbolts, and then who would be laughing?

Nopony. Like father, like son; a glorious family.

Why can't the child see? Why won't he understand that everything can be all right again? It must be the books, the magic, the damned unicorns working at the library. They are a distraction, a corruption. A gap in focus that is eating away at his dreams. He needs to be rid of them.

        "You can take the books away from the boy... but you can never keep them out of his head..."

        "I'm sorry."

        "You aren't. You skipped flight class every day this month to go to the library. To be with the unicorns. You aren't sorry."

        "I'm sorry!"

        "No... no, I'll make you sorry. If you won't go to flight practice, flight practice can come to you..."

The colt is taken by the hoof. Led outside. Above the storm, a track built of clouds in the backyard. A shove.

        "Go on, fly. Fast, like I taught you."

        "Where? For how long?"

        "Down and back, until I tell you to stop."

        A moment passes. He does nothing, a tiny defiance. He stares up at his father.

        "Do it."

There is a violence in the words. Tremors shoot down his spine. Gangly wings unfold and he takes off. Down to the end of the track, then back up. Unsteady in the air. Wobbling, like a young bird.

His breath comes faster as he flies to the end and back once more. The wings are outsized, heavy and awkward, beating slowly. He begins to stop, but sees his father's glare.

        Once more, down, then to the house. He is panting, sweating. An urge to go further, to move faster. He has to, if he doesn’t, it will be... bad.

He struggles to fly faster. The effort brings stars to his eyes. He is growing lightheaded...

        Up and down the track, again and again. He has never flown this far. His entire body feels numb, his tongue heavy and dry. A nausea reels in his stomach and a burning sears his chest. He flaps desperately, barely able to stay in the air. Only slightly moving forward, hardly aloft. The end of the track looks farther with every lap. Each time he makes it, he hopes this stretch will be his last, but the end never comes. No respite, no pause. Only flight, until he can't breathe. Flight, until his muscles seize and cramp. Flight, until his mind slips into a dehydrated haze.

        "Can I stop?"

        "No."

The trial continues.

        Down and back until he can hardly bear it. He can't keep his head up. His back aches. He can't fly straight. A burst of wind catches him and his body gives out halfway through a lap. Wings fold into his sides, he crashes to the ground. A limpness sets in that he cannot escape; his muscles are unresponsive, his mind addled.

        "I didn't say you could stop."

        Too tired to respond. It is hard to keep breathing.

        "Get back on your hooves. Keep going."

        Collapsed, crumpled, his father towers above him. No words from the child.

        "Get up. Now."

        No movement. A hoof nudges his ribs.

        "Up."

        He shoves him with his hoof.

        "I said 'up'!"

        He reaches down to grab the boy but the child feebly wriggles away.

        "Fly, dammit!"

        A hoof connects with his ribcage. The boy does not make a sound.

The boy must do as he is told. Spare the rod, spoil the child, that’s what his father always said. Perhaps the boy is already spoiled, already soft, but he could fix that. He could fix that if the boy would fly. He has to get the boy up, get him on his feet. It’s the essence of the thing. There’s no backing down now.The stallion’s face twists into an obscene rage.  Everything that has frustrated him for so long is finally coming to a head.

“You do what I tell you!”  

He is almost screaming now. He will not be disobeyed.

Another kick. Then another. A barrier has fallen. The child tries to wriggle away. It has never been like this before. Pushes, shoves, perhaps a punitive smack to the back of the head, but nothing like this. There is a change. A line crossed. Something snapping that can never be put right again.

        Another kick. Such a thing is unheard of in Equestria. No going back now...

        Pain everywhere. He loses track of the blows. Pent up frustration is billowing out over him. He struggles to stay conscious.

        One last kick, and then the father walks away, the child left ragged on the track. The father opens a door. Turns to hear a voice. The boy is on his hooves. Somehow.

        "You didn't have to..." the boy says.

He glances down, at the cloud-ground, sighs, summons all of his energy and rears. He comes down hard, hooves shattering the magically packed clouds, dissipating them. A hole is formed in the ground. He closes his eyes and falls into the storm.

The father stares at the spot where his son once stood. He should go now, before the boy gets too far, but...

It doesn’t matter. He will get him tomorrow. Another glass of bourbon is waiting for him inside.

        

Roads tries to stay aloft in the storm, fighting the air, wavering on exhausted wings. Wind buffets him to and fro. Rain in his eyes and flashes of lighting above him. He is soaked, shivering in the air. A gust catches him, bowls him over, flips him onto his back. He tries to right himself. It doesn’t work.

        Another gust catches his wing crossways. A splitting pain. He is falling, hurtling toward trees below. Striking branches on his way down. The ground rises to meet him...

VI

“The whiskey on your breath

Could make a small boy dizzy;

But I hung on like death:

Such waltzing was not easy.”

-Theodore Roethke, My Papa’s Waltz

Roads jerked violently awake. Wiping cold sweat off his brow with a quivering hoof, he tried to force his heart to stop racing. For a moment, he forgot where he was. His mouth was dry and his body ached from yesterday's work. Craning his sore neck, he looked up into the sky to see that dawn had only just broken, the grey sky above them streaked with red and gold. The sight of the sun rising over the horizon calmed him, and he regained enough presence of mind to go get a drink from the lake.

After walking to the bank, he took a few slow sips of the water, then waded slowly into the cool, clear pond. He felt himself relax in the pond, as he dipped his head underwater, clearing dried sweat from his skin and old fears from his mind.

        Body cleansed and thirst quenched, he dragged himself back onto the shore, inspecting the camp. It seemed that Summer and Chief were still asleep. Perhaps he could get a nap in before they woke up...

        Perhaps not, he thought, seeing Summer's tent flap whip aside to reveal the yawning, bedheaded unicorn.

        "What are you doing up?" she asked as she emerged from the tent.

        "I'm a light sleeper," he replied.

She snorted at that. "Sure," she said.

Summer sat down and re-lit the campfire with a gout of magical flame and, drawing an iron skillet from a pile of supplies next to the fire, began cooking breakfast.

        "So, what's on the agenda for today?" Roads asked, lying back against a log as he massaged his aching limbs.

        "For me, not much. I'm gonna end up staying in camp today to work on a rough draft of the map for this part of the island using the sketches and coordinates I took yesterday."

        "Why not check out the rest of the island first?"

        "Well, usually, I would. But I get a fat bonus if I come back to Canterlot with a finished map of ‘significant merit,’ as the Aggregate puts it. And since I can finish this half of the island in two days, I should be able to get the other side done about as quick. Which means that I've got plenty of time to get the whole thing done, and I kind of need the money," she explained.

        "Well, what am I supposed to do then?"

        "Whatever you need to for your little ‘research thing, I guess."

        "Really?" Roads asked, elated. An entire day to study the island at his own pace? It was exactly what he needed, what he had been hoping for when they had first landed.

        "Yeah. Just take Chief with you—wouldn't want you to get yourself eaten out there. Well, Chief probably wouldn't mind, but I have to do a lot of paperwork whenever we lose a spec."

        "As if this expedition could function without me."

        "I can think of a lot of things that this trip would be like without you, and 'dysfunctional' isn't one of them," she replied. “Now, ‘pleasant’, I could see...”

        "Hmph. Oh, speaking of dysfunction..." Roads glanced over to Chief's tent, from which the earth pony had just emerged.

        "Mornin' Chief," Summer said. He gave a stony grunt as a reply and sat down heavily on a log.

        "I've gotta stay here and draw up the map, so you're with Roads today," she told him.

At that, he looked up and gave Roads an icy glare. The pegasus's eyes flickered to the ground under the force of the gaze. He was going to have to spend the entire day like this? The thought sent shivers down his spine. But then, as he looked over into the ominous shadows of the forest, a tension curled in his stomach. He glanced from one to the other, pony to jungle, and decided he would prefer Chief's company to a trek alone in the wilderness.

        "Just make sure he doesn't get himself hurt,” Summer said.

        Chief heaved a slow shrug.

        "Also, apparently you're not supposed hurt him either. I'd really rather not have to go in front of the Aggregate Board of Trustees again for a safety sanction."

        "I'll be discreet. What they don't know won't hurt 'em," he replied. A horrified expression passed over Roads' face.

        "He's joking," Summer assured him.

Glancing up at Chief, he wasn't so sure. He and the earth pony hadn’t exactly started off on the right hoof, and Roads got the feeling that his antics yesterday had not helped.

Seeing the pegasus shy away like that, Chief made a noise that might have been a chuckle. Might have been. It also might have been a bloodthirsty growl. With Chief, Roads was never quite positive.

        "Where is it, then?" Chief asked, peering into the jungle.

        "What?" Roads asked.

        "Wherever you've got to go. Where is it?"

        "We're not leaving yet."

        "Why not?" Chief growled.

        "It's only barely morning!"

        "And?"

        "I haven't gotten packed yet. I'm not prepared!"

        "'I'm not prepared?’ That’d make a good motto for you. Kind of sums you up, in a way," Summer chimed in.

        Roads just rolled his eyes.

        "Get your stuff ready. Need to head out," Chief growled at him.

        "Fine, alright, just gimme a minute."

Roads turned and grabbed his bags. He dug through them to find a flask of Attunement potion that had survived the storm, as well as his intact—if rather weatherbeaten—arcanometer. He gulped down the former and shoved the latter back into his bags, then hefted them over his still sore back. Trudging over to the edge of camp, Roads felt the draught take effect as it never had before.

        A sick, wrenching sensation made its way down his spine and wings. He twisted, falling to the ground as a burning nausea gathered in his stomach and an distressing restlessness filled his legs. As his eyes were forced closed by the feeling, he developed the sudden need to stretch and bend and flex his aching muscles as a writhing feeling overtook him.

He writhed on his side, eyes clenched tightly, fore and rear legs crossed and twitching, and waited for it to pass.

        It took a few moments, but the sensation began to steadily fade into a dull tingling. As he came to his senses, he noticed Summer and Chief standing over him, a look of slight worry on the face of the former, and an impassive expression on that of the latter.

        "What the hell just happened?" Summer asked.

        "Attunement potion.”

        “Come again?”

        “How much do you know about ley theory, again? ‘The basics?’” he asked, squeezing his eyes shut as another burst of pain rippled through his body.

        “Pretty much, yeah.”

        “Well—ow—you know how ponies have—ah—ley lines, too, right?”

        “Yeah.”

“And you know where?”

“Sure. Down the back, with offshoots running along the legs and neck, with endings at the hooves and forehead—or, for unicorns, the horn.”

“Right... right,” he groaned as he slowly got to his hooves. “Well,” he said, stretching his wings. “Each pony’s ley lines has its own special structure, unique as a hoofprint. This structure is known as a ley line’s ‘polarity.’”

“Wait, I thought everypony’s lines followed the same paths, though. Didn’t you just say—”

“Oh, sure, they all have the same anatomical position, but that’s not the same thing as polarity. Look, think of a ley line like... a bunch of tiny beads floating along a river. It’s the organization of the beads in the current that gives the line its polarity, and what characterizes the magic output by the line.”

“What about unicorns, though? Don’t we characterize the magic by our intentions when we cast?” Summer asked.

“Well—yes. Sort of. Remind me to explain that when we have a lot more time. It’s kind of complicated. Just... remember the river analogy.”

“Okay, a bunch of beads floating in a river. Got it.”

“Right. So, the organization of the beads is structure, and the current of the river—which determines how many beads, uh, ‘flow’ through the river at any given time—is the line’s amplitude. It’s what determines the strength of the magic,” Roads explained.

“Uh, what does any of this have to do with you throwing yourself on the ground, exactly?”

“I’m getting there, give me a moment. So, these beads, right? Now imagine these beads are... uh, spinning.”

“They’re spinning, now?”

“Yeah, like... revolving. Sort of. Well, they aren’t really spinning, not in a classical sense, it’s more of an issue of angular momentum—” he caught Summer’s blank stare and hastily backtracked. “Actually, you know what? Don’t worry about that part right now. Aeton spin isn’t exactly something you’re ever going to need to understand. Forget the spinning, just... imagine these beads have little arrows pointed on them.”

“Arrows?”

“Yeah, arrows. Pointed in various directions, so that all the beads together make patterns.”

“Please tell me you’re almost finished. I’m about to fall asleep.”

“Almost there. Bear with me. Okay, so the pattern the arrows make is called the ‘alignment’. Now, we don’t really understand how alignment works, but so far as we can tell, it somehow affects both the strength and the expression of magic. Now, a few of the properties of this are known, but they’re pretty arcane—”

“I don’t want to know,” Summer said flatly.

“Okay, fine. So, one thing we do know about alignment is that if two ley lines have similar alignment to each other, they do this thing called ‘attunement,’ which generates ‘resonance.’ Now, resonance is... really tricky to explain. It has a lot to do with spin states and aeton flux harmonics—”

        “Roads, get to the point.”

        Roads sighed. “Alright, alright. So, resonance does a lot of weird, tricky things that you don’t really need to know about, it has a lot to do with seasonal strength cycles in the Everfree, and—and this is the part I’ve been leading up toit can be sensed by anypony with ley lines.”

        “Wow, suddenly all of this explanation has been worthwhile,” Summer said sarcastically.

“I’m not finished yet! Ponies can actually physically feel resonance, which means that if they can become attuned to a nearby ley line, they can sense it—its location, its strength, everything,” he paused, letting that sink in.

It didn’t appear to be sinking in.

So,” he continued, “Attunement Potions are made to ‘wipe’ away the alignment of a person’s aetons—er, the river’s ‘beads.’ They keep the beads from aligning based on their natural patterns for a day or two. And, when the beads lose their alignments, they won’t just stay as they were—they automatically begin to attune themselves based off of resonance patterns given off by nearby ley lines. The closer you are—or the stronger the lines are—the more complete and accurate the replication in attunement, and the stronger the resonance.”

“So, when you drank that potion just now...”

“My aetons—the infinitesimally small particles that make up magic, basically the ‘beads’ in the river analogy—became dis-aligned, and then violently attuned themselves to the various lines of the island. Which hurt. A lot.”

“Is it usually that bad?” Summer asked.

“No, not usually. The lines around here are ridiculously powerful, though. I’d guess that’s why it made attunement so unpleasant. It’s passed now, though. I should be fine.”

Though his voice seemed calm enough, his body betrayed him; even standing still, his legs and wings still twitched violently. He knew the other two could easily see that his face had grown pale.

While he had expected the island to be the home to powerful magic, his previous potion had faded long before they landed, and he had no idea that the lines here would be this strong. He could practically feel them, in perfect detail, as they moved, crisscrossing the island, flowing powerfully through the land. Standing perfectly still, he took a brief moment to try to sense which would be the most valuable to study first.

        "Let's go, then," Chief said, breaking Roads' concentration.

        "Okay, okay. This way," he said, pointing to the mountain in the center of the island.

If what his lines were telling him was correct, a particularly powerful current was running through it, and he would have been surprised not to find a nexus glowing at its peak. With a few shaky steps, Roads set off into the jungle, Chief trailing behind him, headed for the conical mountain.

        Roads stared up at the rocky peak as they walked. How far could it be? He couldn’t see the base from here, but the top loomed large over them, so it couldn’t be that far away.

An hour later, he realized just how wrong he was. As the two trekked silently through the jungle, the peak seemed to always tower above them, yet still be just out of reach. Steadily, though, they drew closer to it, crossing through streams and valleys, hills and ridges, groves and clearings until finally they came to its base.

        The incline at the bottom of the slope seemed shallow; the rise was mild enough that trees were able to grow on most of the mountain. The pair made its way halfway up the hill, but was forced to stop on one outcrop as the ground suddenly grew steeper. Firm ground gave way to rocky cliff faces made of blackened volcanic rock, where older, shallower inclines had been shorn away by the wind.

Finally, they reached a point where Chief no longer felt safe climbing unassisted. A rock wall, steep and unforgiving, extending forty feet up before them. Unfurling his wings, Roads leapt into the air and hovered by Chief as the pony pulled a climbing harness out of his bag and tied it around himself, then slid on a pair of spiked climbing hoofguards. He worked a rope through the harness, left the rest at the base of the rock, found himself a hoofhold, and began to climb the steep face. Every few feet, he stopped to hammer a piton into the rock, attach a carabiner, and work his rope through it.

        It was slow going; Roads flapped lazily alongside Chief as he struggled to make his way up the slope. He was a skilled climber, but the size of his hooves—and his incredible weight—meant it was harder for him to use the fine hoofholds that somepony like Roads or Summer would have been able to manage.

        "Need help?" Roads asked finally.

        "I'm fine."

        "You sure? I mean, if I help you out, I'm sure we'd get moving a bit faster. Y'know, so that we'd get to the top before—oh, I dunno—tomorrow..."

        "Nopony likes a smartass," Chief replied.

Hardly had the words left his lips when the tiny outcrop that was serving as his right hoofhold broke away from the cliff face. Slipping backwards, away from the cliff, he tried desperately to catch himself. Before Roads could even react, Chief fell, rope trailing behind him. A series out loud snaps burst into the air as pitons ripped free and carabiners snapped under the weight of the falling pony. There was a loud smack as Chief landed ten feet down on a slightly inclined rock face.

Just as Roads was about to breath a sigh of relief, he began to slide backwards down the rock, flailing his forelegs frantically in search for anything to hold on to. He could find none. The rock was smooth and unforgiving, and, a meter from Chief’s lower hooves, it ended in a drop off.

Finally getting his wits about him, Roads dove for the helpless earth pony. He was a split second too late.

        All of it had happened in an instant, and for a second, Roads was too stunned to do anything as his partner disappeared from the cliff face. Cursing his own inaction, he dove past the dropoff to catch Chief, who was now falling in short bursts as his protections gave way one after another.

Catching the larger pony in his forelegs, Roads found himself being pulled down along with Chief. Unable to lift the gargantuan of his own accord, Roads settled for shoving him sideways with a flap of his wings, setting them both in the path of a stony outcropping.

        After a brief drop, they smacked down onto the outcrop. Roads was happy to find his fall broken by Chief. He groaned as he sat up, then again as he was tossed aside by the other pony. Getting to his feet, he looked himself over.

Nothing seems too damaged, he thought as he brushed the dirt from his clothing. It seemed the natural pegasus resistance to blunt injury had come through for him again. Not that he could say the same for Chief, who appeared to have been rather bruised from the fall.

        "You alright?" he asked.

        "Fine," Chief replied, standing.

        "I'm quite well, too, thanks for asking."

        "I didn't," he snorted.

        "Hm. You'd think you would be a bit nicer to me," Roads said, one eyebrow cocked, "seeing as I just saved your life."

        "What? You didn't—I didn't need you to—you didn't save my life!" he said. For the first time in his life, it seemed, Chief was actually flustered. Roads tried to lock the moment in his memory.

        "Of course I did. You would've gone tumbling down the whole mountain if it weren't for me."

        "I had the situation under control."

        "Is that what you called that? 'Under control?’ Because where I'm from, we call that 'falling.’" For once, Roads had a leg up on Chief, and he was determined to enjoy it.

        "I was fine."

        "Oh, of course you were. That's your idea of fun, isn't it? Jumping off cliffs?"

        "Well, no, but—"

        "—you just thought to yourself, ‘hey, I oughta go leap right off the side of this mountain—’"

        "—you’re absurd—"

        "—and you would have been totally done for, too, if it hadn't've been for me—"

        "—that's not true—"

        "—and you would think, wouldn't you, that the very least you could do for the pony who just saved your life is give a simple 'thank you,'" Roads finished.

        Chief gave a heavy sigh and muttered, "Thank you," as quietly as he could.

        "What was that? I didn't quite catch it? Maybe a bit louder?"

        Chief glared at him. "You don't have to be an ass about it! You did something useful, for once on this entire trip—so what? And, of course, you have to go around acting like a fool over it. It's not as big of a deal as you think. Get over yourself!" Chief snapped.

 

At that, the smile faded from Roads' face. His head fell, and his eyes flickered away from the earth pony’s scowling face. That was as much as Chief had spoken all at once on the entire expedition. And all it had taken was getting the bigger pony to hate him. Way to go, Roads. He turned and cleared his throat. There was a lengthy silence.

        "We should get going," Chief said, finally.

        "You got any more rope?" he asked sheepishly.

        Chief pulled a few coils from his bag and, after readjusting his harness, tossed them to Roads. The pegasus tied the lengths over his shoulders and around his chest, then handed the other end to Chief, who looped it through his harness. Taking off, Roads began to help pull Chief up the slope as he slowly climbed towards the peak. Once or twice, Chief lost his grip, and each time Roads was jerked backwards, only to right himself and help stabilize the earth pony. Then they would silently continue their progress up the mountain

        It took the pair nearly an hour, but with some effort they both made it to the summit. They paused for a moment, exhausted and out of breath, resting as they gazed off of the precipice at the jungle below them. Massive expanses of trees stretched in all directions, multicolored and swaying in an ever-present ocean breeze. From their vantage point, they could make out lakes and streams glittering in the sun. Flocks of birds tittered below them, flying out over the ocean, over waves flecked gold with the light of the afternoon sun. On the horizon, the water curved away from them, meeting a wide, unclouded sky.

        "Woah," Roads whispered, looking out over the island.

Chief gave what might have been an affirmative grunt.

        Roads stared out at the sea and sky for a while, taking in the view, until finally his reverie was broken by a familiar twinge in his lines. Turning away from the sight, he gazed down at the mountain, focusing. He thought the nexus should have been at the peak; it was the perfect place for one to develop. However, he got the strangest feeling that the focal point was beneath him somehow, though not far. Turning, he peered over a ridge to glimpse the rim of the mountain's summit crater in the distance.

        "Over here," he called to Chief, as he made his way across the craggy ridge to stand at the precipice of the crater.

Looking out over the crevasse, it seemed that a large tract of land, one hundred and fifty meters deep and seventy five across had been scooped out of the mountain, leaving a bowl shaped indentation. The edges of the crater were steep and dark, and halfway down met the surface of a deep crater lake that had formed in its center.

        Leaping from the rim of the depression, Roads swooped down closer to the lake, landing on a ridge that had formed a ways away from its surface. From here, he noticed that the lake appeared to ripple and steam, heated by an unseen force. The churning feeling that slid across his back told him that a nexus was near.

        A loud rumble announced Chief’s arrival as he slid down the stony rim of the crater to meet the pegasus, joining him in inspecting the lake.

        "Heated from the volcano?" he asked, gesturing to the simmering water.

        Roads shook his head. "Nope. It’s been dormant for a while. The mountain’s covered in vegetation, which means that plants have lived on the mountain long enough to break the volcanic rock down into soil. That means the volcano hasn't been active in a long, long time. No, this water's being heated by a nexus, and a strong one at that."

He scurried down to the water's surface and dipped a hoof in the water, then quickly drew it out. Finding a thermometer in his bag, he dipped it into the lake. Forty three degrees celsius. Nine degrees higher than the ambient temperature on the mountain.

        "Hey Chief," he called.

        "Mm?"

        "How wide and deep would you say this lake is?"

        "Fifty meters wide. Maybe twenty meters deep, tops."

        "Let's see... fifty wide, twenty deep, assuming that the lake is vaguely cone shaped that comes out to be... roughly thirteen thousand cubic meters of water—or thirteen thousand metric tons... hmmm... heated at around nine degrees per ton above ambience—assuming water temperature to be a constant—that's subject to change, mind you—nearer to the nexus—given that it takes about four kilojoules to raise the temperature of one kilogram of water one Celsius degree—hang on a minute, I can't do this in my head. Chief, you got any paper?"

        But the other pony had stopped listening to him; he merely gazed out at the water as Roads babbled calculations aloud to himself.

        "—never mind, I found some.” He pulled a tattered field journal from his saddlebags. “Let's see, four-point-one-eight kilojoules for a kilogram, so four point two megajoules for a ton... times thirteen thousand means—wait a moment, I need to be working in watts! Let's see, so if this much water is being heated at a steady rate every minute, then the conversion factor should be..."

        Chief gave a low sigh as the titterings and ramblings of the bookish pegasus filled the air around him. Summer should be glad she isn't here, he mused.

_________________________________________________________

        Back at the camp, Summer let loose a torrent of curses for the third time that day. Come on, Summer Dew, this map shouldn't be that difficult! she thought to herself as she struggled to rescale a sketch she had made yesterday. She had been working on this map for hours, and found herself constantly stymied. Something about the dimensions of the island was off, yet she couldn't quite put a hoof on it. It was beginning to throw off her attempts to create a rough draft of the overall map.

         She sighed, frustrated, and returned to scribbling on the tattered parchment that rested on the field bench in front of her. There was a small crack as the quill she had been working with snapped in half as she pressed it to the paper. With a groan, she tossed the shattered utensil aside and slumped forward, resting her forehead on the desk. Feeling utterly defeated, she sat there for a moment, trying to gather up what remaining patience she had left to get back to work.

        With a groan, she rolled her head to the side, not yet raising it, and a wrinkle in the parchment caught against her horn. With a disheartening crinkle, the map slid off the desk and onto the ground. Frustrated further, Summer promptly ripped it from the dirt and rolled it back up. Slapping the paper back onto the bench, she whirled away from the infuriating work to face the camp.

        She sat still for a moment, trying to regain her patience. Her ears twitched as they caught the twitter of birdsong from the trees above her. Summer glanced up at the lofty boughs and saw that they were teeming with technicolor birds. Red, blue, green, and all of them tweeting happily away under a golden sun. The sights and sounds of the forest brought a slim smile to her face. Work might be frustrating, but it was good to be out in the field again. No map could possibly be worse than being cooped up in a cramped apartment in Canterlot. Out here, the air was so much fresher, everything was so much more lively.

And the city? Summer was glad to be out of the city. Glad, because for her, there wasn’t any life there. None at all.

Not in the run-down old bars, with the fading wallpapers where she could watch the blank faced patrons order stiff drinks to chase the time away. Where she could watch them stare around the room with dead eyes that took in nothing so they wouldn’t be startled while they waited to die.

Not on the street corners, where she could watch indistinguishable ponies walk, autonomic, on the cold grey pavement on their way to indistinguishable jobs in indistinguishable buildings. Where she could watch them look around and see only themselves, because she wasn’t there every day and that was the only thing that mattered.

And not in the sad, quiet apartments, where she knew everypony was the same as their neighbor because nopony ever changed, and nopony ever wanted to know anypony else. That would be different, and different is foreign, and foreign is scary.

And after a while, not even in the silent honest mirrors that couldn’t help but show the truth when she looked in them, where she saw there wasn’t any life in her, either.

But not out here. Out here, where there was grass and rocks and trees and pain, and ponies lived and ponies died, and that meant something. She wanted to show the island to them, to all those sad, dead-living ponies. To say, “here, look, this is life, and if it isn’t, it’s at least Something, and that’s better than what you’ve got.”

Because life was fleeting for everypony, but out here... only out here could she really tell.

Yes. Summer was glad to be out of the city.

        But she would only end up stuck there again if she didn’t bring back an accurate map to the Expeditionary Aggregate. That would be just her luck. To get stuck, again... She’d barely been able to stand it last time.

No, she had to get this right. If she screwed it up, not only would she lose her bonus, but she would have to wait even longer to get sent into the field again. And she couldn’t bear that. She knew she couldn’t.

So, she trudged over to the cargo crates and dug around in one of them until she found a new quill. Satisfied, she turned to—wait, why were all the crates open? She most certainly hadn't opened any of them. Summer spun back around to face the stack of cargo boxes. Each and every one of them appeared to have had its top ripped off, and some seemed to have been moved a few feet away from the main stack.

Well, that was odd. But probably nothing to worry about. Chief or Roads had probably moved them around. They must have needed something for their trip. It was really none of her concern.

And yet...

“If something seems wrong, it probably is. Never get caught unawares.” Her sister’s words echoed in her ears. Honey was always saying things like that, growing up. She had a long list of life lessons she was always reciting to Summer. And they stuck. It had been a long him since Summer had last seen her older sister, but she still remembered all of her little sayings. Mostly because they were often true.

And because they had helped her survive. She had survived on those words on countless expeditions, in countless environments. Little ideas, like “don’t get attached to anypony. It complicates things.” or “don’t let anypony inside your head unless you’re sure you want them there.” The sayings had kept her aloof—and kept her alive.

It was that attitude that kept her safe out here, just like it was Honey’s attitude that had kept her safe as a child. Growing up the sheriff’s daughter in those hot, lawless towns out past Appleoosa, Honey had learned how to survive. And she had taught Summer.

One of the things she had taught Summer was to never let the little things go. Little things, like open crates... She tried to think again if Chief or Roads had been fooling around with the cargo that morning. She couldn’t remember, though she didn’t see any reason for either of them to have opened all of them—and she knew Chief had a habit of re-sealing crates after he checked them. He wasn’t careless enough to leave useful supplies exposed to the elements.

        Roads, on the other hoof, was probably thoughtless enough to do such a thing—but why would he have opened all of them? She didn't even remember seeing him use any of them this morning before he left. Perhaps some animal had gone rooting around in them while she was distracted with the map? That made sense. Her desk was all the way across the camp, and she had been focused intently on her work all day. Maybe it was nothing to worry about...

        Looking around, she gathered all of the tops of the crates, then resealed each box carefully. It seemed, though, that she ended up with two extra lids. Had she missed one? She gave the cargo a cursory glance. It seemed she hadn't. Yet Summer knew that they hadn't packed any extra lids—what good would that do? Were some of the boxes missing?

        After trudging over to Chief's tent, she stuck her head through the flaps and found the inventory list for the trip in a small case next to his sleeping bag. Under it rested his travel log, a sheaf of reports on security and exploration in tropical environments, and a small photo in a tiny, waterproof bag.

In the picture was a tall granite water fountain statue that vaguely resembled a horse reared onto its back legs, neck outstretched, head angled towards the sky. Standing in front of it was a small filly, mouth open, eyes gleaming with excitement, straddling the shoulders of her father, an earth pony wearing a broad, mirthful grin. Both of them were laughing at the camera. On vacation, perhaps, touring a garden. Caught in a moment by a skillful photographer.

        Clearing her throat, Summer slid the picture carefully back into the pack; she got the feeling Chief wouldn't want her seeing that. Even though she had an intimate knowledge of his personal life due to the rapport they had built up over the years, this was an image he would want to stay private. Chief could get touchy about that sort of thing.

        It was a shame that people so often assumed Chief's stolid nature ran all the way to the core. It was a misconception with often ended with tragic results. The case of Green Hooves, the group's previous specialist, a botanist and naturalist, sprung immediately to Summer's mind. Perhaps if he hadn't been so flippant about Chief's family, he'd've gotten him out from under that rock pile a bit quicker. Maybe then he wouldn't have lost the leg... she mused.

She hoped Roads wouldn’t make the same mistakes as his predecessor. He seemed vaguely useful enough that it would be an annoyance to lose him at this point. Ignorance of hallucinogenic island plants aside, he was knowledgeable enough to be relatively productive—for a spec, at least—if they needed him for follow-up trips to the Triangle. Then again, he wasn't exactly pleasant to be around...

        Maybe if he would just get his head on straight... Summer mused as she returned to the piles of boxes at the edge of camp. Levitating the inventory list in front of her, she scanned the crates. Chief had drawn check marks next to each item that survived the storm, and next to each check Summer scrawled a second character for the items that still remained in camp. She went over every container twice and found that two boxes were missing. The first had contained the field equipment for plant samples, the items that Roads had used yesterday.

For a moment, Summer wondered if he had just moved it somewhere else while using it, but then she remembered him storing all of his samples in the container and leaving it there last night. She frowned at that; he wouldn't be happy to see all of his work lost—though she supposed it wasn't exactly his primary job anyway.

        The absence of the second crate was a bit more distressing; it was the small box that had held copies of all of Summer's maps. Fortunately, it hadn't been full when it disappeared; many of the maps of the immediate area were currently resting on her field bench, where she had tried to use them as references when drawing the island.

Even so, it seemed she had lost nearly half of her field maps, and while she could easily replace most of them upon their return to Canterlot, there was something disconcerting about being without them. While she had enough left to guide them back on their trip back to the Equestrian mainland, there had been a security in knowing exactly where she was in relation to everything else in the known world. She had just lost that.

        Or was 'lost' even the right word? Her mild discomfort at having lost her geographical frame of reference rose into a dull fear as she wondered if perhaps 'stolen' was more apt. There were no drag marks in the dirt where the crates had disappeared, as there were in cases where animals pillaged boxes of food from campsites. No, what was lost would have had to have been lifted and carried away. The discarded lids bothered her, too; whatever had taken the boxes had opened them first and checked the contents—and perhaps checked that of the other boxes as well. She wondered if anything had been removed from the other crates.

        Working quickly as apprehension began to build in her stomach, she rifled through the contents of the containers, checking them against the inventory sheet. Upon finishing her work, Summer found that items had indeed been removed. She knew most of what was missing had most likely been taken by Chief and Roads in the morning. However, a number of things she knew the pair would not have carried off were gone, among them a hatchet, a pickaxe, a sledgehammer and tent posts for setting up tents, shaving razors, and a good deal of her mechanical equipment for the Zephyr, including two lengthy wrenches, a welding torch, and a hammer.

        Something was definitely amiss here, and as Summer read over what was missing the hair at the back of her neck began to prickle. She looked up, glancing around at the jungle. Her surroundings seemed different, and for a moment, she could not quite place the feeling.

        As the realisation hit her a chill crept down her back. The birds. They had stopped squawking.

For as long as they had been on the island, the noise of the island birds had been so incessant that she had completely tuned it out, until now. The forest around the campsite seemed to have been plunged into an unnerving silence. Edging backwards until she stood against the rocky outcropping that served as the border to one side of the camp, she eyed the jungle. Summer's heartbeat quickened as the disconcerting sensation of being watched passed over her, chillingly reminiscent of the pretense to the chimera attack—though somehow even more disquieting. At least then, she had known what was going on.

Now? Not a clue.

        To her left, a twig snapped among the bushes to her left, and she whipped around to face it. She stared keenly into the jungle, trying to keep calm. A moment passed and the forest remained still. A twinge of anger passed through her. It seemed she was being toyed with.

That irked her.

Come on out into the open, she thought. Out where I can see you.

        "Come on," she spat bitterly, glaring out at the trees.

        Nothing happened.

        For some time, she stood, stock still, peering into the swaying fronds of the jungle. As the seconds slowly passed, her initial chill slowly faded into a burning frustration. She did not like not knowing what was going on. Clashing with whomever—or whatever—lurked in the jungle did not bother her, but there were machinations at work behind her back, and that was incensing.

        “Come out!” she shouted.

        A bird in a tree above her gave a loud squawk, then dashed away. The spell was broken. The other birds slowly began to chirp and twitter once again, and Summer’s anger began to subside. Moving to the edges of the camp, her horn lit as she began to cast a tripwire spell around the perimeter. It was fairly difficult magic—for her at least—but she had been forced to master it at vocational school. Setting enchanted boundaries for a campsite was supposed to be standard expedition procedure.

Normally, she didn't bother—it was a tedious spell to cast and required a re-enchantment every few hours. Not to mention the fact that it was absurdly easy to trip, which had in the past resulted in hapless coworkers sending the bolts of alarm running through her forehead as they forgot to watch their step entering or leaving the camp. And, of course, she normally felt confident in her own capability for self defense.

        For once, though, it seemed that following operating procedure as she had been taught all those years ago would have saved her a bit of trouble. She paced about the outside of the camp, horn glowing as she focused her energies into channeling the spell. Summer chided herself for not casting the it earlier; she would have been able to catch whatever it was that was stealing from the cargo crates. It was a rookie mistake, one she could have easily avoided. Still, there was no use kicking herself for it now. That wouldn’t help anything.

Not that she would be caught off guard again.

        After securing the camp, she returned to her bench and sat down, too on edge to continue working on the map. Instead she merely sat, trying to puzzle out what was happening. Her discontent filled her with a bristling energy that she didn’t know what to do with. She tried to think of something productive to do, some way to resolve the situation, but ultimately came  up with nothing. Frustrated, she hoped Chief would come back to camp soon. He would know what to do.

_________________________________________________________

        Chief had no idea what to do with Roads. Try as he might, he simply couldn't stop the irksome pegasus from babbling incessantly. It was those cursed "ley lines" that had him all riled up. The pony had spent hours flying around and diving into the pond at the top of the mountain, dipping instruments in the water and forcing gadgets into the glowing ball of energy he called a "nexus."

Of course, all the while, as Chief had sat and meditated, silent and waiting—just as he had learned to do in the Guard—Roads had chattered on and on about magical effects on "transitional particle motion" and "aeton excitation" on a "vast scale." Alternately lamenting the loss of one of his many gadgets—a dense network of copper wires that had half-melted when submerged into the nexus—and extolling the wonders of what he had found, he was beginning to drive Chief insane.

        He swore to himself that if Roads used the words "magical fabric of reality" one more time, he would snap his neck. Chief supposed that wouldn’t be difficult, given that it had all the thickness and fortitude of a toothpick. Though Summer would be fairly disappointed in him. He wasn’t sure exactly what she had seen in the infuriating whelp, but then he supposed that she had a natural fondness for other ponies. What a despicable trait.

It was a bit frustrating to him how easily she trusted and accepted others. It was a quality he saw all too often in his peers, one that he had seen often in his travels. Particularly in such towns like Ponyville and Appleoosa—detestable places. Such an open-armed approach to dealing with new ponies was exactly the kind of thing that was typical of soft folks.

        No, no, he much preferred keeping strangers at hooves’ length, which was why he so vastly preferred living in Canterlot between assignments. The ponies there seemed a bit colder, more distant. Less likely to talk to somepony they did not know, because they knew not to trust everypony, or in some cases, anypony. He supposed that must have been the reason Summer always went back to Appaloosa when she wasn’t working. She had never met a stranger she couldn't strike up a conversation with, and tended to surround herself with similar ponies. Well, except for him, of course. Roads, on the other hoof...

        He glanced over at the exuberant pegasus as he made his way through the jungle, leading them, no doubt, to another "nexus" he could fawn over. Roads, on the other hoof, could have a conversation with a brick wall. And what an unfortunate brick wall that would be.

Chief sighed. After a few hours of work, he had abruptly pronounced himself done studying on the mountain, and had begun traipsing back off into the wilderness. Chief, supposing it would be best if the pegasus didn't get himself killed, had followed suit, trailing Roads as he filled the air around him with empty words about "expansive magical fields" and the like. Having long since given up trying to silence him, Chief resigned to simply accompanying him quietly as he led them through the jungle.

        Every so often, Roads would stop dead, mouth thankfully shut for a few blissful moments, closing his eyes and stretching his neck, apparently ‘sensing the magic in the air’. It seemed whatever potion he had taken earlier was starting to wear off, slowing his ability to seek out the lines. As such, their progress was slow and unsteady, and they were often forced to double back to circumvent land barriers—cliffs, lakes, severely overgrown areas, and such.

It seemed to Chief that they were nearing one of the beaches. He was beginning to catch whiffs of salt in the air, and the sounds of gulls rang faintly in his ears. They were heading north; it appeared they had crossed over to the other half of the island..

        The differences between this side and the other side perplexed him. Here, the vegetation grew even taller, blocking the sun almost completely, casting the entire area into a deep shadow. The topography had changed, too—the land in this area was far more harsh than its counterpart; it was replete with deep gorges and steep cliffs, foreboding hills with sharply inclined faces and an uncanny number of ominous looking caves cut into rocky terrain. The ground had evened out as they approached the shoreline, but even so, it was far more difficult to traverse than that of the half of the island they knew.

        It seemed Roads had noticed as well. Unfortunately.

"I wonder if it has something to do with the mountain," he mused, "it might block wind from moving across one side of the island, and skew the weather, contributing to a difference in erosion. Or maybe this side of the island is subject to some sort of ocean current. Or perhaps it could've been caused by the magical influences of ley lines in its formative years—which is definitely possible, given the strength of the magic around here, I mean did you notice how that nexus gave off those pulses from its constant flux states..."

        Chief stopped listening, his interest waning as the one-sided conversation turned once more to magic. The infuriating pegasus could discuss it all day. Chief took a deep breath, hoping he could gather his patience. His hopes were dashed. Not that he had ever put much stock in things like ‘hope’; he found that often such delusions were—wait, what was that?

        He and Roads had stumbled into an old clearing, a mostly flat grove a few dozen meters wide, free of trees, where the bushes rose only slightly over the ground. In its center were a few frayed stretches of waterproofed canvas, wrapped around lengths of iron poles. Scattered around them were a number of small, cracked glasses, dented tin containers, and torn bits of plastic.

        "Huh. That's strange," Roads remarked, walking up to the debris. "What is all this?"

        "Campsite," Chief replied.

He inspected the area. As he looked around, an ominous tightness gathered in his stomach, his head swiveling as a razor-sharp alertness overtook him, a focus taut as piano wire. Something in the dirt glinted, catching the sun, and he moved cautiously to investigate. From the ground he lifted a short metal chain. As he raised it to his face he saw that hanging off the end was a thin metal strip. It was a tiny plate, half covered in semi-flattened indentations.

        "What's that?" Roads asked, catching sight of Chief holding the chain.

        "Dog tag."

        "Really?" Roads rushed over him to see it. "'Strongsteed, M. Petty Officer. 2 18 15 14 25 ENC. AB+.' What does it mean? Who was he? Did he die here? How did something like this even get here in the first place, this island has never before been discovered by an Equestrian. Is he even Equestrian? I mean, sure the name sounds like—"

        "Yes, he was Equestrian. In the Navy. That's what ENC means—Equestrian Naval Corps."

        "How did he get here?"

        "Dunno," Chief shrugged. "More important is when he got here. Look at this. The metal. That coloring? It's monel—the Navy stopped making tags out of the stuff six years ago."

        "So he got here six years ago?"

        "At the least."

        "Could he still be alive? Living on the island?"

        "Doubt it. He wouldn't be running around without dog tags. And if he was, we probably would've seen him by now."

        "But is it possible?"

        "Maybe. What I can't figure out, though, is why there's only one tag."

        "What do you mean? That there should be more ponies out here? That he wasn't alone?"

        Chief shook his head. "Members of the Equestrian military wear two tags. One on a small chain, one on a large chain. So that if something happens one pair gets taken by your comrades and the other stays with the body. But there's only one here."

        "Maybe somepony found this 'Strongsteed' somewhere else, and took the tag with him."

        Chief nodded. It made sense. "Maybe. But in that case, what's on this island that can kill a Naval officer, and who took the other tag? And why leave it behind? Why leave behind this whole camp?"

        "Maybe it was chimeras? Maybe they got the Navy guy, or maybe they ate whoever took his tags. Or both."        

        "Doubt it. Nothing looks burnt. Chimeras always leave burns. No bones around here either."

        "Maybe they hunted him down after he left the camp."

        "Without the tags?"

        Roads fell silent. He had been getting paler with each question, a bit more quiet and hesitant. It was easy for Chief to tell that all this talk of death, chimeras, and mystery got to him. Just like anypony soft. Back home, ponies weren't used to dealing with this sort of thing. Roads was no exception.

        "D'you think we ought to head back to camp, you know, in lieu of all this?"

        "No. We've got at least three more hours of daylight left. Plenty of time for you to get your work done."

        "Yeah, but it seems we've got strange military ponies running around the place, or even worse, something that eats strange military ponies."

        Chief scowled at him. "Six years ago maybe. Today, probably not. Even so, still not worried about it."

        "How can you not be worried about it? You don't even know what's out there!" Roads' voice was climbing with the fear. Chief could pick up a nervous tremor in his voice. The warble of the weak.

        "And?"

        "And we shouldn't be out here if we don't know what to expect."

        "Ridiculous. We didn't know this island was even here, we never had expectations."

        "That's not what I meant! You're missing the point!"

        "Which is?"

        "Which is that you're going to get both of us killed in that jungle!" Roads' was shouting now, the rise in his voice annoying in Chief's ears.

        "Improbable."

        "You don't know that!"

        "Doesn't matter. I want to spend as few days marching across this island with you as I can."

        "Well, if we get eaten, you won't have to worry about that, now will you!?"

        "I'll be fine," he growled. "And if anything happens, you'll just fly off. Again."

        "That was a one time thing!"

        "Hmph. Every time you look around, you look scared. Every time you talk, you sound scared. I know you. I know your type. Cowards. Good for nothing, reliable for less." Chief's facade had finally broken, all of his pent-up frustration from the past two days now audible.

        "That's... that's not true..." all of the fight had gone out of his voice. Chief could see he had struck a nerve, so, naturally, he didn't relent.

        "It is. You know it. I know it. You're thin-skinned. You live what you call a life indoors. Away from danger. Away from anything that might make you sweat. You come out here, into my territory, and think you get a say in how we spend our time out here? I don't think so. You'll do your work; I won't have to come back out here later. Got it?"

        Chief was nearly seething. He usually hated losing his cool, betraying his inner emotion, but something about Roads pressed on his last nerve. It was far out of the domain of professionalism that he prided himself upon inhabiting, but it felt good to finally unload on the pegasus. Real good. He looked down at Roads, towering over him as the pegasus gazed fixedly upon the ground, head drooping, brow furrowed, mouth in a slackened frown. He half-wished Roads would look up, fight back, make a retort, do something. But then, he supposed, if Roads were capable of that, he wouldn't have needed to say anything in the first place.

        For a split second, Roads' eyes flashed up to him, and a small hope rose within him that the other pony might have a spine in him yet. But... no. He merely turned away, head flopping back down as he headed off into the forest at Chief's behest, following the invisible tug of some distant ley line. Eyes boring into the back of Roads’ head with all the force of his inexorable glare, Chief followed him. A steady silence enveloped them as they walked, a tense silence broken only by hoofsteps and the occasional birdsong.

        It seemed to Chief that he had broken Roads' will to speak; the quiet followed them across the island, as they passed over craggy ridges and rolling hills. At one point, the two walked along the high banks of a thin stream, looking down over the clear waters as they passed. A misstep by Roads collapsed the uneven, muddy bank under them, sending the pair rolling down the embankment into the water. Both rose mutely, each covered in mud, and climbed resolutely out of the ditch.

There was no lament by Roads. No retort by Chief. To the latter, the day seemed to now be going quite well. Wiping dirt and shaking water off of themselves, they resumed their voiceless march through the jungle.

        After a while, Roads stopped suddenly, staring. After nearly walking into the now immobile pegasus, Chief followed his gaze to his right to see that a green path had been laid out before them. Stretching a few hundred meters into the distance, the trees gave way to a long, narrow patch of Healing Ivy. It grew thick and dense, wrapping around the bases of the trees around it. Their thick trunks seemed to bend outward, away from the path, creating a veritable tunnel of flora; thin, viney canopy above, thick, luscious ivy below, and everything cast in the green-gold glow of sunlight filtered through thin leaves. Stepping into it, Roads finally managed to break the prolonged silence.

        "This way."

With a nod, Chief accompanied him down the path cut by the nearly chest high ivy. As he walked, he felt the herbs brush against his bandaged stomach, their leaves working their way through the bindings. A strange, warm numbness gathered around the area where the chimera had raked his underside. Though to most it would have been a pleasant sensation, it put Chief on edge.

The lack of feeling bothered him greatly. In his line of work, losing one’s senses was never a good thing. Pain was helpful; it let him know that he was still alive, it served as a reminder to be cautious. Bliss, on the other hoof, was disturbing. It enticed ponies to let their guard down. Never was there so dangerous an object as a shield lowered...

        Roads, though, appeared entirely in rapture. He waltzed down the ivy path, wide eyed and gaping, flashes of nostalgia crossing his face. Devoid of pain, of apprehension. Living in a memory, the tendrils of ivy clasping his legs, the spores of the past flourishing in his mind. He had seen this before. A long time ago, in a memory distant, in a moment he did not wish to recall.

        It was not long before his path down the grove brought him to a clearing. Twenty meters in every direction the trees bent away, forming a circular gap filled with Ivy. The plant grew everywhere in the grove, thick and tall in all directions, except in the center. There, rose the massive stump of a tree, a great towering flatness, dominating the land. Even without the trunk, it was easily thrice as tall as Chief.

It drew in the pegasus with a tug as powerful as it was mysterious. Unable to draw his eyes off of the fractured remains of what had once been a massive, imposing plant, he made his way to its base. Carved crudely into the stump were rows of steps, slanted slightly upwards, leading to the top of the trunk.

        "Roads?" Chief called behind him, wary of the spectacle, "There shouldn't be steps here. Those are pony-made." There was an edge of caution in his voice.

        His words fell on deaf ears. Roads ascended to the top of the stairs, and found himself within a small, roofless hollow, where the original surface—though not the edges—of the trunk had been cut away, forming a four foot high ring around the central platform. Behind him Chief was saying something more, but he was not listening. He had found the nexus he had always sought.

        It wasn't visible, but he could feel it there—without the help of the Attunement potion—roiling, hanging a foot off the ground. The energy it gave off was palpable and potent; he could feel the magic work through his body. Old bruises and sores faded away, the cut he had opened on the zeppelin knitted itself together, even the throbbing ache of his muscles dwindled off as he stood before the nexus. His previous despondency was lost, replaced by a new curiosity, intense as he had ever felt it.

As the enchantment took hold of him, Roads felt the inexorable need to move closer to it, into it. Every cell in his body yearned to bask in the unadulterated power of the nexus, to submerge himself into it. For a moment, he hesitated. Surely he couldn't. It wasn't... what?

Professional? Objective? Safe? Right? He didn't know. For the second time on the island, his mind was beginning to betray him.

        Tentatively, he took a step towards it, feeling its surging presence anew with the gain of but a few inches. He was about to move closer when he felt a hoof on his shoulder. Chief was looking at him sternly, shaking his head.

        "What is that?" the earth pony asked, voice subtly awestruck, but still cautious. He could feel it too.

        "I—it's—it's a nexus," he stammered, his vacant mentality beginning to slip away.

        "Not like the other one."

        Roads shook his head, his brain slowly beginning to function again. "It's... different from the rest. Not the same kind of magic. All of the others were... elemental in nature. This one, it's just... unique."

        No, not unique. He had seen this before. Felt this before. But not on this scale. Not like this. His memories were beginning to return to him—that last one, it had been smaller. Far smaller, and visible, as well. It had been safer, more benign. This one acted in the same way, but more powerfully, so much so that it might be dangerous.

Had he really been about to enter it? To expose his body to that much magic, all at once? What was he thinking? He must've been spellstruck. Not in his right mind.

        "What exactly does that mean?" Chief asked, not taking his eyes off of the spot where the nexus should have been.

        "I'm not sure. The others, they all affected change on a level of movement—changing kinetic energy of particles to heat or cool surroundings, transporting air, changing the weather—but this one seems to have some sort of effect on organic tissues. It also doesn't feel quite right. Its alignment, I mean. I've used potions to sense unicorn lines before, and it felt about the same as natural magic, if on a different scale. This is nothing like that. I need to run some tests on this and—oh. Oh, no."

        Looking down, he eyed the half-melted copper matrix that rested in his hoof. He had forgotten about that. But... maybe... well, it was better than nothing. Raising his foreleg, he tossed it as gently as he could into the nexus. It landed with a dull 'thump' in the middle of the floor. As far as Roads could tell, nothing happened.

        "Unsurprising, really," he explained to Chief, "now that it's lost most of its structure, it can't form a synthetic line, and since I didn't expect the nexus to have an effect on any nonorganic substance that it came into contact with, I mean—wait, Chief?" he said as he noticed the earth pony staring intently at the copper, his face ashen, his focus unflinching.

        "Chief, what are you—wait—is that—is the copper—?"

His jaw slackened as he peered more closely at the hunk of metal in the center of the room. Was it breathing? It certainly appeared so. The metal seemed to be undergoing cyclic contractions and expansions, which didn’t appear to be the result of the metal bending. It seemed more organic than that. More... lifelike.

        "Fascinating. Metal respirating under the force of the magic? That's... unusual. It must be that the nexus is forcing organic qualities on all that it touches. Curious, though not entirely unprecedented. In his early experiments, Starswirl the Bearded documented numerous successful experiments with magical animation of nonliving matter, though this is certainly... groundbreaking. I'll tell you what it reminds me of: depetrification."

He heard a sharp intake of breath from Chief as the word left his mouth. He turned to see a vacant expression in the earth pony’s eyes. A strange expression had crossed his face, one Roads hadn't seen before. Uneven parts confusion, horror, and astonishment, but under them all, a shocked sadness. It surprised him to see such a look on the face of a pony normally so stoic. For a split second, his mind began to buzz, alight with explanations for Chief's reaction to the nexus.

        However, his attention quickly shifted back to the issue at hoof, the nexus. For a long while, he stared at it, thinking, before he resumed his previous observations. "The odd thing about it, though, is the fact that depetrification normally occurs in several stages and this appears to happen all at once. Well, I suppose it’s animation, actually, but the two are closely related—I would imagine that this could do both. It's really a shame, though, that I'm lacking proper instrumentation—this could be a huge find. I mean, just look at this!"

        Reaching across the floor, Roads found a small pebble, and hefted it into the nexus. Within a few moments, the rock began to quiver and shake, then expand and contract along with the copper.

        "Fascinating. I mean, when you think about the potential implications of what's going on here—the whole idea of magic interfering on a cellular level with living organisms and bestowing properties of life onto nonorganisms—well, we might have just stumbled onto a new facet in the discussion about how life on this planet came to be! Isn't it amazing? Chief?" He looked around.

        "Chief?!" Roads was alone before the nexus.

        A moment passed, filled with confusion. What was going on here? A burst of fear ran through him as the image of dogtags leapt to mind. What if—? No. No, that wasn't right. There would have been a scuffle. Roads would have heard something. Even if whatever had happened to "Strongsteed" had just transpired behind him, a pony like Chief couldn't simply be spirited away without a sound. He had to have left of his own accord.

        To where, though, Roads couldn't be sure. He presumed that Chief had headed back to camp, though he didn't imagine it mattered anyway. Regardless, he decided to return to Summer; if Chief wasn't there when he reached the camp, he could ask her what to do. If he was, then Roads might be able to find out what the hell was going on.

Taking to the air, he soared up through the canopy, to glide through the crisp island air. As he flew back towards what seemed to be the general direction of the camp—he had no map, and struggled to find his way on memory alone—he tried to think of a reason for Chief to leave.

        A few minutes passed and nothing sprung to mind. Of course, he had noticed that the earth pony was ill at ease around the nexus, and certainly surprised—who wouldn't be?—to see metal breathing. But surely, if he had felt that strongly about the magic, he would have at least said something. It had to be something else.

        In a flash of recollection, Chief's pained look at the mention of petrification rose to the front of his mind. It must’ve had something to do with that. Whatever it was that could get somepony like Chief to inadvertently display that much emotion had to be the root of his desertion.

Wait, desertion? Had Chief just deserted? Roads had not thought of it like that before. Did it count, leaving him like that? Would he really do that, after being as disparaging as he was towards Roads?

Roads gritted his teeth as a heat rose in his stomach. The hypocrite! To act so tough, so hardened, and spend the entire trip looking down on him like some sort of coward, only to turn around and do exactly what he had condemned. Roads nearly spat into the wind. Where did he get off, acting like that? Roads hoped Chief would be back in camp. Eyes narrowed, wings flared, he flapped with increasing intensity, outrage burning in his head as the wind rang in his ears.

        He passed the mountain, and caught sight of the lake, gleaming with the light of the now-fading sun. Swooping down towards it, he could see blue and brown dots below him, moving around in the camp. So, Chief was back. He must have left earlier than I thought, if he beat me back here. Roads glided to the ground, landing shakily at the edge of the pond.

        "You bastard!" he called, catching sight of Chief, "You left me!" The earth pony raised his head, squinting in the dying sunlight. Without a word, he rose and began to move towards his tent, as Roads charged into camp.

        "What the hell were you doing?!" he shouted, slowing as he moved to stand between Chief and his tent.

        At that Summer turned to see the two. "Roads—"

        "Desertion. That's what you were doing. After everything you said to me in the jungle today—" Roads snarled bitterly.

        "Roads, don't—" Summer edged towards the two, eying Chief, who stared at the ground, his eyes curiously vacant, not making eye contact with the pegasus.

        "—what was it you called me? A coward? Said that every time I talked, I sounded afraid, said that—"

        "—you don't know what you're doing—"

        "—I was good for nothing, reliable for less?"

Chief's head snapped up at that, and he fixed Roads with a spiteful glare, lips curled tight over ground teeth. What would have normally quieted the furious pegasus now did nothing. The week's pent up self-loathing was finally spilling out, redirected now, uncontrollable.

        "Roads, shut up!" Summer said from somewhere beside him, but he paid her no mind.

        "Well, who were you talking to, Chief, me or yourself? Coward!"

        "Say that again." Chief's voice hissed through gritted teeth.

His shoulder twitched, the muscles in his foreleg bunching apprehensively. He shifted his weight to his rear legs. Roads noticed and knew what was coming. He allowed a short pause to elapse, then stared into the larger pony’s eyes.

        "Coward."

        The hoof came before Roads could even flinch, the blow knocking him from his feet. He was tossed several feet to the side, crumpling on the ground as he landed. Turning away from him, Chief pushed aside the flap to his tent and entered it noiselessly. Roads struggled to his hooves, forelegs flailing, wings flared.

        "Where are you going?!" he screamed. "Bastard! What the hell is wrong with you?!"

He could taste something coppery in his mouth as he shouted. He spat it on the ground, defeated, the pain setting in around his face. He could feel it beginning to swell.

        "What's going on here?" he asked Summer softly, shaking his head. She sighed deeply.

        "Look, Roads, have you ever had something happen to you that you didn't really want anypony to know? That maybe even you didn't want to be reminded of? Ever?" she asked.

        He nodded mutely. Did he ever.

        "Yeah, well, Chief’s the same way. Today you just happened to have stumbled onto something that reminded him all the wrong things."

        "Some reminder."

        "Yeah, well, Chief's like that. That's just how it is, Roads."

        "But why? Why leave? After everything he said to me..."

        Summer shook her head. "He wouldn't want me to tell you—"

        "—I have just been left in the jungle and beaten across the face. Somepony owes me an explanation."

        "He'll tell you. Sometime. When he's ready. You'll get your explanation, just not now, not from me."

        Roads gave a heavy sigh. "It's not fair."

        Summer smirked at that, a small chuckle escaping her mouth. "Yeah, well. That's life for you." There was a small pause as they both settled in around the firepit.

        "Say, what was it exactly that set him off?" She asked, bending to light a fresh fire as Roads tended to his bloodied mouth.

        "It was—ow!—it was this nexus we found, or at least I think it was."

        "What happened?"

        "Well, I tracked it down after we stumbled across the campsite—"

        "—you came back to camp?" Summer asked, intrigued. Perhaps this would explain the missing supplies.

        "No, not this camp. The other one."

        "What other one?"

        Roads' eyes widened as he realized Chief hadn't yet told her. He took a moment to explain the situation, relaying to Summer what Chief had said about the dog tags. Her brow furrowed as she listened to his story.

        "Another pony? On the island? That would explain the situation with the cargo..."

        "What?"

        "Earlier today, while I was working on the map, I went to get a fresh quill and found that a bunch of boxes and supplies were missing. Something—or somepony—had taken them. In a few cases, searched right through the crates and picked out certain items. I wonder if it's this ‘Strongsteed’ guy."

        "Chief seemed to think he was dead."

        "Well, whatever killed him, then."

        "I doubt anything savage enough to eat a pony would have the presence of mind to search through boxes for what it needed."

        "Well, maybe it's smart, then."

        "Sentient? And a pony-hunter?"

        "I don't know. I wouldn't doubt that whatever's out there is intelligent. Earlier, I got the distinct feeling I was being watched. Same as in the rows of lotus trees."

        "That reminds me... we never had a chance to really investigate that did we?" Roads asked.

        "Well, no, somepony got in the way," Summer quipped.

        "Right, but I mean, those shouldn't have grown like that. They were cultivated. Rows don't exist in nature. Like stairs."

        "What stairs?"

        "Well, I hadn't thought about it until now—Chief noticed it—but that nexus we found, it was at the top of this giant tree stump. It was the strangest thing—somepony had carved stairs into the stump. And, now that I think about it, they looked a bit worn, too. Like they'd been frequently used."

        "So it's safe to assume, then, that we're dealing with a somepony here and not a something."

        "Well, I wouldn't be too sure..."

        And so they proceeded, discussing and arguing into the night about the unknown facets of the island, until the sun had long since sunk and their only light came from the full moon and the fire. Eventually, Roads found himself exhausted, and Summer excused herself to her tent. Left alone, the pegasus stared out into the darkness of the jungle as the fire burned itself out. Tired as he was, he had trouble getting to sleep, each moving frond a hideous beast coming to steal him away during the night, every rustle in the bushes the slinking of whatever had gotten to Strongsteed. His heart pounded in his chest, but he forced his eyes shut and tried desperately to sleep.

        He stayed that way for some time, lids tightly closed, trying to doze off, and eventually managed to sink into a light sleep. A dream or two flitted across his subconscious, dancing about in his mind, until a low rustle woke him from his sleep again. What was that?! he thought, catching sight of something moving out of the corner of his eye. He rolled over to see that it was the mere shadow of a coat rack. Nothing to worry about. Just some harmless furniture. Just as he was falling back to sleep, a thought struck him.

        Wait, why did I bring a coat to the tropics? It's always warm out here... how silly of me...

He sat up suddenly, a bolt of fear running through him. The hairs on his neck stood on end as his eyes shot open. Hold on, I didn't bring a coat! I don't even own a coat rack!

        "Chie—" he had just enough time to call before something soft and moist was forced against his mouth. His eyes grew heavy, and a fog swarmed around the periphery of his vision. Through the haze, he could just barely make out Chief being dragged, struggling, out of his tent, Summer unconscious beside him. Then he began to sink back into the darkness. He took a deep breath. Curious, he had just enough time to think, smells a lot like lotus...

        His eyes drooped shut as he sank limply into a set of dark green forelegs.

____________________________________________________________________________

A/N: Thanks for reading! I’d like to once again thank my editor, Secondaryspine, for his patience and hard work on this chapter. I would also like to thank him for his newfound dedication to sobriety.

Wait, what are you doing?

Never mind. Thanks anyway.


        Quiet. A time of relaxation—all is dark, all is calm. A bed, a lamp, a book. He is nestled in bed, reading.  Against his face rests the bag of frozen peas he dug out of the ice chest earlier. Hopefully it will keep his eye from bruising. Hopefully he won’t have to find his old glasses again.

                He looks up. Hoofsteps. His pulse quickens, his chest tightens. He had thought his father was asleep.

                The door to his bedroom swings open. He had thought wrong.

                “I saw your light on,” the stallion says hesitantly.

                “I’ve been reading.”

                Something passes behind the stallions’s eyes. A flicker. “Reading what?”

                The boy lifts the book, shows his father the cover. A Comprehensive Pegasus History, 1233-1742. Casio & Arembager.

                The stallion nods. “Good, good. See, there’s a good book for you.”

The colt flinches, looks away. “Right. A better book.”

The stallion smiles. “See? Now you’re getting it.” He sits down on the end of the bed. He stays still, no rocking. He has sobered up.

“Yeah...” the boy replies.

“I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that, actually...” he says. He places a

hoof on the covers, over the boy’s shins.

“You know... you know I just want what’s best. For you, I mean,” he starts. Carefully, cautiously. A relationship is at stake.

“I know, dad.”

“Well, see, that’s what I have to make sure of. I need to know you know. I have

to see you understand. Does that make sense?”

“Yessir.”

“And when you bring back those other books, those very, very bad books, it makes me think... maybe you don’t understand.”

“I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay, really. See, earlier, today, when I was—when you came home—earlier, I just... I wanted to make you understand.”

“I understand.”

The stallion nods, pats him on the leg. “Of course you do. I think maybe I finally got through to you today... but I think maybe that wasn’t the right way to—maybe that wasn’t how I should have done it.”

The boy nods. The stallion looks at him intensely. Curiously. Searching for a reaction.

“I think maybe I lost my temper a little bit, and I... I want you to know that I’m sorry for that.” He glances up, hoping, just maybe... “How is your eye?” he asks.

“It’s fine,” the boy replies.

“That was a mistake, you see, I never meant for that to happen—”

“It’s fine—”

“I mean, really, you have to know, it was completely just a mistake. A fluke.”

“It’s fine, dad.”

“Good, that’s what I like to hear. Can you do something for me?” The stallion shifts his weight a bit on the couch, rubs the back of his neck.

“Yessir?”

“You know how this was an accident?”

“Yessir.”

“Well, some ponies aren’t gonna think it was an accident if you say... if you tell it certain ways. Understand?”

“Yessir.”

“So you just gotta tell ‘em it was an accident. But maybe you’ll hafta change some details so that they see it was an accident. So that they’ll see it for what it was, for an accident.”

The boy raises an eyebrow. He knew this was coming. “You want me to l—”

“No, not lying, not really. Just... changing the details so ponies can understand the real nature of the thing. To help them see it like they should. It’s telling it so that they get one kind of truth instead of another. Does that make sense?”

“I understand,” he says quietly.

“Good, I’m glad,” the stallion says. He glances down at the boy’s bag, filled with the torn, burned remnants of what he managed to save from the fire. “You know you’re gonna need to return that.”

“What?” the boy asks, incredulous.

“I want you to take that back to the library.”

The boy is about to ask another question, about to argue. He looks up at his father.

A pause. He is thinking.

“I’ll take them back.”

It isn’t worth fighting over.

“That’s what I wanted to hear...” he glances at his watch. “You’d better get to sleep. Gotta get up early tomorrow.”

“But I’m not done reading...”

“Go to sleep.”

“Yessir.”

The stallion stands, takes the lamp, and moves to the door.

“I love you, Roads.”

“Love you too, dad.”

“Good night.”

VII

“Much Madness is divinest Sense -

To a discerning Eye -

Much Sense - the starkest Madness...”

-Emily Dickinson, Much Madness is Divinest Sense

It was strange. Usually the sun was such a comfort to Summer. In all of her wildest journeys, her most exotic adventures, she could turn and see it in the sky, and know that Celestia's eye was upon her. Here, though... here, it was different.

Here, it filtered through the trees and leaves and grass and trickled weakly through the bars to her face and she felt no better for it. Here, she was trapped in the bottom of a pit, with no way out. Here, Celestia couldn't save her. Here, she was trapped in a pit and hog-tied and clueless and hurting and her magic wasn't working and—no.

No.

She was Summer Dew. She would be okay. She had gotten out of worse jams than this, and she would get out of this one, too. As long as she kept her head about her. As long as she stayed calm. What was it Honey had always said?

Never panic; assess. Okay, she could do that. Assessment. What did she know?

She glanced around. All she could see was the four dirt walls that surrounded her, and the shadows of palm fronds that played upon them. When she strained her neck, she catch a glimpse of the top of the pit, three meters up, where wooden bars blocked her escape. When she stopped to listen, all she could hear was birdsong. What did she know?

Nothing.

No, that wasn't true. She knew she was in a pit. She knew how she got here. Those ponies... they had come in the night. Islanders. Hostile. They had knocked her out with something, something that smelled of... what was it? She knew she recognized the smell.

Lotus. That was it.

They're the ones who cultivated the grove, she realized.

Okay, what did that tell her?

They were prepared for something like this, if they already had lotuses ready—lotuses, and a pit. They'd had a plan, too. They had watched and waited and even taken supplies from the camp. No, not supplies—weapons. It all made sense now. The islanders had taken anything their prey could have used to defend themselves. The mallet, the razors, the wood axe. But what did it all mean?

It meant they had done this before. It meant that someone else had come to this island before they had, and met the same fate. Strongsteed. The name from the dog tags. This had happened to him, too. Perhaps he wasn’t dead. Perhaps she wouldn’t end up dead.

Good, Summer, good. She was assessing, working, finding an equilibrium. She felt her confidence returning. She had figured out—well enough—what was going on. Now she just needed to fix it. She needed a plan.

She thought for a moment. Nothing came to mind. Tied up like this, she couldn’t even stand up, let alone scale the high walls of the pit she had been tossed into. She couldn’t escape her bonds with magic; every time she tried to cast a spell, a wave of nausea passed over her while her horn stayed dark and useless.

Perhaps Roads or Chief could untie her, somehow. If they were even down here with her. She couldn’t tell; she was on her side, facing the dirt wall of the pit, hardly able to see anything.

“Roads?” she called. “Chief?”

“Oh,” a friendly voice responded. “You’re awake.”

A bolt of adrenaline shot through her veins; she felt the hair on the back of her neck stand on end as her muscles tensed. “Who’s there?”

“Me.”

Summer strained against her bonds to roll over and face the center of the pit. As she flopped over, she caught sight of a lean, rust-colored earth pony sitting across from her, tied by the waist to a stake in the dirt. He gave a slight smile, tightening cheeks around sunken eyes, exposing broken, yellow teeth that protruded from a gaunt, hollow face.

“And how are you?” he asked merrily.

“Never better,” she replied. “Now, who are you, exactly?”

“You first.”

“Pass.”

“It doesn’t work like that. You first.”

Summer sighed. His insistence irked her, but what was the use resisting? “My name is Summer Dew.”

The stallion shook his head. “No, no, no. I don’t care what your name is. I asked you who you are.”

“What?” She gave him a confused glance.

“Who are you?” he repeated.

“Well... I’m a cartographer.” What did he want from her?

“A name, and a profession? That’s who you are? That’s it?” The stallion looked almost disappointed.

“I’m... I’m a mare?”

She wasn’t sure if that was the right answer. She hoped it was.

“You say that like it’s a question.”

“I’m a mare,” she said, this time more firmly.

He sighed. “No, no, no! You aren’t answering me! Who are you?”

“I just told—”

“Who are you?” He sounded almost angry.

“You already—”

“Who are you?!” He was shouting now. Definitely angry.

“I—”

“Who are you?!”

“I don’t know!” she blurted, flustered. She realized what she had said and reddened as a smile passed over the stallion’s face. She couldn’t let him get to her like that. Never let somepony in your head unless you’re sure you want them there.

“Exactly,” he said, satisfied.

Summer clenched her teeth; she could feel her temper rising. “And you? Who are you?”

“Not a clue,” the stallion replied, smiling. Had Summer been untied, she would have slapped him. She made a mental note to do so in the future, were she to get the chance.

“What’s your name, then?” she asked with a sigh.

“Does it matter?”

“Yes.”

“Petty Officer Marion Strongsteed, Miss Dew.”

Summer blinked. “You’re Strongsteed?”

“I’m fairly sure I am.”

“You’re still alive?”

“I think so.” He held a hoof up to his neck, checking his pulse. “Yes, definitely still alive. For now.”

“My friend found your dog tags out in the forest... how long have you been down here?”

“Depends on how you define time.”

What?

Strongsteed rolled his eyes. “Seven years,” he said.

“Seven? Sweet Princess...” she breathed.

        “‘Princess’? Which one?”

“It’s an expression.”

“Which one?” he asked again.

“Celestia, obviously.”

“Oh, Celestia’s still around, is she?”

        “Yeah. Where else would she be?” Summer asked.

        “Not a clue,” he replied. “Brilliant, that Celestia. Master strategist.”

        “What are you talking about?”

“Oh, you don’t know?” he said, surprised. Then something occurred to him. “Right. Of course you wouldn’t,” he muttered to himself. “That’d be the point.”

        “What?”

“The surprise attack. I can only assume you haven’t been informed.”

“Surprise attack? On what?” she asked, incredulous.

“On this island, of course! That’s why you’re here, isn’t it? To instigate a coup?”

“No, you idiot. I’m here as part of a cartological expedition. We were supposed to map this island, not conquer it. Who would we even take it from? The islanders?”

“No, no, no. The islanders are just pawns. We’re talking about Princess.”

“Princess?” Summer asked, incredulous.

“You haven’t even been told about Princess? My, you are in the dark, aren’t you?”

“Told what? By who?”

“Told about the island! By Celestia!” Strongsteed exclaimed, surprised by her ignorance. “You were supposed to come overthrow Princess in a surprise attack on the island. Obviously, the cartology was just a cover up.”

“Are you insane?” Summer demanded. “My team and I aren’t military, and we certainly weren’t instructed to overthrow anything.”

“Oh, of course not, neither was I.”

“What?”

“When I set out for the island, I thought the Princess was sending me and my crew on an expedition to find Starbeard’s burial tomb.”

“I thought that was out on Star Isle?”

Strongsteed shrugged. “Apparently not. Not that it matters. We were sent to this area, and we got shipwrecked on this island—just as Celestia planned it.”

“What? Why would she plan a shipwreck?”

“Because he wanted me to scout out the area, obviously. You can’t have an attack until you’ve scouted the area.”

“What attack?”

“Your attack, of course!”

“I already said they didn’t tell us anything about an attack!”

“Well, of course you weren’t told about it,” he said, rolling his eyes. “It’s a surprise attack. If you knew, it would ruin the surprise.”

“I don’t think you quite understand how a surprise attack works.”

“No, don’t you see? It’s brilliant. Conventionally, a leader tells their own troops of the attack, but not the enemy. But Celestia is no conventional leader. She’s too smart for that. An ordinary surprise attack would be anticipated. So she didn’t tell her own troops either. That way, they couldn’t give it away, even by accident. Instead, she just arranged for us to all be in the right place, at the right time. That way, when the coup happens, they’ll have never seen it coming.”

“You’re delusional.”

“Not at all. Can’t you understand? It’s so original, Princess will be taken completely unawares,” he said, crossing his forelegs and resting against the wall of the pit, confident in his assertion. “Brilliant. Just brilliant.”

“Well, you seem to have gotten wind of this whole plan somehow.”

“Well, I had no idea until Princess told me. She put the whole thing together, saw right through Celestia. Isn’t it interesting?”

“Who is this ‘Princess’ you keep bringing up? Girlfriend of yours?”

“Not in the least,” he scoffed. “A relationship with that toad? I think not. Princess is the ruler of this island.”

“The head native?”

“No, no, she’s Equestrian. Or, she was, anyway. She left, two hundred years ago.”

Two hundred years? I think your dates might be a tad off.”

“Well, two hundred years, give or take a few.”

“Give or take a few hundred. She would be dead!”

“What? You’re crazy, of course she wouldn’t be. She’s quite clearly immortal,” he said.

“You have anything to back that up?”

“Well, she said she was, for one. I highly doubt she would lie. That’s not her particular vice. For another, she has documents, relics dating back hundreds of years, with her name on them. She said she became immortal when she set hoof on this island, because this is where she was destined to be. She became a goddess, here, and the natives recognized it and made her their queen—though she prefers to be called Princess.”

“That’s insane. She has you brainwashed.”

“Not at all. She couldn’t brainwash me if she tried. They put lotus extract in the food, you see, and it keeps my mind wonderfully clear. I can see right through any deception. That’s the beauty of logic,” Strongsteed said, smiling.

“I’ve heard a good bit of logic before, and it didn’t sound like this.”

“No, no. I’m all logic. It’s all I’ve got.” He gestured around to the pit. “I haven’t left here in seven years—all I have are my thoughts. Logic and philosophy, they’re all I have to live for. If you could call this a life, anyway.”

“You don’t ever get to leave?”

“Never. Well, except for interrogation sessions. When Princess comes to find out what Celestia is up to. That’s how we first found out she was trying to invade the island.”

“I thought you said Celestia didn’t tell you anything.”

“She didn’t. Princess did. She told me she had a reliable source who said Celestia was planning a coup.”

“Who was the source?”

“Well, I was, of course.”

“You? Why would you tell her that the Princess was planning a coup?”

“Because she told me to tell her. She said she already knew. ‘Had it from a reliable source,’ that’s what she said.”

“But you were the source!” Summer pointed out.

“Of course I was. And I daresay I’m quite reliable. If I can’t trust myself, who can I trust?”

Summer sighed. If he couldn’t see what was going on here, she couldn’t point it out to him. This ‘Princess’ was insane, and had apparently dragged Strongsteed into her delusions as well. She was getting tired of this line of questioning.

“Whatever, Strongsteed. Look, I don’t care about coups, or invasions, or Princesses, or what-have-you. I just need to know how to get out of here. There has to be some way to escape.”

“Well, I could tell you, but it wouldn’t be worth it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You would just end up back here again. And you’d be like me.”

“Like you?”

“Blind.”

Strongsteed moved his head into the light, and Summer could see that his eyes were clouded over. They rolled and twitched independent of each other, twisting grotesquely in their sockets.

Summer was unphased. She’d seen worse. “What happened?”

“I tried to escape. When they caught me, Princess took all the sight out of my left eye. When I tried again, they took it out of the right one, too. Some kind of curse.”

“Why?” Summer asked.

At that, Strongsteed got a funny look on his face. “Why did she do it? It’s the same question as why she took me prisoner in the first place. As why she rules the natives mercilessly. As why just yesterday she had a fifteen year old colt beheaded, just to send a message. ‘No uprisings.’ Message received, loud and clear.

“Well, if you have to ask ‘why,’ you’re hardly up on things, now are you? It’s a funny thing, ponies. D’you know those older folks who always sit out on their front porches and talk about how the whole world’s going down the tubes? About how the kids these days are more violent than they used to be? About why that’s happening? Like, it’s the books or the music or the culture or ‘there’s something in the water’?”

“Uh, yeah, I guess,” Summer replied, confused.

“Yeah. They like to say that. They have to. Otherwise they might get to thinking that none of those things are what taught their children to be monsters.”

“Are you ever going to—”

“—ponies like me, though, we know. We see things. Hear things. We know that evil isn’t something that’s out there in the woods or hiding under someone’s bed. It’s around us. Every minute of every day of our lives, and we greet it every instant when we step out the front door for the mail or go to get our morning coffee. We say “hello” to it and it smiles and looks us right in the face and says something polite back.”

“You have got to be kiddi—” Summer started to interrupt.

“—And then when we come home late at night after getting hammered at the bar and we beat our wives, we look in the mirror and know that it isn’t art that’s making the kids violent. That the evil isn’t lurking outside our house,” he said, and took a long, much needed breath.

“Does this have anything to do with—”

“—We look in the mirror and we look it in the face,” Strongsteed continued. “Does that answer your question? ‘Why?’ Well, she did it because she could. Because she’s just like the rest of us. That’s why.”

There was a short silence after he finished his diatribe.

“Bullshit,” Summer said.

Strongsteed blinked. “What?” he asked, shocked.

“That was perhaps the most useless answer you could have possibly come up with.”

“How could you say that?” he asked, indignant.

“Well, for one thing, you haven’t been to a bar in at least seven years—”

“—it was a rhetorical device—”

“—and for another, you didn’t really answer my question very well. I wasn’t interested in hearing about what you think about ‘evil,’ or how she runs this island. I wanted to know if she blinded you exclusively for trying to escape, because I wanna know what I’m going to have to deal with when I bust out of here.”  

“But... don’t you care about evil? Don’t you care about the truth?” Strongsteed sputtered. He had been preparing that lecture for quite some time, waiting for that magical question, ‘why?’ He had thought it was a rather good speech.

“‘The truth?’ I don’t give a damn about ‘the truth.’ I want to survive, that’s what I care about.”

Strongsteed smiled patronizingly. “But, why survive if you don’t care for truth? What’s your reason to live?”

“Don’t need one.”

“Why survive if you don’t know why to live?”

“You got a better plan? Listen, we can sit down here all day and talk about why you think it is ponies do mean things to each other, or we can actually get something done. And besides,” she said with a grin, “Maybe what’s moral is just something you decide for yourself, anyway. There’s no evil, inside or outside, save what you give a name to.”

“Don’t be such a relativist!” he fumed. “It’s no fun!”

“I’m not. But it’s fun to make you mad.” Underneath his orange coat, Summer could see him turning brick red.

“Illogical, insolent, insoluble—” he spat.

“—That last one’s probably not the word you were actually looking for—”

“Shut up! I know what I’m talking about! I’ve thought this through!”

“Well, good for you,” Summer said calmly. “But unfortunately, I don’t particularly care. You can’t help me get out of here, so you don’t matter to me any more.”

“‘Matter’? Having meaning  isn’t that arbitrary!” he objected.

“Here’s an idea: you don’t have one. To me, at least.”

“That’s a lie.”

“Actually, you’re right. You do matter, just a little bit. You taught me something very valuable.”

“Really?” He calmed suddenly. “What?”

“Not to eat anything they offer me.”

Strongsteed sat back again the wall in a stunned silence, unseeing eyes wide and mournful.

“No, no, no,” he said when he finally opened his mouth again, “it wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was supposed to have somepony who would understand. Seven years in this pit, waiting for company, and this is what I get? You?”

“Well, if it makes you feel bad, I could just leave,” she said. “Oh, wait, no I can’t. How about you stop moping about what you can’t change, and see if you can get over here and untie me. Or at the very least tell me something I can use.”

“If I did... would it mean anything?” he asked timidly.

“Yeah, sure, whatever. Just help me out here.”

“I could do that. I could be... useful.”

“Fantastic,” Summer breathed. Maybe she was finally getting somewhere with this lunatic.

“What do you want to know?”

“Tell me everything you know about Princess. Just the facts, nothing more.”

“Well, it depends on what you mean by facts—”

“Just start talking!” Summer interrupted.

“Fine, fine. Let’s see... she left Equestria after her husband was killed in a dragon attack she blamed the Archon for... She landed on the island after a shipwreck and convinced the natives—who are all earth ponies and had never seen a unicorn before—that she was a goddess. Then she started setting up a guard.”

“Why?”

“Well, because of Celestia, of course. She’s been sending visitors to this island for as long as Princess has been here. Lately, she’s becoming more and more sure that Celestia’ll send a full force her way. So, the past hundred years or so, shes been building up the guard. Training them based off of the Equestrian Royal Guard, actually. She’s got stallions stationed all over this city.”

“The city?”

“Sure. We’re in the heart of it. The natives found a massive gorge around the river on this side of the island and cut their homes into it. Over a few hundred years the population grew and the village grew with it. Now it’s a gargantuan metropolis.”

“And you know this how?”

“Every hour, two guards come check to make sure I’m still here. Sometimes I get them to stay and chat—Princess has taught all the natives to speak Equestrian, you see.”

“And the natives? How many are there?” she asked.

“Tons. This side of the island is swarming with them. They stay away from the other half, though. Princess told them it was filled with evil spirits and demons, so they don’t venture to the other side of the mountain without her blessing.”

“Probably why they didn’t find us for so long. What are they like? How well trained are they?”

“The locals are a traditionally peaceful group of ponies. They hate change and they hate conflict. Anypony who wasn’t handpicked by Princess to be a guardspony is about as friendly as your average Equestrian. The others, though... steer clear of them. They’re a mean spirited bunch, save for Willow and Aspen.”

“Who?”

“The pit guards. All the others have been trained to hate Equestrian, but those two... I’ve talked some sense into them, over the years. Granted, not enough to get them to let me out of this hellhole, but still, it’s progress... what else do you wanna know?”

“Not much. I see what’s going on here. One last thing, though—have you seen my team?” she asked.

Strongsteed grimaced. “I haven’t seen anything in years.”

“You know what I mean.” At this point, Summer wasn’t worried about offending him.

“I heard them toss down two other ponies with you. I can hear them breathing, back in the other side of the pit.”

“They’re alive? Good.” Not that she would be worried about losing Roads—Chief, though, would’ve been hard to replace.

“Alive... and waking, it sounds like. One of them, at least,” Strongsteed said, one ear cocked, listening pensively.

“I hope it’s Chief.”

No such luck. From the other side of the pit came a low groan as Roads awakened.

“Where am I?”

“We’ve been taking prisoner by—”

“Why am I tied up?” he asked, voice rising.

“Like I said, we’ve been—”

“What’s going on?! Summer?! Summer, help! I can’t move, Summer, help me—” Summer heard him thrash against his bonds, giving small grunts of pain as they cut into his sides and legs.

“—calm down, Roads—”

“—I can’t get out! Help! How did we get down here?! What’re we gonna do?!” He was entering a full scale panic attack, now, flopping on the ground as he twisted every which way, further entangling himself in the mess of ropes that held him down. His voice cracked with fear and pain as he cried out for help.

“I can’t—I can’t—Summer, where are you—”

“—shut up—”

“Summer, where are you—it hurts, I can’t—”

“—Shut up!

Roads fell silent and still, chest heaving under the ropes. He was turned away from her, and had somehow managed to get himself caught in a narrow area where the walls almost met. He quivered with barely restrained fear as he waited for her to speak again.

        “Calm down, Roads. We’re fine. Don’t worry about it. Here, just... see if you can turn over to face me,” she said soothingly, trying to ease his panicking. He would be useless if she couldn’t get him calmed down.

        Pushing with one hoof against the edge of the pit, Roads managed to flip himself over. Summer caught sight of his face, streaked with dirt and blood, pale as the moon with eyes wide as wagon wheels. They flickered wildly, taking in the pit; she saw them linger over the still form of Strongsteed, who had fallen silent as he listened with rapt curiosity.

        “See there? Listen to me and you’ll be fine. Look, if you’ll just pull your hips to the right a little and push with your left leg you’ll slide right out into the open.”

        He stared at her for a moment and then slowly inched his way out. She saw him relax a bit as he freed himself from the enclosure.

        “Now, if we’re gonna get out of here, I need you to stop freaking out. Can you do that?” she asked.

        Roads gave an unsteady nod. Good. That was easier than Summer thought it would be, given his usual disposition. He’s adjusting, she realized. She felt a tiny flicker of pride rise in her chest, which she quickly quashed. Don’t get attached, Summer, she reminded herself. It was Honey Dew’s first and most important rule.

“What’s... what’s going on?” he asked quietly.

Summer explained as best she could what had happened; Roads calmed as she gave him a moment to reflect on the situation. She also told him what little she had been able to glean from Strongsteed, who would, every so often, interject with wild speculation. This, of course, included his notions of Princess’ immortality. Roads’ listened carefully as Strongsteed recounted how she had stopped aging when she reached the island.

“Summer,” he said, “that’s actually possible.”

“What? You believe this crap?”

“In this instance, yes. Do you remember that ley line that Chief and I found in that massive tree stump? The one I was telling you about? She could be using it to keep herself alive indefinitely. That might be why we found stairs cut into the wood.”

Strongsteed’s head jerked up at that. “Eternal life,” he breathed, “freedom from mortality? This changes... everything.”

Summer wasn’t entirely sure what he was talking about, but she was fairly certain she didn’t care.

“So that’s how she’s been around so long? You’re sure?” she asked.

“I’m not positive. I’d need more information. But it’s definitely a possibility, if it’s only been two hundred years. Every nexus runs out of energy eventually, but one that powerful could last for centuries.”

“So it’s not eternal?” Strongsteed asked, and edge of concern in his voice.

“No. Not at all.”

“Oh. Well. Never mind, then. The world of philosophy marches on.”

Roads shot Summer a curious look.

“Don’t ask,” she told him.

He nodded. “All right then, how do we get out of here? Out of the pit, out of the city, off the island, any of it? What’re we gonna do?”

“I dunno,” she sighed. “I can’t get untied, and I can’t use my magic, so for now, we wait and hope Chief wakes up.”

“Your magic isn’t working?”

“No.”

“Must be the lotus.”

“What do you mean?”

“The lotus extract they used to knock us out, it scrambles your ley lines. That’s why you can’t use your magic right now.”

Summer gave him a blank look. He sighed and looked away, trying to think of an explanation that she could understand.

“Okay,” he said finally. “It’s more complicated—way more complicated, actually—than this but... you remember the river analogy?”

“Yeah, of course.”

“Well, basically, you know how we talked about what happens when you mess with the alignment of a ley line? Like with an Attunement Potion?”

“Lotus works like one of your potions?” Summer asked.

“Not at all,” Roads said.

“Well why did you bring it up, then?” Summer asked, frustrated.

“Because this is something very pointedly different from an Attunement Potion. Messing with the alignment of your lines, see, normally doesn’t affect your magic output this drastically. That’s why I can still fly when I’ve taken a potion—the magic that makes me lighter is still there, it’s just slightly weaker,” he explained.

“But this isn’t the same at all...”

“Exactly. I think the lotus must have changed not just the alignment of your lines, but the polarity of them as well. The actual flow structure of the aetons has been temporarily scrambled,” he explained.

“How long is that gonna last?”

“I’m not sure,” Roads admitted. “It could be a few hours, it could be a few days. Till then I guess you won’t be able to cast any spells—and I won’t be able to fly. Oh, and don’t eat any of the food, of course. If what Strongsteed says is true—”

“—it is! If you accept that anything can be certainly true, anyway, which is up for debate, and I’ve often wondered myself if—”

“—yes, okay. Anyway, if you eat anything with lotus in it, it’ll slow down the recovery process,” Roads said.

“And most likely drive me insane, if what I’ve heard about the stuff is correct,” Summer said, nodding towards Strongsteed.

“Bah! Sane, insane, only difference is which everypony else says is which,” he grumbled.

“Shut up, Strongsteed,” Summer said. “Well, if that’s it then, I guess we’ll have to wait for Chief to wake up. He can slip out of his ropes, untie us, and then when you can fly again you can lift us out of here. He’s in here, right?”

“I can hear him breathing...” Strongsteed murmered.

Roads jerked against his bonds to twist his head around. He surveyed the darkened edges of the pit behind him, searching for the tell-tale silhouette of the sleeping pony.

“Yeah, he’s over here,” Roads said finally. “He’s still pretty out of it, though.”

        “He woke up while the two of you were still unconscious. Just before they tossed you in. I heard them knock him out again, but he’ll wake in a bit,” Strongsteed said.

        “Can you move over to him? See if you can wake him up, Roads.”

        “It’s no use,” Strongsteed asserted.

        “It shouldn’t be too hard.”

        “No, not that. It’s no use because the guards are coming.”

        “And?”

        “And they’ll most likely be taking you to your first interrogation session. With Princess.”

        “But we don’t know anything!”

        “Precisely.” Strongsteed broke into a jagged smile. “Should be fun. Princess is a real gem. Very good first impressions, that one.”

        “What are you talking about?”

        “You’ll see. I envy you, I really do.”

        “What? Summer, what’s he talking about?” There was a sliver of fear creeping back into Roads voice.

        “I dunno. Don’t worry about it. If there’s any interrogating going on, just let me do the talking. Just... stay quiet, and follow Chief’s lead.”

        Somewhere above them, the crisscrossing wooden stakes blocking off the top of the pit were removed, and a decomposing ladder was shoved down into the dirt.

        “Why? What’s Chief gonna do?”

        “Don’t worry about it.”

        A jagged stone knife whistled through the air and buried itself near Summer’s face. She didn’t blink as it thudded down before her.

“Cut yourself and your friends free, and climb up the ladder. Leave the knife in the pit. Don’t do anything stupid,” came a voice from above.

“Hello, Aspen,” Strongsteed called.

“Hey Strongsteed!” came a different, lighter voice.  

“Willow! Shut up! We have new prisoners,” Aspen hissed to his

companion.

“Hey, new prison—” Willow called, before an elbow to his ribcage

stopped him short.

        “Ignore him. Cut yourself free and climb up. Princess has requested your presence.”

        “Why are you talking like—ow!”

        In the pit, Summer grinned to herself. Inexperienced guards meant it would be easier to escape—later. If Princess wanted to see them, maybe she could talk her way out of this. She would comply. For now.

        Summer took the knife in her teeth and sliced her way through the ropes around her hooves. Standing, she stretched aching limbs, wincing as her legs and back cramped after hours of contortion. She hobbled over to Roads, cut him free, and helped him to his hooves.

        “Chief’s over here,” he said through gritted teeth as he straightened his back. His hooves had gone numb from restricted circulation, and he groaned as sensation returned to areas rubbed raw by the ropes.

        Roads looked over at Chief. They had trussed him up more tightly, and used more rope because of his size. He was waking now, though, and the cords gave small creaks as he strained against them. Summer worked her way through the bonds and helped him stand; he leaned against her, still groggy from whatever the islanders had used to subdue him. As he moved into the light, Roads saw that he had been beaten during their capture as well—dark bruises ran the length of his left side, and one eye was swollen almost shut. It seemed not all the natives were as pleasant as Willow and Aspen.

        Chief gave Roads and Summer a few confused glances, but said nothing. Roads supposed this type of situation wasn’t entirely foreign to him.

        “Just follow my lead,” Summer said to him quietly.

        Chief gave a steady nod, glancing around with his good eye. He gazed from the knife to Strongsteed, tilting his head slightly. Summer caught his drift and slipped Strongsteed the dagger.

“What’s taking so long down there?” Aspen called from above.

“My team is just now waking up. They can’t make it up the ladder yet, give us a

second.”

“Just... hurry up, or something,” Willow pleaded.

Strongsteed backed against the wall, to where neither of the guards could see him and cut himself free, leaving the ropes sitting around his hooves so that he still appeared restrained. Giving Summer a meaningful glance, he kicked the knife back into the center of the pit.

“Toss the knife back up here.”

“And try not to hit us, please!”

There was a small whistling sound as the blade soared through the air in a lazy arc and planted itself in the ground next to Willow’s hoof. He gave a small squeak and hopped daintily away from it. Beside him, Aspen let loose an exasperated sigh.

“Climb the ladder,” he said tiredly. He made a series of gestures to companions Roads couldn’t see, and within a few seconds a number of hoofsteps reached his ears. He craned his neck and saw that a cadre of fellow guards had joined their captors at the edge of the pit. He glanced over at Summer. Would she try to escape them all? He had no idea if it was possible, but if anypony could do it, it’d be Summer and Chief.

Summer caught his eye and leaned over to him. “For now, stay quiet, and do what I do. If anything changes, you’ll know.”

He wasn’t really sure what she meant, or what she was trying to do, but he nodded anyway.

“Good.”

She turned away from him and ascended the ladder, closely followed by Chief, who worked his way up the rickety wooden rungs with unsteady hooves, still not fully awake. After Chief was done, he clambered out of the hole on sore legs and dusted himself off, a small gasp escaping his lips as he looked up.

Around him was the panoramic view of a river valley, etched into blackened stone and lined with terraces. He stood on a hill overlooking the clear blue waters that flowed through the canyon, irrigating rows of crops around the basin at the bottom of the valley. Numerous islanders made their way through the fields, picking and digging and planting, as others moved across the wide terraces into caves carved into the high, rocky walls that surrounded the clearing. Some had constructed facades of wood and leather that protruded from the mouths of the caves, extending their homes out onto the terraces; others sat in huts filled with food, drink and craft, calling over bystanders to haggle loudly.

From his vantage point, Roads could see that the riverside city stretched nearly half a mile in each direction, and was incredibly well-tiered; by building their homes into the hills that surrounded the river, the natives had created a city as bustling as any in Equestria. Islanders swarmed across wooden bridges and clambered across platforms cut into the blackrock, going about their lives in the vast equatorian metropolis. He gazed out over the city in awe. These were no primitive ponies.

Summer, it seemed, was equally stunned. “Amazing,” she breathed.

Next to her, Chief gave a small grunt and a quick shrug. He was utterly unimpressed. “Seen better,” he muttered.

Roads just shook his head.

“Alright,” Aspen said. “Let’s get a move on. Princess wants to see these three now.”

“This way, please,” Willow murmured pleasantly, gesturing to a path that lead down into the basin.

The trio made their way down the slope to the river, forced against each other as the large group of guards, armed with spears, surrounded them. They passed scores of islanders, most of whom gave the group of guards and their escorts nervous glances before averting their eyes and hurrying about their business. Roads remembered Summer saying something about them being taught to fear Equestrians.

The group crossed a rickety, weatherbeaten bridge to the other side of the river and made their way up a series of ramps to the uppermost terrace. Roads felt somewhat woozy looking over the dropoff at the edge of the plateau, his ability to fly replaced by an irksome fear of heights. As a cool burst of wind blew past him, he felt as though he were being sucked over the edge, out into the void. He tried to shake the feeling, pressing against Summer as he tried to get away from the edge. She gave him an annoyed look and nudged him away.

“Cool it, Roads,” she whispered to him.

“I’m afraid of falling.”

“Then don’t.”

And that was that. Roads kept quiet as he followed the now silent procession across the terrace. Within a few minutes, they came to a massive alcove cut deep into the dark rock, its cavernous maw gilded over with flecks of gold that glinted in the light of the now fading sun.

They were ushered inside, the guards—save Willow and Aspen—remaining at the entrance. They walked along a wide hallway, lined with polished black marble and illuminated by torchlight, muggy from the poor ventilation and constantly burning fires. Pushing aside a heavy wooden door, the two guards ushered the party into a massive antechamber. For the second time that day, Roads was breathtaken.

The room was a wide rotunda, entirely covered in black marble, with a high, domed ceiling, coffered and complete with an oculus through which the smoke from a fire trailed. Through the hole fell a few rays of sunshine that did little to illuminate the darkened room; instead, the polished walls flickered with the light of the pyre that burned in the center of the room. The reflected firelight left Roads with the sensation that the walls were hazy and twisted, dancing this way and that. It was hard to tell, here, what was shadow and what was real.

Sitting directly behind the fire, on a throne of sleek, glinting bronze was a short, pudgy unicorn, whose head was wrapped in a floral crown, covered in gemstones, that barely covered a shock of red mane. She looked down on them with a wide, pompous smile, her eyes darting across each of their faces, looking for traces of awe in their expressions. Roads felt her eyes on him, and gave a small shiver as her smile grew wider.

“Welcome,” she said. “Welcome to my island.”

Roads turned to see Summer cock an eyebrow as she turned her lips up into a fake smile.

“Yes, It’s a lovely place. Wonderfully tem—”

“—You’ll notice I said my island. As in, ‘mine’,” she said, smile still etched across her face.

“I’d have to say I didn’t notice—it sounded so natural, you see.”

“I say ‘mine’ because I am the Princess of this island. I belong here. And you... don’t.”

“Well, of course, not. Good to see we agree. We’ll just be on our way then, and leave you to your little island—”

“‘Little’? Nothing about it is ‘little.’ Oh, it may look small, from a distance, but the island itself is huge. It expands constantly, like a living thing—not that you would ever be able to tell. The shoreline never expands—only the forests get bigger.”

She gestured behind her to a map of the island, stretched wide against the wall. It was enchanted somehow, green and blue lines rippling across its surface, ever-changing, certain areas growing larger and smaller at random. “I had to weave a dynamic map of it, you see. Nothing else would do. An ordinary map—for my extraordinary island—would be impossible.”

“Right. Well, that would explain why we had such a hard time trying to make one. Now, if you’ll excuse us...” Summer took a step towards the door. “We’ll just be leaving.”

A green aura caught her by the mane and pulled her back away from the door. Roads winced to see it, but Summer gave no indication of pain.

“Right,” she said. “So rude of me to leave so early in a conversation. There’s time for that later.”

“Oh, no, no, no. You’re never leaving,” Princess said, grin fading. “I know why you’re here.”

“And why’s that?”

“To scout out the island for Celestia. To prepare for the invasion.”

“There is no invasion,” Summer said calmly.

Princess’ eyes widened as a scowl crossed her face. For a moment, she was quiet and a deathly silence fell over the room. In the corner of Roads’ eye, the  two guards exchanged meaningful glances.

“Don’t lie to me,” Princess said finally.

“There is no invasion.”

A bolt of green light caught Summer across the chest, lifting her off her hooves and hurling her across the floor.

“Don’t lie to me!” Princess screamed.

“Okay,” Summer said, rising from the floor, seemingly unphased by Princess’ magic. “You got us. You’re right. The Princess sent us, but not as scouts. We are the invading force.”

Princess’ smile returned. “I knew it,” she beamed.

“One question though. How did you find out?” Summer asked evenly. To her left, Chief shot her a questioning look. She shook her head, almost imperceptibly.

“I’ve always known. Always. Even as a schoolfilly I was aware of my greatness. My talent. My genius. And even then, I know that some ponies would find that threatening. I knew that Celestia would find that threatening.

“I went to her school, you see, and she always had it out for me. She knew I was the only unicorn in my class—hell, the only unicorn in Equestria, who could compete with her for the Equestrian throne. Always worried someday I might try to take her chair from her. That’s why I wasn’t surprised when Celestia did nothing to stop the dragons from invading Equestria, nor when she incited them to attack our town. She was always jealous of me, always afraid I would take over.”

“Wait,” Summer said. “How exactly would the Princess—”

She was cut off as a burst of magic knocked her to the ground.

“Do not interrupt me!” Princess screamed.

“Apologies, ma’am,” Summer replied.

“A foolish thought—who would want to rule a land as pitiful as Equestria?”—Roads heard a bitter growl escape Chief’s throat at that—“After all, it’s pathetic compared to my island. But I can’t fault her for her delusions—when you’re as stupid as she is, you’re bound to make mistakes. Mistakes like allowing me to leave Equestria after my husband died. Mistakes like not realizing until too late that I had conquered this island. Mistakes like sending an invasion force this pitiful to unseat me.” Princess shook her head. “Pathetic foal.”

“I almost wouldn’t think it was truly her intention, wouldn’t think she could fail this miserably, but it’s really the only explanation for why more Equestrians keep turning up on my island. The last ones were even dressed like military. There was a whole ship’s worth of them. I killed them all, of course, save for Strongsteed. I kept him for information first, but after a while I learned all there was to learn. Now I just like to watch him lose his mind. You know, he used to be functional.”

Roads glanced over at Chief. He was fully awake now, beady eyes burning with fury, muscles tensed and rippling, wearing a scowl deeper than Roads had ever seen. He took a menacing step forward, but Summer edged over and stood in his way. She gave him the same slight shake of the head as before. This time, though, Roads could see her jaw muscles bulging from where she had clenched her teeth, and when she turned back to face Princess her eyes were tighter than before.

Still, she spoke with the same calm monotony as before. “Yes, well, not everypony can be as brilliant as you, Princess. You have indeed defeated Celestia. Now all you have to do is send us back to Equestria so that we can inform our Princess of her failure.”

“Send you back to Equestria? Brilliant idea,” Princess said with a smile.

“I knew you would see it that way.”

“What better way to humiliate Celestia than by returning her the dead bodies of her own invasion force?”

Summer looked up her quietly, deadly calm still unbroken. “That’s a bad idea,” she said, an edge of steel creeping into her voice.

“I’m afraid I don’t care. This was a nice talk, don’t you think?”

“Why even have it if you were just going to kill us anyway?”

“Well,” she scoffed. “I’m no barbarian. Everypony deserves to be informed personally when they are to be put to death. It’s just common courtesy.” Princess looked over to her guards. “Willow, Aspen, escort the prisoners back to their pit, and let the populace know that we’re to have an execution next week.”

Summer glanced at Chief and flashed a quick nod. At that, his lips curled into a thin smile. Roads was fairly sure that this was the first time he had ever seen such a thing. It was slightly unnerving.

Willow and Aspen approached the three wordlessly, preparing to guide them back out into the hall. As soon as they were within hoof’s length, Chief leapt into the air, striking silently at both of them, knocking the pair to the ground almost instantaneously.

He hit the ground running, sprinting for the door. Summer follow suit.

“Roads, let’s go!” she called over her shoulder.

He whirled around and dashed after her, making his way to the—what happened to the door? It was right there a minute ago but now it was—

“Gone,” Princess said. “Sorry. The door magically seals into the granite. I’m afraid the only way out is to break the enchantment. Which I don’t quite plan on doing.”

Summer turned to face the other unicorn. “Let us out.”

“Why should I?” Princess asked, sick smile back on her face.

        “Because if you don’t, we’ll kill you. You’ve sealed all of your guards out of the room as well.”

        “Two hundred years of practicing magic, and you think I need guards to defend myself against your three?”

        “Only one way to find out,” Summer said, as a dark brown blur flew past her.

        There was a crack and a flash of light as Chief smacked into a magical barrier that had sprung up in a split second. He rolled to his feet, unphased, and launched himself at Princess again as beside him Summer charged into her.

        She won’t be able to hold Chief back for long. An earth pony with a military background is bound to have built up resistance to magic—and how powerful could Princess possibly be?

        His question was answered as a wave of green magic took Chief’s hooves out from under him, sending him crashing to the ground. An earsplitting cry filled the air as an aura surrounded Summer and she was tossed bodily into the hard stone wall of the room. She wobbled to her feet, caught sight of him, and called to him.

        “Roads! Move!”

        Roads glanced up at Princess, who was trying to subdue an incensed, swiftly moving Chief with magic, and having little luck. Each time she would manage to stop him short, he would only rise to his feet and charge her again, dodging bolts of magic until finally one lucky block would fell him once more. Roads sprinted quietly around the outer edge of the room, until he was directly behind Princess, out of her line of sight.

        He took a deep breath, and rushed at her. He wasn’t sure what he could do when he got there, but perhaps he could buy Chief enough time to get within striking distance. He ran as fast as he could, gaining ground, moving ever closer to her.

        Closer...

        She still didn’t see him.

        Closer...

        Could she hear his hoofsteps?

        Almost there...

        A second more and he would be upon her. A body check, a hoof to the face, anything would do, and then Chief would be able to—Princess whirled around.

Before Roads could react he was flying towards the wall.

_________________________________________________________

        Darkness.

Where is he? A pounding in his head, a shrill buzzing in his ears. He opens his eyes groggily, finds himself sitting against something cool and hard. Granite. Something warm trickles down the side of his face. He feels like sleeping. That would be nice. But there is something he needs to do.

        In the distance, hazy figures dancing around each other. Flashes of light bursting through the rotunda. He closes his eyes again. Why does his head hurt so badly? The memories come slowly.

Books in a fire... kicked across the room... bashed hard against a wall...

No, that’s not right. Not this time. He opens his eyes again.

Three figures in the haze. Blue, brown, red. The blue one isn’t moving. It’s turning red, too. The other two are still dancing, though. They flow together and give off green light. Such beautiful colors. But darkness is coming again.

A storm... falling... striking tree branches on the way down...

No. Still not right. He feels his eyes open again. There are dark clouds at the edges of his vision. His own heartbeat echoes in his ears. Loud, like a drum. His mouth tastes of metal. Between the thumps in his ears, he can hear someone screaming.

“Chief!”

The brown figure is being held aloft. Kicking its legs, high in the air. It jerks. Falls.

“Chief!

It crumples to the ground. Keeps moving. Crawling. Swearing through broken teeth.

Darkness again.

Lying on clouds... hooves to the face... to the side... all over...

Not quite there yet. Closer, though. The darkness... slides. It’s still there, but thinner. He can see through it, now.

The brown one is in the air again. Held aloft by its neck. Slowly turning blue.

The darkness pulsates with the beat of the thumping in his ears. His eyes slide out of focus... then back again...

Now two are still. One is moving. Getting closer. Smiling.

A bolt of green light... caught in the chest... crashing into the wall.

That’s it. A bolt of fear runs through his stomach. Princess. She is coming closer, wearing a demonic grin. He struggles to move. His legs are far away; they respond slowly. He jerks and twitches against the granite. She is coming closer.

Darkness again, and then...

A face, pressed close to his. It says something. The sound reaches him from a distance. He can’t make out anything, save for the word “Celestia.”

Princess....

A flash of green light and all is dark once more.

____________________________________________________

A/N: Once again, thanks for reading! I’d like to go ahead and thank my editor for the copious amounts of work he put into this fic, though not so much for the acoustic trauma he caused by screaming into his microphone about Princess’ scenes. Thanks, man.

        

        

        

        

 


VII

You broke the faith, and strangely, weakly, slipped apart.

You gave in -- you, the proud of heart, unbowed of heart!

Was this, friend, the end of all that we could do?

And have you found the best for you, the rest for you?”

-Rupert Brooke, Desertion

        “Revenge isn’t a good motive. Sure, it sounds all well and good. An eye for an eye, punishing those who wrong you, all that jazz. Really, though, think about it. You get too caught up thinking about vengeance and you forget what’s really important: survival. 

        “Sure, dying in a final act of revenge sounds good on paper, but at the end of the day, where are you? Dead. Doesn’t matter how or why, you’re dead, buddy, and that’s what matters. Nope. That’s no good. Staying alive’s the important thing. And don’t forget it.”

        Yep. That sounded about right. Maybe she’d use a word or two differently, but that’s about what Summer would say to the idea of revenge. But he would ask anyway. He would get his chance. He would kill Princess.

        Even if Summer dragged him back to Equestria, he had contacts. He could come back to this island, with a few friends, and a few weapons, and then he would see who got tossed across that granite floor like a ragdoll...

        But for now, he would have to bide his time. He would ask Summer, of course, because it couldn’t hurt. But then, he already knew what the answer was. And how she would say it. And he would get his chance anyway. He had vowed to.

        Of the multitude of ponies Chief had vowed to kill, only one had ever survived. The Mole. The moniker itself sent waves of cold fury running through Chief’s stomach. Fury, and frustration. He didn’t know who--or where--the Mole was, but he would get his chance. Just as with Princess.

        She had sealed her fate, really. Set up her own death. She had beaten Chief, knocked him senseless about the stony room, but it wasn’t then. She had taken down his team--his friends--with him, blasting them with magic and bashing them to pieces on the granite walls, but it wasn’t then, either.

        It wasn’t when she had held him aloft by his neck, crushing the air out of him, and told him she wouldn’t let him back down--wouldn’t let him breathe--unless he renounced his allegiance to Celestia.

        It wasn’t even when he had done it, blue-faced and through gritted teeth, at the behest of a panicked, half-dead Summer, and Princess had knocked him out cold.

        It was when he was lying unconscious at her hooves and she had him sent back to the pit. It was when she let him live. That was her fatal mistake. And she would pay dearly for it.

        Because as the last breath faded from Chief’s spittle-flecked lips, swearing off his pledge to his Princess, another vow had run through his head and replaced it, just before the darkness closed around his eyes.

        I will kill you.

        And the next thing he knew, he was awake in the pit.

        Awake in the pit, and wracked with guilt. He had sworn undying fealty to Celestia when he became a guardspony, and even after he left the Guard, the oath went with him. He owed her his life, his livelihood, his home, everything.

        And he had forsaken her. For survival. For Summer. For Roads.

For his daughter.

They still needed him--alive. He was no good to them dead over a few words, over a simple oath. An oath that can be retaken, he reminded himself. And yet...

Words meant something. His word meant something. To him, at least. Until he could revenge himself on Princess, it wouldn’t be right again. He had never rescinded a promise, never broken a vow. He had sworn to honor Celestia until death--and by staying alive, he had failed miserably. He owed her now. A debt had been incurred.

A debt that wouldn’t be fulfilled until after Princess’ last breath.

Summer wouldn’t understand. To her, there was nothing more important than survival. No words more meaningful than living. No pony worth dying for.

Things were different to Chief. Revenge meant something. The debt he now owed Celestia was as real and tangible as the island. He could feel it pressing on him, weighing him down, lodged in his mind. He would do what he had to do. He would die if necessary.

Summer and Roads would be able to manage without him. Summer was tough, Roads, toughening.

And your daughter...?

Her aunt could take care of everything. He could count on her.

Nothing left to lose, he thought. For Princess, that was a very dangerous thought. Of course, he had to get out of this pit, first.

Chief looked around. By the reddened rays of the dying sun he could see Roads sitting unconscious against the dirt wall, face bloody, head swollen. Summer lay on the ground next to him, eye bruised, gashes along her back barely covered by a thin layer of gauze. He had been afraid that she would bleed out, lying there on the dirt floor, and had convinced Willow and Aspen to root through their confiscated supplies and find a medkit. With his careful instruction, they had stitched her up and bound her wounds as best they could before returning to their posts.

In return, he had shown each what to use out of the kit to stop the swelling on their nearly identical head wounds. Apparently, they held no ill will for him, despite the prior violence.

“Oh, sure, no bad blood,” Willow had assured him. “We woulda done the same, given the chance. Well, not the same exactly, because you’re bigger than us, and faster, but assuming we were larger than you and able to--”

“He understands,” Aspen had said.

And Chief had given a gruff nod.

They weren’t bad at all, it seemed. They did their jobs, nothing more, just as Strongsteed had claimed.

 Strongsteed... Where was he?

Chief twisted against his bonds--they’d tied him down again--to see the earth pony propped up against the wall, eyes unfocused, mouth hanging open. At his hooves sat a half empty bowl of what appeared to be soup. It steamed slightly, giving off a faintly sweet scent.

“Strongsteed! Hey!” he called.

One of his ears twitched, but apart from that, he remained motionless. There must have been a good bit of lotus in the food--it seemed Strongsteed was right about that, too.

Chief wondered when he’d been fed. Had his captors noticed where he had cut himself free? Chief glanced down at his hooves. Nope. The ropes were still there, but he had cut right through them. Excellent. Now, if he could just get him to pay attention for a second, he could--

“Chief?”

His head snapped around, hair on end, tensed until he realized the voice was Summer’s. She squirmed a bit, trying to sit up, and gave a dull groan as she looked herself over.

“What happened? I remember, she... she cut me, and then I was down, and she was... choking you? Something like that? Roads got tossed against the wall, he was out, I remember that. And then after that... nothing,” she said with a grimace.

“Didn’t miss much. She choked me out. Tossed us back here.”

Summer nodded slowly. She attempted to roll over, straining against the ropes, then gave a gasp of pain as she moved too far and broke one of her stitches. A look of panic flashed across her face as the gauze around the wound darkened with blood and she couldn’t move to stop it.

“Chief...”

“It’ll stop.”

“Chief... it hurts.”

There was a strange vulnerability in her voice that got his attention. He jerked against his ropes, moving a bit closer to her, and saw an unusual look on her face.

Fear.

Fear and helplessness. She was pale and shaking, quivering with nerves and blood loss.

“I’ve lost a lot Chief. I don’t feel so good.” Her quiet, worried undertones concerned him. This wasn’t like Summer at all.

“Willow! Aspen!” he called up through the bars.

A friendly voice called back to him. “Willow’s gone to bed. I’m still here, though! Wait, no. I’m Willow. It’s Aspen who’s gone to bed.”

He didn’t have time for this.

“I need the medikit and the knife. Summer’s popped a stitch.”

“Oh, Princess! Is she alright?! Should I come down and help again? I could go get Aspen!”

“No time. Just send down the kit and the knife.”

“I’m not supposed to send you the knife, you’re not allowed to take off your ropes. What if you--”

“She’s going to die.” Chief heard Summer draw a ragged gasp at that. He gave her a glance and saw that she was trying feebly to stop the bleeding, pressing down the gauze with a bound hoof.

“Well, we’re not supposed to let anypony die, either. I guess I could just help out, maybe just this once and then...” his voice faded as he walked away from the pit, muttering to himself.

A moment later, the stone dagger and the medical supplies fell to the floor between his hooves. Chief cut himself and Summer free, careful not to be too rough, lest he ruin more of the stitches. He lifted her deftly and carried her smoothly into the center of the pit, to where the light was better, and slipped the gauze away from the bleeding cut.

“How is it?” Summer asked, craning her neck to look at it.

Without a word, Chief forced her head gently back down. This wasn’t something she needed to see. From where he had been laying before, he hadn’t been able to tell how bad the lacerations were as he guided Willow and Aspen through the medical proceedings. Now, though, out in the light, the cuts were... worrisome.

The gash in question was deep, in some places even to the ribcage, and stretched halfway down the length of Summer’s side. It appeared the guards, even with Chief’s advice, had done a poor job stitching up the wound; her slight movements had torn half of them out, and blood now poured from the injury, spilling across Chief’s hooves.

He popped open the large kit, and grabbed a pair of thick gauze pads, a needle and thread, and a half-empty bottle of coagulant potion, which thankfully also doubled as a disinfectant. Summer gave a slight gasp of pain as he poured some of the coagulant across the bleeding, the potion trickling slowly into the wound, leaving trails of congealed blood. Running one of the gauze pads across the surface of the gash, he cleaned it as best he could, then began re-applying stitches.

After a moment, he was finished, and the bleeding had almost ceased as he covered the injury once again with a thick layer of bandages. He looked up from his work to see Summer staring at him, eyes wide and glassy, face white as a sheet, a pained look on her face.

“Done?” she asked through gritted teeth.

“Done.”

“Good.”

With his help, Summer got to her hooves, and tottered over to lean on the wall, still trembling slightly.

“We’ve gotta get outta here, Chief,” she said weakly, sitting down and resting her face in her hooves.

“We still have business to take care of,” he said firmly.

“Yeah? What?”

“Princess.”

“What about h--oh, no. Not a chance.” She looked up at him, a bit of blood rushing back into her face.

“I have to.”

“You won’t.” With a glance up at the bars where Willow stood, unseen, her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. “We’re leaving here as soon as possible. As soon as Roads wakes up, we’ll climb out of the pit and make a break for the zeppelin, and then we’re getting the hell back to Equestria.”

“Leave me.”

“What, so you can end up like him?” With a jerk of a hoof, Summer gestured to Strongsteed. “I don’t think so. We’re leaving. All of us. Together.” A bit of tenor had crept back into her voice, an edge of command that covered her prior vulnerability.

“I need this.”

“You’re coming with us. That’s an order. You work for me on this, and I’m pulling rank. You’re under my command; it’s in your contract.”

Chief glared at her. She was technically correct, but he didn’t think she would have the nerve to bring that up. In the past, they had worked as equals, deferring to one another as each situation arose. If Summer was pulling rank, she was scared she might not survive. It was understandable, but he glared at her, all the same.

She met his eyes, and gazed back with an unwavering intensity. For a moment, they were both silent, each daring the other to look away first. As Chief stared into those cold green eyes, he realized how much Summer reminded him of her sister.

Honey Dew...

His eyes flickered to the ground. “Fine,” he muttered.

“Good,” Summer replied, pressing a hoof to her side.

Chief looked down at her, a grudging respect worming its way into his chest. As much as he hated taking her orders, there were few ponies in the world who would stand against him like that. It was why he preferred her company; her fearless treatment of him was both annoying and refreshing. It reminded him of how Honey had been...

Honey Dew...

No, no, no. He couldn’t think about her. Not now. There were more important things to deal with. Roads for instance. A loud groan from the edge of the pit announced his awakening.

“What... happened? Where am I?”

“We’re back in the pit, Roads,” Summer replied.

There was another groan. “Not this again. Mmff. Why does my head hurt?”

“Well--”

“Wait a minute... No, I remember!” He gasped as the memories suddenly rushed back to him. “Princess! She’s gonna kill us!”

“I know, I was there--”

“Summer, we’ve gotta get off the island. Out of the pit, back to the zeppelin, and away to Equestria.”

“Brilliant. Is that all we have to do? And here I was thinking we were doing to have to burrow our way to Equestria. Gee, what a plan,” she said.

“Yeah, it’s fantastic. We just have to get out of these ropes.”

“Speak for yourself. Chief and I are already out.”

“Really?” Roads wriggled out into the lit portion of the pit, where he could see them. “Fantastic. Cut me loose and let’s get out of here!”

Chief pulled him into the shadows near the walls--in case Willow happened to glance down at them--and sliced through his bonds.

“It’s not quite that simple, Roads,” Summer said.

“Sure it is. I can fly again, I can feel it. I can just lift you two out, and we can be on our way.”

“And the island full of natives who want to kill us?”

“Oh. Well... I hadn’t thought about them.”

“Shouldn’t be that bad, actually,” Chief chimed in. “Most of the natives haven’t been trained. Won’t bother us. Only have to look out for the guards.”

“And there happen to be several hundred of them. And only three of us--and despite Roads’ rapid recovery, I still can’t cast any magic. And in this state...” She shifted, rolling over onto her side and readjusting the bandages. “Well, I can barely even run.”

“The woods are safe. Just gotta make it there. The paths up the cliffs are thin enough to slow down most of the guards. We’ll only have to deal with a few at a time.”

Summer nodded, thinking it over. “Alright, but I’m not going to be able to move very quickly. Chief, you might have to carry me some of the way. When do we leave?”

“We should go now,” Roads said, gesturing up to the night sky that shone through the bars at the top of the pit. “While it still night. They might not even see us.”

Chief nodded in agreement.

“Okay. Great. Let’s get moving, then. Roads, you’ll have to fly up, and see if you can’t move the bamboo at the top. Take out Willow with the knife, and then you can--”

“Wait, what?”

“You’re going to have to kill Willow so that we--”

I’m not going to kill somepony! Are you insane?!” he hissed. They wanted him to stab the guard? That was not happening. If they were willing to resort to something like that, were Summer and Chief even any better than the islanders? Any better than Princess?

Summer sighed. “Look, it’s the only way to--”

“No! Not a chance.”

“Roads, if you can’t do this, they are going to kill us.”

“I don’t care. I can’t kill somepony! Especially not Willow!” he objected.

Summer sighed, pressing a hoof to her face. “Fine. Just... talk to him, then, or something. See if he’ll let us go. If he won’t, subdue him.”

“‘Subdue him’? How am I supposed to do that?” Roads asked. This was ridiculous! He wasn’t prepared for this! All this talk of murder, of subduction and violence... how could they even think he was capable of that kind of thing?

“Shouldn’t be hard,” Strongsteed muttered. Roads turned and stared at him; he had been in a silent stupor for so long, the pegasus had almost forgotten he was even there.

“What? What are you talking about?” he asked, confused.

“Willow’s not even a real guard. He just tags around Aspen all the time; he never got trained. He followed Aspen around on his guard duties for so long that everypony--even Princess--forgot he was never supposed to be there. Well, except me. And Aspen,” Strongsteed said.

“Great. Well, then, he knows about as much as I do about fighting. Which is to say, nothing at all.”

Chief walked up to Roads, bringing the medikit with him.

“Watch this,” he said, digging through the kit until he pulled out a flask of coagulant. He held it out, showing it to Roads. “Eye on this. It’s interesting.” He tossed the it into the air. Roads eyes followed it, up... up... higher, and higher, the silver rim of the flask twisting and glinting in the light and--

Chief hit him across the face, his hoof catching just under Roads’ eye. He crashed to the ground, clutching his face. Chief hadn’t hit him hard, but it was enough to hurt.

“What the hay was that?! What’d you do that for?!” he cried.

“Distraction. Anypony can do it. Give him an excuse to look away and hit him when he does.”

“And after that?”

“Toss him in the pit. We’ll take care of him.”

“I dunno...” Roads said doubtfully. “I mean, it’s Willow. The one native who’s actually treated us well, and you want me to attack him? That just doesn’t seem right.”

“Do you want to die?” Summer asked flatly.

“...no.”

“Go take care of Willow before somepony who can defend himself takes his place.”

“I just... I don’t know about this...”

Chief picked the flask up off the ground and offered it to him. “Do it. Don’t even think about it.”

Roads turned and saw Strongsteed staring at him--or in his general direction, at least. The other pony shrugged. “Do whatever you have to,” he said.

The pegasus looked back up at Chief, then down to the flask. He stared into his reflection in the glass for a brief, pensive moment. A bedraggled, bruised pony, face half caked in blood, stared grimly back at him, eyes sunken under a shock of matted mane. His mouth tightened. Could he do this? Roads took the flask.

He would have to.

He glanced up at the bars, through which the dim light of a torch flickered, disappearing every now and again as Willow marched past. He shook his head, mouth twisting into a hopeless smirk. He nearly laughed.

 This was ridiculous. He, Roads, the ‘soft, library pony’ from Everfree, about to go attack somepony. Had somepony told him a month ago he would be doing this, he would have laughed in their face. It was like some stupid, terrible joke.

For a moment, he felt far away, outside his own body, as though he were looking down at the whole situation from some distant tower. He gave a sad sigh at the image of himself, far away, in the bottom of a pit. Truly, truly ridiculous.

Suddenly, he seemed to rush back into his own head. He looked from Summer to Chief, gave a quick nod, and flew up to the bars at the top of the pit. Upon looking around the edges, he found that they were little more than thick lengths of bamboo, half embedded in the ground. This prison clearly wasn’t meant for a pegasus, he thought as he pried each away and tossed it aside. Within a few seconds, he was out, standing at the edge of the cliff.

Face to face with Willow. The other pony gave him a confused frown. “Roads? What are you doing up here? You’re supposed to be down in the pit.” He looked around, a look of fear flashing across his face. “You’d better get back there, before somepony sees. They might think you were trying to escape. Do you have any idea how much trouble I would get in if Princess found out about this?”

“Uhh...”

“Geez, Roads, come on, hurry up! I mean, I don’t wanna be pushy or anything but you’re really not supposed to be up here.”

Roads felt waves of guilt crashing over him. Willow was an idiot. A tiny, scrawny, untrained, unkempt idiot who only wanted what was best for everypony involved. And here he was, trying to muster up the courage to hurt him. For a second, he thought he might be sick. Willow must have noticed.

“Are you okay? You look pale.”

“Umm--”

“Sweet Princess! Are you sick? Oh, I think you’re coming down with something.”

“No, no, uh, I--”

“Is that why you’re out of the pit?” Willow’s face flushed red and his brow furrowed over a quivering frown. “Oh, Roads, I didn’t realize! I’m so, so sorry I was upset with you a second ago. You’re ill, of course you came up to see if I could help. Come on, sit down, and I’ll call somepony to bring you some water.”

“No, don’t do that!” Roads’ heart quickened. Willow had no idea what was going on, but if Aspen saw him up here... He shuddered to think what might happen. He might get dragged before Princess, and end up blinded like Strongsteed for trying to escape.

Willow turned away from him. “Aspen!” he bellowed. “Asp--ow!” He flinched stumbled away in pain, clutching his face where Roads had hit him. He tripped over a rock and flopped to the ground with a whimper.

“That hurt!” he cried, looking up at Roads. “What’d you do that for?”

“I’m sorry, Willow, I--”

I thought we were friends...”

Willow looked as though he were about to cry. Roads’ heart froze in his chest. How could he have done this? How could he let Summer and Chief talk him into doing something like that to somepony. And to this pony, out of anypony.

 “I just wanted to make you feel better. I wanted everypony to be happy...”

“Willow, I just, I had to--”

“Well, fine,” he spat, trying to muster up anger between tears. “Fine, maybe you don’t want my help. You--you’re such a--you’re just mean! Plain mean!”

Roads nearly began to cry with him. He sat down on the ground, cradling his head in his hooves.

“Well, I’ll tell you one thing, that’s what I get for trying to be nice. Punched. Well, don’t think you’re going to stop me from being kind--I’ll never end up like you. Going around, punching ponies. I mean, Chief, I can understand, he was upset, and we were trying to take him back to the pit, even though he didn’t want to go--which wasn’t nice, but we had to do our jobs--but you, you just came out of nowhere and--”

“Willow?!” Roads ears perked up as he heard Aspen call out from nearby. “Willow, what’s going on?”

Roads’ pity was replaced by a nerve-rending terror as he heard hoofsteps growing steadily closer. Willow got up and dashed off into the dark, off to meet Aspen. Roads scurried over to the edge of the pit.

“What happened?” Summer asked. “We heard you talking to somepony but we couldn’t tell what was going on. Did you take care of Willow?”

“Not really.”

Summer groaned. “Roads, I told you to--”

“Look, we don’t have time to talk about this! We’ve gotta get out of here!”

Summer nodded, and moved to the center of the pit. “Alright. Let’s go. Can you carry me up?”

Roads nodded. “I’ll try.”

He hopped down into the pit, gliding gently to the ground, and helped Summer drape herself across his back. He gave a small groan as her weight bore down on him. She weighed only slightly less than he did...but then, he didn’t have to carry her any more than five meters.

He beat his wings mightily, kicking off as hard as he could. His initial burst carried him halfway to the top of the pit, and with another few, desperate flaps he managed to secure a hoofhold at the top of the pit. He pulled himself up, straining against their combined weight, rolling over to dump Summer unceremoniously to the ground. She let out a loud groan, pressing her hoof to her side.  

“Sorry.” Roads turned and peered into the pit, glancing down at Chief. “How do we get you out of there?” he asked.

“Easy.” Chief grunted. He turned to Strongsteed. “Alright,” he said, nudging him. “Help me up.”  

The other pony fumbled blindly across the pit, making his way to the portion of the wall directly beneath Roads. He reared onto his hind legs, bracing against it, locking his forehooves together just below his chest. Chief walked over to him, reared as well, and stepped onto Strongsteed’s forelegs.

“Roads...” Summer called from somewhere behind them.

“Just a second.”

With a grunt, Strongsteed hoisted Chief into the air. He raised a forehoof to Roads, who took it and, digging his rear hooves into the ground, dragged him up out of the pit. Before moving from the edge of the pit, Roads offered his hoof to Strongsteed.

“Climb on up,” he said.

“What?”

“We’re leaving, let’s go.”

“I think not! I’m staying here. This is my home,” Strongsteed said, brimming with conviction.

“Are you crazy? Come with--”

“Roads!” Summer interrupted.

“What?” Roads turned around.

He found himself face to face with a small army of islanders. Aspen stood in front of them, next to him a sobbing Willow. The bigger pony’s face was flushed, he was nearly trembling with rage. The look on his face sent waves of fear crashing through Roads’ chest. Aspen had seemed so calm and casual before; his anger was a terrifying deviation. The guard leveled his spear at Roads.

“What did you do?!” he demanded.

“I--I, er, I h-had, uh--” Roads found himself unable to speak, barely capable of stammering out a few unintelligible syllables.

What did you do?!” Aspen roared, his booming voice echoing from the walls of the canyon. After the sound faded, a pregnant silence settled over them. Finally, Summer took a pained step forwards and broke it.

“Only what I told him to.”

There was another pause, as Aspen and his comrades took a menacing step forward.

“And what were you trying to do?”

Summer looked him in the eye, gave a quick wink, and said, “Escape.”

With that, she pivoted and hopped onto Chief’s back just as all hell broke loose.

Roads twisted around and saw Chief dash away, carrying Summer. He heard shouting for him to follow--glimpsed the islanders charging him. Before he could gather his wits, he was running--sprinting along behind Chief--the sounds of hoofsteps heavy behind him. Charging over a rickety bridge--slipping through mud and crops--keeping his eyes fixed firmly on the blue and brown figures before him.

If he lost sight of them he was dead.

A ringing in his ears--his mouth dry and parched--legs tired, pumping away, desperate to keep up. Gotta keep up with Chief. Gotta keep up. Keep up. Keep going. Faster, run faster. Where are they? Where did they go?! His head twisting around--a desperate search--the guards fanning out behind him, trying to trap him. Encircling. Ensnaring.

Faster, faster.

The taste of blood in his mouth and the stench of sweat in his nose--firelight casting dancing shadows all around him, one a guard, one Chief, one his father. Dad.

“Keep going. Fast, like I taught you.”

Stumbling--pitching face-first into the mud. Cool, cold, protective.

“Get back on your hooves. I didn’t say you could stop yet.”

No, he wanted to stay there... wanted to stay there forever... He was so tired...

A hoof jerked him from the ground--Chief, staring into his dirt-caked face. Chief, saying something--it echoes in his ears but he can’t hear it. Gotta keep up. Chief sprinting off, Roads following. Up, onto a terrace--Chief, shoving away a guard, kicking him off the edge--up, to the woods.

Up, up, up. Faster, faster. He wanted to fly but he couldn’t leave Chief and Summer behind again. He swore. Never again. He stayed on the ground.

Hoofsteps--closer now--he twisted his head. The face of a guard--a spear, flashing through the air--a pain in his side, a long scrape. Nothing serious. He hoped. Keep going. On even ground, now--heading into the woods. Running faster than Chief--he passed him--shouts behind him, a cry for help, ringing in his ears. A mare’s voice.

No use. Gotta keep going. Charging through the woods--weaving through the trees.

Suddenly, no hoofsteps behind him. Roads slowed down--peered around. Nopony. He kept running, but more slowly now. Nopony was chasing him, the guards had all been left behind. He breathed a sigh of relief, his racing heart beginning to slow. He was safe, now; he’d left the guards behind.

And Summer and Chief.

No, no, no, no! Not this again. Oh, please Celestia not this again! How could he let this happen?! How could he be so stupid?!

Kicking off the ground, he soared into the air, heading for the other side of the island. Now that he had left Chief and Summer he didn’t see any reason not to. As he soared through the night sky, he glanced over his shoulder to see lines of glowing dots just beside the river, fires where his friends were being held prisoner. Where they were waiting to be executed.

Where he had left them to die.

Idiot! He thought. Coward! Fuck-up! He had done it again. He had sworn he wouldn’t do it again. The evening winds cut across his face as he flew, a burning building in his wings, a fire roaring in his chest. The heated rage spilled across his mind, his muscles tensed, his teeth clenched.

As soon as he was far enough away from the city, he dove, landing hard in grove filled with towering hardwoods. Pain from the impact seared through his hooves but he ignored it.

No. He shouldn’t ignore it. He deserved it.

Dad was always right about me. I’m worthless. Trash. Good-for-nothing, just like Chief said. Chief... How could you leave them?! How could you?! They were your friends. All of your life, you wanted friends, and then you get them, and what do you do? Leave them at the mercy of an insane dictator. Leave them to be murdered.

        Stupid, stupid, stupid! She called for you. Right before you lost them, she called for you.

        You never looked back.

        His anger seethed and frothed, his muscles jerked, he drove his hoof into the ground. Idiot! And again. Foal!

        He turned, backed against a tree, and bucked it, driving his rear legs hard into the wood. A howl filled the air, feral, echoing with rage and pain across the grove.

        I hate you! he said to himself. He kicked the tree again, relishing the shock of pain that arced up his legs.

        I hate you!

        Another kick.

        I hate you!

        And another.

        I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you...

        He drove his hooves into the tree again and again, animalistic growls and grunts filling the air, intermingling with the sound of shattering wood as the bark rent and broke. His cracked hooves smeared the pulverized bark with blood, but still he kicked.

        I hate you I hate you I hate...

        Everything.

        Something in his chest cracked.

        Princess...

        The kicks were more forceful now, boring into the wood.

        Strongsteed, the Guards...

        They kept coming, splintering the very heart of the tree.

        The island, the bullies in school, the Everfree, being alone, being forced to fly...

        He could hear something, a faint whisper in his ear.

        My father...

        He stopped, exhausted, legs pained, chest burning, hooves bloodied. He sat back against the tree and, with a dull crack, the trunk gave way, a few muffled creaks emanating from the broken wood. With a loud crash, the tree fell to the ground. Roads stood and turned around to see somepony sitting on the stump.

        No, not just somepony.

        His father.

_________________________________________________________

A/N: Thanks for reading! I’d like to very quickly recognize the efforts of my editor, Secondaryspine, without whom this fic would be illegible. I would also like to offer my deepest condolences for his being trapped in a personal hell: editing sober.


VIII

“A loving father, sad for the rebellion,

the distance between himself

and his children, sad for their defiance,

their forgetting, of the things he had done

for them, the love he had heaped on them.”

-Raymond A Foss, Holding His Anger

Dad...?

Could it be? It was impossible and yet... here he was. His father, here, standing right in front of him. Had he been calmer, he might have come up with an explanation. Something rational. But somehow, in his fury-twisted mind, his father’s presence made sense. Perfect sense.        

Roads stared as the other pegasus unfurled his mighty wings and stepped down from the ragged stump. He was as large and powerful as ever, a sick grin twisted across his face, his eyes burning under a heavy brow. With a flick of his head, he shook his bright orange mane out of his eyes, the mane that had earned him the nickname “Firebolt” in his performing days.

        He stalked over to Roads, steely muscles rippling under his slick black coat. He flared his wings, towering over his son. Roads flared his wings back, taking a step forward with all the menace he could muster, chest burning with fury. The other pegasus threw back his head, a booming laugh filling the grove.

        “Roads!” he said, the word filled with bitter amusement.

        “Dad,” Roads spat, anger seething through his voice.

        “Good to see you again, boy. Looks like you’ve lived up to all of my expectations.” He glanced over Roads’ shoulder, to his bleeding hooves. “And then some.”

        “No.” He had only ever openly defied his father once before, out of fear and shame. This was different. After all these years, to finally see the stallion again... Roads wanted to leap forward and tear his throat out.

        “Of course you did. You left your friends behind.”

        “It was an accident.”

        “It was on purpose, and you know it.”

        “Liar.”

        “You were too weak to help them.”

        “No!”

        “Too pathetic to save them.”

        “Shut up!”

        “Look at you. I was right, I was always right. You’ve spent your whole life trying to prove me wrong--”

        “You are!”

        “And yet here we are. You failed, Roads--”

        “I didn’t!”

        “You’ve always been a failure.”

        “Quit! Just quit talking!”

        “See if you can stop me--”

        “--I will--”

        “--failure.”

        “Shut up!” He screamed, and launched himself at his father.

        “Shut up shut up shut up shut up!” With each word, he threw a punch at his father, and each time the stallion seemed to glide away from the blow. Seeing this, he fought with increased vigor, his hooves flying left, right, all over, a flurry of strikes glancing harmlessly away from him.

        One of Roads’ rear hooves hit a rock and it sent him careening forwards, his face crashing into the ground. He gathered himself and got to his hooves, and when he looked up, his father had disappeared.

        “Over here, Roads...” a taunting voice called.

        Roads whirled around to see his father standing just a few feet from him. Kicking off his back hooves--ignoring the pain--he beat his wings forcefully, diving towards the other pony. He ducked his shoulder, trying to tackle him.

        He landed heavily on his stomach, the ground knocking the air from his lungs. Roads twisted around to see that his father hadn’t moved; he seemed to have simply passed harmlessly through the other pony. Any other time, he would have questioned it, but now... now his mind burned with rage, and with a roar, he charged other pegasus once again.  

        And once again fell flat on his face.

        “You’re wasting your time,” his dad chuckled. “But then, that is what you’re best at, isn’t it?”

        “No.”

        “You’re right. You’re not particularly good at anything, are you, Roads? Which is why your friends are going to die.”

        “They’ll be fine--”

        “Maybe if you weren’t too stupid and ignorant to figure out what was going on with the island before you got captured. Maybe if you weren’t so weak and useless, you could have actually taken down Princess when you had the chance. Maybe if you weren’t so clumsy and helpless, Chief wouldn’t have had to stop to help you out of the mud when you tried to escape.

“And maybe then your friends would have a chance to survive. But now?” He laughed a long, cold laugh that resonated with sadistic glee. “Now you’ve left them. They’ll die, and since you can’t pilot the zeppelin, you’ll die, too.”

“I’ll go back for them, then. I’ll save them from the pit,” he said, getting to his hooves.

“Because that worked so well last time. Besides, the islanders would slaughter you as soon as you set foot in their city,” he said, relishing the thought. 

“I can take the islanders. I can figure something out,” Roads said, burning with conviction.

“Not a chance. You’ll die. Alone.”

“Come with me. You can help me.”

His father laughed again. “You’re not worth helping.”

Roads felt his anger rising even further. “That’s how it is, then? You criticize me for doing nothing, but you won’t even help me?”

The bigger pony just shrugged. “I’m not the one with something to prove. I don’t care if you think I’m a hypocrite. I’m still right.”

“You’re no better than I am.”

He chuckled at that. “You’ve got it backwards, Roads.”

“Shut up. I need to think.”

Okay, he thought. I have to go back for Summer and Chief. Everypony dies if I don’t. How do I get past the islanders? Stealth?

“Not an option,” his father said.

Roads looked at him curiously. Had he spoken aloud? He wasn’t sure. His mind was frenzied, running at a fevered pace, and everything seemed jumbled and quickened.

 “...you’re too clumsy,” his father continued. “And a pegasus surrounded by earth ponies sticks out like a sore hoof, even at night. And even if you didn’t, there’ll be more guards around the pit, now that there’s been an escape.”

“Fine, I’ll do something else!”

What else is there? Negotiation? He heard his dad laugh behind him, but he ignored the noise. No, Summer already tried that.

Force?

His father’s laughter grew to a roar, booming hatefully in his ears.

“You--haha--you want to take on--hahaha--an entire island full of pissed-off natives by yourself?!” The old stallion’s sides heaved with the force of his malicious cackling.

“I could... I could make some sort of weapon.”

“He wants to make a weapon! Little Roads, attacking the village. Everypony look out, he has a weapon!” His father reared onto his back legs, gesturing wildly to the the trees around them, a showman before an audience.

Roads sat down, hooves over his ears, trying to ignore his dad, trying to think. His mind raced, fueled by humiliation and rage. There has to be something. Something the islanders left behind. Something I can use... Nothing came to mind. Something I can make, then. I could fashion a spear... but what would I carve it with? And even then, that’s not going to get me far against all those islanders.

What else could he make? And array of crude weaponry flashed through his mind--cudgels, clubs, pikes and such, each more useless than the one before it. Even if I had something real, something well made, I still couldn’t use it well enough... Conventional weaponry is out. But what if...

What about some kind of potion? I’m a passable alchemist--“You’re a terrible alchemist!” his father cried--perhaps there’s something I can brew up. A strength elixir, maybe. Or perhaps an invisibility potion. I could even make something volatile, something that might explode, or burn or... no.

It was no use. The islanders had confiscated all of his alchemy equipment along with everything else. But he was definitely on the right track. He needed to stick to what he knew, play to his strengths. But what’ll be helpful? What skills do I have?

“None,” the other stallion said flatly.

Roads just ignored him. He was on a roll, now. He was finally getting somewhere. I know a lot magic... Unhelpful. He couldn’t do any of his own. Ley lines, then. I know a ton about them. But how did that help him?

If I could move a line, maybe get a nexus to form inside the city. It could cause enough chaos that... no. Controlling an entire line required tons of preparation, and a very, very skilled magician. That was out. What if I just drew on a line, then? Used its magic as my own? That was it. That could work.

But he hadn’t felt any lines in the city, and even if he flew to a different line, attuned himself to it, and absorbed some of its magic, by the time he got back to the city, it would be long gone. Ley magic, even in a fully attuned line, only lasts a few minutes. But... he knew he was on the right track. He just needed to get the magic from the nexus, to the city. To store it somehow, to be used later. If only he had--

That’s it! The engine!

It was perfect. He could fly to out to the Zephyr, rip out the engine, and charge it with a nexus--it was already imbued with Motion magic, so the energy from the center of the maelstrom should have been compatible.

He could then use that magic to fight his way to Summer and Chief. It was brilliant. But it wouldn’t be easy. If he wanted the engine to absorb the power from a nexus, he would have to physically immerse it in the heart of a line. That would be dangerous, given that he, by extension, would also be in contact with the nexus. Which wouldn’t be too harmful, in theory, but still... it had never been attempted. Nopony had ever been crazy enough to try it.

And even then, if he wanted to use the Ley magic, he would have to have enough of his own lines dis-attuned to let the magic flow through. Horesapples, he thought. My lines have already recovered from the Lotus, and I can’t get to any of my Attunement potions... 

Although... the Lotus extract had dis-attuned his lines, and he didn’t see why the fruit itself wouldn’t have a similar--if lessened--effect. If he could douse himself with water as Summer had before the delirium set in, he would probably be alright. He would retain the fractured lines, but still be clear headed.

Of course, that meant it would be difficult--if not impossible--to fly while he was still attuned. Still, though, this island wasn’t that large, no matter what Princess said. He could make his way from the Lotus grove to the city without a problem. It would just be maneuvering through the town itself that would be difficult.

Still, it could work. It was crazy, yes, and dangerous, but it was his best chance. His only chance.

“It won’t work,” his dad said, snickering.

Roads ignored him and kicked off into the air, unfurling his wings and taking to the sky. The cool night air blew against his wings as he flew steadily towards the zeppelin. His father flew behind him, barely visible in the darkness, but ever-present nonetheless. The older stallion flew smoothly and powerfully alongside him, every inch of his body streamlined, toned, and muscular, ready for great bouts of speed and control at a moment’s notice.

Somehow, the pegasus had managed to fix his mangled wing, and lose all the weight he had gained since he stopped performing; he appeared to Roads not as he had in his last childhood memories, but instead as an athlete in his prime. Roads wondered briefly what had happened to him before pushing such thoughts aside. He needed to focus on finding the zeppelin.

He knew the general area where the vessel should be, though in the dark it was difficult to make out; he nearly crashed into the balloon before he realized where the darkness ended and the zeppelin began. After flying down to the undercarriage, he found the space in shambles. Ropes and pieces of crates were strewn about the floor, rails and metal bars, bent out of shape from the storm, jutted at odd angles, almost invisible in the night.

Roads felt his way slowly across the floor, trying to avoid bumping into anything heavy. More than once he tripped and fell to the floor, raising large bruises on his sides and shoulders. It didn’t help that his rear hooves, slippery with his own blood, could barely find purchase on the slick iron floor.

After a moment, though, he managed to stumble to the control panel. Roads cracked open the metal hatch that guarded the engine, squinting as the gem within bathed the undercarriage in a red light. Twisting his head to the left, he caught his father grinning a mad, delusional smile, his beady eyes glinting in the crimson glow, black wings flared against the night sky. A hellish gargoyle.

Roads just turned away from him, focusing on the engine. He searched around in the drawers under the control panel until he found Summer’s toolbox, grabbing a set of pliers and a pair of wire cutters. Using the tools, he sliced and pulled his way through the copper matrix around the gem, then ripped the stone out of the console.

He found it larger than he had thought it would be; it seemed only one small face had been visible from the outside, the rest of the jewel hidden by copper. It was heavy and rectangular, just longer than his head, its underside set in bronze. Jutting from the sides of the bronze settings were the remnants of the matrix.

Roads took the gem and laid it across his back, wrapping the thin copper wires around his chest and flanks. He then bent some of the remaining wires into loops around his forelegs and at the base of his neck, hoping he could help conduct the engine’s energy closer to his ley lines. Ideally, he would have fixed the gem to his head, right where a horn would be if he were a unicorn. The back would have to do, though; even in his enraged state, he could still see that affixing a massive gem to his face would be... impractical.

“You look ridiculous,” his father said, looking him over as he bent the last lengths of copper into place. 

Roads shrugged. “It’ll get the job done.”

“It’ll get you killed.”

“Might as well try. I just have to charge it, then I’ll be set.”

He turned and stared out over the horizon, where circling clouds caught the silver light of the moon.

His father followed his gaze, and his smile widened. “Oh, brilliant. You’re going to fly into a nexus. How amusing it’ll be to get to watch you die at sea. I was hoping to see you eviscerated by a guard, but this’ll have to do.”

“Shut up, dad.” How did he even know what a nexus was?

No, it didn’t matter. He would have time to figure that out later; right now his friends were probably being tortured by Princess. The image of Summer’s gashed and bleeding side flickered through his mind, making his blood boil. Fury reinvigorated, he dove off the side of the zeppelin, heading out over the coast. He flew out over the ocean, his father once again trailing along behind him.

It wasn’t long before he reached the outskirts of the storm and felt the wind begin to cut into his sides and wings.

        “Last chance to turn back,” his father said with a smirk.

        Roads ignored him and sped into the clouds. Within moments, he found himself blinded and drenched by the rain, the powerful winds of the maelstrom whipping him this way and that. At first he tried to resist being hurled about by the storm, but then the old lessons his father had taught him sprang to his mind.

Fly with the wind, not against it... Never let a gust catch you across the wing... Keep your legs tucked and watch for anything that got sucked up by the wind...

The lessons sure seemed to be working for his dad; the stallion glided effortlessly through the storm, unimpeded by the raging winds. Roads, on the other hand, was straining to stay aloft and in control, riding out one burst of wind into the next, drawing ever closer to the center of the maelstrom. He cursed into the storm, screaming obscenities at it, at Princess, at his father. His words were lost in the winds, but he didn’t care. He wasn’t shouting to be heard.

By the time he burst through the clouds to the calm center of the tempest, his wings and back ached and burned, wracked with exhaustion. He gasped for air, drained by the effort, and took a moment to gather himself. Glancing down at the whirling sea below him, he saw the towering white orb that moved the waters. The nexus. Its surface glowed and rippled, giving off an eerie, pale mist that hovered above the ocean.

He was relieved to see that it hung slightly above the surface, instead of underwater as he had previously imagined. Out of all of the ways the giant ball of energy could kill him, at least drowning wasn’t one of them. Still, he didn’t want to fly into it, what if--

“Scared?” Roads heard his father’s voice, and glanced above him to see the stallion hovering just over his left shoulder. The other pegasus wore an expression of cocky condescension as he peered from Roads to the nexus. “I knew you couldn’t follow through with it. You just don’t have the heart to--”

But Roads was already gone. He had fallen right out of the sky.

Wings pinned to his sides, Roads tried not to think about what the magic might do to him once he breached the surface of the orb. He tried not to consider being torn limb from limb, or being crushed into a tiny ball of flesh and shattered bone. He tried not to think about the magic shutting down his organs as his tortured screams filled the air and--

And he was in. He cried out in fear and surprise as he was surrounded by the glow of the nexus, panicking as he felt the magic flowing through and around him. His ley lines weren’t depolarized, yet still the energy was overpowering enough to flow right through his body, giving him the sensation of being flattened by some enormous power. He felt as though he were encased inside a giant pressure chamber, as the magic pressed and pushed against every inch of his body, inside and out.

He closed his eyes, no longer flapping his wings, held aloft by the energy around him. He waited as long as he could, face curled into a grimace, arms and legs wrapped tightly around his body as he tried to endure the feeling of being crushed to death. Somewhere in the back of his mind, his old formula came back to him.

His heart skipped a beat as he realized that he was only being affected by the tiniest portion of the nexus’ energy; were the power directed at rather than through him, he would already be dead. It was a sobering thought.

It didn’t distract him for long. As the gem on his back peaked in absorption, he felt more of the magic act on him. He screamed as the pressure began to mount, no longer merely unbearable--now actually excruciating. He had to get out.

Roads flapped his wings, straining to leave the nexus. It wasn’t nearly as easy as entering; here, the air was so thick with energy it was like flying through wet cement. The force on his body was now strong enough to force the air from his lungs; he realized if he didn’t make it out soon, he would die of asphyxiation. If, that was, his insides didn’t hemorrhage first.

No. This wasn’t fair. It wasn’t supposed to end like this. He didn’t even get a chance. He didn’t even come close to saving his friends. Maybe Dad was right all along...

“Well, of course I was.”

Roads opened his eyes to see his father, bathed in the white glow of the nexus, flying just before him. He tried to reply, but he didn’t have enough air.

Cat got your tongue, Roads? Such a shame to die silent.”

That set his teeth on edge. If he was going to die, he deserved to at least go out cursing his father. He felt his fury coalesce into a grim resolve.

I will not die here.

Roads mustered up the strength for a few last, desperate flaps. He felt himself move a few feet and then--

Air! Fresh, life-saving air! He was free, flying just above the nexus. He gasped and coughed as his lungs resumed working again, spiraling up and away from the white orb in the meantime. He wanted as much distance between himself and the deadly sphere as possible.

“How disappointing,” his father said, flying up to meet him. “Oh, well. There’ll be plenty of other opportunities for you to get yourself killed tonight.”

Roads gritted his teeth. He was through with his dad. He had been jeered at, mocked, and followed all the way into the storm, even taunted as he was about to die. Enough was enough.

“Stop! Just stop it! Go away, leave me alone! All I’ve ever wanted you to do is leave me alone!”

His father cocked an eyebrow, peering at him curiously. “Oh, but Roads, you’re so wrong. You’ve wanted so much more from me. You always have. Even as I burned your books, you sought my approval. Even as I yelled at you, you still wanted to impress me.

“Even when I beat you, you still wanted me to love you. You know it’s true.”

He did.

“And that’s why you’re weak, Roads. No matter what reason Summer and Chief give you, that’s why you’re weak. That’s why I never loved you. That’s why no one ever will.”

Roads was silent for a long moment, head down, eyes on his hooves. On hooves that had been roughened and cracked by this island. On hooves where copper wires circled sinewy muscle and glowed with magical energy. 

When he finally looked up at his father, his eyes were cold and furious.

“I'm not weak anymore.”

And with that, he turned and flew once more into the storm.

_________________________________________________________

        Roads collapsed from exhaustion when he reached the shore. It had been as difficult to leave the maelstrom as it had been to enter in the first place. His father had jeered and heckled at him all the way back, relentless, even though Roads could hardly stay aloft.

        Now, he lay on his side in the sand, utterly spent, his father standing over him. The stallion was saying something, but Roads wasn't listening. He was deep inside his own head, trying to find the strength to get back up and seek out the Lotus grove. Instead, all he found was anger, pain and rage.

That would have to suffice.

        Gritting his teeth, he pulled himself up from the sand, ignoring the pegasus beside him, and staggered off into the jungle. His wings were too spent for flight at the moment, so he was forced to walk. The flora was every bit as thick as he remembered; he had to push and fight for every inch of progress. Eventually, though, he came to the old path that Chief and Summer had cut on their first day on the island.

        He followed the path through the gorge—thankfully chimera free—to their old campsite. It appeared to be in even worse condition than the zeppelin; the islanders had scavenged it for food and supplies, leaving behind only broken wood and torn scraps of canvas. In the ashes of the previous day's fire were Strongsteed's dog tags.

        Roads walked over and slipped them over his head. It clinked against the copper around his neck, so he passed it under the wiring, lodging it firmly over the side of his neck. Right over the jugular vein. Every extra bit of protection counts, he thought.

        Roads took off again, wincing as pain shot through his wings. His muscles screamed for him to stop, to land and walk again, but he didn't have time. Celestia only knew what Princess could have been planning for Summer and Chief.

        It was not long before he located the Lotus grove; the rows of trees stood out plainly against the chaos and disorder of the surrounding jungle, even in the dark. He landed quietly, grimacing as his broken hooves hit the ground.

        Making his way over to one of the trees, he looked up at the fruit, feeling a pang of embarrassment shoot through him. The last time he had been here, he had made a fool of himself. But this time would be different. It would have to be.

Rearing back, he placed a forehoof against the trunk of one of the Lotus trees to steady himself, and with the other he picked one of the fruits. He held it away from himself, trying not to give in to its mind-numbing aroma. He ached to eat it. He needed it.  

        He had to fight it for the time being, though. Princesses, he was hungry... 

No. Not yet, Roads. You have to get closer to water first, he told himself, taking off again. His father flitted along behind him. This time, he headed around the mountain, to the villagers’ side of the island. It wasn’t long before he could see the fires of the natives’ city burning in the distance. A twinge of desperation grew in his stomach.

 Landing by the river, he scanned his surroundings, wanting to be sure none of the natives were out and about. If one of them stumbled across him while he was under the effect of the Lotus, he was done for. Fortunately, the area around the river was uninhabited this far away from the town.

With the exception of his father, he was completely alone.

Now was as good a time as ever; he needed to get this over with. Roads sat on his haunches, staring at the fruit in his forehooves. Would he be able to control himself this time? He certainly hoped so. If not, Summer and Chief were dead. And so was he.

Better not lose focus then, he thought, and bit down hard on the fruit. Its juices spattered across his chin, fumes filling his nose, making him feel dizzy and lightheaded. He chewed quickly, and in another bite, consumed the rest of the fruit. He stood up, unsteadily, and began to wobble towards the river. He could tell the muscle relaxant was already beginning to take hold; his legs felt weak and useless, his balance utterly decimated.

He fell on his side, gasping as the world seemed to rotate independently of him. Everything seemed brighter, suddenly, and fuzzier. He felt his rage begin to dissipate in his chest. The deliriant was beginning to work its way into his mind.

Keep it together Roads. For some reason, he heard the phrase in Summer’s

voice.

Summer...

He wished she were here. That would be nice. Oh, but it was still nice, even without her. If only he could get into the water. Wait, why did he need to get in, again? He couldn’t remember. Everything was growing so hazy...

No, snap out of it Roads, you have to focus! Water. Right. Clearing out the deliriant.

Roads crawled towards the stream, inching along with one forehoof, unable to stand. It was just a few meters away, but it seemed so far...

Why even bother? He could get in the water, and then he would just have to deal with the pain again. He wasn’t hurting now. Not his hooves, or his head, or anything. He felt perfectly numb. Why go back to the hurt?

Because I’ll die if I don’t.

And would that really be so bad? Everypony was always so hung up on death, but really, it might be a nice change of pace. Like sleep. He could just die, just let everything go and float off into nothingness. Why bother trying to survive? No matter what he did, he would die eventually--even if he got off the island. Everypony died. Why prolong inevitable?

What else is there to do?

But was it really worth it? When he could just stay here? Just stay, and be happy for the rest of his life--however long that was?

You know what? It is. I’ll just stay here. No need to get in the water. I’m happy now. Everything is all right.

He was less than a meter away from the water’s edge. His father was standing in it.

        “Having fun, Roads?” he asked.

        Roads nodded.

        “Good. I figured you would.” The stallion smiled a condescending smile that made Roads’ anger flare in his chest, even under the effects of the Lotus. “Nice to see that you’ve finally come to terms with yourself. With your weakness. You’ve been fighting it for so long, it’s about time you gave in. About time you’ve accepted what you are.”

        Roads frowned. “No...”

        “No? Oh, how disappointing. I thought that you had finally gotten over yourself. Had given up, just like you always should have.”

        “No.” Roads’ voice was more forceful now.

        “Oh, don’t do this, Roads. You aren’t cut out for it. You’re weak and useless. Don’t fight the drug, just let it help you. Be the failure I’ve always known that you are.”

        Roads’ brow furrowed. His anger was back, and it cut right through the pleasant haze of the Lotus.

        “You’re wrong.”

        He dragged himself to the edge of the water with his forehooves, took a deep breath, and plunged in. It was pleasant--enough that at first he thought it hadn’t worked and the Lotus was still in effect, but then he realized it was simply still warm from the daytime. When he pulled himself out of the water, his mind was clear and pulsing with anger.

        “I told you I’m not wea--ahh.”

He fell to his knees, suddenly feeling the power of the gem on his back. A familiar writhing overtook him as his ley lines realigned, allowing the magic from the gem to flow through them. After a second, the feeling passed, and he got to his hooves, suddenly invigorated. He was still bodily exhausted, but below that was a curious sensation he had never felt before.

A feeling of power. Of sheer might, moving through his body, nearly bursting from him at the endpoints of his lines. He raised a hoof, pointing it at a tree on the opposite bank. All he had to do was flex his lines and...

A bolt of white light surged from his hoof, streaking across the river and colliding violently with its trunk. There was a massive ‘pop’ and then a series of creaks as a large portion of the wood was ripped away, leaving it to collapse into the water.

Roads looked from the felled tree to the fires of the city and--for the first time that night--smiled.

He tried to take off, wanting to head immediately into the city, but found himself unable to fly. That was strange. He had intended to leave his lines in their traditional polarity, and simply change their alignment, so that he could still fly short distances. It seemed, though, that every possible “bead” of his lines had completely reoriented to accommodate the gem’s magic. Which meant that--no.

Surely not. That would be impossible... wouldn’t it? He gave a quiet gasp. He must have become perfectly attuned to the nexus. Which should have been impossible--perfect attunement required weeks of preparations, rituals performed by powerful magicians. A pony couldn’t simply shift their entire ley structure without even trying... could they?

Still, there was no better explanation for why he couldn’t fly, for why the energy coursing through his lines felt as natural as anything he had ever experienced. But how? It must’ve had something to do with diving into the nexus. That had to be it. When he had time--when he was safe--he would have to investigate.

But as for now, Summer and Chief needed him. And he was finally able to help. He glared down into the natives’ city, feeling the power of the nexus surge through his veins. It was time he stood up for himself.

For his friends.

He was ready.

 Pushing exhaustion aside, he trotted briskly down the river bank, his father slinking quietly behind him. The stallion had muttered something about letting him “get himself killed, with no help from me,” and fallen deathly silent. Still, his patronizing smirk never left his face.

It wasn’t long before they came upon the outskirts of the city. Tiny shacks tilted this way and that, some freestanding, others leaning against the canyon walls. They were, at present, low, barely more than tall river banks, not even high enough for the islanders to cut their homes and caves into. This was apparently the area of the city where the less “desirable” ponies were kept; there were few guards and many beggars. Many of the islanders--several decrepit, even by the natives’ standards--slept outside here. In the dark, Roads nearly tripped over several of them.

Still, it was fairly easy to avoid detection. Here, the guards appeared less trained. Few were alert, and several were sleeping at their posts. Roads shook his head as he passed two guards, curled up back to back, deep in sleep, their spears cradled in their arms. This was almost too easy.

With any luck, I’ll be able to make it most of the way to the pit before anypony even realizes I’m here, he thought, ducking behind a shack as one of the few vigilant natives, making his nightly rounds, passed him by.

It wasn’t long, though, before the banks grew steeper, now large enough to be terraced and to accommodate cave dwellings. There were more torches, more islanders, and far more guards. Roads had to be careful to slip past each one, darting from shadow to shadow as he avoided being caught by the light of the fires. Eventually, though, his luck ran out.

He had just ducked out of the way of one patrolling islander, hiding in a patch of deep, chest-high grass, when he realized another was coming his way, armed with a blazing torch. He held his breath, hoping the other pony would angle away from him. No such luck. The native drew closer and closer until finally he stopped a few meters from Roads, peering up at the sky.

Roads took the opportunity to scurry over to a nearby shack. He ducked around to its side, pried open the door, and slipped inside. Just as he closed the door, he heard a loud scream ring out from behind him. He whirled around to see that he had awoken a rather horrified islander, who had begun to shriek hysterically about the stranger in her home. From outside, he heard thunderous hoofsteps approaching, the shouts of the guards growing ever closer.

Oh, Sweet Princesses...

He took a breath, gathered himself, and burst back outside.

He found himself staring down the points of three spears, each leveled at him by a very, very pissed-off guard. There was a small pause, then the three began to advance on him, the tips of their weapons pressing against his chest, drawing pinpricks of blood. Roads backed away until he felt his flanks bump against the shack. Inside, the mare he had awoken was still crying.

One of the islanders muttered something to the other.

“What’s on his back?”

Roads peered intently at him. If only you knew... he thought.

 He heard the hoofsteps of more ponies approaching. Twisting his head, he saw that somepony had apparently alerted reinforcements; a large cadre of guards were making their way down one of the terraces towards him.  He looked back at the natives surrounding him.

Now or never...

But could he really hurt these ponies, unleash the force of the nexus on them?

The image of Summer, slowly bleeding out on the granite floor, laying at Princess’ hooves flashed through his mind for the second time that day.

Yes. Yes, he could hurt these ponies.

And he did. He reared up, back against the wall, as white light erupted from his forehoof, catching one of the guards square in the chest and glancing against the side of another. Roads dove to his left as one of the spears embedded itself in the shack, rolling onto his side and firing off another bolt of magic. This one struck the remaining guard, flinging him into the air and sending him careening into one of the shacks, shattering its thin wooden wall.

Getting to his hooves, he dashed off down the river, heading towards the center of the city. He heard screams and shouts behind him, saw islanders emerging from their huts and caves to gawk at the strange Equestrian ransacking their town. Within minutes, it seemed the entire town was awake. Guards poured in from every which direction, closing in on Roads.

He just kept running, adrenaline and anger coursing through his veins. He felt sharp, alert, dangerous. A guard leapt into his path, and he sent the other pony flying with a burst of magic. Soon, three more took his place, blocking his path. Roads turned and scampered to his right, leaping onto the roofs of one of the shorter huts that rested against the base of one of the terraces.

He dove backwards as one of the guards hurled a spear at him. It missed his face by inches. Rolling over, he got to his hooves again and scrambled up onto the terrace. It was lucky--this was one of the thinner ones. Only one pony at a time could walk across it. Galloping down it, he pushed his way past the unarmed natives, nearly toppling off the side as he struggled to avoid colliding with anypony.

Soon, the terrace widened, and he came upon two guards, one carrying a torch, the other a cudgel. He skidded to a halt, narrowly avoiding having his head bashed in by the mace. Throwing himself away from the guards, he landed on his back a few meters from them. He raised both forehooves, pointing one at each, and let loose two bursts of magic.

One met the first pony’s face, sending him tumbling backwards, head over hooves. The other missed entirely, and in a split second, the guard with the torch was upon him, beating him savagely with the lit end. Roads raised his hooves defensively, trying to take the brunt of the blows with his limbs.

The islander pinned one of his forelegs to his side. Roads struggled to fend off the torch with the other. The torch cracked across his ankle and he howled in pain. Bolts of light arced over the other pony as he struggled to maneuver under his attacker. It was no use. The islander was too close; Roads couldn’t angle his hoof properly.

He tried focus, attempted to tap into the magic flowing through his head. Angling his forehead at the other pony, he gritted his teeth. Even though he didn’t have a horn, he could still use the lines ending in his forehead. If he could just ‘flex’ them properly, he could--

A blast of energy sent the other pony flying over the edge of the terrace. Roads glanced over the edge, saw that the native had survived, and then got up again as he heard more guards approaching behind him. In front, the terrace sloped downwards, meeting the natural ground a ways away from him. He sprinted down the hill, crashing into somepony who seemed to be either a very burly citizen, or an unarmed guard.

Either way, the islander was less than friendly. As he fell to the ground, Roads felt strong forehooves wrap around his chest and neck, pinning him down. He struggled, writhing and twisting, and finally managed to jam one forehoof against his would-be subduer’s chest. The bigger pony let out an agonized scream as a burst of energy ripped him away from Roads, cracking his ribs and sending him flying into a nearby torch.

The lantern shook with the impact, then fell into the thatched roof of a nearby hut, setting it ablaze. Roads glanced at it for a second, then took off again, evading the spear of a guard who had caught up to him. He twisted, glancing over his shoulder, and saw the guard gaining on him. Planting his forehooves in the dirt, he let his momentum spin him around. The native leapt at him, then cried out in surprise as a levitation field caught him mid-jump. He hovered in the air for a moment before Roads sent him flying into the canyon wall.

Looking up from the pony he had just dispatched, Roads caught side of more guards sprinting both sides of the river banks, and streaming towards him from the terraces. It seemed he was surrounded. Almost. He took a running jump and dove into the river.

Roads had never been a great swimmer, but the current was fast and strong enough to whisk him away from the guards. A few of them charged after him, leaping into the water, whereas the rest tried to follow him from the banks.

 He let the stream carry him a ways before he managed to catch himself on a rock and clamber back onto the near bank. Standing up, he glanced around, and realized he was in the center of the town, a large circle where the river was deepest and the banks were widest. The area was clear of huts or houses, and instead filled with crops. He recognized this as where he had fallen during his escape.

And it was empty. He peered at his surroundings, confused, before he caught sight of the guards. They had blocked off the exits where the canyon thinned again, lining up on both banks to either side of him. Many had also made their way up to the system of terraces, preventing him from escaping up the ramps.

 Still, none of them made their way down into the circle. They stood, stock still, utterly silent, staring at him. Watching his every move. Waiting for... something. He didn’t know what. It was eerie, but in his state of rage he felt no fear. Only a grim apprehension.

His father landed beside him, ruffling his dark wings.

“Where’ve you been?” Roads asked.

“Waiting. Watching. Hoping not to be disappointed.” He looked over his shoulder, staring at the guards. “Pathetic,” he spat. “Not fit to call themselves stallions, any of them. To think, all those ponies, and not a single one can even stop you. Makes me sick to look at.”

Roads shot his father a glare.

The stallion turned back to face him. “So, you came all this way, and you’re not going to help them?”

“What?” he asked.

“Your friends. They’re in the pit over there. You’re not going to let them out? Good choice. They’re too good for you, anyway.”

 Roads’ eyes widened as he realized that this clearing was where the pit was located. He reared onto his hind legs, head twisting, searching for the tell-tale stakes that marked the opening of the--

There it was! Roads dashed over to it, grabbing the torch that rested nearby. He held it out over the pit, peering down into it, searching for Summer and Chief.

It was empty, save for Strongsteed.

“Hey!” he called down to the earth pony. “Where’re Summer and Chief?”

It took a long time for him to respond. It seemed he had just eaten, and was locked in a lotus-driven stupor. Eventually, he tilted his head slightly upwards and mumbled something under his breath.

“What? Say it again, louder,” Roads said.

“Princess...”

Roads cocked an eyebrow. “What do you mean, Prince--”

“Welcome back, Roads,” came a purring voice from behind him. He whipped around to see Princess grinning maliciously at him, Summer and Chief held aloft beside her in green levitation fields. “So sorry to keep your friends from you, but we had some things to discuss. Some punishment to mete out. These two have been very, very... naughty.”

The magic surrounding Summer and Chief disappeared as they were flung bodily towards him, each hitting the ground with a loud ‘thump.’ Summer cried out in pain as she landed; Roads looked down to see that she was bleeding again.

She opened her eyes. He gasped. Her left eye was... wrong. The iris had been drained of color, the pupil replaced with a milky whiteness. It stared off into space, independent of its mate, which glanced up at Roads.

“Hey... Roads...” she panted, pressing a hoof to her side. “Glad... you could make it...”

She smiled weakly--delusionally--a faint wheezing erupting from her throat that might have been a chuckle. She closed her eyes again, resting her head on the ground.

A molten fury enveloped Roads. He ground his teeth, muscles tensing, and glared up at Princess. She was still smirking.

“What’s the matter, Roads? Can’t stand what justice looks like?” She spoke in tandem with his father.

He turned to see the pegasus walking towards her. Stopping just beside her, he shot Roads a malicious sneer. Then he seemed to slide sideways, into her, it appeared, flickering translucent as their bodies merged.

And then he was gone. Absorbed.

Princess appeared the same, utterly unphased, but when she spoke again, it was his father’s voice that Roads heard.

“They got what they deserved.”

A bolt of white light caught Princess full in the chest, sending her flying backwards off her hooves.

“Chief!” Roads shouted quickly, turning to the earth pony. “Grab Summer and get out of here! Remember the first cave we came across the first day of exploring? Head over there with Summer. I’ll stay and hold off Princess and the guards to give you time to get away!”

“I’m not leaving you alone to--”

“Yes, you are! Go!” he shouted, gesturing to the nearest ramp.

Chief stared at him for a second, and had just opened his mouth to speak when a flash of green light passed just over his head. He twisted, grabbed Summer, and sprinted off.

 “I’ll come back for you!” he called over his shoulder.

No, you won’t! Roads thought, and nearly said--but he had bigger problems. Princess was up again and casting spells left and right, trying to catch Chief on the run.

Her focus on the earth pony was broken as she leapt away from a burst of magic Roads sent flying towards her. A magical shield erupted around her in just enough time to dissipate a second blast of energy. When she looked up at him, for once she actually looked confused.

“You’re just a pegasus! How are you doing that?!” she called, in his father’s voice.

His only response was to telekinetically rip a massive rock from the ground beside him and fling it into her shield. The magic wavered, but didn’t break.

“Doesn’t matter,” she said, the smirk returning to her face. “I’ll kill you anyway.”

A gout of flame erupted from her horn; Roads was forced to dive away as it incinerated the spot where he had been standing. Rolling over once, he got to his hooves, just in time to dodge a blast of energy from Princess. Beside him, the natives’ crops began to burn, lit by Princess’ spell.

He scurried away from the flames, hurling another bolt of magic at Princess as he went. It dissipated harmlessly across her shield. He could hear her laughing a maniacal, demonic laugh inside the barrier as she cast spell after spell, each setting a different patch of vegetation ablaze. Roads ducked away from her, turning to see Chief finish fighting his way through several guards and sprint up a terrace, heading for the forest.

His dads’ voice rang in his ear as she bombarded him with more flame spells.

“You come to my island--”

A gout of flame exploded just over Roads’ head, singing his mane as he ducked away.

“You attack my home--”

Most of the field was ablaze now, shining red and orange against the night, smoke thick in the air.

“You terrorize my people--”

Roads sprinted and scurried this way and that, trying escape the inferno raging around him.

“And you think I’ll let you get away with it?”

The voice was suddenly softer--and much, much closer. Roads whipped around to see that she had teleported just behind him. She was standing in the flames, the heated tongues flicking magically to either side of her. The firelight danced in her eyes, flickering over an expression of devilish glee.

Roads didn’t even have time to raise a hoof before a fireball struck him in the side, hurling him to the ground. He landed heavily, winded and badly burned. Angling his head forwards, he sent a burst of energy slamming into the shield. It flickered, buckling slightly under the force of the blow, but still it held.

How is that even possible? he thought, grimacing. For all intents and purposes, he had a Celestia-damned nexus strapped to his back, and Princess was deflecting his spells like they were nothing!

Then he looked more closely at the glowing gems set in Princess’ floral crown. Maybe he wasn’t the only one drawing on a nexus...

His observation was interrupted as a glowing aura surrounded Princess’ horn. He rolled to his left just before a blast of magic ripped the ground he had been lying on to pieces. His mind raced as he dashed away from Princess, ducking low through the crops, hoping she would have a harder time hitting him if she couldn’t see him.

Okay, I can’t penetrate the shield. Not directly. Maybe indirectly? Come on, Roads, think! You’ve studied dueling, you know how this works! The first rule of duelist survival, what was it again?

Always have a shield up, right. I can do that. I hope.

He spun around, facing Princess again, a white glow forming around his hoof as he tried to erect a barrier to rival hers.

Nothing. The aura fizzled as the spell failed.

Of course it failed! he thought. Motion magic doesn’t work that way! Idiot!

Then a thought struck him. Perhaps his barrier didn’t have to be magical...

Roads spread his forehooves across the dirt, lowering his head and shutting his eyes as a magical glow erupted from his forehead. A few feet below him, he formed a magical displacement field, anchored to his lines, that pushed up a ring of earth around him. He took a step forward, a small grin forming on his face as he saw the ground ripple and move with him.

Excellent, he thought. He couldn’t see Princess, but if he lowered the displacement ring for just a moment, perhaps he could catch a glimpse of--

“Woah!” he cried, diving to the ground and raising his shield again as a ball of magical fire sped past him.

Princess had cast the spell as soon as she saw the barrier lowered. Which meant that she must’ve fired blind, simply aiming at the center of the ring and waiting for it to be lowered. And if she was going after his shield instead of after him...

He lowered his head again, channeling the nexus’ power once again. A second displacement ring split off the first, taking the ground with it, forming two identical barriers... then a third... and a fourth.

Roads could feel them draining his gem; holding up this much ground took absurd amounts of energy. He couldn’t keep this up for long.

Fortunately, he didn’t have to. He let all four drop at once, and some insane part of him wanted to laugh as Princess let loose a horrendous burst of magic--pointed directly away from him. Instead, he reared onto his hind legs and channeled as much of the gem’s energy into a single spell as he dared. There was a burst of white light as it sped through the air at met Princess’ shield.

With a flash of green, the shield faded and died. Roads wasn’t sure if the barrier had been weakened by his past spells, or if this one in particular was too much for it; either way, it worked for him. He telekinetically grabbed a gargantuan boulder from beside him and sent it flying towards her.

Princess whipped around and deflected it, just before it would have crushed her. With a burst of magic, she erected another shield. This one was more feeble; Roads dissipated it with a single spell. A horrified look passed over her face as she realized how vulnerable she was.

Dodging another spell, her horn lit again, and Roads coughed and gagged as smoke from the nearby fire settled over them, obscuring his vision. Flinging a hoof over his stinging eyes, he raised another ground barrier just as two spells came flying towards him through the haze.

Lowering his barrier again, Roads swept a glowing hoof through the air, magically dissipating the smoke. He glanced around, alert, nervous.

Princess was gone.

A burst of green energy caught him in the right wing, sending him spinning through the air. He landed heavily, an anguished scream escaping from his lips as pain ripped through his left side. Glancing down, he saw that the wing was tattered and broken, half of it bent at an unnatural angle. Its blood ran thick down his side.

He gritted his teeth, raising another barrier, trying not to black out from the pain that seared through his wing. His anger kept him conscious.

He wanted to hurt her. Wanted to hurt her badly.

Letting his shield collapse, Roads let loose a pulse of energy that spread in every direction. To his left, he saw Princess materialize in thin air, and surround herself with a weak shield. As the pulse faded, the shield faded--and so did she.

It’s an invisibility spell! he realized. Focusing hard, he whipped a massive ball of dirt and dust in the air, then telekinetically spread it through the air, evenly, in a wide circle around him. If Princess came close enough to him, she would disturb the dust and--

There! A ripple in the floating dirt. Roads sent two spells barreling towards her.

Princess didn’t have time to drop the spell and cast a shield. Two bolts of light slammed into her, flinging her into the air. She crashed to the ground, and struggled to stand up again as a third spell struck her.

Then another.

And another.

Finally, she lay still on the ground, face down, one leg twisted and mangled, bleeding beside her. Was she--? Had he--?

He galloped up to her. He had to know.

Roads stood over her motionless body for a brief moment, staring down at her. He looked up, and saw her guards standing on their terraces, weapons at their sides, many slack-jawed and incredulous.

He prodded Princess with one hoof. She didn’t move.

Roads reached down... rolled her over...

Her eyes were closed. She wasn’t breathing.

        He leaned in to check for a pulse--

        The eyes opened again. A malicious smile spread across her face.

        “Fool.”

        Before he could react, Princess grabbed one of his hooves with her good foreleg, horn glowing devilishly. He recoiled, pushing her head to the side telekinetically just as a bolt of lightning erupted from her horn. Even with his intervention, it still ripped through his left wing, leaving a burned hole between two of the bones.

        He flung her off before she could cast a second spell.

        “Guards!” she cried. “Kill him!”

        And with a flash of green, she teleported away.

        And the islanders descended on him.

        Roads turned and galloped towards the ramp Chief had taken, where the line of defense was a few ponies thinner, casting spells as he ran. By the time he reached the ramp, most of the natives before him had fallen. The remaining three advanced warily, fear flitting across their faces. One launched his spear at Roads.

        He caught it in the air and launched it back at him. It buried itself in the ground between his forehooves. The guard paled and took a step backwards, shaken. Brushing the other two aside with his magic, Roads continued up the terrace.

        It wasn’t long before he reached the woods. He galloped a fair distance in, until he felt safe enough, then collapsed against a tree, utterly spent. His anger began to fade, replaced by exhaustion, but his nerves stayed on end, a twinge of apprehension running through his stomach. He could still feel the energy of the nexus running through his lines, but after his struggle with Princess, the gem on his back felt weaker.

        He felt weaker.

        His wings hurt, his side hurt, his hooves hurt. His muscles shook and tremored, threatening to give out. Sagging against the tree, he tried to catch his breath, but found it was little use. His chest heaved, tight and nervous, his mind still racing. He felt vulnerable now, entirely defenseless.

        If some of the guards had followed him... if Princess teleported out to meet him...

        He wouldn’t be able to fight back. He was sure of it.

        The forest around him took on a grim visage; the night wind rustled the trees, pockets of darkness flitting this way and that. He twisted his head this way and that, nerves rubbed raw from constant stress. He needed to fight off exhaustion, needed to stay vigilant!

        Princess could appear here out of nowhere. In the darkness, in the jungle, he would never see her coming. She would be on him before he could even react.

        His eyes flitted across the trees, searching for the tell-tale outline of the malicious unicorn. It seemed she was everywhere--her silhouette in every shrub, her eyes flashing at him from between every tree, every breath of wind carrying the rustle of her grim footsteps to his ears.

        Roads pressed against the tree, ears and eyes twitching, cold fear clutching at his stomach. He tried to muster up more courage, more anger, but none came. He was just too exhausted. Too tired of fighting.

        But not tired enough to give up. He knew she was here, following him, watching him. He couldn’t let her take him unawares.

        Suddenly, a loud crashing echoed through the forest, the sounds of leaves and twigs being broken, of hoofsteps heavy on the ground.

        Princess!

        Roads’ ears swiveled every which way, trying to keep track of where the sound was coming from. He couldn’t tell.

Not even as it came closer.

        And closer...

        And closer...

        And finally it was almost upon him, the hoofsteps roaring in his ears, a frightful din thundering through the trees, louder, louder, louder and then it--

        A dark shape moved in the corner of his eye.

        A white light flashed in the dark.

        A cry.

        A wet thump.

        A deathly stillness.

        Roads channeled magic slowly through his forehooves, letting them illuminate the forest. Just before him, the broken body of a mare lay still on the ground at the base of the tree.

Roads moved closer. Saw that her coat was red.

Princess!

No, that wasn’t her coat. Her coat was--oh no.

Nonononono!

He edged closer. Rolled her onto her back. It wasn’t Princess. The mare was young, far younger than Princess. And very, very dead.

Her coat was grey.

Roads looked up and saw the tree she had fallen under. Its trunk was coated in blood. There were bits of her stuck to it.

No, please, no...

Roads began to shake uncontrollably. He tilted her head towards him and saw that her eyes were still open.

They stared at him. Quiet. Accusing. Cold, yellow, and dead.

They asked him why. He didn’t know why.

Tears ran down his face, dripping onto hers. He fell to his knees, cradling her neck in his forehooves. Something fell onto his foreleg. A canvas bag. Filled with fish and a rope net.

She had been fishing. And he killed her for it.

No, no, no...

The yellow eyes kept staring. Kept asking. Kept accusing.

Please... please... don’t... no...

His mouth worked silently, forming empty words. Nonsense words. He gave a despairing moan. Still shaking. Still clutching at the dead mare’s shoulders. He thought he might be sick.

The eyes kept staring.

He was sobbing now, trembling, silent in the night.

The eyes kept staring.

He reached down with one hoof, intending to close them. The tip of his hoof touched her brow and he jolted to his feet, dropping her on the ground.

He sprinted into the night. Fleeing the eyes.

_________________________________________________________

An hour passed before he made it to the cave. The flickering light of a fire greeted him. Roads stumbled to the mouth of the cave, head down, breath coming in ragged gasps, tears still flowing down his face. When he looked up, Summer was limping to meet him.

        He took a few weak steps towards her, expecting a harsh reproach for his desertion. Roads shut his eyes, wincing away from her, waiting for the words. He would take it. It didn’t matter any more.

        A pair of forelegs wrapped around his neck. He felt her mane against his cheek. He let out a breath he didn’t know he had been holding.

        “Come on,” she said, leading him into the cave. That was it. “Come on.”

        She had started a small fire, arranged rocks around it as they had in the old campsite. He collapsed onto one. She sat down beside him. He tried to speak, but the words didn’t come. He felt numb inside. Cold. Dead.

        He was quiet for a long time.

        “So, how was your day?” Summer asked lightly. A weak attempt at humor. Her voice was laced with concern.

        Roads didn’t respond for a while. He just stared into the fire. His stomach took a turn as he envisioned two cold yellow eyes staring back. He looked away from them sharply, meeting Summer’s warm green one. She looked at him quizzically.

        “What?”

        “Aren’t you mad?” he asked.

        She raised her eyebrows. “Mad?”

        “That I left. That I deserted again. Again. Even though I said I wouldn’t, even though I--”

        Summer gave a weak chuckle. “Well, sure, you left--but you came back with a giant magical weapon strapped to your back, helped us escape, took out half the guards, and set half the town on fire. So, no. We’re not mad.”

        A slim smile crossed Roads’ face at that. He felt as though he had lost something today. A small part of himself. Something he couldn’t quite get back. But at least he still had Summer and Chief.

Wait, where was Chief?

“Already asleep,” Summer told him when he asked. “I wanted him to head back into the city and help you--and I think he did, too--but once we got here, he wouldn’t leave. Said that in my condition, and without magic, he couldn’t afford to leave me alone in a cave. Actually...” Summer got slowly to her feet. “He asked me to let him know when you got back. Wait here a sec.”

Roads shrugged. What else did she think he had to do?

As Summer walked over to the other end of the cave, Roads’ gaze slid to her side. It appeared her gash had gotten worse.

Then she turned slightly and he saw there was another on her other side. No, the original was on that side. It seemed she’d been given a new one--a worse one--on this side. A cold fury washed over him once again.

So the eye wasn’t enough? You had to slice her open again, too? he thought angrily. He wished he could have killed Princess when he had the chance.

Like you killed that mare?

A shudder passed through him. With that, his anger subsided. He suddenly felt very cold.

Roads glanced over to Chief and Summer. Chief had gotten to his hooves, and was telling her something she appeared surprised by. She was raising her eyebrows, tilting her head back slightly. She said something he couldn’t hear, and he nodded curtly. She gave a slight shrug, leaving him to lay down again.

When Summer returned, she looked stunned. She sat down across from him, staring into the fire.

“What’d he say?” Roads asked, curiosity piqued despite his exhaustion.

“Umm... it’s hard to explain,” she replied, one hoof kneading her forehead. “Basically, that he... approves of what you did today.”

“‘What I did today?’”

“Yeah.”

“You mean coming back for you guys?”

“Well... no.”

“What?”

“He’s more interested in what you did before that.”

“He doesn’t know what I did before that.”

“He said he didn’t need to. He had a way of explaining it, like you had... found something.” Summer seemed to struggle to get the right words out. For a unicorn usually so quick-tongued, she appeared to be having quite a bit of trouble.  

“Found something?”

“Or, found something out. Or--jeez, I dunno, Roads. He should really just tell you himself.”

“Tell me what? You’re not making any sense.”

“Tell you... tell you... you changed. In the forest. Before you came back. He said he knew something happened to you. Something big. Oh, Princesses, it sounds so stupid when I try to say it--”

“--no, it’s fine. I understand. He’s right, I think.”

“He is?” Summer asked, looking at him inquisitively.

“Yeah. When I was out there I saw... saw, uh--” Saw what, Roads? Your father? Saw him turn into Princess? Sure, tell her that. Tell her you’re going crazy.

“I--uh--I dunno. I saw--I--” Roads started to feel a quaking in his chest. He looked across the fire to see Summer peering intently at him from across fire, worry etched across her face.

“Are you okay?” she asked.

“I--my dad--in the forest--I--”

And then he broke down. “I can’t, Summer. I just--I can’t. I’m sorry, I just--I--”

“It’s fine, Roads--”

“I just, I don’t really--”

“Roads!”

He quieted at that, staring at her, grimacing, hooves drawn up around his chest.

“It’s fine, Roads. Let’s talk about something else.”

Roads nodded weakly. “What... what happened while I was gone?”

Summer shrugged. “The guards took us down. Knocked us out. As soon as Chief and I woke up, they dragged us to Princess’ chambers. ‘Punishment,’ they called it. She got my eye--some blindness spell, the same one she used on Strongsteed--and cut me up pretty bad.” Summer paused for a second, looking herself over. She gave a grim laugh.

“I hope the stallions back home are into one-eyed mares. One-eyed mares--and scars.”

Roads shrugged. She looked fine to him.

Better than fine, even. He blinked. What was he thinking? He pushed the thought aside.

“Granted, I’ll have to make it home, first. One more gash like this, and my chances aren’t good. Hell, I would’ve...” her voice trailed off. When she spoke again, her voice was weaker. More timid. “I would’ve died there if it hadn’t been for Willow. Stitched me up as soon as Princess was done.”

For a second, she stared pensively into the fire, lost in a thought. Then she cleared her throat, and seemed to snap back to the present.

“Anyway, Willow patched me up while Princess got at Chief. The eyesight spell didn’t work though. She cast it over and over again, but he just absorbed it. Too much built up resistance, I guess. Anyway, that drove her pretty crazy. She was just about to start beating on him when you showed up. Some native came in, told her what was going on. She told him to keep you in the city, pin you down ‘til she could get there. I guess she figured she could stop you. Or, at least wanted to be the one to do it.”

A lean smirk crossed her face. “Looks like she was wrong. What happened after Chief and I left? Did’ja kill her?”

“No. Not Princess. She was too good. I had a chance, though. But even with the nexus, I was outmatched, most of the time. I’m surprised I even made it out alive.”

“How’d you do that, anyway? The whole ‘magic’ thing?”

He took a deep breath and gave a low sigh, before launching into a detailed explanation of how he had built the weapon. He was careful to avoid mentioning that most of his work had been spurred on by his father. It was best, he decided, just to let her think he was tough enough to do all that on his own.

Although, looking back, it was now clear he had been alone the entire time.

He tried not to think about it. Instead, he focused on trying to help Summer understand the details and theory behind the weapon, finding it helped calm him down. It took his mind off... things. And Summer, to her credit, listened attentively. He supposed she wasn’t one to disregard a way to create a weapon that could go toe-to-toe with Princess’ magic.

When he had finished, she gave a low whistle.

“Wow. I never would’ve thought I’d get saved by a spec,” she said with a grin. “But, hey, there’s a first time for everything. So, do you need help getting out of that thing?”

“What?”

“You seem to still be wearing my engine,” she said lightly.

He glanced down at the copper wires circling his forehooves. He had forgotten that it was even there.

“Oh. Yeah, sure.”

        Summer stood gingerly, a pained expression crossing her face as she got up from the rock, and walked over to him. Together, they bent back the wires until Roads was able to shimmy his way out of the contraption.

        As the magic running through his lines faded, he felt a new wave of exhaustion roll over him. Suddenly, he felt even more powerless and vulnerable than before. Behind him, Summer set the engine gently on the floor, staring at Roads’ broken wing.

        “You should probably get Chief to look at that,” she told him.

        “Is he asleep, yet?”

        Summer glanced over to the other side of the cave.

        “Yep. Looks like I’ll have to take care of it.”

        A twinge of alarm passed through his stomach. “What do you mean, ‘take care of it’? What are you going to do?”

        “Just stay here, I’ll be back in a sec,” she said, walking out of the cave. She turned her head, talking to him over her shoulder. “Chief found a banana tree in the woods earlier; check by the rock on the other side of the fire, we saved a few for you.” She winked at him. “The Aggregate’d be pissed if we let another spec die of starvation.”

        

He nodded, suddenly ravenous. He realized he hadn’t eaten in over a day; the food in the pit had all been laced with Lotus, and he had refused to touch it. He made his way around the fire, finding a small pile of fruit waiting there for him.

        By the time Summer returned, holding a bundle of reed stems, the fruit was gone, and Roads was lying on the ground, wincing as his shriveled stomach cramped from the new influx of food.

        “You really shouldn’t have eaten it all at once,” Summer pointed out.

        “Wow, thanks for letting me know.”

        Summer rolled her eyes. “Come on, turn over, let me see that wing.”

        Roads did as he was told, waiting on the ground as Summer collected a few lengths of thick wire from what was left of the copper matrix.

“What are you doing?” he asked as she knelt over him.

She ignored his question. “Okay, this is going to hurt a little.”

Roads’ eyes widened. “Why? What are you going to--AHHH!”

He screamed in pain as Summer grabbed his wing and wrenched the upper half back into place, setting the broken bone. Stars exploded behind his eyes as his entire right side throbbed and smarted, stinging miserably. It didn’t stop hurting until long after Summer had bound it in a splint made of reed and wire.

        “Why wouldn’t you tell me you were going to do that?!” he cried.

        “I didn’t think you’d let me do it if you knew what was coming,” she shrugged.

        He gave a dismissive snort and sat back up on his rock, staring into the fire as Summer settled down across from him. He was silent for a long time.

        He was thinking about the eyes.

“Hey,” she said.

“Mmm?”

“You alright?”

“I dunno.”

“Hey, listen, if you wanna talk about it--”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. He didn’t want to relive what had happened in the woods.  

“Fair enough.”

He shot her a curious look. “That’s it? No ‘toughen up’? No ‘don’t be so soft’ stuff?”

“No,” she said firmly. She almost looked offended. “Why would you think that I would even--” She sighed, pausing. “Look, Roads, this kind of thing... it’s different from before. Earlier, that was just fieldwork stuff. You were being whiny. Today... well, I nearly died today. I should’ve died today.

“This is the kind of thing that gets to anypony. I’d expect you to be shaken up. Hell, I’d think there was something much more wrong with you if you weren’t. It’s hard on all of us.”

        Roads snorted. “Not Chief.”

        Summer shook her head. “Well, not Chief. But Chief’s had bigger things happen to him before. This whole sort of thing, that used to be Chief’s whole world. Me, I only have to deal with this kind of thing if something goes really wrong, but that pony...” She shuddered.

“Look, when you’ve been through what Chief has, nothing shakes you up anymore. Trust me, you don’t want to be like Chief. Tough’s one thing, but what Chief is... well, Chief’s just plain messed up. Not as bad as Princess, mind you. She went on and on after you were gone, for hours it seemed like. Told us all about her dead husband, and how Celestia killed him, and how everypony was out to get her. She’s completely out of it. Almost made me feel sorry for her.

“Well, until she half-blinded me and then sliced me to pieces.” Summer shuddered. “She’s a whole different brand of crazy. I don’t think Chief’ll ever be like that, though. He’s got too good a grip on reality for that. Probably hurts like hell, but at least he stays sane.”

Roads broke into a cold sweat as memories of hallucinating his father flickered through his head. He was unraveling, just like Princess. How long until he started hurting ponies because of his delusions?

Still, at least he knew they were delusions. Maybe that meant he wasn’t as insane as Princess.

Then again, he hadn’t realized what had happened until just recently. Everything had seemed real at the time. He was coming unglued. A danger to himself and the ones around him. Roads the insane. Just as crazy as Strongsteed or Princess.

No, no. It was impossible. He wasn’t going crazy. It was just the... island magic. Messing with his head. That had to be it. All that energy in the air, buzzing around, fiddling with broken ley lines... it had just toyed with his mind a little. Nothing serious.

Was that what had happened to Princess?

Roads tried to drive the thoughts from his mind, focusing instead on Summer. He had missed some of what she said, but she was still talking about Chief. He nodded, pretending to have been listening.

“...and even he’s got stuff that sets him off,” she was saying. “Except, with him, it’s little things. Ponies like me, we’ve only got problems with stuff that nearly kills us. Ponies like him... Ponies like him will kill for things most folks wouldn’t even notice.”

        “What happened to him?” Roads asked. “If you’re even allowed to tell me.”

        “Well...” Summer thought for a moment. “I doubt he’d mind you knowing, now. He trusts you now, after today. Still, there’s not a lot I can tell you--he keeps things from me, even. And I’m the only friend he’s got left.”

        “Left?”

        “All of the others are either dead, or in hiding.”

        “Why? What happened?”

        Summer sighed. “It’s a long story. I only know parts of it. Honestly, I think the only reason he even tells me anything is because I remind him of his wife.”

        Roads shot her a look. “You and Chief are like... a thing? Really?”

        Summer laughed at that. “No, no. It’s nothing like that. His wife, Honey Dew, she was my older sister.”

        “Oh. So, you knew him before you started working together? Was he ever, you know... not like... this?”

        Summer shook her head. “I didn’t get to know him until after he stopped working the guard a few years ago and I contracted him to do security work on a project. Before that, I’d only met him twice. Once at my sister’s wedding, once at her funeral.”

        Roads’ eyes widened. “She’s...?”

        “Yep.”

        “I’m sorry.”

        “It’s fine. I hardly knew her. She left me and my dad when I was eight to move out to Canterlot. I didn’t see her again until she got married. We never really got caught up. So... I’m fine. Chief, though... not so much.”

        “What happened?”

        “Childbirth. Some sort of hemorrhage, or something. They saved the baby, though. Chief’s daughter.”

        “Oh.”

        “It tore him up, when she died. I think the only thing that kept him going was his daughter. And after he lost her... well, the pony you know now wasn’t always as stable as he seems.”

        “What happened to his daughter?”

        “Well, it’s hard to explain. He’s never fully told me everything that happened, he just mentioned some things once when he was drunk.”

        “I thought he didn’t drink?”

        “Well, he doesn’t. Usually. Except for once a year, on his and Honey’s anniversary, when he gets absolutely hammered. That’s happened twice since we’ve worked together.”

        “I see.”

        “Anyway, so basically what happened--so far as I understand it--has something to do with the work he used to do with the Royal Guard. Apparently he was in some special unit or something, because when I tried to look up his years of service in the public record, it said he worked for his first few years in Unit 33, then got transferred. And then several years later, it said he retired. But it never said what Unit he transferred to.

        “My guess, he did some sort of undercover work, or something. I really have no idea. All I know is, it had something to do with this crazy cult, a group of madponies trying to take over Equestria by bringing back Discord or some other manure--he was drunk when he explained it, it never made much sense--and anyway, they found out where he lived and what he had been doing.

        “And one night, he left his daughter with a foalsitter and headed out to a bar with some friends from the Guard. While he was gone, a bunch of cultists came to his house. By the time he got back, they had slaughtered the foalsitter and tied up his daughter. He tried to fight them, but he was too drunk.

        “They got him down, too, and they created sort of ritual for his daughter. They made him watch as they petrified her. ‘Just like Discord.’ To set an example, they said. Apparently, they were going to kill him, too, when one of his friends from the Guard showed up, and cleared them off. I was never exactly sure how that worked, he was never clear on that, either.

        “Anyway, what little was left after his wife died, the cultists pretty much destroyed. Chief blamed himself, mostly, for what happened, really tore himself up. Blamed the alcohol, too; it’s why he won’t touch the stuff now.

        “But there was also a part of him that blamed the cultists. A very, very vengeful part of him, it seems. Chief won’t tell me what it was he did after he lost his daughter, but I did some looking around. Turns out, in the few months after the incident with the cultists, Equestria got a new serial killer. Apparently, bodies started turning up all over the place, all apparently unrelated to each other. It lasted about six months, and then the killer just disappeared.

        “They said they found nearly fifty bodies, and suspected there were more that were never uncovered. My theory is, those were cultists Chief hunted down, and somepony down at the guard found out about it, and forced him into early retirement.”

        “He might have killed fifty ponies, and they just let him go?”

        “No evidence. Not a single trace. Moral of the story: Don’t make Chief want you dead.”

        Roads shuddered. “And now?”

        “Now, he’s doing better. But honestly, it’s not like he’s ever gonna be quite right again. Where Chief’s been... you just don’t come back from that.” Summer looked at him from across the fire. “So...

“No. You don’t wanna be like Chief.”

        Roads sat up, burying his face in his hooves. Images of Chief’s daughter, petrified, his wife dying in a hospital, Summer bleeding at Princess’ feet flashed before his eyes. His father beating him, Princess’ demonic smile, those cold yellow eyes...

        It was too much. It was just too much.

        His shoulders shook as he cried quietly, trying to hold back the tears. His body was wracked by silent sobs, his hooves wet against his face.

        Books in a fireplace, a filly turned into a statue, a tree covered in blood...

        It wasn’t supposed to be like this. It just wasn’t. It wasn’t right.

        He felt Summer’s hooves around him; she had walked over to embrace him.

        “Summer,” he choked. “I killed somepony, Summer. In the woods, after I fought Princess. I was scared, I thought it was Princess again, and I just panicked, and--”

        “It’s fine, Roads.”

She leaned in, sitting, resting her head against him. He tried to gather himself. Eventually he quieted, lowered one hoof from his face, returning Summer’s embrace. She snuggled up against him, taking his hoof in hers.

They sat there for a while, still against each other, utterly silent, watching the fire. She shifted slightly, gently caressing his hoof.

“It’s tough, Roads. It’s hard on all of us,” she said quietly.

He nodded, looking down at her. Into her soft green eyes. She leaned up, nuzzling him gently.

Roads blinked. Was she...? Yes, she was.

For a second, he did nothing, utterly bewildered. And then a voice rang out in his head.

Just go with it, Roads!

But did he really want to do this with Summer?

She leaned her head towards him again.

Yes. Yes he did.

He tilted his head slightly and their lips met. Gently, just a brush.

And then again. Slightly more forcefully this time, slightly longer. Summer’s lips parted slightly; without thinking, he followed suit. He felt her forelegs wrap tightly around him, her tongue, soft against his, working its way into his mouth, and he pulled her closer to him.

The kiss seemed to last for a long time, before Summer pulled away.

And then kissed him again.

And again.

And again.

She leaned back further, drawing him down with each kiss until he found himself on the ground beside her, holding her tightly. She gave him one final kiss, more gentle than the ones before, and then pulled back slightly.

She wore an amused smile, a curious sort of grin that made Roads’ heart flutter.

“Goodnight, Roads.”

“Uh...”

Don’t screw this up!

“‘Night.”

Yep, that would do.

Summer nuzzled him softly, then lay her head against his chest, closing her eyes.

He lay awake for a moment, a strange warmth in his chest, trying to make sense of what had just happened.

He couldn’t. He was just too tired. He would sort it out in the morning.

Resting his chin against her mane, he shut his eyes and drifted off to sleep.

_________________________________________________________

A/N: Thanks for reading again! We’re at the point where I’d like to once again thank Secondaryspine for all of his hard work on this (and all the other) chapters, as well as for his inspiring words “Oh, you’re halfway through the chapter? You should finish the whole thing tonight. It’s only six thousand words.”

Yeah, thanks. I slept through work the next day.

Dick.

I love you.

        

        

 

 

 


        The road is long, dusty, brutal. Heat waves flow off the dirt. A young colt baking in the rays of the sun.

        But still he keeps walking.

        And walking.

        And walking.

        A broken wing, a strained leg, but he has to keep going. Canterlot is before him and his home is behind. Canterlot will be safe. The Princess is there.

        But here, on the road, he is vulnerable, weak, tired.

        Dried trees and burnt bushes line the path. They swelter in the sun-cracked dirt. A lizard skitters past him. Charred. Everything is charred.

        A speck on the horizon. Coming closer. A dark patch floating before the sun, a long shadow cast across the ground.

        It calls his name.

“Roads!”

The voice is dark. Malignant. Hate filled and vicious. He fears it, he knows it. Far away, faint, but getting closer. He hears it again.

“Roads!”

He starts to run. Stumbles over his hooves. Can’t get up off the ground. He trembles, cowers. His wing hurts.

“Roads!”

The voice is close now. On the ground. Just behind him.

He turns.

A stallion, tall and black and powerful, towering over him. He blocks out the sun; the colt is cast in the stallion’s shadow.  There is a scowl on his face, whiskey on his breath.

“You ran, boy.”

The stallion takes a step forward.

No please no Celestia help me.

“Now you’re comin’ back.”

The stallion grabs his forehoof. Wrenches it. Pulls him off the ground. Twists it further. A terrible crack fills the air and pain overwhelms him. He cries out. His father jerks the leg, facing him towards Cloudsdale. The city is black against the sun.

A push. He falls to the ground. His leg hurts. His father reaches for him once again.

“Don’t touch him!”

The voice behind him is furious, feminine, burning with rage. He turns. So does his father.

A Princess in the road. Brilliant, white, regal. Materialized out of thin air. A teleportation spell, but he doesn’t know that yet. Two guards at her side. One brown, one grey. An earth pony and a unicorn.

The father flares his wings. One of them is at an odd angle. Working, but crippled.

“He’s my son. I’ll do with him what I want.”

“Not anymore. He’s coming with me.”

“You can’t do—”

“I know what you did to him.” She holds up a Librarian’s letter. “Your custody of Roads has been revoked. You are wanted on charges of foal abuse in Cloudsdale. He’s not going anywhere with you anymore.”

A look of twisted horror, of restrained rage crosses the father’s face. The Princess turns to the brown guard.

“Chestnut, I’m sending you both to Cloudsdale. When you get there, hand him over to the guards there.” She floats him the letter. “Give them this. They’ll know what to do.”

The brown guard nods. Trots over to the father. In a flash, they are gone. The other guard, a unicorn, glances around, then vanishes as well.

The foal and the Princess stare at each other for a long, long time. Silent tears on the colt’s face. She walks over. Places a hoof on his shoulder.

“I’m sorry, Roads. This should have been taken care of a long time ago.”

At her touch he softens. Stops crying. Looks up at her. Awestruck. A slight, quivering smile on his face as he wipes away the tears.

“So, somepony tells me you like studying magic...”

He nods.

“Well, when we get back to Canterlot, I have a very special test you can take, one that I think you’ll do well on. It involves a lot of...”

She is drawing away from him, still talking, her voice fading. He looks at her, confused. What’s happening?

Everything is growing darker. Wetter. Softer.

He is in a forest, shrouded in night. Trees all around, the ground soft under his hooves. Something lays on the ground before him, under a trunk spattered with blood.

It is black, shifting, curling. It coils, surges, rises above him. Gives off black smoke. Its eyes are closed, but he feels it glare at him.

He looks down. He is no longer a colt. His forelegs are wrapped in copper. He tries to move. The metal holds him in place. It wraps around him, binding, constricting, taut around his neck.

The hovering shadow twitches, opens a mouth that isn’t really there. Speaks to him in a voice he only hears in his head.

“Did you really think your Princess could save you?” it asks.

A horrible fear pounds through him. He struggles against the wire. It bites into him, opening cuts all over his body. His own blood spills across him. Warm, slippery, horrifying. He cries out in pain and terror.

He must get away from the shadow. It is going to hurt him. It is going to hurt everyone. He has to get away, has to warn them.

The shadow gestures to the bloody trunk he broke himself against. Broke the mare against. Broken, broken, broken.

“Did you really think your Princess could fix you?” it asks.

He jerks, writhes, coat matted with blood. His own and somepony else’s. Get away, get away, get away.

Fear overwhelms him. He can’t move, can’t think, can’t breath. The wires are choking him. He can’t move his head, can’t look away. He stares into an overwhelming darkness.

“I’m going to kill them, Roads. All of them.”

No...

“You.”

No, please...

“Chief.”

No, don’t, please...

“Summer.”

No!

It opens its eyes. They are cold. Yellow. Dead.

A horrible, blood curdling scream he only barely realizes is his own.

IX

“Of the terrible doubt of appearances,

Of the uncertainty after all—that we may be deluded,

That may-be reliance and hope are but speculations after all,”

-Walt Whitman, Of the Terrible Doubt of Appearances

It was the screaming that woke Summer up, the kick in the face that got her to leap to her hooves. Alarmed, she darted away from a screeching ball of flailing limbs.

“What the hell?”

One hoof pressed to her right eye, she turned and peered down, realizing Roads was the source of the noise. He was on the ground, thrashing and jerking, shrieking into the night. His eyes were screwed shut, a grimace across his face.

“Roads! Roads, wake up!” She nudged him with a hoof, trying to avoid getting hit again.

She heard heavy hoofsteps behind her.

 “What’s going on? Did they find us?” Chief asked, tense and alert, head jerking as he glanced across the entrance to the cave.

“Nope,” Summer replied, gesturing down to the pegasus. “It’s just Roads.”

Chief rolled his eyes.  

“Hey!” she shouted. “Wake up! Come on!”

His eyes snapped open and he sat up with a jerk, one last shout echoing through the cave. Roads glanced up at them, pale and sweating, trembling heavily. Chest heaving, he wrapped his forelegs around himself, utterly terrified.

“Th-there’s someone—something—i-it’s gonna—I saw it—”

“Calm down, Roads. It was just a dream,” Summer said, grimacing. This was bad. He was more shaken up than she thought.

“—G-gonna do bad things—horrible things—can’t stop it, I c-can’t—”

“Roads!” Summer said sharply, cutting him off.

He quieted, quivering slightly, nodding to himself. “A d-dream. J-just a nightmare...”

“You gonna be alright?” she asked.

“Y-yeah. Yeah, f-fine,” he said.

“Probably good you woke us up,” Chief said as he walked to the entrance of the cave. “Looks like Summer’s tripwire spell must’ve faded.”

“Oh, no, I, uh... never put one down,” she called to him.

He turned and gave her a sharp look, narrowing his eyes. “C’mere.”

Summer glanced down at Roads, who had managed to regain some semblance of composure, and was sitting back against a rock. He stared pensively into the coals of the fire.

“You good?”

“Yeah.”

“Be right back.”

Roads nodded. Summer trotted over to meet Chief just outside the cave. He looked at her sternly as she approached.

“You said you were going to stay up until you could cast the tripwire spell.”

“I forgot. I fell asleep.”

Chief stared at her for a moment, silent. Thinking.  

“Roads hit your eye,” he said finally.

“Yeah. He was really freaking out.”

“He was laying on the ground and he hit your eye.”

Oh, no. She knew where this was going.

“Yeah. So?”

“Ever notice how short his legs are?” he said.

“Compared to yours, maybe.”

Chief snorted. “You were close.”

“And?”

“Didn’t see him hit you. Must’ve been while you were sleeping.”

She sighed internally. She thought about making something up, but Chief would probably just see right through it. Oh well. She had figured this would come, eventually. Just not this soon.

“Yeah. I was sleeping close to Roads. What’s your point?”

He ignored the question. “Close to, or with?”

“No! Well, yes, I was sleeping and with him, but...”

Chief raised an eyebrow. Summer was quiet for a moment, wondering how much she should tell him. Wondering how bad the fallout would be. What was the worst Chief could even do? Scold her? She was no schoolfilly; she could do what she pleased. With Roads, or anypony else. She had nothing to hide.

“It never went that far,” she said finally.

“But it went.”

Summer shrugged. “What if it did?”

“You didn’t put up the tripwire spell,”  

“I didn’t stay awake long enough.”

“You got distracted.”

She sighed. “Yes.”

Chief gave a frustrated growl, stamping one hoof on the ground. “Dammit, Summer. I’d expect this from a rookie. From a spec. This is the kind of crap that gets ponies killed.”

“That’s a bit far—”

No distractions,” Chief interrupted. “No getting involved with coworkers. That’s your rule.”

“I can handle this.”

Somewhere in the back of her head, she knew she couldn’t. Or shouldn’t. But she wasn’t about to tell Chief that.

“You already showed you can’t. We could’ve gotten ambushed because of this. Could’ve died, already.”

“I can manage it. I won’t let it distract me again.”

“Doubt it. Even so, makes this expedition complicated. No place for that at work.”

“Work?” she said, her temper rising. “You think we’re still working?! I’ve got news for you, Chief, we’re not working anymore. We’re surviving. We might not ever get off this island. This might be all that’s left for us, and I’m going to spend what precious little time I have left however the hell I please!”

“Even worse. Attachment makes it harder to survive,” he said.  

“Yeah?”

“Honey always said so. You always said so. ‘Don’t get attached.’ You’re breaking your own rules.”

“Yeah, well, how did they work out for Honey? Huh? How did all her little rules and tricks work out for her when she was bleeding out in a hospital room?”

Chief winced. That was a low blow, but Summer was pissed off. At him, at the island, at all of it.

“What did they do for her then, Cheif? What did they do for me on this island? I should be dead. I did everything right, Chief, and I still should’ve died. You think this island gives a damn about rules? You think the world gives a damn about the rules?”

“You’re still alive. Means they’re working.

“They didn’t save me. Roads did. And I’ll do what I want with him. And I’m not gonna stop because Honey Dew might’ve had a problem with it.”

Chief gritted his teeth, seething. “Don’t say her name again. I let it go the first time. Won’t the next.”

Summer’s jaw clenched. She almost wanted to, just to spite him. But that would be... dangerous. Pissing off Chief without good reason was what had lost Green Touch a leg. And while Chief might’ve liked Summer more, getting on his bad side was still not a good idea. So she held her tongue.

“Fine. But don’t tell me what to do with Roads. I’m not a foal.”

“It’s a mistake.”

“That’s for me to decide.”

“It might get us killed.”

“I don’t see us getting out alive, anyway.”

“It’s possible. I have a plan. Will tell you in the morning.”

“Fine.”

Chief glared at her, one last time, before he began to walk back into the cave. “Whatever you do with Roads... don’t slip up again.”

Summer sighed with as she watched him walk away. She was so tired. Tired, and utterly pissed off. You’re breaking your own rules. She grimaced. She hadn’t wanted to admit it, but knew it was true. He was right. She had only argued to try and save face. It was frustrating that he thought he could tell her what to do, but he was right, regardless.

Roads was a mistake. A fun mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. If she wanted to survive out here, there wasn’t room for distractions.

She hoped he would see it that way. It was doubtful. He’d probably be hurt. Which would make things more complicated.

Great, she thought, as she channeled her—now restored—magic into a tripwire spell. Way to alienate Chief and Roads all in one night. Which shouldn’t have even mattered to her, given that she wasn’t supposed to care all that much about either of them, in any context.

But then, she’d broken that rule for Chief a long time ago. And blown it to hell in Roads’ case. Ironic, given that the first thing she had said to him when they’d met was “I don’t get involved with coworkers.”

And that was, what... four days ago? Five?

It seemed like forever. Somewhere in the back of her mind, she realized that the monsoons were probably approaching. It would only be a few more days before they hit.

If only Roads hadn’t ripped the engine out of the zeppelin. Then they might already be on their way home. Screw making a map. The Aggregate would have to take its losses for sending them somewhere hostile and occupied without a full military escort. Not that they could have foreseen anything like this but still...

She wished Roads could have found some other way to save them. Which, she realized, wasn’t fair at all. What he’d done was... heroic. Regardless of what he’d had to break, he had saved them.

And, dear Princesses, was that a turn-on. It wasn’t everyday that she met a stallion who would take on an entire village full of armed guards and an insane sorceress using only a hoof-full of zeppelin parts—and wasn’t as crazy and messed up as, say, Chief.

Which, of course, made keeping her distance that much more frustrating. But it would have to be that way, if they wanted to minimize risks. ‘No distractions,’ and all.

Still, did have to stay that way? Maybe once they were back in Equestria...

Summer smiled to herself while finishing the tripwire spell. It was a nice thought, but she doubted it would work out in the end. What if the only reason anything had happened in the first place was because of  her fear and his indifference? If she hadn’t been panicked out of her mind about dying, if he hadn’t still seemed incredible from the rescue...

Oh, hell. She probably still would’ve liked him. Even as whiny and annoying as he could be, he had always been... likeable. At least. It wasn’t until tonight that she had realized he had any real substance to him, anything she could really value, but she’d seen a side of him that she hadn’t noticed was there before.

Still, Roads was definitely not worth dying for. And still way too whiny. But it didn’t mean she couldn’t give things a shot. After they got off the island, that is. Until then... it was best not to think about it, she decided. She had indulged herself, mulled over what happened, and now it was time to move on.

She just had to tell Roads...

Summer walked back into the cave, glancing over to the sleeping body of Chief. She found Roads still sitting against his rock, and, after re-lighting the fire, she plopped down beside him.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey.”

“You look like hell,” she said, looking him over. He was still pale, his eyes sunken and reddened, his ears sagging with exhaustion.

“Gee, thanks. Just what I wanted to hear.”

“Anytime,” she said with a tired smile.

“I think I might be cracking up,” he said, not taking his eyes off the coals.

She cocked an eyebrow. “I doubt it. You had a nightmare, right after your first kill. It happens.”

“Sounds like you speak from experience.”

“Yeah, well... when you’re the sheriff's daughter out in a frontier town, you get that kind of experience. You grow up fast.”

“What happened?”

Summer laughed. “What didn’t? I don’t think I’ve got the time to go over everything that happened back then.”

“No, I mean just the first time.”

“The first kill?”

“Yeah.”

She swallowed, trying to remember the exact details, and not just the flashes of horror that usually came instead of true memories.

Well...” she started. “It all started ‘cause my dad got sick. Hoof and mouth, or something, I don’t remember. Anyway, he was laid up in bed for a couple of weeks, and word got around he couldn’t defend himself. Just about that time, a guy he put in jail for a bit for petty theft got out, and decided he had a score to settle. So, he got real hammered and headed out to the edge of town. Right out to our house. Dad was unconscious, at the time.”

“Was your sister there?”

“Nah, she was already gone. It was just me, dad, and my younger brother. I think he was nine at the time. So this stallion staggers on up to the house with a machete and busts in the door and starts tearing the house apart, and I come downstairs and yell at him to get the hell out.”

“What’d he do?” Roads asked.

“Well, he started talking about how we was gonna kill dad and do...” she cleared her throat, “things... to me. I tried to reason with him, but he was either too mad, too drunk, or both, so he starts charging down towards my dad’s bedroom. And I’m just about to try and stop him when my brother comes out, still in his pajamas, and gets in his way, because he doesn’t have enough sense in his head to fill a thimble. 

“Well, my brother said something—I dunno what—and then...” she cleared her throat, glancing away from him. “Whatever it was, it pissed off the stallion that much more, and he cut my brother across the face with the machete. So, he hits the ground and blood goes everywhere, and the stallion starts down the hall again and I just panic.”

“I know how that feels...” Roads said.

“I was freaking out, I didn’t know what to do. I’d been in some rough spots before, but never anything like this. So, I levitated an oil lamp off the back table and broke it over the stallion’s head. He turned on me and started coming after me with the machete so... so I lit it. The oil. Let off a spark with my magic and ‘whoosh.’ Up he went.”

“I was afraid he was gonna get the house burned down so I grab him with my magic and shove him out of a window and he lands just next to the porch. And he just stayed there. Thrashing and screaming and burning. I wanted to look away, but I just couldn’t. I just sat there and stared at him until he stopped moving... Until he stopped burning.

“I was twelve.”

Roads glanced over at Summer. Her brow was furrowed, and she was staring hard at the glowing coals, a strange look on her face.

“Did you ever... y’know... get over it?” Roads asked.

Summer nodded slowly. “I had nightmares about it for a week. I would wake up in the night and I could just smell burning flesh... but, yeah. I got over it. It took me a while. But now... it’s not so bad. Still don’t like to think about it but... It doesn’t bother me. Not as much.

“And I’ve done worse since,” she said.

“Like what?”

“Like I’m not talking about it right now, that’s what,” she said, with a gentle nudge.

“Okay,” Roads said. “Fair enough.”

Summer reached over and wrapped a foreleg around him. “You’ll get over it. Eventually. Before that, though... it’s gonna suck.”

“And at least I don’t have to go it alone...” he said, planting a light kiss on her forehead.

She winced. “Well, actually... I need to talk to you about that.

She noticed his face darken. Oh, no. This wasn’t going to be fun. She would rather just kiss him.

“Out here... with everything that’s going on... we can’t really afford to have any distractions. It’s dangerous. Surviving from this point on is gonna be tough, and we don’t need anything else to worry about in the meantime, so... until we get back to Equestria, tonight never happened.”

He winced at that. “You sure?”

No, she thought.

“Yes,” she said firmly.

“I don’t understand... What distractions? Are you sure there isn’t a way to make it work?”

“Do you want to live, or not?” she asked him pointedly. Cutting him down like this was painful, but she couldn’t let up. They might not survive otherwise.

Roads was quiet for a moment, thinking. He sighed. “Okay. That’s... not what I would’ve wanted to hear but... I want to get off this island intact as much as you do. And if that means that... uh, if that means no distractions... so be it. But when we get back to Equestria...?” A slim smile crawled across his face.

“After that, we do what we want. But before then, we ignore tonight.”

“All right. I can live with it.”

“Although...” Summer said with a grin. “The sun’s not up yet. Tonight isn’t exactly over.”

Roads’ face lit up as she leaned over and kissed him, hard. Oh, how she hoped Celestia would be running late tonight...

_________________________________________________________

 

“...all I’m asking,” Aspen was saying, “is doesn’t it bother you—just a little—that absolutely none of this makes any sense?”

“Nope,” Willow replied.

“How could that not bother you?” Aspen asked, incredulous. Sometimes he just couldn’t understand how his friend’s mind worked.

“Well, it’s not really any of my business.”

“Are you kidding?” Aspen gestured to the forest around them. “Look where we are! Of course it’s our business! It’s always been our business! How d’you think we ended up out here?”

“Because Princess said it was our fault Roads escaped, so we have to go find the prisoners, duh. So we headed out to where we knew they would go—the forbidden side of the island,” Willow said.

“And there’s another thing! Why should this entire half of the island be forbidden?”

“Because it’s dangerous!” Willow replied frankly, as if stating the obvious.

“But is it, though? It’s exactly the same as all the rest of the island.”

“Well, Princess said it was.”

“How do we know she was right?”

“We don’t.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?”

“Of course not! Because it doesn’t make a difference. Because we’re out here anyway. In fact, it helps if Princess is wrong, because that means we’re in less danger,” Willow said happily as he trotted through the forest. Aspen followed, spear bundle rapping against his back, frowning as he tried to make Willow understand.

“It doesn’t bother you that Princess might be wrong?”

“Should it?”

“Yes. And not only that, but it should also bother you that you’re taking orders—once again—from a murderer. Do you remember what she did to Maple Blossom?”

“She says she didn’t do anything. She just sent her off to the bad side of the island.”

“Willow, she probably killed Maple.”

“Probably. But not necessarily. Besides, if Maple hadn’t tried to start that revolt, it never would have happened.”

“You really think Maple deserved it?” Aspen asked, incredulous.

“Of course not! But what I’m saying is that she got on the bad side of Princess.

And that’s the side that we’re not on.”

“And yet we’re still on the bad side of the island. The side nopony ever comes back from.”

“Maybe they’re just hiding. Or maybe they like it here better,” Willow said.  

“Or maybe Princess killed them and just said she was sending them to this side

of the island.”

“Which would mean that we have nothing to worry about!”  

“Except for the fact that Princess might be wrong,” Aspen said.

“Should that bother me?” Willow asked.

“Yes! If she is wrong—which she very well might be—then that means one of two things: either she’s very, very ignorant to have not realized her mistake after two hundred years of life on this island—which is not likely—or she’s hiding something from us, and everypony else.”

“So what if she’s hiding something from us?” Willow shrugged. “I can think of plenty of things we hide from her,” he said with a wink.

“Right, but we’re not the ones sending her out into the woods to search for potentially dangerous Equestrians.”

“Well, they might not be dangerous. Strongsteed says they’re good ponies,” Willow said innocently.  

“Strongsteed is crazy,” Aspen said.  

“So is Princess,” Willow replied.  

“Exactly! So, both of the ponies who are telling us what is supposed to be going on are crazy!”

“Yes.”

“And that doesn’t bother you?” Aspen asked.

“Not even a little,” Willow said.

“Why not?”

“Because either Stronsteed is right and the Equestrians aren’t dangerous, and neither is this side of the island, or Princess is right and the Equestrians are trying to invade. Which means we need to help stop them. Either way, everything works out for us,” Willow said.  

“Except for the fact that even if we could find the Equestrians, there are only two of us, and three of them. And last time they were in town, they nearly burned the city down, all by themselves. Which, I think, proves that they are everything Princess says,” Aspen said.

“Not necessarily. Princess also helped burn the town.”

“Which means that she could be just as bad as they are!”

“Or just as good as they are.”

“Which means that we’re screwed either way.”

“Or we’re safe either way.”

“So, we’re powerless, then,” Aspen concluded. “No matter who we help—Princess or the Equestrians—the outcome is the same.”

“Exactly!”

“The fact that you’re totally helpless should bother you.”

“Why be bothered? It won’t change anything,” Willow said.

Aspen blinked. He wasn’t sure what to say. It seemed Willow had out-argued him once again. But then, it was his own fault for once again forgetting that his ditzy, happy-go-lucky friend was as intelligent as anypony else on the island.

“All right, fine. We don’t question, we don’t ask. We just go along with whatever’s easiest. But I’d like to put it down for the record that I have no confidence in anyone involved.”

“Not even me?”

“Except you. Obviously.”

Willow smiled at him, and Aspen felt something in his chest rise. It was comforting to know that whatever happened between Princess and the Equestrians, Willow would always be there to tough it out with him.

“There’s just one thing I don’t know about...” Willow said, furrowing his brow.

“Yeah?”

“Assuming we’re able to capture the Equestrians—then what?”

“Well...” Aspen thought for a moment. “We question them. Maybe they have a perspective on things that we don’t. Maybe they could help us understand what we need to do to help stay safe through this whole thing.”

“What if they’re as crazy as Princess and Strongsteed?”

Aspen cocked his head, thinking. “It’s possible. The one with the wings—”

“—Roads.”

“Roads, right. He hit you.”

“Yeah, but it seemed like he felt bad about it, afterwards. Did you see how he ran away?”

“Willow, he was escaping.”

Willow shrugged. “Same difference. Now that I think about it, I doubt he really meant it. Besides, if you were escaping, wouldn’t you do the same?”

“I wouldn’t hit you,” Aspen said firmly.

“But would you hit one of them?” Willow asked.

“I dunno. I’ve never been in that situation.”

“I’d bet you would,” Willow said, nodding to himself.

“Wait, didn’t you just say they were crazy?”

“I said they might be crazy. Which means it wouldn’t help to question them.”

“It might. Maybe they’re a different kind of crazy than everypony else,” Aspen said.

“Okay, but even if we do question them, what do we ask?” Willow asked.

“What they’re doing here, why they attacked the town, what they plan to do next, that sort of thing.”

“I dunno...”

“Okay, here, how about this, I’ll pretend to be the big one—”

“—Chief.”

“Right. I’ll pretend to be Chief, and you ask me questions.”

“Well, who am I, then?”

“You’re yourself,” Aspen said.  

“So, Chief’s you?” Willow asked.

“No! For the purposes of this exercise, I’m not here. It’s just you and Chief,” Aspen said.  

“Oh, okay.”

“Are you ready?”

“Yes.”

“Well, go ahead, then,” Aspen said.

“How should I start?”

“Ask me what I’m doing here,” Aspen said.

“Right. Uh... What are you doing on this island, Aspen?” Willow asked.

Aspen put a hoof to his face. “You forgot, didn’t you...”

“Oh! Right, sorry. What are you doing on this island, Willow,” Willow said, looking proud of himself.

Aspen sighed. “No, you’re Willow, and I’m Aspen.”

“I thought you were Chief?”

“Then why didn’t you address me as ‘Chief’?”

“Because you’re Willow, silly.”

“No, I—urg, never mind.” Aspen shook his head. Whatever flash of prescience Willow’d had was now passed.  “Don’t worry about it.”

They trotted in silence for a few minutes, until Willow’s face lit up with a sudden realization.

“Oh, you mean you’re pretending to be Chief, while I ask you questions.”

Aspen sighed. “There you go.”

“I was confused.”

“I could tell.”

“How should I start?” Willow asked.

“Ask me what I’m doing here,” Aspen said.

“What are you doing here, Chief?”

“Just scouting out the island, Willow,” Aspen said in a faux-deep voice only vaguely reminiscent of Chief’s.

Willow paused, raising an eyebrow. “Am I pretending to be you?”

“If you want to. Should we keep going?”

Willow sighed. “No. I don’t think I’m very good at this,” he said dejectedly.

Aspen’s heart sunk at Willow’s tone. “Well, you just haven’t had much practice...”

Willow glanced up at him. “Alright, then. We should play the question game.”

“What good would that do?”

“Practice!”

Aspen grinned. He was winning already. “Statement. One-zero.”

“Hey! That’s not fair!” Willow objected.

“How so?”

“I hadn’t started yet,” Willow said.

“Statement. Two-zero.”

“Are you gonna count that?”

“What?”

“I said, ‘are you gonna count that’,” Willow said.  

“Statement. Three-zero. Better get it together, Willow.”

“Fine. Who’s turn?”

“Huh?”

“Hah! No grunts! Three-one,” Willow said.

“Does it matter?” Aspen asked.

“Why wouldn’t it?”

“Isn’t there a point?”

“To what?”

Aspen was quiet for a moment, trying to think of an answer.

“Foul! That’s a pause! Three-two.”

Aspen frowned. He had never lost to Willow before in this game, and he didn’t intend to start. Then he had an idea.

“What’s your name?” he asked.

“Mine?”

“Who else would I ask?”

“Who else is around?” Willow asked.

“Why do you care?” Aspen countered.

“Why shouldn’t I?”

“Haven’t you seen what’s going on?”

“Have you?” Willow asked.

“Have I what?”

“Have you looked?”

“Look at that!” Aspen cried.

“Statement! Three—”

“No, Willow! Look!” Aspen said, pointing to a cave mouth that opened just under a hill. A flickering light danced just inside it.

“The Equestrians!” he said with a smile. Aspen just shook his head.

“What exactly are we supposed to do now that we’ve found them?”

Aspen shrugged. “I dunno. We could turn around and go tell Princess where they are, but by the time we get back here again with everypony else, they could already have left this cave.”

“We could do something ourselves, then!” Willow offered.

Aspen nodded. “There should be some Lotus extract in my pack, under the spears. We could sneak in and knock them all out before they even realized we were there. And if that doesn’t work, there’s always the spears.”

Willow frowned, his brow furrowed. “I don’t actually know how to use a spear. Nopony ever taught me. They all just assumed I already knew.”

“Well, let’s just hope we don’t have to use them, then,” Aspen said with a sigh.

He set down his pack and rooted through it to find the extract, a thick, oily liquid in a hollowed out gourd. After uncorking it, he poured the contents across two coarse linen cloths and then handed one to Willow. Slinging the pack and both spears back over his withers, he crept silently down towards the cave, Willow in tow.

_________________________________________________________

Roads was having trouble sleeping. By all accounts, he should have felt perfectly at ease.

The invisible tripwire spell was hanging reassuringly across the mouth of the cave. Chief was dozing by the entrance, ready to spring to their defense at a moment’s notice. Dawn was just beginning to break over the horizon. The air was cool and still and quiet, its silence broken only by Summer’s soft, contented breathing as she slept peacefully, snuggled against his chest. She was wrapped in his forelegs, her mane tickling lightly across the underside of his chin as her kisses faded from his lips.

And she was driving him crazy.

He just couldn’t figure out what was going on. One moment, she was all over him, the next she didn’t even want to talk about anything until they got back to Canterlot. And right after that, she was all over him again. It was downright confusing.

She seemed so worried about “distractions.” Distractions from what? They were safe from Princess now, all they had to do was patch the Zephyr back up in the morning and they could head home. Her tools had been confiscated by the islanders, but she definitely knew enough fusion and soldering spells to fix the Zeppelin without them.

Which meant that by tomorrow evening, they should all be back in Equestria—which was precisely why he hadn’t been bothered at first when she had told him that everything could wait until then. It was only going to be a day.

So what was Summer so worried about? What was going to change in between now and then? She had sounded so wrapped up in ‘survival,’ but so far as he could tell, survival from this point on should have been easy. So... what was the problem, then?

Was she lying to him?

Perhaps she just didn’t like him. That made sense, in a depressing sort of way. Early in the night, she had been scared, vulnerable. Looking for something to fix that. And there he was, the only eligible stallion in a hundred miles. And she must have known he couldn’t reject her. So she had gotten caught up in all the fear and excitement, and he had been just convenient enough. And...

And she had made a mistake.

And realized it, probably, when she woke up later. Realized just how unattractive he was, how much better she could do. But she wouldn’t have wanted to hurt his feelings, not while they were still going to have to work together. That would make things needlessly uncomfortable and messy. It would be... inconvenient.

But she still needed to avoid putting up with him, so she had done the next best thing to confessing her distaste. She’d told him to wait. Until they were back in Equestria and she could get away from him and find herself a real stallion. Yes, that made sense.

Except for the fact that if she actually was making a mistake, she had made it twice. And she had seemed so... earnest, too. He could have sworn that he could see care—real, genuine care—for him flicker through her face several times that evening. Maybe even care that she didn’t want to show.

But... maybe he was just imagining things. A mare like Summer, interested in a stallion, like, well... him? It was almost laughable. They were so different, he was so... Roads. It couldn’t be real. It couldn’t be genuine. And yet...

        And yet when he looked down at her, cuddled against him, hot breath ruffling softly through his coat, he could swear it was.

        It just didn’t make sense. He let out a sigh that tousled her mane, and kissed her forehead lightly. He thought he saw the corners of her mouth curl up slightly at that. She gave a small contented sound and snuggled more tightly against him.

        Even as his heart leapt a little in response, somewhere in the back of his head a detached, clinical part of him noted that this couldn’t just be an act. Summer would have to be quite the thespian to perform so well when only semi-conscious. Maybe she was being truthful after all...

Something still didn’t add up, but... his eyes were growing heavy and it was hard to care... hard to think... he could figure it out in the morning...

A high pitched magical screeching filled the cave as the spell at the entrance of the cave was tripped. Roads sat up, adrenaline shooting through him as Summer scrambled to her hooves. Rising, he turned to see two stallions, one brown, the other dark green, frozen with shock at the entrance to the cave. For a second, neither moved, looks of shock painted across their faces, as Chief came barreling towards them.

And then they were running. Chief caught up to the green one before he made it even a few meters, knocking his legs out from under him. He gave a cry as he fell, and his companion skidded to a halt, whirling around to face them. The islander drew a spear from the bundle on his back and leveled it at Chief.

Chief stopped, stock still, just outside the other pony’s reach. After a second of hesitation, the islander jerked forward, lashing out at Chief. There was a blur of movement Roads couldn’t track, the sound of wood snapping, a pained shout, and then the islander was on the ground. His spear was cracked in half and his nose was bleeding.

“Aspen!” his companion cried, struggling to his hooves.

Roads blinked.

Willow and Aspen? He hadn’t recognized them at a distance. What were they doing here?

Willow stumbled over to his companion and knelt next him, trying to stem the bleeding with a piece of cloth. He cried out in horror as the other pony suddenly went limp, completely unconscious. Then he looked down at the lotus-drenched cloth, and realized what had happened. He gave a sigh of relief as Chief dragged him away from his friend.

Within moments, both were tied in the hemp ropes Chief had taken from Aspen’s pack, and set against the cave walls. Chief moved over to Willow and opened his mouth to question him when Summer dragged him aside.

“Leave him for now. You won’t be able to learn anything until Aspen wakes up. And besides, we need to figure out what to do with them, first,” Summer told him.

        “Question them,” Chief said gruffly.

        “No, I know that. I meant after.”

        Chief shrugged. “Kill them.”

        Roads felt a cold shock run through him. “What?!” he asked.

        “Can’t let them go back to Princess and tell them where we are.”

        “So you’re just going to kill them?” he demanded.

        “Yes.”

        “No. No way. Not Willow and Aspen. We’ll just have to find somewhere else to hide.”

        Chief shook his head. “Don’t know of anywhere. Killing’s easier.”

        Roads clenched his jaw, a pit of anger forming in his stomach. There would be no more murders, not while he could help it. Not after last night. “I’m not going to let you do that.”

        He fixed Roads with a cold glare that would have sent him scurrying two days ago.

“You can’t stop me,” Chief said with a low growl.

        Roads felt a pang of fear flash through his chest. He knew what Chief could do to ponies. Knew what Chief could do to him. But he didn’t have a choice. “I will if I have to. It’s Willow and Aspen, Chief. They’ve shown us nothing but sympathy, and this is how you repay them?”

        “They intruded,” Chief grunted. “They deserve it. It’s us or them.”

        Summer shook her head. “Roads is right on this one, Chief. If it weren’t for those two, I would be dead right now. They’ve saved my life twice, and now I’m repaying the favor.”

        Chief narrowed his eyes, looking down at her. “Sure,” he said through gritted teeth. “Side with your coltfriend. Get us all killed. That didn’t take long.”

        Roads flashed a sideways glance at her. “He knows?” he asked.

        Summer ignored him, glaring up at the earth pony. “That has nothing to do with this, Chief. Survival is one thing, murder is another.”

        “No law here,” Chief said. “No murder. Only killing.”

        “I said ‘no,’ Chief.”

        Chief gave Summer an appraising stare. “You’re getting soft. Summer I knew would let me do it. Maybe would help.”

        What did that mean? What had Summer been like before? Roads glanced over at her, horrified. “I’ve done worse since.” Was this what Chief was talking about?

        “Let this go, Chief,” she said, ignoring the look Roads was giving her. “If you ever want to get contracted by the Aggregate again, let this go...”

        Chief snorted. “Second time you’ve pulled rank in two days. More than you have in years. You’ve changed.”

        Summer shifted her weight, giving him an authoritative glare. “Maybe so. It doesn’t matter. The fact remains that I’m not letting you do anything to Willow and Aspen. Not without good reason. And being too lazy to find somewhere else to set up camp is not a good reason.”

        “They intruded,” Chief repeated.

        “You don’t know that. You don’t know why they’re here.”

        “You didn’t let me ask.”

        “You’re going to get us all killed,” Chief said. “First you let them go, maybe next you let Princess go.”

        Roads’ ears perked up at that. “Let her go where, Chief?” He rounded on Summer. “What are you two planning?”

        Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Chief smirking. “Marefriend didn’t tell you?”

        “Tell me what? Summer?” He looked at her questioningly. “What’s going on?”

        “Look, Roads, there’s only one way off this island, and Princess is standing in the way of that,” she said.  

        “Summer...” he warned.

        “Let me finish. The only way we’re getting out of here alive is on that zeppelin, and we have to go by tomorrow before the storms hit. And in case you hadn’t noticed, the engine is sitting over by the fire, while the rest of the Zephyr... isn’t. I know you know enough about aircraft to know what that means,” Summer said.

        “We’ll have to fix it,” Roads said.

        “Right, but all of my tools were confiscated with the rest of our supplies... which are currently sitting in the corner of Princess’ throne room.”

        “So? Precision telekinesis and a few specialty repair spells can do anything they can do,” Roads said.  

        “Well, I hope you can perform some, because I sure can’t.”

        “How could you not know those spells? In your line of work?”

        “Like I said, I’m not big on magic. I know a few dueling spells, a cartological spells, and some utility stuff I picked up over the years and in vocational school. That stuff is beyond me,” Summer said.

        “So your next logical step is killing somepony?!”

        “Well, yes.”

        Roads gritted his teeth, stamping a hoof on the ground. “You didn’t think of maybe just sneaking in and stealing your tools back?”

        “In the middle of the city? Right after you attacked Princess? Her quarters are going to be swarming with guards, and even with my magic, I still can’t risk combat so soon. Not with that many ponies and Princess.”

        “There’s still Chief, and I can always use the engine again.”

        Summer shook her head. “No, you can’t, actually. You told me last night that after you left the city, the engine was nearly half-empty. And since your wing is broken, so you can’t charge it in the nexus again. We still have to use that engine to run the Zephyr, and we’re going to be hard-pressed to make it back to Canterlot again as it is. We can’t risk you draining it anymore. And Chief is good, but you saw what happened last time he tried to take on Princess.”

        Chief snorted. “She got lucky.”

        “She beat you, Chief,” Summer said.

        “Once.”

        “And if it happens again, we’re all dead.”

        Chief fell silent, brooding.

        “Besides,” Summer said, leveling her gaze at Roads, “you didn’t seem too keen on keeping Princess alive before.”

        “That was different. I didn’t have a choice.”

        “We don’t have a choice now, Roads.”

        “There has to be something else. Nopony else needs to die!” he cried.

        “Deaths are necessary for our survival,” Chief said.

        “You’re not helping,” Summer told him. “Look, Roads, I know what happened in the forest shook you up, but you have to understand that this is—”

        “No. No! There’s been enough violence already. Enough death. Never again.”

        “Roads—”

        “Never again!”

        “You don’t have to do it. Just let us take care of it.”

        Roads looked at her pleadingly. “I can’t... I just can’t...”

        “Do you even remember what she did to us?” Summer asked.

        “Summer...”

        “Do you even know what she does to her own people? According to Willow and Aspen, she’s been butchering anypony brave or stupid enough to go against her for years. The natives are terrified of her—anypony who defies her gets exiled and ‘disappears.’ Apparently they’ve even tried staging coups and revolutions, but a bunch of earth ponies without proper weapons don’t stand a chance against a unicorn with two hundred years of magic under her saddle. Look, if we kill her, we save the islanders,” Summer said.

Roads furrowed his brow. It was all so confusing—whatever they did, it seemed, ponies ended up dead. Maybe this wasn’t as black and white as it seemed. He was quiet for a moment, mulling over what Summer had told him.

“Fine,” he said finally. “Do what you have to. But how will this help anything?

Even with Princess gone, your supplies are still stuck in the middle of a city that hates us.”

“Weren't you listening?” Summer asked. “The only thing that keeps the islanders on Princess’ side is fear. They’re more afraid of her than they are of us, and so they do what she tells them. But if we get rid of Princess, they don’t have the guidance or will to oppose us. Not to mention the fact that we would have just outmatched somepony they consider a deity. With Princess out of the way, we could march right into that city, and I doubt anypony would do anything.”

“And even if a few loyalists did try something, I could handle it,” Chief added.

“All right. So that part of the plan works. But if you can’t hold off Princess long enough to so much as grab supplies and run, how do you expect to actually be able to kill her?”

“Simple,” Chief grunted. “Don’t attack her in the city. Wait. Surprise her. Catch her when she’s not expecting anything.”

“And how are we supposed to do that?” Roads asked.

“Didn’t you say she would have to make regular trips to her special nexus to stay alive?” Summer asked.

“Well, yes...”

“And if she wants to be seen as a Goddess, I doubt she brings any guards with her...” Summer said.

Suddenly, it made sense. But it wasn’t going to work.

Roads shook his head. “Nope.”

“What?”

“You won’t be able to do anything near that nexus. I’ve dealt with that sort of thing before. It’ll heal wounds for as long as it still has energy left. Which means that if Princess manages to get to it, as long as she’s standing within it, she’ll be invulnerable, for all intents and purposes.”

“Well, I’ll just have to hit her before that. When she’s on her way,” Chief said.

“Princess can teleport, she won’t just walk to the nexus.”

Chief frowned at that.

“...and even then,” Roads continued, “she has an arcano-resonant gem in her crown that can hold the nexus’s restorative energy for long periods of time. I doubt she has to visit the nexus more than once or twice every few weeks. And if we really have to get off the island, we can’t afford to wait for that long.

“And even if we could, we would have to keep the nexus under constant watch—she could make trips at night—and if we missed her a single time, we would have to wait weeks before we could get another chance,” Roads said.

“It might be the only way—we may have to stay on the island for a while...” Summer said.

        Roads’ heart sank in his chest. The idea of spending months, or even years on the island was beyond unbearable. There had to be a better way...

        A thought occurred to him. A way to kill Princess. He opened his mouth to tell Summer and Chief, but stopped himself. If he told them, he would be directly responsible for her death. It wouldn’t be just standing aside and letting them do the work, it would be actively enabling another pony’s murder.

        But it wasn’t just another pony, though, was it? It was Princess. The lunatic who thought she was at war with Celestia. The pony who had almost killed all of them. The despot who butchered her own people.

        Her death would be no crime.

        But a death was still a death, wasn’t it? It would still be taking another pony’s life.

        But how averse was he to that, really? When it all came down to it, was he any better than Summer or Chief? Or even Princess herself? When he had cast his spells at her in that burning field, he hadn’t been aiming to stun. He hadn’t been trying to incapacitate her.

        He had been trying to kill.

        And look where that had gotten him. An innocent pony, the island mare, dead at his hooves.

        A blue figure turning red... an earth pony’s eyes, robbed of color and vision... a mare laughing maniacally with his father’s voice...

        Princess was no innocent pony. Summer was right. This had to be done.

        “Actually...” Roads said, glancing at Willow and Aspen. “I might know something we can do...”

_________________________________________________________

A/N: Thanks, once again, for reading! I’d like to recognize my editor for all the hard work he put into getting this chapter ready, as well as for his inspiring and motivating words, words which got me to finish this chapter. I believe they went something like “What are you doing and why the fuck aren’t you writing?”

Truly inspirational.

Also, I feel the need to go ahead and confess the fact that several of the portions of Willow and Aspen’s dialogue were based on lines from Tom Stoppard’s play, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” If you found their conversation compelling, I highly recommend you go read said play, I can guarantee you’ll like it.

 

 


        It has just rained, the grass is still wet underneath her. She doesn’t mind. She is happy.

        Happy to be here. To be with him. To be alive.

        Goddess, she feels so alive.

        His hoof is a livewire as she holds it. Sparks, up her foreleg. Through her heart. She leans, rests her head against his shoulder. Feels his breath, soft on the top of her fiery red mane. She nuzzles his neck gently. He presses his cheek against her forehead.

        They sit on the hill, looking out over the forest. Out at the sunset. Breathing air still crisp after the rain. Resting just behind his house.

        Our house, she reminds herself. She keeps forgetting. But she gets a rush from remembering. It’s nice, owning something with him. Being joined to him. Through property, through marriage, through love. He is hers. She is his. She is happy.

        Inseparable. For better or for worse.

        She looks up at him, into his eyes.

Into one of them. The other stares into the distance, sapped of color, lacking a pupil. Blind. A cruel scar from a duel long ago. Offputting to some, but she doesn’t mind. She loves him just the way he is.

        She whispers in his ear. Tells him so.

        He kisses her on the cheek.

        “I love you, too.”

        A lightness in her chest. Every time he says it, the same feeling. Never diminishes. Never fades. In sickness or in health.

        The sun sinking over the horizon. Fading. The sky turning bloodred. Celestia ending a day’s work. An uneasy twilight settling over the woods. In the distance, a roar.

        It’s getting dark. They should probably go inside.

        Maybe just a few more moments. It is so nice out here.

Another roar. This one closer.

        She presses against his side, he turns to face her. She closes her eyes, kisses him softly.

        She opens her eyes. Turns away. Looking over the hill.

        A forest set ablaze. A sky full of smoke and dragons. Air filled with screams and roars. She doesn’t want to look at this. She turns away. Looks back to her husband. Closes her eyes.

        Kisses him again. A roar. Very close. She pulls back, opens her eyes.

        

        And he is gone.

        Terror now. The fire closes in. She whirls around. His house--their house--is on fire. Crumbling. Dying.

        She calls out his name. Dashes towards the house. Pulls open a door. Scurries inside.

        Flames and haze all around. She coughs from the smoke. She can’t breathe. She calls his name again. No response.

        A cracking above her. A roof set aflame. The supports are burnt through. Half of the roof falls to the floor, just before her. She looks up. The other half is coming down.

        She turns, dashes through the door. Dives free of the collapsing house. Outside. Sweet, clear air.

        She pulls herself to her hooves. Looks back. A void where the house was. A tattered hoof sticking out of the rubble.

        No.

        No, not this.

        Not this.

        Everything grows blurry. Tears in her eyes. She drags herself to the hoof. Clears away some of the debris. He is still alive. Barely.

        He is badly burned. Some of his face is gone. His forelegs aren’t bending as they are supposed to.  His lower half is trapped beneath a smouldering beam. Something is coming out of his stomach. His blood on her arms as she holds him. What’s left of him.

        He tries to speak with lips that are burned away.

        “I love you.”

        ‘Til death do us part.

        No, no, no, no...

        One eye closes. The other keeps staring. Curses don’t die.

        Her tears fall on burned flesh.

        Why?

        “Because you deserve it.” A voice coming from behind her. Regal, dignified, hateful.  “Because I can.”

        She turns. Celestia stands before her. Flanked by two ponies. A blue unicorn. A grey pegasus. The pegasus is holding a bloodied mare. Choking the life out of her.

        The Princess looks around. Smiles at ponies burning, ponies dying. “I like it. It suits me. Who knew letting the dragons stay in Equestria would be my greatest triumph?

        “Who knew it would help me end you?”

        Her stomach drops. “Why would you do this?”

        “Because you’re a threat. And threats must be eliminated.”

        To her right, the mare dies. The pegasus tosses her aside. Into a tree trunk.

        The Princess laughs a horrible, evil laugh. Walks towards her. She is growing hazy. Her features fading away. Drifting into shadow. The fires around her die out. The ponies behind her disappear. Night falls. She is all alone, surrounded by darkness.

        Darkness, and a shadow. A haze with one cursed eye. A dark mist floating above her. It whispers to her.

        “They’re coming for you...

        “For you...

        “For your home...

        “For your children...

        “They’re going to kill them all...

        “And you can’t stop them...”

        Darkness.

        X

Who knows what intimacies our eyes may shout,

What evident secrets daily foreheads flaunt,

What panes of glass conceal our beating hearts?”

-Arthur Seymour, Betrayal

        Dogwood was not a happy pony.

He was working the early shift as Princess’ personal guard, which he hated. He was sleep deprived, which he hated. And he was sore, which he hated. 

Also, his daughter was dead.

What he hated most was the Equestrians who killed her. They had bashed her against a tree. Broken her spine. Left her mangled body for the scouts to find.

He wanted payback. Vengeance. He wanted to find the Equestrians and tear them apart, piece by piece. To hear their backs snap, just as they had done to his daughter.

But here he was, stuck on guard duty. Guard-Captain Redbud had offered him the day off, on the condition that he not leave town. The Captain didn’t want him chasing the invaders on his own. But he had decided to stay, to go to work. If he sat at home, all he would have to think about would be his daughter.

And he couldn’t stand that. Not yet. His mind hadn’t been working since... since they had shown him her body. He hadn’t shed a tear. He had just looked at her--only once--and his heart stopped cold. He wasn’t sure it had started beating again, yet. He didn’t particularly care.

It didn’t matter. Nothing did.

Nothing but vengeance.

He felt as though he were asleep. Maybe in some sort of fog. Everything was numb. Nothing really seemed real, except his anger. He couldn’t focus, could only barely comprehend what was going on. There was only one thing on his mind.

Kill them.

But he couldn’t. Not yet. He had a job to do. Well, technically he had Aspen’s job to do. Ordinarily, the other pony would have taken this shift, but he was out hunting for the Equestrians. Doing what Dogwood should have been doing.

But the Captain had assigned them where the Captain had assigned them. There was no use arguing. Dogwood didn’t have the energy anyway. He had been awake for nearly two days straight. He had worked all day the previous day, and had just been coming off his shift when the pegasus attacked them. He had been just about to go to sleep when the scouts came to his house.

And he hadn’t been able to sleep since. So he worked. He didn’t have any other options. So now, he stood, and waited, and watched Princess sleep.

She was splayed out in the bed, her broken leg tightly bound in the medical supplies they had confiscated. She kept jerking and muttering, mumbling about the Equestrians.

And, every so often, calling out a name. Her husband’s name.

He watched her for a moment. Gods, this was boring. He almost wished someone would try something. Break in and attack her, or something like that. Maybe try to steal from the treasury in the adjacent room. At least that would be interesting. At least it would give him something to do besides think about--at least it would give him something to do.

He just wanted somepony to come in and--

There was a knock at the door. A lean, tall mare poked her head into the room. Dogwood recognized her. Her name was Catalpa. She was a member of the Council, the group of elders who used to run the island, back before Princess arrived and took over. Now their job was mostly just to bicker with her. And if he remembered correctly, Catalpa was damn good at her job.

“Princess?” she asked.

Dogwood looked down and nudged her good foreleg. She awoke with a start, and sat up. She was pale, trembling slightly.  She blinked once, and seemed to remember where she was, regaining some composure. She pushed the linen sheet off of herself and got to her hooves.

“What? What happened?” she asked.

“We put the fires out,” Catalpa said.

“Good,” Princess replied. “It’s about time.”

Catalpa’s brow furrowed. “It was tough. They were magical fires. You should know.”

“Should I?”

“You started them.”

“I started them to protect you. If I had let the Equestrians have their way, the whole city would have been burned down by now.”

“If you had let the guards help you, you wouldn’t have burned half of it,” Catalpa said.  

“They were sealing off escape routes. So that I could handle them myself.”

“You failed to handle them. The guards failed to stop them from leaving. Perhaps if you had worked with the ponies you trained, rather than taking the Equestrians’ presence as a personal challenge--”

“Maybe if I hadn’t done what I have, you wouldn’t be alive,” Princess interrupted.

“How do you even know? The Equestrians did nothing to us before you brought them here. They didn’t even know we existed.”

Dogwood blinked. She was defending the Equestrians? The notion sent waves of anger ripping through his stomach.

“It was only a matter of time. The day before they attacked, we tracked them to this side of the island. They had found Strongsteed’s old camp, for heaven’s sake. I had to be preemptive.”

“You don’t know that. You don’t know that they would’ve attacked unprovoked--”

That’s exactly what they were sent here to do! I’ve got information. I know what Celestia’s planning. She’s a murderer and her minions are no better.”

“How can you be so sure?”

Dogwood finally spoke up. “They murdered my daughter,” he said. “For no reason. None at all.”

Catalpa rounded on him, surprised. “What?”

“She’s dead. The Equestrians killed her,” he said coldly.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know,” she said. There was a slight shimmer in her eyes. Tears.

Probably fake, he thought. Can’t trust anypony who trusts an Equestrian.

He scowled at her. Her eyes flickered to the ground and she turned away from him.

“Regardless,” she continued, “Nearly half our crops are gone. When the fires

spread, several ponies lost their houses.”

“It’s a shame.”

“Yes, it is. Fix it.”

“How?”

“Magic.”

“It doesn’t work like that. And even if I did, I’m burned out, too spent from fighting the Equestrians.”

“I thought you could do anything? I thought you were a Goddess?”

Princess’ eyes narrowed. “I am. Even Goddesses have limits.”

“And yours seems to be dealing with Equestrians. Who, notably, also use magic.”

“What are you implying?”

“You told us you were a Goddess because you could use magic. The Equestrians can use magic--one of them even has a horn. So either you aren’t a Goddess, or all Equestrians are. Which would mean that you are, or were, one of them.”

Princess’ entire body tensed. A look of wrath passed over her face and a dangerous silence settled over the room. He could practically hear her thinking, raging internally. Then she calmed suddenly.

“Dogwood?” she asked. Her voice was saccharine and deadly.

“Yeah?”

“Kill her,” she said simply.

Delightful. Dogwood’s blood was boiling just from being in the same room as somepony who sympathized with the Equestrians. He drew a spear and took a menacing step towards Catalpa.

To her credit, she never even blinked, even as Princess signed what might as well have been a death warrant. If Princess wanted you dead, you died. And then the guards told everypony you had been exiled.

And yet she seemed utterly unphased.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

Princess raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“Kill me, and you start a revolt. Nopony will believe that I’ve been exiled. The Council won’t take kindly to having one of its members murdered. Kill me, and blood flows in the streets.”

Princess smirked at her. “I have dealt with revolutions before. I can deal with them again.”

Catalpa raised her eyebrows. “I thought you were burned out.”

“Not for long.”

“I don’t need long. Half the guard sides with the Council.”

“And the other half sides with me.”

“The other half fears you. What do you think they would do if it came out that you weren’t a Goddess? That you were merely an Equestrian, just like the invaders?”

        

        “Some would remain loyal, even still,” Princess said.

        “Some, but not enough. If you kill me, you start a war. A war that won’t end well for you, or for our people.”

        Princess opened her mouth, then closed it again. She had turned pale, a stunned expression across her face. She blinked a few times, trying to gather herself. Trying to think of something to say, something to do. Some way to regain control.

        Dogwood just stared at them, perplexed. One was siding with the Equestrians, one was an Equestrian. He didn’t know who to trust.

        Then he remembered seeing the Equestrians--the ones who murdered his child--after Princess was done with them. And he knew who to side with.

        “I could just kill her,” he said to Princess.

        She shot him a glare. “Did you not hear what she just said?”

        “You could tell them I was acting alone. Against your orders, even. And you were too burned out to stop me.”

        Catalpa nodded. “It’s true. You could try that. Are you willing to take the risk that I might make it to the door before he can catch me. Willing to take the risk that I came here without witnesses? Willing to take the risk that everypony will believe the lie?

What if I told you I could give you an out?”

        Dogwood felt Princess’ eyes flicker over to him. Sizing him up. Wondering how fast he could run. He was confident he could catch her, but he wasn’t sure. Catalpa had long legs... it would be a gamble. Princess’ life would be riding on his legs. A part of him hoped she would let him kill her anyway. He wanted to try. The feeling of sinking his spear into anypony who sympathized with the murderers would be worth the chance.

        “What’s the out,” Princess asked finally.

        “Let me go--and authorize a treasury withdrawal to compensate for everypony who lost their home and crops--and the knowledge that you are Equestrian stays within the Council. You still get to lead. For now, at least. The Council doesn’t want bloodshed any more than you do, even if we would win. It would be like killing family.”

        “As if you knew what it was like to lose family,” Princess muttered, just loud enough for Dogwood to hear. “Alright,” she said finally. “Go. Come back later for your treasury allocations. But know that if you tell anyone outside the Council what you know, I will have your head.” She gave a quiet snicker. “I think it’d look good on my mantle.”  

        “Yes, Princess.” Dogwood wasn’t sure, but he could swear he heard a shade of derision in her tone.

        He turned to Princess as behind him a door closed. “Is it true?” he asked. “Are you one of them?”

        She didn’t answer right away. Instead, she sat down on her bed, cradling her head in her hooves. She was pallid and trembling, her ears drooping. There were dark circles under her eyes. Suddenly, she didn’t look like the powerful Goddess he was used to guarding.

        It struck him suddenly that Goddessess probably shouldn’t need protecting. How had he not realized that before?

        “I’m Equestrian,” Princess admitted finally. “But I’m not one of them.”

        

        And then she laid down and turned away from him. He heard a dejected sigh.

        “I’m tired, Dogwood. So tired. I’ve ruled this city for two hundred and thirteen years. I’ve seen the growth of our town from a tiny river village to a sprawling metropolis. I’ve seen the rise and fall of nine different generations. I’ve made friends with children, and watched them die as senile old ponies. And then gone out and made more. Through it all, I’ve never changed. And now, I’m tired.

        “I’m not a Goddess, Dogwood. I’m just pony.

        “A very, very old pony.”

        Dogwood sat back on his haunches. He had a lot to think about.

        He didn’t get to think for long, though. The door opened again. He turned to see Aspen stride in, his spear at his side. Ugh. Of all the ponies to see right now.

        Dogwood could not stand Aspen. He was sympathetic to Strongsteed. He doubted Princess constantly. He had questioned the danger of the Equestrians, up until the point the body was found. And even then, he hadn’t stopped questioning.

        And on top of it all, he was always prancing around like a damn queen with his coltfriend Willow. Just looking at the two of them made him sick. He said they weren’t together, but he knew what was going on. He saw the way they looked at each other. And it never failed to piss him off.

        “What’re you doing here?” he asked.

        Aspen glanced at him. “Guard-Captain Redbud sent me. He says you’re relieved of your shift. You’re supposed to meet Willow to help hunt the Equestrians. You’d best be on your way.”

        “I thought he didn’t want me going after the Equestrians,” Dogwood said.

        Aspen looked confused for a moment, then said, “He, uh... he said he didn’t want you going alone. That’s why you’re going with Willow. He’s waiting for you at the edge of town. You should really get going.”

        Dogwood narrowed his eyes. “I thought you were the one going hunting with Willow. What happened?”

        “I gave it up. Told Redbud I’d take my usual guard shift so that you could go instead. I figured it would mean more to you, given, uh... you know...”

        Dogwood gritted his teeth, fixing Aspen with a piercing glare. “Say it.”

        “Given that they, uh--”

        “Say it.”

        “Given that they killed your daughter.”

        Dogwood closed his eyes, letting a sigh hiss out between his teeth. “Right.” He cleared his throat. “Princess is asleep. There’s not much for you to do.”

        “Okay.” Aspen took his place next to Princess’s bed. “Good luck out there,” he said as Dogwood walked out of the room.

        “Thanks,” Dogwood grunted as the door swung closed behind him.

        Huh. Out of all the ponies who could have given up a chance to hunt the Equestrians for him, it had been Aspen who did him the favor. He felt almost indebted to him. Almost.

        Somehow, he doubted Aspen just wanted to do him a favor. It seemed more likely that he was just too much of a coward to risk a showdown with the Equestrians. Aspen probably just thought he was saving his own hide--by sending him to die in his place. Strange, he must’ve thought he’d sent Willow to his death, too. Some coltfriend he was.

        Not that it was important. Dogwood was getting his opportunity to sate his bloodthirst. And that was all that mattered. So what if his chance came from Aspen’s cowardice?

A chance is a chance, he thought as he walked down the hall.

        Although, it was funny that Aspen had thought he’d needed to lie about it. The shifty expression on his face, the oddly cautious movements, the careful parsing of his words... he must’ve been trying to cover up his fear.

        Suddenly, a scream echoed through the hall.

        “Stop him!” he heard Princess scream as behind him a door was flung open to reveal a wide-eyed Aspen, shoving something green into his pack.

        So, maybe he was trying to cover up something else.

        “Hey, what the hell are you doi--” He was interrupted as Aspen dashed passed him. “Son of a bitch!” he shouted as he charged after him.

        As they rushed down the long corridor, he began to gain on the other pony. Dogwood was putting every ounce of energy into his speed, fueled by his rage. He didn’t know what Aspen was doing, but if he was going against Princess, he was siding with the Equestrians. Them or Catalpa. Either way, he was working with the ponies who killed his daughter. Which meant he had to die.

Aspen slowed when he got to the door, pausing to open it, but Dogwood didn’t slow down. He body-checked the other pony, sending them both crashing through the door, onto the terrace outside. Dogwood rolled to his feet, drew his spear, and looked up to see that Aspen had done the same, and was backing down the terrace away from him.

        “Let me go, Dogwood,” he said, inching away. “Let me go, and nopony gets hurt.”

        “I’m not too worried about it,” Dogwood said.

        He lashed out with his spear. Aspen deflected it easily.

        “Don’t do that again. I’m warning you. You know I’m better with one of these than you are.”

        It was true. Aspen was a bit bigger than him, too.

        But he wasn’t nearly as pissed off.

        Dogwood charged him, flailing wildly, focus and technique gone, replaced by rage. He felt a stinging rise up his foreleg as Aspen knocked his spear aside, whirling around to strike him in the head with the butt of his own. Stars exploded in his vision, and he fell to his knees. The world was spinning. He closed his eyes, trying to gather himself.

        

        When he opened them again, Aspen was gone, sprinting down the terrace. Bastard. Grabbing his spear off the ground and pulling himself to his hooves once more, he surged after him.

        Aspen made his way down the terrace, cutting across a bridge. Headed for the burned fields in the river basin. Dogwood skidded to a halt, peering over the edge of the terrace. If he could make it down to the ground from here, he could cut Aspen off.

There was a five meter drop between it and the next ledge. If he landed poorly, he would probably break a leg.

        Which wouldn’t be so bad. Maybe he’d get to see his daughter again. He jumped.

        He rolled into the landing, sending shockwaves through his body, but keeping his legs intact. It hurt, but he was too angry to focus on the pain. He hopped off the ledge, falling another two meters to the ground, landing hard on his hooves. Hoofsteps rang out from behind him, and he whipped around to see Aspen slide to a stop in front of him.

        “How did you--” he started to say, but he was cut off as Dogwood lunged forward, raking his spearhead across Aspen’s right foreleg.

        The other pony winced and stumbled away, drawing his spear once more, careful to hold it with his left hoof. There was a dangerous look in his eyes, like that of a cornered animal. A look Dogwood ignored. He advanced slowly on the other pony--on the traitor.

        “Please, Dogwood, you have to understand, they’ve got Willow--” Aspen was cut off again as he was forced to dodge a spear thrust.

        He levelled his spear at Dogwood. “Don’t make me hurt you, Dogwood, just let me--”

        Dogwood lashed out again, sweeping the flint spearhead across where Aspen’s head had been a split second before. He struck again, and again, growing frustrated as Aspen ducked and dodged everything Dogwood could throw at him, backing up to stay just at the edge of his range.

        “Fine,” Aspen said finally. “I gave you a chance.”

        And with that, he retaliated. Dogwood blocked the first blow. He dodged the second.

        The third struck him in the neck. He dropped his weapon, and looked down to see a spear shaft jutting from under his chin.

        He tried to talk, tried to say something to his murderer. All that came out was a faint gurgling. There was a metallic taste in his mouth. Something warm was spreading over his chest. He couldn’t breathe in; there was something in his lungs.

The world tipped sideways and he hit the ground, his vision growing dark. Through the haze, he could just barely make out Aspen standing over him. A sudden calm came over him, just as Aspen ripped the spear out of his throat. He didn’t have to fight anymore.

He was going to be with his daughter.

        He could see the other pony running away from him, could see his neighbors looking from him to Aspen. He felt their eyes upon him. A crowd was gathering. A fog was rolling in.

        His wife burst through the bystanders. Knelt by his side. Tried to say something to him. He couldn’t hear anything, only the blood pumping in his ears. The last thing he saw was his wife’s face.

        Then there was only darkness.

_________________________________________________________

        Roads was worried. Everything hurt. Everything. His hooves, his legs, his wings. He felt sore, bruised, and tired.

Even his lines felt strange. It had been twelve hours and they still hadn’t returned to normal. Though they had lost their attunement to the nexus when he was asleep, they had begun to re-attune to Summer. Even now, he could sense her, walking around on the other side of the cave.

He stared at her, trying to piece together what was wrong with his lines. Could it be the Lotus? Perhaps he’d eaten a particularly potent fruit. Or maybe actually casting magic had damaged his lines somehow. As far as he knew, nopony who wasn’t a unicorn had ever actually channeled magic--what if his lines just weren’t made to handle it? Or perhaps all these months of breaking his ley patterns with Attunement potions had--

“Like what you see, Roads?” Summer asked him from across the cave.

He blinked, his ruminations broken. “What?”

“You were staring. Leering, actually.”

Roads felt his face grow warm. He hadn’t realized he’d been staring for so long.

What--uh, no. No! It’s nothing like that. It’s just... I could feel you.”

Summer winked at him. “Not until we get back to Equestria, you can’t.”

His blush grew even deeper. “No, that’s not what I meant!”

Summer put on a faux frown. “Really? You don’t want to?” She sighed. “Disappointing.”

“No, no, I do--”

“Oh?” She flashed him a demure smile and he buried his face in his hooves.

“You’re doing this on purpose.”

“Yeah. I am. Your face looks funny when you get embarrased.”

Roads sighed. “I swear you’re impossible to talk to.”

“Yet somehow you still manage. Really, though, what’s up with the staring. It’s

kinda creepy.”

        “I was just thinking about my lines. They haven’t reverted back to--they haven’t ‘healed’ yet. Instead they just realigned to yours. And now I can sense you. Or, your lines, anyway,” Roads explained.

        “Lucky you.”

        “Not really. I’m starting to worry they won’t ever go back to normal. In which case I’ll never fly again.”

        “I thought you hated flying?”

        “Well, yeah. But it’s useful--most of the time. And I need to be able to fly to do my job, back in Equestria.”

        “Well, with a break as bad as yours, you wouldn’t be able to for a while, anyway. If I were you, I’d try not to worry about it. Although, I don’t guess trying will help you much. Worrying’s kinda your thing, isn’t it?” Summer asked.

        “Hmph. Yeah. I guess it kind of is. Not a great ‘thing’ to have, I guess.”

        “No, it’s really not.”

        He rolled his eyes and nudged her with his elbow. He felt a slight tingling sensation as the rest of his lines slid into alignment with hers, and he became completely attuned to her. He gave a slight gasp. Summer stiffened next to him.

        “What was that?” Summer asked.

        “Nothing, it’s just... when I touched you just then, I got attuned to you and it feels... weird. Not like being attuned to the nexus, or being aligned to somepony. It’s kind of... clearer. In a way that’s hard to describe. And it’s no so much like my lines are sensing yours as it is that they’re sort of... echoing.”

        “Huh. Weird. Makes sense though. I get the strangest feeling that there’s... there’s something next to me. I mean, you’re there, obviously, but it feels different... Wait, I thought you said you were already ‘attuned’ to me, or whatever,” Summer said.  

        “No, not attuned. Just mostly aligned. A few... uh--‘strands’ I guess you might call them--of my lines were still following the nexus’ alignment, and a couple more were just completely free. But now it’s... different. It’s hard to explain,” Roads said.

“Yeah.”

“Hey, I’ve got an idea.”

“What?”

“Stand up real quick.”

“What?”

“Just do it. Really quick. I want to try something.”

She shrugged. “Alright. Not like I’ve got anything better to do.” Summer got to her hooves, and turned to look at Roads, who had done the same. “Now what?

“Channel magic.”

“What?”

“What do you mean, ‘what’? Just channel energy. Through your horn.”

She cocked an eyebrow. “Are you crazy? I can’t do that.”

“What? Of course you can do that. You can do magic, can’t you?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you can definitely channel energy.”

Summer shrugged again. “Maybe I can, but I definitely don’t know how to.”

Roads stared at her, incredulous. “You never learned basic energy channeling?”

“Nope.”

Roads sighed, pressing a hoof to his face. The things he put up with. “Alright, whatever. I know you know telekinesis. Channel that.”

“Telekinesis? Oh, levitating. Right. I can do that. What’m I levitating?”

“Nothing,” he said.  

“What?”

“Just channel the spell.”

“What?” Summer asked.

“Don’t cast at anything--just cast. I’ll do the rest.”

“Oh. I didn’t even know you could do that.”

Roads groaned. He really needed to start associating with more ponies who had actually been to a magic school. Or at the very least learned the basics of sorcery. But then, beggars couldn’t be choosers.

“Okay, get ready,” he said, placing one hoof on her horn.

Summer ducked away from him. “Woah there, Casanova. Remember what we talked about?”

Roads rolled his eyes. “It’s not like that,” he said. “Just bear with me.”

“Is that what they’re calling it now?”

He put his hoof on her horn again, and felt a slight pressure run through his lines as she started the spell. Roads looked across the room, found a rock, and then focused hard on it. Come on, he thought to himself. Just like with the nexus. Just flex and focus...

A wavering glow formed around the stone. Roads focused a bit harder, and the light grew.

“A little more,” he said to Summer.

She gritted her teeth and he felt a little more magic surge into his hoof and flow into his lines. He let it move through him, out the other hoof, binding the rock. The stone floated into the air and Roads cracked a wide smile. He floated it a few feet towards the entrance of the cave, then took his hoof off of Summer and let it fall to the ground with a loud ‘thump.’

He turned and looked at her, one bead of sweat running down the side of his brow. She stared back, slightly out of breath, eyebrows raised.

“Impressive,” she said.

He grinned at her. “You have no idea how long I’ve wanted to be able to do something like that. Might just be worth never flying again. Maybe.”

He frowned, and sat back against his rock once again, lost in thought. He stretched out his unbroken wing, inspecting it for a moment, staring at the hole Princess had burned in it. His wings...

He had always taken them for granted, but now that they were burned, broken, and useless, he felt a strange sort of hollowness. It was almost as if--

“Hey, have we got any food left?” Summer asked him, breaking his concentration.

“Uh, I think I ate it all last night.”

“Just like a spec,” she sighed. “Guess I’ll have to go ask Chief where those banana trees are.”

“Good luck,” he called after her as she trotted to the back of the cave in search of the earth pony.

What had he been thinking about?

Hollowness. Right. His wings had always been a reminder of his old life, of where he came from. Of his father. And as much as he hated it, it was a part of him. Losing his wings felt like cutting out part of his identity. Did it matter that it was replaced by a new--and rather inexplicable--propensity for magic? A loss was a loss.

Was he even the same pony now who had boarded the zeppelin five days ago? Was that a bad thing? All those nights spent loathing himself, spiteful and isolated... He had wanted to change. To become somepony else.

And now he was somepony else. Somepony different. A flightless pegasus. A secondhand magician. A pony capable of survival. Capable of defending himself.

Capable of murder.

A pang of guilt ran through him. Did it matter what he had been before, if what he had become was a killer? In Equestria, they would lock him up for what he had done. Here, they had tried to execute him. To put him down like a wild animal. And the only reason they hadn’t was because he had beaten them at their own cruel game.

Maybe Princess was right about Equestrians.

He knew what Chief and Summer were capable of. He’d seen and heard plenty of that. And he had thought he was so different, so much more innocent, so much more moral. Until he got the opportunity to kill. Was everypony else as bad as he was? Were there murderers lurking in the hearts of his fellow Equestrians, just waiting for the right situations to show themselves? Was social stability the only thing that separated pony from beast? Were ponies kind to each other not out of purity of heart, but only out of fortunate contexts?

He wasn’t sure which was worse--that he might be a homicidal aberration, or that everypony might secretly be as vicious as him. Either way, he felt utterly disheartened.

“Hey,” a voice called from the other side of the cave. “What’s wrong?”

Roads looked up to see Willow peering at him from across the fire, a concerned look etched into his face.

“Nothing. Just... thinking,” he replied.

“‘Bout what?”

Roads stared at him. “Why... why do you care?”

“What?” Willow asked as Roads walked over to him.

“Why do you care what’s bothering me?” he asked, sitting down beside the other pony.

“Why wouldn’t I?”

“You’re not supposed to. You’re supposed to hate me. You’re supposed to want me to feel bad.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Look at yourself! I have you tied up in a cave!”

“Actually, Chief tied me up.”

“Regardless, I’m not untying you,” Roads said.  

“I didn’t ask you to.”

“Right, but don’t you resent that?”

“Resent what?”

“Being tied up! And with me at least partially to blame.”

“Not really. I mean, what if I weren’t tied up? That would totally defeat the purpose. What kind of prisoner isn’t tied up?” Willow asked.

“You’re missing the point. I’m saying you should feel bad for being tied--for being a ‘prisoner.’ You should be angry at me.”

Willow shrugged. “I don’t mind. The ropes aren’t very tight.” 

Roads sighed. He clearly wasn’t going to get anywhere with that. “And your eye? It’s bruised, swollen half shut. That’s my fault.”

It was true. Even in the shade of the cave, whenever Willow moved his long brown mane out of his face, Roads could see the black eye he had given the islander.

“Did you want to?”

“What, punch you?”

“Yeah.”

“No.”

“Then it’s okay,” Willow said happily. “I forgive you.”

“Why? Why should you?”

Willow shrugged. “Because we’re friends.”

“No, we’re not!”

The islander frowned, his brow furrowed. “We’re not?”

“No!”

“Why?”

“I punched you! I tied you up! I hurt your friends! You should hate me. I’ve been horrible to you.”

“Lots of ponies are mean to me. I’m still their friend anyway. You’re not even the worst. You don’t even want to do mean things. Some ponies do.” Willow fell silent for a moment, thinking. His frown deepened, and for a second, Roads thought he might cry. Then, suddenly, a cheery expression returned to his face.

“But I try not to think about it,” Willow continued. “And so I don’t! I think about other things instead. And then I’m not sad and they’re not sad and everypony can be friends again.”

“It doesn’t... it doesn’t bother you?”

Willow chuckled. “You sound like Aspen. That’s what he always says. He says I should be angry. He says I should always hit back. But I think maybe that means I’m not any better than them. And besides, usually Aspen hits for me. But I try not to think about that either.”

Roads got the sudden urge to give Willow a hug. He managed to resist. “Willow... what if I told you I was worse than those ponies.”

“I probably wouldn’t believe you.”

“What if I told you I had killed--had murdered--somepony. What would you say then?”

Willow’s smile disappeared. “Are you talking about Magnolia?”

“Who?”

“The mare who died the night you came back into town. Is that who you--are you talking about her?”

Roads stared at him for a long time. He wasn’t sure if he should say anything. Willow seemed so eager to forgive, to forget. Yet... Roads didn’t want to be forgiven. Didn’t deserve to be forgiven.

And, even more frightening, what if Willow didn’t? What if even Willow couldn’t accept that? How could he ever live with what he had done, if it even got to Willow? What hope would there be that he could forgive himself?

He wouldn’t know unless he tried.

“Yes.”

Willow looked away from him, thinking. “Why?” he asked after a moment. “She was a nice pony,” he said quietly.

Waves of guilt rushed over Roads. He sat down against the wall, cradling his head in his hooves.

“I thought...

“I thought she was Princess.

“I don’t know what happened. I was scared. Seeing things. Hearing things. And then... there she was. I didn’t even think. I barely saw her, but I didn’t miss. And then she was just... dead. And there was nothing I could do.

“I’m sorry,” he said, still not looking up. He just stared into his hooves.

“You made a mistake.”

“That doesn’t fix anything. That doesn’t change what I did. And it doesn’t excuse it.”

“Lots of ponies make mistakes.”

“Not this big.”  

“Everypony slips up sometimes and does something bad.”

“Not like this.”

Willow didn’t seem to hear him. “Do you know what Aspen says about that?”

“What?”

“He says both good ponies and bad ponies do bad things sometimes.”

“He’s right.”

“He says the way you tell the bad ones, though, is if they do the same things twice.”

Roads didn’t say anything. He didn’t know what to say.

“Aspen is smart like that. He says a lot of things. When he gets back, you should talk to him. He’ll make you feel better. At least, if you’re anything like me, that is.”

“I don’t think I’m very much like you, Willow. I’m not really sure anypony is.”

Willow smiled at him. “Well, thanks!” He paused for a second, thinking again. “You know, I think I have an idea of what Aspen would say, if he were here. He would ask you if you would do it again.”

“Kill that pony? Kill Magnolia?” Roads asked.

“No. Well, yes. Sort of. Um... He would ask, if you were in the woods again, and it was dark, and you heard a noise... would you look first?”

“Of course.”

“I thought so. And then Aspen would ask, ‘Do you know what a bad pony would say to that question?’”

“Uh, no.”

“A bad pony would say he would do it again, just the same. A bad pony would say he didn’t have a problem. A bad pony would say he did the right thing.

“So that’s it? That’s all? That’s the only thing that separates a bad pony from a good one? A desire to change? To do better next time?”

“Sure!”

Roads sighed. “I want to think you’re right. I really do. But... I can’t help but think that there’s something more to it than that. That there’s got to be some element of foresight. Of intention. That right and wrong aren’t determined solely by how we feel about the things we do. It can’t be that simple. That black and white.”

“Well, if that’s the way you want to think, I guess you’re always gonna be miserable.”

Roads chuckled at that. “I guess I am. Although, even by your standards, I’m still a bad pony.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I still haven’t untied you.”

“Oh, don’t worry about it. I held you captive once. Do you hold it against me?”

“No.”

“Good.”

“I hold it against Princess.”

“Well,” Willow said. “That is between you and her. And Aspen and I try not to be involved. When we can.”

“What do you mean? I thought you worked for Princess?”

“Oh, we do. But that doesn’t mean we like it. We don’t really like being guards. But we also want Princess to like us. She controls everything, after all. And the ponies who she dislikes... they usually end up disappearing--that’s a euphemism for dying, by the way--so, it’s in our best interest to do what she wants.”

“So, that’s it then? You serve Princess, and in return, she doesn’t kill you? That’s your only option?” Roads asked.

“Well... I guess we could side with the Council.”

“Who?”

“The ponies all the islanders elect to talk to Princess for us. It used to be that they controlled everything, until Princess showed up. Now they’re mostly just figureheads,” Willow said.

“What do you mean, ‘side with them?’”

“Sometimes they stand up to Princess. They tell her what the islanders want, and try to keep her in line. Usually it doesn’t work. Only a tiny fraction of the guard is loyal to them. Only enough to keep Princess from doing away with them entirely--she says she doesn’t want to be bothered with a civil war.”

“So... this whole time... the islanders have just been following Princess out of fear? And because there weren’t any other options?” Roads asked.

“And because they’re afraid of Equestrians. And Princess always says that she’ll keep us safe from Equestrians. And most ponies believe the Council is to helpless to defend us. So, we do what Princess asks of us. And usually it turns out well.

“Usually?”  

“Well...lately... ever since you, uh... showed up, more ponies have been siding with the Council. I don’t know how, or why, but apparently they’re getting stronger. There are a lot of rumors going around. Aspen and I don’t really know what to make of it. We try to stay impartial.”

“Right. For your own safety, and everything.”

Willow smiled. “Yeah! All we really want is for everything to turn out alright.”

Roads sighed. “So do I, Willow.”

“Good luck,” Willow said with a wink.

Roads laughed at him. Somehow, their conversation had made him feel better. Lighter. “Thanks,” he said. “I’m gonna need it. Especially now that my wings are all, uh...”

He ruffled his injured wings. Willow stared at them.

“Well,” he said. “At least now you can do magic.”

Roads shrugged. “Actually, I can’t really generate my own magic--”

“Oh, I know,” Willow said. “You’re just a tree.

“What? I’m not a tree.”

A tree? Willow had jumped a mental track somewhere that Roads couldn’t quite follow.

“No. But you’re like a tree. But, a magic tree.”

“No, Willow, it doesn’t have anything to do with trees. Look, there are these things called ‘ley lines’ and they--”

“Oh, no, I already know about ley lines.”

“What? How?” Roads asked, incredulous.

“I was on duty when you explained them to Summer,” Willow said.

“Oh, right. Wait, then why exactly do you think I’m a tree?”

Willow laughed. “I don’t think you’re really a tree. That would be silly. Trees can’t even talk, usually. I just mean, you’re like a tree. But with magic instead of lightning.”

Roads blinked. “What? You realize, trees don’t make lightning, right? It’s generated by clouds.”

“Exactly,” Willow said happily.

“What?”

“You do with magic what trees do with lightning.”

“I still don’t understand.”

“Okay, look. Summer and Princess have their own magic? They make it, like thunderclouds make their own lightning, right?”

“Right.”

“Well, the thing I noticed is, magic is kind of like lightning sometimes. Unless it really has to, it goes wherever is easiest. Because it’s energy. They’re both energy.”

“Okay.”

“Well, the thing about lightning is that it likes to hit trees. Because it wants to touch the ground. And since it hits the trees, that must mean it’s easier to touch the ground through the tree than through the air. The tree passes the lightning easier.”

“It’s a better conductor than just air.”

“Right, exactly. ‘Cause it’s built different. Well, you’re like a tree, now, but for magic instead of lightning. You used to be air--and you could fly and stuff--but now you’re stuck on the ground. Except, you’re stuck on the ground and you’re ‘a better conductor.’”

Roads blinked. Willow had guessed at the theory of ley fragmentation and conduction just by watching thunderstorms?

Well, he supposed it wasn’t that unheard of. If a pony thought about magic like they thought about other forms of energy, they might be able to come to the same conclusions Willow had.

He supposed the basics of magic weren’t much different than the basics of physics. Which made him wonder--if more ponies would think about magic as a type of energy, rather than some mystic force, would they be able to pick up the basics of spellcasting more quickly? He made a note to look into it when he got back to Equestria. If he got back to Equestria.

“Well... that’s pretty close, actually. I mean, your reasoning is strange, but your conclusions are pretty much in line with the basics of ley theory.”

Willow smiled at him. “I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”

“Of course you don’t.”

“You could explain it if you wan--” Willow sat up suddenly. “Aspen’s coming back!” he exclaimed.

“What? How do you know?”

“Oh, I just have a sense for these things.”

“Are you sure? I mean how could you possibly--”

The tripwire spell went off.

Pressing his hooves over his ears to block out the magical shrieking, Roads turned to see Aspen standing at the entrance to the cave. He looked bruised and worn, a deep gash in one foreleg, and streaks of blood in his dirty-blonde mane. He leaned against the butt of his spear, clutching Princess’ crown in his injured forehoof.

Guys,” he said over the whine of the tripwire. “I think I just started a war.

_________________________________________________________

A/N: Thanks again for reading!  I’d like to go ahead and thank my editor for what seems like the thousandth time (but is actually only the tenth) for all the hard work he’s put into this chapter, and the work as a whole. And props to him for editing this chapter without me, as I drove off to college and just generally shirked my writing responsibilities. Thanks, man.

        

        

        

        

        

        

 

        

        

        


XI

“The weeping cannot be seen, like a plant

whose seeds fall endlessly on the earth,

whose large blind leaves grow even without light.

Hatred has grown scale on scale,

blow on blow, in the ghastly water of the swamp,

with a snout full of ooze and silence.”

-Pablo Neruda, The Dictators

        Somepony was dead, and Catalpa needed to know why. Which meant she needed Aspen. And at the moment, Aspen was galloping rather rapidly away.

        She was standing over Dogwood’s corpse, two guards at her sides, staring down at the body. Her mind was racing. This was not good. It changed things. How, she couldn’t be sure yet, but it definitely was not good. How could she react? What would she do now that--

She realized everypony was staring at her. The pool of blood around the body had grown. She was practically standing in it now. Jerking her hooves out of the pool, she edged away from the body, glancing nervously at her escorts.

        “Dogwood slowed Aspen down enough that Princess has gotten word out to most of the guard. They’ll probably stop him at the edge of the city. I need you to get to him, and bring him to me. If anypony stops you, tell them I sent you,” she said.

        “And if Princess shows up?” one asked.

        “Tell her I sent you.”

        The two glanced at each other. One shrugged, the other nodded.

        “Well, what are you waiting for? Go!” Catalpa shouted.

        The two turned and dashed off, headed down the path Aspen had taken. Catalpa looked back down at the body and sighed. This complicated things, accelerated her timeline prematurely. The blood of one of Princess’ ponies was on Aspen’s hooves, and unless she let Princess have her way with him, there would be serious repercussions.

        Which she didn’t plan to do. Aspen had been open to hearing her ideas of resistance. When she had come to him and asked him to recruit guardsponies to her side, he had turned her down. But he hadn’t turned her in. Which meant she owed him her life.

        And she was about to pay back the favor.

        Mind still racing at a fevered pace, she pushed her way out of the crowd. There were traces of blood on her hooves; she wiped them on the grass as she walked. Disgusting.

As she made her way up a ramp onto one of the upper terraces, she looked out over the city. Over the burned crops, over the growing crowd around the body, over the bustling guards weaving through the civilians, trying desperately to keep the peace. To keep things safe for their families, their loved ones.

        She wondered if they knew how futile that effort was.

        A drop of rain hit her in the back of the head. She looked up and saw that the sky was grey and brooding. Monsoon season was beginning to set in. A storm was coming.

        She was at the top of the ramp now, on a terrace that stood opposite to the gleaming marble entrance to Princess’ lair. Dug into this terrace was a deep indentation, lined with varnished wood and irregularly-changed floral decorations. In the center of the indentation was a simple door, little more than a slat of wood wedged against a thin frame. The entrance to the Council’s quarters. It was only slightly more impressive than the Council themselves.

        Catalpa shoved the door open and made her way inside. A narrow hallway branched in two directions. The first went to the Council’s “lounge,” which was essentially Catalpa’s living space, given that the other Councilponies never used it, and she did not make it to her own home to sleep most nights.  The other went to the Council’s auditorium, an underground rotunda that mirrored the design of Princess’ throne room. Except smaller, of course.

        Catalpa took the first branch, and made her way into her quarters. There was a pallet in one corner, a few rough wooden tables and chairs splayed across the room, and in the center a fire underneath a smoke chute. The fire was out, as usual. The Council’s staff was supposed to keep it maintained, but they rarely did any work unless Catalpa was around. Nopony else seemed to care.

        The lounge door behind her creaked open.

Speak of the devil.

        “Councilmare?”

        Catalpa turned around. Standing before her was Buckthorn, the squat mare who called herself Catalpa’s ‘assistant. Catalpa considered that a very loose use of the term.

        “What?”  

        “Do you need anything?” Buckthorn asked.

        She felt a pang of hunger run through her stomach. When was the last time she had eaten? She couldn’t remember. Hell, when had she last slept? She’d spent all day yesterday dealing with Princess after the Equestrians’ escape attempt, all night surveying the damage from when one of them had returned, and all morning arguing with the rest of the Council about how to best deal with Princess.

        She could feel herself fading. Slipping. She was too damn old for this. Her hooves hurt. Where had the years gone? How long had it been since--

        “Councilmare?” Buckthorn’s voice snapped her out of her reveries.

        She blinked. “What?”

        “I asked if you needed anything.”

        “Curry. Then I need you to head out in front of the Council chambers and wait on a group of guards to come with an escort. Tell them to report to me in the lounge.”

“Yes, Councilmare.” And with that, the pudgy little mare turned and bustled out the door.

Catalpa moved over to the pallet and sat down, rear hooves crossed, forehooves on her knees.  She closed her eyes, trying to slow her racing mind.

Focus, Catalpa, focus. Where do we go from here?

She couldn’t be sure. Her plans were ruined. She had hoped to drain the treasury funds, use them to bribe the rest of the guards, and take on Princess while she was still burned out from the Equestrians. Everything had been in place. After hours of debate, she had won the rest of the Council over to her side. Her fellow members were spineless wretches, terrified of Princess, but when she had finally convinced them Princess could be overthrown, they had leapt greedily at the chance for a power grab.

Moths to a flame. Everything was set so perfectly.

She had already disseminated rumors of Princess’ Equestrian past through the guard, all the while using the same knowledge as a bargaining chip for her life. Princess’d had no clue what was coming. She’d been too wrapped up in pursuing her fellow Equestrians. But now...

Now the whole thing’s gone to shit. One of the loyalists is dead at the hooves of one of the rebels.

What would Princess do from here? Catalpa couldn’t be sure. If she handed Aspen over, she would execute him and that would be that. If she tried to protect him, though...

She can’t come after me. She’s too smart for that; she knows if she kills me the Council mobilizes its half of the guard.

But would she care? It was hard to say. When Princess was enraged, she tended to disregard rationality and sense. Still, though, Princess engaging in outright war with her own people over the protection of Aspen seemed unlikely.

An assassination would be more her speed.

Yes, that seemed about right. Something quiet, covert. An elite guard with a stone knife, slipping through the night. Everypony would wake up one morning and find out she had disappeared, and without her the Council would falter. And the rebellion would be over before it started.

Good thing I don’t plan on going to sleep anytime soon.

“Councilmare?”

Catalpa didn’t move, didn’t open her eyes. She heard Buckthorn waddle into the room as a sharp scent filled the air. Her stomach growled.

“Leave it on the table.”

“Yes, Councilmare.”

The door creaked again as Buckthorn left. Catalpa opened her eyes slowly and saw that Buckthorn had left a steaming wooden bowl on the table. She got up and made her way over to it. Still and quiet, she sat over it for a brief moment, just savoring the smell. Savoring the memories.

Her older brother, coming into the shack after field work... telling her about his day... handing her a bowl he’d picked up on the way home, from the wrinkled old mare on the West Terrace...

She reached down and took a bite, rolling the curry around her mouth, enjoying the burn of the spice mixed into it.

Her older brother, splitting a bowl with her... telling her how he was going to help change the world... how Princess’ time had passed and he was going to help oust her...

She swallowed, feeling the burn travel all the way down the back of her throat. Refreshing.

Her older brother, slipping out in the night to meet “friends...”

She felt her face growing red.

Her older brother, never coming back...

The burn had moved to her stomach, now, a red, hot anger. She pounded a hoof against the table in frustration. This was supposed to be it, dammit! A whole lifetime of preparation--years and years of working her way up through the ranks of the Council, of swaying the guard over to her side--wasted. All that work, all that effort...

She had been so close to vengeance. So close!

 The door behind her swung open and she whirled around. Two guards stood in the doorway, their chests heaving, both bleeding from a number of gashes and cuts. Each was holding one of Aspen’s forelegs; he hung between them, limp and bruised and desperately clutching something green in his teeth.

His breath was faint, and his eyes were almost shut. Most of his coat was matted and red--Catalpa wondered how much of it was his own blood, and how much was that of his fellow guards.

“Aspen?”

He glanced up at her with one eye, gave a low groan, and then let his head flop back down. His hoof slipped out from under the foreleg of the guard to his right, and he sagged to the ground. Another groan. He mumbled something under his breath.

“What?” Catalpa asked. “What was that?”

As he mumbled something again, the guards leaned in, trying to tell what he was saying. Suddenly, his eyes flew open, and before anypony else could react, he hit the guard on his left with his free hoof. The guard went down, letting him go, and in a flash Aspen was on top of him, pummeling him viciously. The other guard threw himself into the fray, tackling Aspen.

The three thrashed wildly on the floor as the guards desperately tried to regain control of Aspen. Catalpa sighed and sat back against the table. She closed her eyes and took another bite of curry.

Stallions, she thought to herself. No sense of tact in any of them.

There was a loud cry, and she opened her eyes again. One of the guards was unconscious, and the other was on the ground, cowering in front Aspen, who was standing once more, holding a spear he had wrangled from one of the guards’ backs.

“Please don’t...” the guard cried.

Aspen glanced up at Catalpa and she saw there was a mad gleam in his eyes.

        “Just let me go,” he said to her, his voice cracking as he talked. She noticed he was quivering. “Let me leave the city, or I’ll kill him.”

        Catalpa didn’t move. “Aspen,” she said soothingly, “what’s going on.”

        “What’s going on? What’s going on?! I keep telling you! I keep telling everypony! You just won’t listen!”

        “You haven’t told me anything, Aspen,” Catalpa said calmly. “Would you care to explain yourself?”

        “They’ve got Willow!”

        “Who?” she asked.

        “The Equestrians! We stumbled across their camp tried to ambush them. Didn’t work. They’ve got Willow tied up in a cave and they said if I didn’t bring them Princess’ crown, they’d kill him. I had to do this, you understand. I had to,” he said.

He was looking at her with a heated intensity. The glare of a trapped animal.  

        “Of course I understand. Do you want to put the spear down, Aspen?”

        “Not a chance,” he growled. “I’ve gotta get out of here, back to Willow. Gotta give them the crown.”

“Why the crown?”

“Dunno. They didn’t tell me. It doesn’t matter. I have to get back there!”  

        “That can be arranged, Aspen. Let me help you,” Catalpa said.  

        “What?”

        “I can get you out of the city. On one condition.”

        “What?” he asked.

        “Lead me to the Equestrians.”

        “Why?”

        “I need to talk to them,” Catalpa said.

        “Why?” The manic look on his face was beginning to subside.

        “Put simply, I need their help. Do you remember when I asked you to recruit the guard over to the Council’s side?”

        Confusion spread across his face. “Your rebellion plan? I thought you’d called that off after Roads’ attack.”

        Roads? It took her a moment for her to remember who he was talking about. She had snuck down to the prison to talk to Strongsteed several times and learned everything he had to tell her about the Equestrians, but in her head she still knew him only as “the one with the wings.”

        “It was never called off. Only amended. But now that you’ve murdered one of Princess’ guards--”

        “Two.”

        “What?”

        Aspen wiped a spot of blood off his face with one hoof. When he looked back at her, he was utterly expressionless. Drained of expression. There was something hollow in his eyes.

        “I killed two of them,” he said flatly. Coldly.

        Catalpa had seen every horror Princess could throw at her over the years, had watched private executions of “traitors,” had faced down mortal danger on numerous occasions without a trace of hesitation, but Aspen’s tone just then... It sent a ripple of fear through her heart. It was a feeling she wasn’t used to.

        The rational side of her supposed it was because she was used to ruthlessness on the part of Princess. It was to be expected. But to she had known--or thought she had known--Aspen. She had thought of him as a good pony. She hadn’t realized the lengths to which he would go to protect his friend.

      &nb