The counselors took a clear stand on the issue from the first day of summer flight camp: any pegasus caught flying Cloudsdale Circuit after hours would face permanent expulsion. The miles of towering cloud-link fences and red “NO ENTRY” signs surrounding the Circuit enhanced the gravity of the counselors' warnings. On this particular afternoon, the miles of thunderheads churning out of the weather factories did what they could to help drive daredevils away, and most campers were happy to comply with the camp staff’s policies.
Rainbow Dash wasn’t like most campers. As soon as she heard the instructors had closed the Circuit two hours early, that meant private track time all for herself. How generous of them.
Little more than a cyan blip beneath the darkening curve of the sky, the pegasus quickly tunneled her way beneath the fence sequestering the Circuit’s southeastern hairpin. Emerging from below with bits of cloud lodged in her prismatic mane, she shook them out and surveyed the track before her.
A double line of nimbus rings rose up to her from below, forming the course’s tallest point where they came together. To her left, the double heads of Lark’s Head Loop swayed in the mounting wind. To her right loomed the large, rising stretch of Titan’s Curve.
Rainbow Dash stamped her hoof. Just that morning, she had been on the verge of setting a new personal record for the Circuit’s hardest test of stamina—only to have her run sabotaged by them.
She was never sure how they got away with it. The instructors would be elsewhere, or occupied with another pony, but they would never, ever be watching.
The air pulsed with electric potential, standing Rainbow’s coat straight up, and every breath of its petrichor quickened the beat of her heart. She stared down the descending line of rings to her right, opened her wings in the unstable air, and squatted into a ready stance. All she heard was a pounding in her ears.
A lightning bolt ripped the sky in two; the thunder shattered what remained, and she hurled herself into space.
~ W i n g m a r e s ~
With her wings thrown wide, Rainbow Dash pointed her hooves through the first ring, and let gravity take care of the rest. The wind whistled in her ears, her mane whipped from side to side, and the first drops of rain bumped against her forehead.
Flying was so much easier alone. She didn’t have to worry about bumping into other ponies. Nor did she have to worry about other ponies bumping into her. Which was exactly what had happened—one of them had snuck up behind her and bucked her wing while the instructors were looking elsewhere. None of them had been willing to look into the matter afterward, either, claiming she had only suffered a normal cramp.
This was her second year at flight camp, but she was still treated like a newborn. Her pinions had yet to grow out to their full lengths, and even the instructors would sometimes try to send her away from the Circuit until they realized she was no yearling. She thought being the only pony in Cloudsdale with a colorful mane and tail like hers would make her easier to remember.
She could think of only two ponies for whom that had worked out.
The course banked her to the right way too soon, and she found herself staring up at the impossibly long arc of Titan’s Curve. She knew enough to power through its first rings with the momentum she’d built up, but there was no mistaking the mounting ache in her shoulders and chest before she’d reached the halfway point. Her wings could not put out as much lift as the others, and the extra flapping wore her out by the time she passed, winded and wheezing, into Swayback.
Rainbow Dash let that part of the course drop from her mind as she navigated the four generous turns that welded Swayback together. She had better things to care about than the times she posted along Titan's Curve. The part she had really come for—the part for which she knew she risked her whole future at camp—lay further ahead.
Beyond the exit of Swayback’s final bend, the nimbus rings fell away in a ballistic arc toward Cloudsdale Meadows. Rainbow Dash’s stomach did a little flip as she approached Long Gone Drop. No pegasus—not even a Wonderbolt, a member of the Princess’s hoof-picked cadre of elite fliers—entered the world with an innate love for free fall.
Blinking against the growing precipitation, Rainbow Dash aligned her hooves with the rings below her. The sky spasmed in white fury, and the pegasus plunged with the thunder.
A scream swelled within her lungs as ring after ring whizzed by her head. If the descending straight from the southeastern hairpin was a mane-raiser, Long Gone Drop went for scaring ponies bald. Rainbow Dash’s hooves shuddered as she fought to maintain her line.
The turn-out for End-Around announced itself quickly as a barricade of black and yellow arrows and flashing “THIS WAY” signs leading up and to the right. With the right line, a pony could bleed her momentum all the way around to the home stretch without pumping her wings once.
Rainbow Dash had flown this section only one time before as a first-year, but that had been enough to notice the other trail of rings hidden behind the barricade. An instructor had hovered there the previous summer to guide campers along the right path, as well as call down swift punishment on those who dared to try and break through.
The dare itself was as old as the camp cafeteria and just as familiar to anypony who passed through the campground’s front gates. Glory would be the friend of the pony who succeeded, respect their companion. It represented the best in a good challenge: simple in theory, crushing in execution.
Survive Deadmare’s Dive.
No other section of Cloudsdale Circuit held the honor of ending more racing careers, inspiring more campfire tales of vengeful shades, or inciting more nightmares in the sleep of young campers. Condemned by the city and ignored by maintenance crews, Deadmare’s Dive was nothing more than a wild chute of wind and velocity: a ninety-degree charge toward green and solid oblivion, anchored mere yards above the grass by a solitary ring.
The rain had started to come down heavy by then, and the flashing lights at the End-Around turnout urged her to reconsider. It was still not too late to turn away. Long Gone Drop was scary enough for only her second time through, and she still had the rest of the summer to come back and try again.
Rainbow Dash gulped—not an easy thing to do when the wind whipped her lips against her cheeks. Maybe she was getting in over her head. Deadmare’s Dive didn’t look that intimidating from afar, but staring down its throat was something different.
Better fliers than her had perished down there.
When will you get another chance to try it? cried a petulant voice in the back of her mind. Get real. This is your one and only chance to make history.
Yeah—in the history of bad ideas, maybe! she argued back. I dunno if I’ll make it!
But what if you do make it? You’ll shut those bullies up for good.
They’ll never believe me. Rainbow Dash thought about flexing her wings to take her up.
Keep those wings where they are, Rainbow. You came out here for a reason.
One moment of hesitation was all it took the little filly to whip past the turnout. The horizon lurched out of her vision, and the wind roared her mistake in her ears.
Ohmigoshohmigoshohmigoshohmigosh. Rainbow’s pupils contracted into tiny black dots as she blasted past ring after creaking ring. Her stomach floated somewhere behind her, and the air fought to shake itself free from beneath her hooves.
Just hold on! she urged herself.
And then the world flashed in stark color beneath a new volley of lightning: the greens and browns of the fields below, the blues of the creeks and brooks, the rings white as bright snow—and a yellow and pink blip clinging onto one of them like a gemstone on a bracelet.
Rainbow blinked. That blip had been a filly.
She turned her head to bail out. She barely turned it back in time as several rings screamed past the tip of her muzzle, warning her that she’d be cut to pieces the next time she tried that. Panicking, she splayed her hooves and rammed her wings perpendicular to her the wind as hard as she could.
Her head snapped down as her pectorals exploded in pain. It wouldn’t be enough. The other filly filled up her vision like a drop of oil on a lake, and the scream raging within her chest finally wrenched itself free.
The other filly whipped her head skyward. Another blast of lightning lit up the pink mane covering one half of her face and the terrified teal-green eye on the other.
Rainbow braced herself and prayed it wouldn’t hurt.
Stars exploded behind her eyes as her head crashed into the other filly’s wing with a sickening crack. Blinded on one side, Rainbow saw rings tumbling around her as she caromed off of them like beans in a rain tube. The other filly tumbled just a few yards over her head, her neck and limbs horribly limp.
“Oof!” The wind left Rainbow’s lungs as she landed belly-up on the cottony contours of a cumulus. The other filly joined her a moment later and lay still beneath the falling rain.
Seized with regret, Rainbow Dash rolled over to check on the other filly, but a dark splotch exploded in her vision and laid her back out in no time flat. Her hooves went to her eye to press away the pain.
“Are you two all right?”
Rainbow Dash tensed—she knew who that voice belonged to. It was gruff and edged with irritation, as if rescuing two fillies from a condemned section of a racetrack in turbulent weather was the last thing he’d wanted to do. Answering his question felt like lifting the moon in her current state, so Rainbow settled for a moan instead.
“The head counselor’s gonna want to speak with you two,” said Amber Swift, Team Firefly’s lead counselor. He began to pull the cloud with the two fillies back up towards Cloudsdale. “I hope you’ve enjoyed your last day at flight camp, ladies. I don’t think you two are coming back.”
The Cloudsdale summer flight camp office was a shack, and that was using the term generously. It was more like a box somepony had thrown together using squares of cheap sheet clouding, with only the barest of struts and rafters on the inside shoring it up against storms like the one raging outside. A small reception room greeted ponies who walked in through the front door while the head counselor worked in the next room over. A lantern housing only four or five aging fireflies provided the only light in the reception area, and a plain clock on the wall saluted every second as it arrived, never betraying surprise or boredom. Two benches flanked the door to the head counselor’s office, and at that moment, they were occupied by two quiet fillies.
Shivering beneath a blanket, Rainbow Dash alternated between keeping a cloud compress against her eye and shooting venomous glares at the other filly. The both of them had come away from the collision somewhat roughed up, and things would be sore for a week or two, but they were otherwise in fine shape. In turn, the other pegasus tried to make herself disappear into the corner where her bench met the wall, and her mane draped over the near side of her face. The thin line of her back heaved every so often, but Rainbow Dash couldn’t hear any crying.
What was she thinking? Of course that cirrushead was crying. She had never seen a more pathetic pegasus in her life—those yellow legs, ungainly and thin, and her wings were large enough to swallow her flanks like curtains. Now that she thought on it, Rainbow had seen that pegasus sneaking around camp a couple of times before. She wasn’t from Cloudsdale, that much was certain—they’d never met outside the campgrounds. She was no good even on the training course, and her idea of flying a straight line suggested she needed glasses. Thick ones, like the glass on the bottoms of cider bottles. No pegasus could ever be that bad at flying otherwise—could they?
“Why the hay were you even out there?” growled Rainbow. She allowed herself a snort as the other pegasus flinched. “I was that close to making it through Deadmare’s Dive,” she continued, bringing the tips of her hooves close for emphasis, “but no. You and your terrible flying just had to beat me to it, huh? Was that what it was? Were you trying to prove something out there? Were you just trying to pull some stupid stunt and get yourself hurt? Huh? Well, look where you got us, featherbrain!” She lasered her compress directly at the other filly’s head, but, being a cloud, the compress merely bounced off of her mane.
“Thanks for ruining my life.” Rainbow crossed her front legs across her chest and turned around, pouting.
From the other side of the room, she heard a tiny sniffle.
Ha! Rainbow Dash broke into the largest grin she’d had that evening. Take that, you dumb filly. She couldn’t resist peeking back over her shoulder to see just how much she had gotten to that spineless sack of feathers.
The other filly had laid herself belly down along the length of the bench. She poked at the floor for a little bit, her mane spilling all over the side of her head. And then she lay where she was, ceasing all movement save the in and out of her breath—and even then, she looked for all the world like she wanted to cease that, too.
Rainbow Dash stared at the clock. While its second hoof completed two or three trips around its blank face, the other pegasus remained still the whole time.
Words bubbled up in the bottom of Rainbow Dash’s gut. She was fed up of listening to the rain drum against the walls and the ticking of that clock. She needed to talk.
“So, um...” Rainbow’s gaze slid to the floor. The words had suddenly turned as heavy as lumps of granite. What did she want to say, exactly?
The other pegasus stirred to curl up on her side. The clock sent its second hoof around another time.
Rainbow bit her lip. She was used to other ponies resisting her, fighting her. The pony on the other bench was way too fragile, and Rainbow had only needed to give her a good glare and a quick insult or two to put her down. Sure, she’d done the same thing to other ponies before. Her smallness practically demanded it for her survival. Here though, her victory meant nothing coming from an unworthy opponent—she might as well have declared her supremacy over a butterfly.
Really, what was the point of that?
“Well.” Rainbow Dash tapped on her bench. “You haven’t talked much tonight. In fact, I don’t even remember hearing you say a word. As in, ever. You’re around this camp a lot, aren’t you?” When no answer was forthcoming, she snorted. “You can talk, can’tcha?”
The other filly propped herself up on a foreleg and cast a silent gaze on the discarded compress on the floor. Rainbow’s face throbbed. Throwing it away had been a dumb decision.
She lay back herself, kicking around spare thoughts like cirrus tangles. Maybe that pegasus had been born without a tongue. Was that even possible? Living without a voice? Cold tendrils of guilt began to weave through her insides. Not only had she utterly shattered the self-esteem of a bad flier, but she had done it to a mute, too. There was absolutely nothing to gain there.
“Hey, uh.” Rainbow Dash tapped her hoof while she weighed her next words. “I know you’re feeling kinda grounded right now, and that you don’t feel like talking a lot, so I’ll just ask you to do this for me. Okay?”
No response. Still, Rainbow soldiered onward.
“If you were born without a tongue, nod your head once.” She craned her neck out toward the other pegasus, her ears extended as far forward as she could put them. But despite her best efforts to reach across to the other filly, all she received was silence. Snorting, Rainbow turned her body toward a window, and took to watching the rain dribble down the glass.
Then her ear flicked. Was that a noise? For a moment, she thought it was a creak coming from the walls under a sudden gust, but it would have had to been much lower pitched than that. She relaxed after a little while and resumed her gaze out the window.
Yes, there it was—a cross between a squeak and a whimper. A squimper! It was definitely coming from the other pony.
“What?” said Rainbow Dash, turning toward the other pony. “I can’t hear a thing you’re saying.”
The wind suddenly picked up outside the shack, jiggling the window panes in their settings as a fresh surge of raindrops pelted the roof. For a while, Rainbow Dash wasn’t sure if the other pegasus had answered her during that time, or if she still needed some encouragement to do so. Should she ask again? Should she wait? She groaned. Why were ponies so frustrating at times?
A door latch clicked between the two ponies, and Amber Swift poked his head into the reception room. He beckoned them into the office with a hoof, his brown mane still plastered to his neck with rainwater.
“All right, ladies. Come on in.”
Rainbow Dash hopped to her hooves at the same time as the other filly—and she froze where she stood.
Celestia, were fillies allowed to grow that tall? She hadn’t been able to tell while they were sitting around, but boy. If that pony ever bothered to raise her head, she could have reached Amber Swift’s jaw. Rainbow Dash barely came up to the top of his withers.
She followed the other two ponies into the head counselor’s office without a word. There he waited for them, his dun mane cropped short against his gray coat with a whistle hanging from his neck. A bank of filing cabinets, all of them gray and boxy like his eyes, lined the wall behind him. His desk annexed the center of the office like a large altar, and a name plate screwed into its front face read “Wind Storm, Head Counselor.”
Two manila dossiers lay beneath his hooves; two thin chairs seemed to bow before his desk. Rainbow clambered onto the one on the left and immediately found a part of the floor to study while the other filly got herself seated.
Wind Storm spoke. “I take it you ladies know why we’re talking with each other tonight?”
“Yes, sir.” Rainbow muttered it, the other filly barely whispered.
“It’s a pleasure to see you here, Miss Dash. Again.” The head counselor fixed her with a flat-browed, flat-lipped look as he opened her dossier, allowing the heavy thud it made on his desk to speak for his true thoughts. He skimmed a few pages. “Since you’ve came to us last year, you’ve been in ten incidents of threatening other campers, picked fights with five of them, you’re constantly defying your counselors, and the instructors tell me you’re reliably absent when you’re supposed to be on the training course. And now Amber Swift here is saying he caught you trying to fly Deadmare’s Dive after Circuit hours.” It wasn’t a question.
“And as for you—” Wind Storm skimmed his other dossier. Rainbow noticed it was significantly thinner than her own—only two pages to her novel. The head counselor’s brow furrowed. “Well, now. You’ve been a well-behaved camper, Miss Fluttershy. I must say I’m... bewildered to see you here tonight.”
Fluttershy? Rainbow Dash bit back a snicker before it landed her in even more trouble. She’d never before heard of a more appropriate name for such a scaredy-pony, ever. Fluttershy. Really.
“Nevertheless.” Wind Storm raised a hoof before his mouth and cleared his throat. “The both of you were reported missing for dinnertime earlier this evening. That we found you tumbling down a condemned segment of Cloudsdale Circuit should speak for itself. You two should be thankful to even be sitting in those chairs right now.
“So. Before I send the both of you back home, I would appreciate some answers.” The head counselor leaned back in his chair and pressed his hooves together. A couple of seconds staggered by as if they were clutching gut wounds. “What were you two even doing out there at that hour, when you knew we would be shutting the Circuit down early? Miss Dash?”
Rainbow Dash’s insides crystallized. She sank into her chair, unable to provide the answer that would expel her from flight camp forever, terrified of remaining silent and prolonging the inevitable. Even she would rather spend the rest of her summer in this tiny office, sitting beneath a light with too few fireflies, than to leave it all behind and never set hoof on the campgrounds again.
Recognizing he would not receive satisfaction from the cyan pegasus, Wind Storm turned his attention to the yellow one. “What about you, Miss Fluttershy? Would you kindly explain what you were doing out on the Circuit just now?”
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes.. She already knew first-hoof how difficult it would be to extract a single word from that filly, much less a complete sentence.
“Well, sir, I— um. It was all an accident.”
Rainbow’s brows flew in a double take. Her sudden movement forced a squeal from the filly’s mouth, who covered it up with her hooves.
Wind Storm whirled on Rainbow Dash. “Did you have something to say?”
She couldn’t give him the “I’m fine” wave quickly enough.
The other pegasus—Fluttershy—glanced over at Rainbow Dash with some of the hugest, wavering eyes the latter had ever seen. What in Equestria? Was she asking for permission or something? Rainbow Dash didn’t care.
“Anyway, Mr. Wind Storm, sir...” Fluttershy fidgeted in her chair. She sounded a little sick, but even though she spoke very, very quietly, she enunciated well. Her voice carried a self-conscious kind of music in her words. “Skylark took my group to the Circuit to work on improving our top speed, so she had us flying Long Gone Drop the whole afternoon. And, um. Everypony was having a lot of fun... but I wasn’t. I don’t like going very fast, you see.” She gave the counselor such an embarrassed smile that it actually squeaked.
Rainbow Dash couldn’t believe what she was hearing. A pegasus who didn’t like going fast? Everything she thought she knew about this world was slowly crumbling around her ears.
“By the time the thunderheads started appearing, we had all lined up for one last round. I was at the back of the line. One of the fillies ahead of me hit a ring next to the turn-out, so Skylark had to fly over and help her finish the rest of the course. I didn’t know she did that until I started down the track. When I didn’t see her at the bottom, I panicked—and that’s when I shot past the turn out. That’s how I wound up in Deadmare’s Dive, and by that point, I was too tired to fly my way back up.”
Fluttershy paused to look at one of her wings. Seeing it unfurl up close sent a burning blush through Rainbow’s cheeks. Yeah, she had noticed they were a little big on the filly back in the reception room, but she had not thought about how heavy and awkward they were to use. They were beautiful wings, even after the accident—her feathers gave off a soft glint in the light, and they all tapered smoothly toward their ends—but Rainbow Dash understood that it would take a while before she became strong enough to use them to their fullest.
Wind Storm tapped his chin. “Hmm. Skylark should have been there to help you. That’s the job we hired her to do.”
“Oh, don’t take it out on her,” Fluttershy implored. “She was already trying to help another pony, and I’d been flying, well, not exactly fine for the entire day, but I was managing. She couldn’t have expected me to end up where I did.”
The head counselor chuckled. “Don’t you worry about Skylark. We’ll get things sorted out with her. We’re all here to improve ourselves, after all, and that includes the counselors. So, then—you’re sure that what happened in Deadmare’s Dive was all an accident?”
“I see.” Wind Storm flipped through the filly’s dossier once again. “As I’ve said before, you’re a well-behaved camper. You’ve never gotten into trouble in your three years here, and neither do you go looking for it. Perhaps we can make something work out, if you’re interested in hearing what I have to say.”
“What? Now wait just a minute!” The words escaped from Rainbow Dash’s lips before she could stop them. Her hooves clamped over her mouth.
“You have something to say this time?” Wind Storm’s brows pressed themselves flat.
“I, uh.” The filly’s eyes darted over to Fluttershy, who was cowering in her chair. Sudden outrage flared up in Rainbow Dash’s mind, and she lowered her hooves. “Yeah. I do have something to say. Why are you going easy on her? Amber Swift there comes by telling us we’re going home, you say the same thing—” and here she jabbed a hoof at Fluttershy— “then she gets off easy because her weak flying got her into trouble in the first place?
“I don’t get it. I had Deadmare’s Dive on lockdown before she got in my way. Take me back out there. I’ll show you I can fly it without any problems, and yet you’re going to make a deal with her? That’s not fair!”
The glare the head counselor leveled at Rainbow Dash was hair-thin, but its passage through her eyes left her fury scattered like bowling pins in a strike frame. Her body obeyed.
Wind Storm rubbed his temples amid the ensuing silence. He poised himself after a moment and continued. “Frankly, Miss Dash, you’ve been in here enough. I’m tired of dealing with you. The counselors are tired of dealing with you. Where we’ve sent other ponies home for less, you remained. You know what I think? It’s time you moved on.”
“Flight camp just isn’t for you anymore. Amber Swift will show you to your tent, and you can pack your things.” He dismissed her with a wave of his hoof. “Farewell.”
Rainbow Dash whipped her head around the counselors. Fluttershy’s hoof hovered in the air in pleading. Suddenly conscious of attention, her ears folded along with the rest of her, until she was more mane than pony. “Um... I’m sorry, Mr. Wind Storm. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”
“Not at all, young lady. Speak your piece.”
Fluttershy floated a glance over at Rainbow Dash, who returned it with a flat face and an arched eyebrow. What was she going to say now?
“I... oh dear.” The yellow pegasus shut her eyes. “I mean... I don’t think you should expel Rainbow Dash.”
Wind Storm made his own contribution to the raised eyebrow collection. “Is that so? How do you figure?”
“She’s, um. She’s nice.”
The mind boggled. The air could have turned into solid ice, and yet that would not have been anywhere near as stifling as the silence that followed the filly’s claim. The only explanation Rainbow could come up with for what she just heard was that Fluttershy was some kind of space-pony who had somehow wound up far away from her home planet.
“When I was alone out there in Deadmare’s Dive,” Fluttershy continued, “I was too tired to call for help. I was barely hanging onto one of the rings, the rain was really coming down, and there was thunder and lightning everywhere. It was awful.”
“That was when I heard Rainbow Dash coming up behind me. I suppose she could’ve been the teensiest, eensiest bit more careful when we crashed into each other. But seeing another pony out there on the Circuit with me for that moment—I was so happy to see her there. Somepony found me. I was going to be okay. The next thing I know, I’m awake here in the office, safe and sound.”
“Because Amber Swift brought the both of you here.”
The tip of Fluttershy’s mane bobbed up and down with her head. “That’s right. But—and this is just my own, personal, unimportant opinion here and everything...” She let off an embarrassed smile. “If Rainbow Dash hadn’t yelled like that when she saw me in her way, I don’t think he would’ve noticed us to come to the rescue.”
Wind Storm leaned back in his chair. His hoof tapped his chin. “Amber Swift?”
The junior counselor nodded. “No offense, Rainbow Dash, but you weren’t born with a ‘quiet’ setting.”
“You—!” Rainbow Dash rose in her seat. She’d hardly felt like clobbering somepony this bad before—but Wind Storm rose from his chair and levelled a hoof at his subordinate before she could deliver her vengeance.
“That was out of line. You know better than to spout that kind of garbage.”
Wind Storm grunted as he sat back down. “You’d better be. Now then—did Miss Dash’s yelling tip you off to her presence there?”
Amber Swift looked off to the side, and did something with his head that could have been construed for a nod.
“And would you have known Fluttershy was stranded out there had it not been for her?”
“Well, maybe.” The counselor dragged a hoof through his mane. “I was patrolling the northern end of the Circuit close to the Dive. I bet I would have seen her anyway. Rainbow Dash just made me aware of her sooner.”
“What?” Rainbow Dash glared at Amber Swift. “Were you even out there the same time I was? It was pouring! There’s no way you could’ve seen her in that mess!”
“This isn’t a courtroom, you little—” Amber bit down on his lip. “Mmph. Sorry.” He shook his head and continued. “Anyway, like it or not, I caught you two on the Circuit while it was closed, and the both of you are lucky to have even made it back here. Honestly, if it were up to me, the both of you would’ve been outta here half an hour ago. We have rules for a reason, Rainbow Dash, and you don’t need to be here if you refuse to follow them.”
“You wouldn’t have seen her if I hadn’t been there!”
“All right, you two—that’s enough!” Wind Storm ground his teeth in agitation. “Hundreds of heapin’ humid haystacks, you two argue worse than my fillies. Anyhow.” He laid his hooves on top of his desk. “Amber Swift is correct, Miss Dash. It’s not all that clear that your presence saved Miss Fluttershy. And Fluttershy, I’m not deaf. I heard this pony yelling at you through the wall earlier. Though I respect your willingness to stand up for her, she doesn’t share that same respect. I’m not certain she deserves yours.”
Rainbow Dash slumped in her chair. “But—”
The head counselor shook his head as he closed Rainbow’s dossier. “I don’t think there needs to be any more discussion. Miss Rainbow Dash, I hereby expel you from flight camp. Kindly pack your things and clean your tent. You’re going home tomorrow morning.”
Most campers learned to leave their alarm clocks at home by their second year—why bother packing the extra weight when the camp reveille did the job fine enough? Campers tottered out of their tents every morning in ones and twos, their hooves jammed in their ears as they made their way down to the lake. There they saluted the Equestrian flag, sang the national anthem, and stood around bored and restless for several minutes as the instructors announced the upcoming day’s schedule.
Rainbow Dash slept through it all, as she always did.
When she did wake up, the left side of her face throbbed like an overinflated water balloon. Though she didn’t have a mirror in her tent—what kind of camper worried about having one, anyway—she guessed she would be walking around that day with a doozy of a shiner over her eye. She wasn’t able to open it quite all the way, and the area beneath it was swollen and warm to the touch.
She was expelled from flight camp. For good. As far as thoughts to start the day off with went, that was not the one she wanted to have in her head.
She sat up in her cot and glanced over at her saddlebags, which lay rumpled on the floor by the wall. Aside from a towel, a few comics, and her very own pair of Wonderbolts flight goggles, she had not brought much with her to camp, and everything had packed quickly.
Even her possessions were trying to get her out of there as fast as possible.
Rainbow rolled out of her cot and winced as her face throbbed with warm pain. She couldn’t go outside looking like she’d run into a wall, could she? After some thought, she spat into one of her hooves and tried to flatten her mane over her left eye. It wasn’t a perfect cover by any stretch of the imagination, but she hoped it would ward off the suspicions of most ponies.
She suddenly wished she had a mirror so she could have been sure. Oh, well. It would have to do.
The little filly squinted as the mid-morning sun hit her eyes on her way out of the tent. With nothing else to do as she adjusted to the light, she paused to take in one last view of the campgrounds. Fed by three different rainbowfalls, Rainbow Lake sat in the middle, anchoring everything else on its iridescent shores. The boxy, thirties-era exterior of the cafeteria squatted near the edge of the lake a quarter-loop away from the campers’ tents, while streams of campers navigated the training course on the lake’s opposite banks. The staff stayed in cottages off to the left, and a large schoolhouse separated the staff lodgings from the campers.
Rainbow Dash snorted and set off toward the cafeteria. Dumb place. Even if they were kicking her out, she was entitled to one last meal on the house. However, she’d only gone a few steps before her eye and ears started to flit around like radar dishes. If at all possible, she wanted to get there unseen.
Her vigilance paid off: by the time she left the campers’ area, she had done so undetected. The trail leading down to the lake doubled back on itself multiple times during its descent—had this been any other day, she would have glided all the way down to the cafeteria as easily as leaving a letter to drift on the wind.
Once she’d descended by the lake side, Rainbow Dash began passing little knots of ponies as they converged on the cafeteria, or emerged from it. She kept her gaze fixed on the path just in front of her hooves, taking in every subtle curve, every sidestep it made as it meandered around the lakefront. In time, she found herself anticipating parts of the path before she reached them, plucking them from two years of camp as her hooves touched a familiar bump, or shuffled over a grainy patch she knew to expect. Of all the memories she would take from this camp! Why was her brain trying to put the walk back to the cafeteria in with them?
Before long, she found herself at the cafeteria’s front doors. The chatter of a hundred campers rattled from within, suddenly spiking in volume as a trio of fillies filed their way out. Rainbow Dash dove to the side and waited for them to pass before she could even think about it. One of them told the others a joke, and their mutual laughter prevented them from noticing the filly squatting on the other side of the door.
Hold on a minute. Sneaking around? Avoiding other ponies? Being quiet? She got back on her hooves. Since when did she become that kind of filly? Her eyes hardened. Nope. Uh-uh. She was going about this all wrong. If this was to be her last day of flight camp ever, she was going to go out in style.
She turned around, braced herself on her front legs, and yelled at the top of her lungs. “Hee-yah!”
Her back hooves blew the door open, and the diners fell silent as they turned in their seats. Rainbow Dash stepped through the open threshold with her head held high, basking in the gazes of her peers as her hooffalls echoed through the building. The high windows shone like spotlights, lighting her way as she sauntered up the middle aisle.
The younger campers shrank back from her as she passed; the older ones fixed her with flattened ears and hard frowns. Foals. What did she care about their opinions anymore? Flight camp was stupid. If they couldn’t handle how hardcore she was, that was their problem.
“Well, well, well! If it isn’t Rainbow Crash.”
Two colts stepped in front of her path—colts she’d had plenty of... dealings with by that point. She always thought their necks were sufficiently thick enough to act as support columns at the Cloudesseum. The taller one, tan like dirt, reeked of cheap deodorant, and the shorter one with the darker brown coat didn’t even bother putting any on. She smirked.
“Hey, Buster. Hey, Buck.” She brushed past them like they weren’t even there.
“Where’re you going in such a rush, Rainbow Crash?” The taller one, Buck, stuck his hoof between her legs. One of them snagged for the shortest of instants, but it was enough to interrupt her stride. A murmur spread throughout the cafeteria.
Rainbow Dash’s grin faltered, but she caught it quickly enough to hold onto her pride. “Me? I’m not in any hurry.” She faced her adversaries to prove it. “What do you want?”
“We’re not looking for much,” said Buster, closing in. Despite lacking the vertical presence of his musclebound cohort, he still towered over the filly by at least half a head. “I just wanted to know something, Rainbow Crash.”
Rainbow Dash held her ground beneath his slitted blue eye. “I’m all ears.”
Buster grinned, revealing an array of disgustingly white teeth. “I heard it on the slip stream this morning that you were caught flying on the Circuit after it was closed.”
Rainbow Dash cackled and rolled her eyes. “Ugh, seriously? You just heard about that? You’re faster at growing pimples than you are about hearing the news. And it’s not even big news, either. I fly the Circuit when it’s closed all the time.”
“Well, you can’t be very good at it, Rainbow Crash.” Buck leaped over her head and boxed her in on the other side. He reached for the part of her mane hiding her black eye. “When did you get this, an—”
Rainbow Dash lashed out with a head feint. “You lay a hoof on me, and I swear to the Princess that I’m gonna lay you out.” Her cheeks flushed.
“Aww, is Rainbow Crash getting upset?” Buster crooned from behind. “Does Rainbow Crash not like getting touched?”
A pair of heavy hooves landed on her flanks and pushed her off balance. She careered face-first into a breast reeking of Foal Spice, and a burst of tight pain swarmed the left side of her vision.
“That hurt, you jerk!” she cried, whirling on her attacker. “How about you have the guts to do that to my face next time, wi—”
Another push from behind. She stumbled on her hooves amid a storm of nasal guffawing. “Cut it out!”
“Never, Rainbow Crash,” sneered Buster. “This is too much fun!” He pushed her again, and she tottered precariously on her back hoof.
“Think fast!” A final shove on her wings sent her over the top, and before she could do anything else, her face crashed into the floor. Both of the colts were outright howling with glee.
“I’m sorry,” Buster scoffed, running his hoof through her mane. “Did we interrupt you, Rainbow Crash?”
An epiphany entered her mind like a heavenly choir as she bolted back on her hooves. She was already expelled from flight camp, right? Nothing she did from this point forward mattered. The staff wouldn’t be able to touch her, which meant that finally—after having to suffer through two summers of endless assaults on her height, flying skills, and future prospects from some dumbbells with swamp gas for brains—she could finally get even. She spoke her next words slowly and clearly to maximize the chance that as they went through one ear and out the other, they would leave behind a swath of head trauma.
“The name is Rainbow Dash.” She scratched her hoof back along the floor, unable to care less that her voice chose that moment to break like a window. “And I am gonna kill ya!”
She charged. All she needed was one punch, and not even the coroner would be able to identify the mealy pulp she left behind. The oaf wasn’t even bothering to move out of the way—surprise lit up his big, stupid mug like a bawdy Manehattan billboard.
“Rainbow Dash, stop!”
A pink and yellow blur rushed into the vengeful filly’s vision, driving spikes of adrenaline straight into her wings. With a mighty wrench, Rainbow Dash tore herself back just enough so her hoof stopped a mere whisper in front of the newcomer’s muzzle.
“F-Fluttershy?” she stammered as she touched back down on the floor. “W-what were you thinking, cutting in front of me like that? I could’ve sent your teeth on a one-way trip to your brain!”
“Then I’m glad you didn’t.”
The sudden hardness in the filly’s voice caught Rainbow flat-hoofed. She glanced up at her eyes and found herself backing away—those teal-green rounds bored into her brain with the same intensity the head counselor had unleashed on her the night before. Her wings snapped shut against her sides. “But I— I, uh...”
“Shh, shh.” Fluttershy’s voice resumed its normal, quietly musical tone. “Let’s find a place to sit, shall we?”
She led the stupefied filly past Buck, who moved aside without seeming to notice he did so. A fly buzzed in to investigate his teeth, and was able to do so free of difficulty and inconvenience. The other ponies in the cafeteria immediately brought heads and hooves close together and exchanged furious whispers.
The two fillies found a corner when the campers there quickly cleared their places. Rainbow Dash took a seat with her back against the wall while Fluttershy entered the breakfast line, returning with a bowl of oats, a plate of apple slices, and a cup of carrot juice.
Rainbow Dash stared at the food for a minute and knew the gesture was wasted—a huge stone was plugging up her stomach, and she pushed the tray away without touching anything. “Why did you stop me?”
On the other side of the table, Fluttershy’s mouth collapsed into a tiny “o”. “Why did I?” she squeaked, tapping her hooves together. “Well... you see. I didn’t want to see anypony get hurt.”
“Really, now?” Rainbow didn’t bother to rein in the rising of her voice. “And you didn’t think those swamp whompers weren’t hurting me back there? That’s great. Wait to step in until Rainbow Dash’s the bad guy, huh?”
“Um...” Fluttershy fidgeted in place. “That wasn’t what I really meant at all...”
“Of course you didn’t. You open your mouth and say some stuff, but you don’t have the guts to back it up.”
“Rainbow Dash, there’s something I need to tell you—”
“And I’ve got something to tell you,” snarled Rainbow, pounding the table with her hoof. Some carrot juice spilled onto the oats. “Stay out of other ponies’ businesses if you know what’s best for you. Do you know how long those two have been yanking my feathers?”
Fluttershy shook her head.
“Ever since I’ve been here,” Rainbow answered. “And it was all because I beat them in a sprint during my first week of camp.”
“Maybe they keep bullying you because you keep reacting to them.” Then Fluttershy’s eyes shot wide open, and she clapped her hooves across her mouth. Too late. She had offered herself up with those words. Rainbow stood up and tore into her like a starving dragon.
“Reacting? You think it’s because I’m reacting to them? Are you kidding me? You think those morons would go away just because I ignored them? That only works for a little bit. When I wouldn’t respond to them, they turned on the other ponies until they wouldn’t hang out with me anymore. Once they got me alone, they just turned it up from there.”
Fluttershy bit her lip. “I... I don’t understand. Why would they even go that far?”
Rainbow threw her hooves up and sank back into her seat. “I don’t know.” Her anger left her in a sigh, leaving behind a hollow melancholy in her chest. “If I did, they wouldn’t be bothering me anymore, would they?”
By that point in the conversation, business had returned to normal in the cafeteria. Somepony spilled their tray on the other side of the building, drawing enthusiastic applause from the other campers. The sun had advanced into the windows on the far wall, from where it shoved oblivious light into Rainbow Dash’s eyes.
“This place stinks,” she muttered, rising from her seat. She gazed over the other campers as they left the cafeteria in larger and larger clusters. “The rules stink, the staff stink, the ponies stink. Everything stinks. Wind Storm was right. It’s time I headed home.”
“Rainbow...” Fluttershy reached her hoof out, but she was too late. Rainbow left her breakfast tray where it was, made her way over to the side exit, and stepped outside.
Her tirade in the cafeteria had drained her. Just by putting one hoof after another, step by step, she found herself halfway up the path to the campers’ tents without remembering how she got there. She looked out over the lake and saw strings of foals threading through the rings of the training course.
Yep. She turned back around. It all stinks.
She flicked her ears. That sounded like Fluttershy’s voice. Then again, that filly spoke so quietly that there was no way her voice could have carried all the way over from the cafeteria. Nevertheless, Rainbow lingered and listened for a few more moments, just in case she had heard correctly.
Nothing followed. She just needed to leave camp already. Shaking her head, she started up the path once more, determined not to hesitate again.
Her hoof rose to her face before the voice finished calling her name. That pony just didn’t give up, did she? She turned around in place, flicking her tail from side to side, as Fluttershy galloped up the path.
“What is it this time?” Rainbow called down.
Fluttershy’s head lowered in a fit of panting by the time she drew even with her. “Why’d you leave?” she asked from behind her mane. “I didn’t get the chance to tell you...”
“Tell me?” Rainbow Dash’s ears perked up. “Tell me what?”
“About what happened at the office after the counselor led you away.”
Fluttershy gulped. “Well... now I’m not sure if you’ll be glad to hear this, since, um... you said it was time for you to go home.” She shifted her hooves as if she were standing on hot embers. “I mean, if that’s what you really want to do, I suppose I can’t stop you or anything. In fact, maybe I should be encouraging you to take your own path and—”
Rainbow moaned and pressed a hoof against the other pegasus’ mouth. “Spit it or save it.”
A squeak escaped from Fluttershy’s lips as she crouched low to the cloud. “Please don’t be mad at me for doing this,” she babbled, “but I went ahead and convinced the head counselor to let you stay here after all. I—I hope that’s okay with you, and that you’re not mad at me! Eep!” She shut her eyes and clasped her hooves over her head.
A whomping, however, was the last thing on Rainbow Dash’s mind. Her head flitted to the far off horizon, the words she just heard failing to find hoofholds in her brain before they were swept out of her head. She was certain she had misunderstood. “I’m... not expelled? How?”
Fluttershy’s chin made a little rut in the trail as she shook her head. “I just assumed you really did love being here, and that you love to fly and go fast and do all sorts of wonderful things in the air and if I’m wrong about that, I’m so sorry—I shouldn’t have assumed anything.”
Rainbow Dash knew the other filly hadn’t gotten what she was really after, but the results of Fluttershy’s intervention were washing over her questions like a thunderstorm. She sat down. Something drained away through her spine, and its absence spread a strange kind of warmth throughout her body. Her vision still struggled to focus on anything closer than a thousand yards off, but her hoof came upon a trembling shoulder and tapped it.
“Hey,” she said. “You really did it? You got the counselors to back off?”
The terrified pegasus looked up at Rainbow from under her mane and gave the barest hint of a nod.
A breeze rushed up the hill and over the two fillies. Rainbow felt the spaces in her head expand to twice their normal volume, and her mind cleared out the debris from her encounter in the cafeteria. Her mane played out behind her like a small, cheerful flag.
For the first time that day, a smile—a real one, rooted in a clear and untroubled present—emerged onto her face. “Wow.” She looked back out over the camp with new vision, spotting a trio of pegasi planing strands of rainbow from the lake’s surface with their wingtips. “That’s something.”
She leaned over, wrapped her hooves around Fluttershy’s neck, and pulled her close. The soft-spoken pony’s coat was warm, and the silky heft of her mane caught Rainbow off guard. Flight camp just wasn’t one of those places where personal appearances were worth keeping up. And yet, Rainbow Dash caught herself wondering what would happen if she groomed herself more often.
Not that she was about to fly to Manehattan and buy herself a bunch of Fifth Avenue conditioners, of course. She didn’t have time to worry about that kind of girly business. Nevertheless, she wondered.
“Why help me?” She helped the other filly to her hooves. “I... I was really mean to you last night.”
Fluttershy flinched. “Oh. Um. Well, I remembered what you said about me ruining your life and everything...” Her eyes slid to the side.
Rainbow Dash cringed.
“No, no, it’s okay,” said Fluttershy, waving her hooves. “You were right to be angry with me. If I hadn’t been in your way, you probably would’ve flown Deadmare’s Dive just fine.” Her tail flicked repeatedly as she dug for more words. “It—I felt bad for keeping you from your goal. That’s when I asked the head counselor to let you stay.” Her eyes drifted toward the sky in apprehensive recollection. “Besides... despite crashing into me, and yelling at me, and throwing stuff at my head, you seemed—nice.”
All Rainbow Dash could do was stare. Did this filly ever carry a grudge? Did she even know what one was? A long moment of silence passed between them.
“I...” Fluttershy tapped her hoof on the cloud. “I guess I’ll be going, then.” She turned to walk back down toward the lake.
“No!” Rainbow put a hoof to her mouth, but her outburst had already sent the filly into a hunch. “I mean—wait up.” She trotted over to the skittish pony and raised a hoof across her chest so she couldn’t run off right away. What did she even want to say? Words were some other pony’s talent. She expressed herself best in the sky, where her wings spelled out a language she understood better. Fortunately, Fluttershy remained where she was, one teal eye looking down at her with quiet attention.
Rainbow Dash knew what she wanted to say was in her head, but she couldn’t get to it with her huge brain just standing there in her way! She clenched her teeth and tore through her gray matter like a werewolf—or was that more a zombie’s doing?—and all that did was leave bits of brain scattered on the floor of her mind.
Well, she accomplished more than that. The words she wanted to say wobbled from the debris like thin smoke, and she managed to glimpse one word of it before it faded into the background. “Thanks,” she said, lowering her hoof. She started picking at a little lump on the path, realized what she was doing, and shook her head out.
“Um. You’re welcome.” Fluttershy began making her way back to camp, and this time, Rainbow didn’t bother saying anything else. She shook her head and headed toward her tent, unable to articulate why she suddenly felt so out of it all.
She needed a nap. Yeah, a nap would do nicely.
“What do you mean, ‘I’m not going’?”
Several days after her pardon, Rainbow Dash lay in a winded pile of mane and feathers at her counselor’s hooves, having made the five-minute flight to the shuttle station in less than three. Her nap had lasted longer than what she expected. But the be-whistled pegasus standing before her on the open platform refused to move aside
“Just because another pony put in a good word for you back at the office doesn’t mean you’re getting off that easy,” he said. “You’re not going back to the Circuit for the rest of the summer.”
“What? That’s not fair!” Rainbow Dash tried to push her way past her counselor, but wasn’t having any of it. Once again, her vertical absence worked against her. “How am I gonna get better at flying if I don’t go with everypony else?
“Too bad.” Amber Swift kept his biggest headache at hoof’s length as he back-stepped onto the shuttle. “You’re to remain on the training course until we return. We’re going to be practicing on the Circle Slalom today, so I expect you to pay close attention to that part of the training course.” He signaled the chauffeur to set off, and the shuttle departed with the campers of Team Firefly minus their most colorful member.
Rainbow Dash glared at the retreating shuttle as it curved to the left and down out of sight. She rubbed her cheek until the hoofprint her counselor left there buffed out. What did they feed ponies on his home planet? Circle Slalom had actual turns in it—large, high-speed arcs like the writhing of a roller coaster. The training course had a line of poles bunched so close together that even she tagged them with her wings every time she flew them. Circuit flights were part and parcel of flight camp—why stay at the latter if she couldn’t fly the former?
Well, the counselor could take his orders and... and do whatever ponies did with what they took. He wasn’t gonna be around to watch her. If she got in trouble, so would he. Holding her tail high, she hopped into the air looking for things to do.
There was the camp further up the hill, but the rainbowfall on the other side of the lake caught her eye in particular. She started from the prismatic haze it kicked up as it splashed into the lake, following its descent upward until her gaze settled on the promontory from which it fell. A solitary pavilion stood there, both source and guardian of the tumbling stream.
Skyhead Falls was one of the very first things she saw walking out of her tent every morning. She had always wondered what it would be like to fly up there—but she never had time to do so, or always forgot to go when she did. It was like remembering to look at the night sky when the new moon was out; it was still there even if nopony paid attention to it.
That was that. She spotted a pair of daisy-chained updrafts not too far off from the shuttle station, and she rode them until she was well above Rainbow Lake. As much as she enjoyed flying fast, she held a quiet appreciation of gliding close to herself. Something about the way the warm air felt shoring up her wings from below, tilting her side to side in a natural rhythm—it was a way to fly and a way to take a breather at the same time. What pony couldn’t find something to like between the two?
More updrafts appeared to Rainbow Dash high above the lake, their presence betrayed by the little vapor wisps they plucked from any cloud hapless enough to wander too close. She surrendered to their currents, and as the yards fell away beneath her, her previous irritation fell away with them.
For fun, she banked out of the updrafts every now and then to pass behind the rainbowfall, where the falling colors echoed curiously against the cloudface they concealed. She would emerge flicking specks of green and orange from her wings, and she watched them spiral their way down to the lake below.
Soon a different sound filled the filly’s ears: a quiet kind of rush, carrying with it an abundance of primal force, but dampened before it could build itself up to a roar. The apex of the rainbowfall came into her view. With a sudden surge of adrenaline, she burst out of her updraft to flap the final few yards herself. The air this high up had grown cold enough to notice, but not cold enough for her to care, and she came to rest in the corner of the pavilion she had spotted back at the station.
The source of the rainbowfall rose up from a generous, straight-cut channel in the middle of the pavilion, bisecting the floor in the process. Scrolled pillars placed all around the perimeter held up a marvelous, angular roof inlaid with friezes of flying creatures like rearing dragons and screaming gryphons. Rainbow Dash tapped her hoof on the floor and heard it echo.
She turned around, and all of Cloudsdale opened before her like a storybook. There was the campground, the Circuit (she skipped over that feature quickly, before it ruined her mood), and the Cloudesseum in the distance, leaning out from its circular foundation like a trumpet bell. She saw little colored dots walking or flying along wide, white promenades, or milling together in an open square. Pennants sprouted from every other rooftop like little flowers.
Rainbow Dash sat against a pillar, only then noticing a slight sheen on her coat from her journey up to Cloudsdale’s highest point. With a constant easterly breeze flowing over her, she would be comfortable and dry in no time, free to pass the hours in solitude.
Solitude? Yeah, solitude. It wasn’t like she was much bothered by being alone.
“That’s enough of that! I mean, only if you’re, um, finished.”
Her ears perked up. That voice again—it couldn’t be. It had come from the far side of the pavilion.
“Get outta my sight, you cretins! Well, maybe cretins is a bit strong for the word I’m looking for...”
What the hay? Rainbow Dash descended onto the promontory and looked back toward the pavilion’s far side. She didn’t see anypony there, but when she looked closer, she saw a trail of colorful droplets start from the side of the rainbowfall channel as they made their way outside. Maybe someone was around the corner?
“Do you know who you’re talking to? Because I think you could be a little less mean, personally. You might be liked better for it.”
Unable to contain her curiosity any longer, Rainbow Dash flew to the corner to have a look.
Boy. She got one. “F— Fluttershy?”
The filly’s wings shot up with enough violence to make Rainbow Dash flinch in sympathy. Yep—it was the same pegasus from the Circuit and the cafeteria, except she looked... well...
Her mane and tail had been cut short and ragged—had she cut them herself? What pony could’ve let that filly near a pair of scissors in the first place? Moreover, she looked for all the world like Andy Warhalter had just used her as a paintbrush. Red splotches engaged oranges and yellows for territory on her forelock while greens, blues, and purples quarreled over her crest. Her tail had suffered a similar fate, where all six hues crashed together in a grand mêlée.
Fluttershy hit the cloud as soon as she recognized Cloudsdale’s true one and only rainbow pegasus-in-residence. “I-I-I-I-I’m sorry!” she blurted. “I-I really didn’t expect you to come up here!”
Rainbow Dash fell onto her back, whooping with whole-bodied laughter. Her legs couldn’t kick the air hard enough to uncoil the huge knot in her belly, and tears streamed from her eyes like water from a pair of fire hoses. She made the mistake of looking in Fluttershy’s direction again, saw atrocious jumbles of color, and paid dearly for it. “Gyaaaah-hahaha! Someone, help! I can’t breathe! Whoo!”
Fluttershy blushed so hard that a layer of cloud vaporized beneath her face.
“Oh, Celestia, I can’t believe you did that.” said Rainbow Dash, standing up and wiping her eyes. Her composure didn’t last very long—her third glance sent her into another attack of the giggles.
“I-I know.” Fluttershy got to her hooves as well, unable to suppress their trembling. “I... I think I’ll just leave and never ever ever come back.”
“Ah-haha—” Rainbow’s ear twitched. “Wait, what?”
The yellow pegasus said nothing. Instead, she turned and jumped off the side of the promontory.
“Wait!” Rainbow Dash managed to say that much and nothing more. Her legs took over from there, propelling her over the edge and downward, downward, downward into the keening gut of free fall.
Catching up with the other pony would be the easy part. The hard part was negotiating the hail of rainbow drops she trailed in her wake. Getting one of those in the eye was a guaranteed ticket to a dark cot in the nurse’s cabin, and Rainbow Dash could only fly so fast with one hoof covering her face.
Still, she had Fluttershy within her sights. The other filly was on the wrong dive angle, and her wings were snapped closed against her sides. All it would take was one bad pocket of turbulence, or a lapse in concentration, and—
“Ahhhh!” One of Fluttershy’s wings wrenched open, sending her into a violent tailspin.
“Hey!” yelled Rainbow. “Just stay calm, okay?”
Fluttershy kept screaming, her hooves flailing as if somepony had attached rockets to them.
“You’ve got to stop spinning!” Rainbow checked ahead. The bottom of the cliff was approaching awfully fast. “Flap your opposite wing from the direction of your spin!”
“That’s what I’m trying to do, featherbrain! You—” Rainbow Dash groaned. She wasn’t getting through at all. She focused her eyes on the other filly’s tail, which remained fairly motionless compared to the rest of her—a tail still dripping with rainbow.
“Hang on,” she screamed. “I’ll get ya!”
She lashed the air with her wings once, twice, three times as more drops of rainbow splattered against her foreleg and coat. But now she had caught up with Fluttershy, the latter’s tail whipping just before her mouth.
Oh, she was going to regret this. She bit down.
Her head exploded in an instant.
She wished it had, at least. Tasting a rainbow was like having an Aristrotle treatise on everything in the universe punch its way out from the center of her brain. The experience would leave you a better pony: able to outplay the Princess at chess, perhaps, or to convince everypony that eating brussels sprouts really would turn you into a mutant—if only it left you with your memories intact afterward.
Rainbow Dash wasn’t quite sure what happened in those following moments, but when she came to, she and Fluttershy were lying in the back of a demolished cart surrounded by a bunch of unfamiliar, crispy green globes.
“Fluttershy?” She poked the motionless filly beside her. “You okay?”
The other pegasus’ eyes blinked themselves open. “R—Rainbow Dash?”
“Oh, geez.” Rainbow Dash pulled Fluttershy into a swift hug. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
The two ponies clambered over the pile of globes toward the back of the cart and hopped off—short of a couple of tender spots, they stood on their hooves without much pain. As they trundled off toward the campers’ tents, they didn’t notice the cart’s owner, an aging, brown-coated pegasus with an ash-colored mane, stagger around its side to assess the damage.
“...It happened again. Just when I thought I’d gotten away from it all. It happened again.” The luckless stallion sank to his knees, and a single tear traced the curve of his quivering cheek. “My cabbages...”
“So, what exactly were you doing all the way up at the top of the falls?” asked Rainbow Dash, quite able to ignore the sudden wailing behind her.
“Oh.” Fluttershy’s eyes shifted from side to side. “I’d rather not say.”
Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “Really, now? You were talking up a storm while you were up there.”
Fluttershy’s facial features scrunched inward as if she’d just swallowed a jar of lemon drops. Unable to speak, she lowered her head and shook it solemnly.
“Be that way then,” said Rainbow, snickering. “Here’s what I saw up there. I saw you marching all over the place with an awesome new manestyle and color job. You were saying all of these really awesome lines, too. Y’know, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say you were trying to imitate somepony,” she concluded, nudging the other pegasus in the ribs.
“Ah.” Fluttershy’s gasp was so tiny, so quiet, that the very air stood still to hear her.
Rainbow Dash cackled. “You know what, Fluttershy? I like you. You’re not half bad. We should hang out more often.”
The cowering pegasus’ wings shot up in surprise. Giving Rainbow Dash a sidelong glance from beneath the blue part of her mane, she mumbled, “Really?”
“Totally. The rest of summer flight camp’s gonna be a blast with you around.” Rainbow Dash extended a hoof. “What do you say to that?”
Fluttershy stared at the offered hoof for a long time, her ears flicking this way and that. Her mouth was unsure whether to cringe or smile or yelp or frown. She failed to find a compromise between the four. Her hoof came an inch off of the ground. “Do you really mean that?” she whispered.
“Of course I do. You’re the first interesting pony I’ve met here.”
Rainbow’s words hit the filly like a sunbeam breaking through a storm. By degrees, her wings lowered themselves back to her sides and unclenched, and she drew closer to her first flight camp friend. She stood taller, more radiant, and the ridiculous collage of colors coating her mane and tail suddenly suited her posture very well.
“You got it.” The two fillies bumped hooves, breaking out into laughter soon afterward.
“It’s settled,” said Rainbow, strutting by the other pony’s side. “You’re my pal from here on out. If you ever need me for anything, I’ll be there for you.”
Fluttershy smiled. “Same with you.”
“Lets go get you washed up before dinner, then. Say—how did you even get on top of Skyhead Falls in the first place? Did you fly up there?”
“No, I walked the trail.”
The conversation between the two fillies blended with the afternoon glow of the sky as they arrived back at the campers’ area, making their way between the rows of tents.
The two fillies soon fell into a comfortable routine: they met twice a week at the bottom of Skyhead Falls while the rest of Team Firefly went off to fly the Circuit. Sometimes, they stole away to the city proper—Fluttershy’s meekness gave them the edge when it came to evading counselors. For the most part, however, they stuck to the campgrounds and journeyed to the top of the falls for the afternoon.
Rainbow Dash spent much of that time figuring out how to get Fluttershy more comfortable in the air. She knew the fundamentals after three years of camp attendance, but her ponderous wingspan gave her grief with burst maneuvers like hovering, cutting, and climbing. Rainbow suggested she try to make her flight more fluid—gliding, using updrafts, turning in large, sweeping arcs—and that was that. The air accepted Fluttershy as eagerly as she accepted it. The look on her face when she flew all the way down Skyhead Falls for the first time—the astonishment in her eyes, that ear-to-ear grin—would stay with Rainbow forever.
Eager to pay something back for her lessons, Fluttershy took Rainbow sightseeing. Three years of camp had given her ample time to find places not even the Cloudsdale native had known were there before. She showed her a little alcove just behind the top of Skyhead Falls where tiny bluecaps glowed quietly on the walls. She took her to the cloudvine trellises on the west side of camp to play tag amid the tendrils of white foliage. She also brought her to the Dragonpact Gardens, a memorial to those who brokered the alliance between ponies and their fire-breathing neighbors, and the fillies watched fires dance in raised bowls until well after the sunset.
Days flowed into weeks with the lazy ease of time well spent. Word reached Rainbow Dash’s counselor that she was skipping her assigned laps around the training course. When he tried to confront her on the issue, however, the filly peeled off a hot lap only a mare's breath from breaking the camp’s record time.
She still wasn’t allowed on the Circuit, but that didn’t seem like such a huge deal anymore. They could have their dumb racetrack. Hanging out with Fluttershy was much more fun.
That filly had come a long way since the beginning of the summer. She was the pony who met Rainbow Dash at her tent before morning assembly, and the newfound joy with which she sang the Equestrian anthem beneath the flagpole turned heads at first—including Rainbow’s. She was still pretty lousy at talking with the other ponies, having spent several minutes on her knees begging a colt’s forgiveness after brushing him with a wingtip. But progress was progress, and Rainbow was happy to see it blooming in her friend.
“I’m telling you, he wouldn’t shut up. He just laughed and laughed and laughed—boy, he got on my nerves. So I waited until his fat mouth opened as wide as it would go, and bam!” Rainbow Dash pantomimed a vicious sidearm pitch. “Hard-boiled egg, straight to the back of his throat! Mwa-ha ha ha ha!”
Fluttershy winced. She maintained her opinion that Rainbow Dash was a nice pony from the day they met, but she had her... moments. “Ha ha?”
“Aw, lighten up.” Rainbow Dash’s voice peaked as it usually did when she got excited. “It’s not like he died or anything, right? Took him a week to cough all the pieces back up after that, but he got better.”
The final week of flight camp had arrived much too quickly. In less than three days, Fluttershy could finally tell the place goodbye for the rest of her life. As she walked with Rainbow Dash along the road lining the training course, she glanced over at the one place that had given her the most misery she’d ever suffered in her life. How often had she crashed into one of those rings, or veered off course into a nearby pillar? How often had she posted the worst lap times in her team? She remembered looking forward to the day when she would never have to fly the course again, but now that she had completed all of her required sessions, she only felt confused.
The inquiry snapped her out of her blues. Shaking her head, she said, “Ah, sorry. Yes?”
Rainbow Dash tapped her temple a couple of times. “I just remembered Leica told me that I could pick up my flight goggles from her today. You feel like coming along?”
“Well...” Fluttershy stole another peek at the training course. “Actually,” she said, turning back to her friend, “since this is my last year at flight camp, I was thinking about taking one last lap around the course.”
Rainbow Dash blew a raspberry. “That old thing? Puh-leeze. You’re too good for it now. Are you telling me you’d rather fly that brain-drain than feast your eyes on a pair of official, shiny, and just-like-new Wonderbolt flight goggles?”
In a word? “Yes.”
“Bah. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with you.” Though Rainbow Dash shook her head in consternation, her ill-concealed smirk told Fluttershy the full story. “I’m telling you, you’re gonna miss out.”
Fluttershy replied with a smile of her own. “I know.”
“Be that way. I’ll meet you back here in a few.” Rainbow Dash took off at a forty-five degree angle toward the campers’ tents, taking a little bit of the wind in her wake.
Fluttershy watched Rainbow go as she retreated into the distance, all the way up to the moment when her friend dropped behind the first few rows of tents. Then she turned her attention back to the course.
She had paused by its longest straightaway in the hour after lunch, when everypony had open access to the training course. Streams of buzzing colts and fillies raced each other through the rings, but they collided with each other with discouraging frequency. She began to suspect that entering the course at that part was a poor idea.
Unfortunately, poor ideas have a way of conspiring with determination to ensure they are carried out, and the latter was something Fluttershy had had no idea existed within her until a couple of weeks ago. She had uncovered it deep within herself as a little, glowing node attached to the back of her heart. Furthermore, it reacted to Rainbow Dash’s presence—it grew whenever she was nearby, spreading through her core like the roots of a vital plant.
She was a different pony now. She didn’t need an instructor to tell her to fly anymore. She could take to the skies on her own cognizance, and embrace the wings she’d once thought were accidents of her birth.
Just after that filly passed by, of course. And that one. And that colt as well. And his friend. And that cluster of five, pushing and shoving each other out of the way—oh dear. Her chest constricted.
Come on, Fluttershy, she told herself. Just remain calm, and remember what Rainbow Dash taught you.
She waited for a pink filly to pass through the ring in front of her. Taking a deep breath, she pushed off of the cloud and flapped her wings.
What if somepony caught her doing this?
She dropped back onto her hooves. No. She cut herself off before she could question herself further. So what if somepony saw her? Again.
She leaped, flapping her wings harder. Her eyes drew level with the bottom of the first ring, then rose above it—just a little bit more to go!
Suddenly, the rings lined up before her. Her lips parted into a huge smile as she eased her flapping. She was on the course, all by herself, and nothing could stop her now!
That was the moment gravity pulled up alongside her, pointed at her now motionless wings, and grinned its irresistible grin.
Before she knew what was happening, Fluttershy’s front hooves struck the bottom edge of the ring—the world tumbled around her—she crashed onto the slope below and proceeded to pick up a terrifying amount of speed—
The edge! It flipped up at the very last possible moment, shooting her through the sky like a stone. Her stomach evaporated, and her vocal cords followed its example.
An orange pennant rose into the center of her vision on her downward arc, and then all she saw was orange. Moments later, she crashed on the clouds below.
Shaken, but unhurt, Fluttershy lifted the fabric draped over her eyes.
“Aw haw! Haw haw haw! Haw haw!”
The cold daggers of humiliation pierced her heart. She recognized those voices.
“Nice going, Klutzershy! They oughta ground you permanently!”
“What the hay, Leica,” Rainbow Dash muttered as she flew away from the campers’ tents. “Telling me my goggles are suddenly missing like that? How do you misplace goggles? They’re not that hard to keep track of. They have smaller plates at the cafeteria, for pete’s sake!”
With her only errand up in flames until Leica straightened her act out, Rainbow Dash decided to check up on Fluttershy. The cyan pegasus would be flying against the flow of the training course, so she didn’t think spotting her friend would take that long.
She made her way past the slalom, the double corkscrew, and even reached the S-turns without running into her target. The back-half hairpin was empty, too. The straightaway, then—
“Baw haw haw! Haw haw haw haw!”
She recognized that laughing. Jerking her head down, she glimpsed a familiar, dark brown colt and his dirt-colored crony standing over a shock of pink mane.
Blood surged into her cheeks. Those creeps!
She dove like a hunting peregrine, only she landed at Fluttershy’s side instead of on their big, fat heads. They had the good sense to gape at her arrival, at least.
“Leave her alone!” she snarled.
“Oooh,” said Buck, recovering his jaw remarkably quickly. “What’re you gonna do, Rainbow Crash?”
“Keep making fun of her and find out!” Her voice squeaked as if someone had replaced her throat with a rubber toy, but she could hardly care less.
Buster glared at her. “You think you’re such a big shot? Why don’t you prove it?”
“What do you have in mind?”
At this, the bullies turned to each other, hiding their mouths behind their hooves. The tall one said something that brought both their brows down maliciously. He turned back to Rainbow Dash.
“How about a race?”
“Done!” Rainbow Dash spat on her hoof.
“Now wait a moment,” said Buster, sneering. “You don’t even know when or where we’re gonna do it.”
Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes. “Ugh, come on. I’ll take you guys on anytime, anywhere.”
“Oh yeah?” Buster shot the filly a grin so full of teeth that it begged to be punched in. “Sunrise. Tomorrow.”
“What?” Rainbow Dash’s ears flattened back. “Are you stupid or something? The counselors will eat you alive.”
“Then too bad you weren’t out there with us last month, Rainbow Crash,” Buck squawked as he circled around to her other side. “The instructors decided to open the Circuit to anypony who could finish a lap under two minutes.”
“We blew that time away!” said Buster.
“That means we can go on the Circuit. Any. Time. We. Want.” Buck punctuated each word with a jab at Rainbow’s chest. “We’ve gone every day for the past month, and now we know it as well as we know your mom.”
Rainbow stamped her hoof on the cloud. “You’ve never even met her!”
Her nemesis jammed the tip of his muzzle against hers. “That’s not important, Rainbow Crash. All you need to know is that we’ve been training on the Circuit, you haven’t, and we’re gonna crush you so hard that you’ll get kicked outta Cloudsdale and live the rest of your life on the ground.”
It was all Rainbow could do to stop herself from biting that hay-eating grin off of that stupid mug. “In your dreams, maybe. You chumps had better show up at the Circuit tomorrow, ‘cause I’ll be out there, permission or not.”
“Shake on it!”
Spit-slicked hooves hooked around each other and the race was on. Rainbow Dash wished her glare could have melted the bullies on the spot, but she had to settle for watching them fly away. She turned to Fluttershy. “Hey. Did those goons hurt you at all?”
The older filly shook her head in silence and looked away.
“C’mon,” Rainbow tried to smile as she knelt by her friend’s side. “On your hooves, let’s go—hi-hup! There you go. You wanna head to the shop and grab a juice box or somethin’? I’ll cover you.”
Fluttershy shook her head—at least that was what Rainbow assumed she was doing. It was hard to see face underneath all that mane. Rainbow’s almost-smile washed away like a napkin in a rain shower.
This was all her fault, she realized. She could’ve held off on grabbing her goggles for another day (and she hadn’t even gotten them back, anyway). The idiot twins would never have entered the picture had she stuck around instead. No wonder Fluttershy didn’t want to look at her.
“Sorry.” Rainbow’s apology sounded thin in the cooling afternoon air. She raised her wings to fly away, unsure of what good her presence would do now.
Rainbow Dash furled her wings and turned around.
“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything earlier,” said Fluttershy as she walked over by Rainbow’s side. She tilted her head up toward the sky, as if trying to hold back tears. “I was just... those colts.”
Rainbow Dash only nodded.
“What are you going to do?” Fluttershy wiped the back of her hoof across her eyes. “Are you really planning on racing them tomorrow?”
“I don’t really have a choice anymore, do I?” Rainbow Dash beat the air with two curt wing strokes. “If I don’t go out there, they’ll never let me show my face around here again.”
“And if a counselor catches you out there, you’ll get kicked out of flight camp forever.”
“I know, I know.” She planted her face into the cloud and groaned. “I know.”
The sounds of camp crept into her ears, one by one: the oblivious giggling of campers navigating the training course above her, the breeze swirling in from the west, the muted rush of rainbows cascading into the lake just over there. These were the sounds she’d known during her past two years at camp—the whole idea struck her as kind of dumb, but she found herself missing those sounds already.
Something brushed the inner edge of her wing. The face-down filly leaped to her hooves with a strangled noise, and she whirled on the culprit.
“Fluttershy? Was that you?”
“I-I-I-I’m sorry!” The hapless filly drew her hoof to her chest as if she’d burned it. “I... I—” She folded in on herself. “D’ooh.”
Rainbow Dash swept her hooves in front of her with embarrassed speed. “No, no, I’m not mad or anything. I just wasn’t expecting you to do that—that’s all.”
Fluttershy hesitated. “Well, um. I know you’re in a little bit of a tight spot with the race tomorrow, and that no matter what you do, it probably won’t end up all that well...”
“Thanks.” Rainbow’s brows fell flat enough to build a house on them.
“No! I mean, what I mean is...” Fluttershy tapped her front hooves together, her next words becoming quieter and more hesitant. “that I... just want to...” She shut her eyes in exasperation.
“I want to help you win!” she blurted.
It was Rainbow Dash’s turn to shrink back. The moment her friend said those words, her eyes flared open as if somepony had stoked bonfires behind them. The heat of that look washed over Rainbow, and for a moment, she thought she saw her friend’s mane ruffling in a gale that wasn’t actually there. The moment passed as quickly as it arrived, leaving her with the strange urge to smile when she should have been scared silly.
“You’re right!” she exclaimed, punching the cloud with a hoof. “Who cares if I never come back here again? All I care about is getting those two morons back for messing with my girl!” She threw a foreleg around her friend’s shoulders. “Nopony gets away with that, you hear?”
“So, what’s your plan to help me beat those two?” asked Rainbow, rubbing her hooves together. “Extra training? Sabotage? A secret technique?”
Fluttershy motioned Rainbow to follow her. “S-something like that. Let’s head to the showers first, and then my tent. I’ll show you when we get there.”
A damp Rainbow Dash landed in front of Fluttershy’s tent with a heavy pink towel slung across her withers. Drops of water arced from her mane as she shook it out.
“Did I seriously have to take all of those showers?” She pointed this question at the yellow pegasus landing by her side. “Geez, I was perfectly fine after one—I do keep myself clean, you know.”
Fluttershy closed her eyes and pressed a hoof to her chest. “Father always says, ‘When unsure, clean some more.’”
“What is he? Some kind of neat freak?”
The look Fluttershy leveled at the soggy speedster could have silenced a morning assembly. “He’s a doctor,” she replied.
Rainbow Dash wasn’t the kind of pony to pay attention during morning assemblies. “I don’t follow,” she said.
Fluttershy gestured her into her tent.
Rainbow Dash had never thought about what Fluttershy’s living space looked like. The other pegasus was the one who showed up at her tent most mornings. And really: what would a pony like her put in her tent, anyway?
Whatever she could have imagined, it wasn’t this.
Strings of firefly globes ran in arcs along the uppermost edge of the tent’s interior. Squares of earth-toned fabric imbued with airy patterns covered the walls on either side, and long-stemmed flowers with pointed petals cropped up in places Rainbow only saw in the corners of her eyes. The air was warm and thick like a full-body scarf, and a slight trace of spice drifted across her nostrils. She spotted a jar of thin sticks with their bottom ends dipped in some amber liquid on a small table by Fluttershy’s cot, which took up the center of the carpeted floor. A cluster of vials joined the jar of sticks on the table along with a photograph propped against a small stack of books.
“Well...” Fluttershy’s hoof poked the carpet underneath as she gave her friend the biggest smile she could manage. “It’s not much, but... welcome.”
Rainbow Dash was too busy retrieving her jaw to answer right away. Who in their right mind would ever bring this much stuff to camp? She thought back to her own tent and its only decoration, new that summer—a photo of her and Fluttershy during one of their trips into Cloudsdale.
Fluttershy’s tent made no sense—and, at the same time, it couldn’t have fit the filly any better. She led Rainbow over to her cot and helped her lie down on her stomach.
The pillow beneath her muzzle smelled like lavender, and it sent her thoughts elsewhere as a pair of hooves rotated her head to the side. One by one, she felt her limbs being moved toward the foot of the cot. Her towel ran up and down her mane, tail, and wings a few more times for any straggling moisture before it lifted off of her. Then she heard a ruffling sound, and a heavy blanket settled over everything between her dock and withers.
“So, uh,” Rainbow started, shaking her head. She had no idea where she’d been during those last few moments. “What are you up to, anyway?”
“I’m helping you win tomorrow.” Fluttershy’s voice was soft, even more so than usual, but there was no missing the touch of purpose beneath her tone.
Rainbow Dash decided not to ask any more questions—at least for the moment. She still wasn’t sure what was going on, especially when she heard the quiet tinkling of glass somewhere behind her, but she was getting this impression...
The impression, however it all worked, that things would work out okay.
“Are you comfortable?” Fluttershy’s voice crooned from somewhere above her. “Say something if you aren’t.”
The blue-coated filly inhaled, but remained silent as the seconds stretched in her head.
“That’s it.” The warmth in that voice was unlike anything she’d ever heard from anypony speaking to her. “Breathe however you like, but make sure you keep doing so. It helps. Now, I’m going to take a wing, and we’ll go from there.”
There was a moment between when Fluttershy stopped speaking and when she started working, and it reached down to grasp the very heart of the world.
Rainbow felt a pair of hooves shore up her wing and lift it into the air. She wasn’t sure how to describe the feeling of moving her wing without moving it. The deliberate arc it traced as it descended to hang off of her flanks was equal parts soothing, terrifying, and exhilarating. The inside of her head went a little woozy. She pulled another lungful of breath through her nostrils just as the sound of hooves tapping together reached her ears.
Grasping the base of Rainbow’s wing, Fluttershy rolled her hooves all the way down to its tip with several smooth motions—press, roll, release; press, roll, release. Every new stroke left behind a coat of oil that sank beneath her feathers and liberated tense filaments along the muscle fibers below, draining away sores and strains Rainbow had hardly even felt before. She wondered how long Fluttershy would be at this—just this—press, roll, release; press, roll, release.
A glow coalesced within her wing like the heat of a fire after a cold winter’s day. How was it even possible to feel this good—or to make other ponies feel this good—with just a little rubbing? She didn’t even realize she had moaned until Fluttershy whispered into her ear.
“No, no...” The front of Rainbow Dash’s head was beginning to swim, but the feeling would go away if she talked too much. “Keep going.”
Fluttershy paused to warm some more oil between her hooves. Then, one by one, she gently sandwiched each of Rainbow’s primaries at their bases and drew them out to the tips. “I should’ve asked to do this sooner,” she mused, nudging a section of misaligned barbs into place. “How often do you preen yourself?”
“It’s when you groom your feathers to fly better. It’s a bit like flossing. Not everypony does it, but it’s very good for those who do.”
A heady thrill coursed up Rainbow’s wing as another one of her primaries was gently pulled outward. Her thoughts wandered back to the first day they had met, back when they sat together in the head counselor’s office. The way Fluttershy’s feathers caught what little light there had been, how smooth they looked—they didn’t look nice on accident. She probably did this preening thing every day or something like that.
For all the effort Fluttershy put into maintaining her wings, they had yet to repay her kindness in full. Rainbow Dash had to wonder at that. She’d never bother taking the time to care for her wings that often if they wouldn’t keep her in the skies.
“Who taught you how to do this?” she asked.
“Papa did.” Finishing with Rainbow’s primaries, Fluttershy reached over for more oil. Bottles clinked together. “I told you he’s a doctor, right?”
“Yeah, so what?”
“He’s been one for a very long time.” With more oil on her hooves, she started to work through Rainbow’s secondaries, always slow, always gentle. “And he has to stay at the hospital late to take care of all the patients he sees. Sometimes they’re sick, and he treats them with medicine. He sees injured patients more often, though, so he spends a lot of time setting bones, healing burns, mending tired wings...”
Firm hooves pushed deeper into Rainbow’s wing, and her feathers continued to transmit every little press, tug, and knead down to their roots as their barbs untangled, zipping back into alignment. She was beginning to slip away..
“Back home, Papa takes me with him to visit his morning patients,” Fluttershy continued. “I don’t usually say much to anypony while I’m there. But I’m learning a lot just by walking with him during rounds. It’s... nice.”
A puff of curiosity swirled through Rainbow Dash’s mind. “He sounds like a pretty cool pony,” she said into her pillow. “I’d be okay with meeting him someday.”
Fluttershy just smiled. Finishing her work on Rainbow’s first wing, she tucked it against the younger filly’s flank and covered it with the blanket. She kept one hoof on Rainbow’s back as she circled around to the other side of the cot, where she drew out the other wing like a violinist drawing her instrument from its velvet case.
As waves of pressure traveled up her wing, Rainbow Dash caught her memories wandering again—organizing themselves not in sequences of time, but presences. She turned to those that made her happy inside: winning her first sprint ever beneath the skies of dawn. Her first lap around Cloudsdale Circuit. The first day the instructors coached her team on inversions, and flying with the ground above her head and the bright sun on her belly.
The first time she dropped into Deadmare’s Dive. She remembered the weather had been pretty bad—that decision hadn’t ended all that well.
Oh, it hadn’t, now? Smiling, she motioned that notion over and escorted it around to the back of her mind, where she imagined herself bucking it straight into outer space. Deadmare’s Dive had ended well. If anything, it ended even better than she could have hoped for than if she had just flown it.
“Thanks for—mmph. For all this,” she grunted, her pause triggered by Fluttershy’s hooves rotating her shoulder.
“It’s nothing at all,” said the other pegasus.
“No.” Rainbow Dash shook her head. “It is something. And it’s more than this.” Complete sentences were becoming harder and harder to come by. She winced, remembering how she’d yelled at Fluttershy the first day they met. She winced harder when she remembered the other filly had convinced the instructors to let her stay. “You’ve done a lot for me since I’ve known you. Hanging out with you’s the most awesome thing that’s happened at camp, ever.”
Fluttershy’s hooves stilled. “You’re... you’re too kind,” she stammered. “I-if anything, I should be thanking you. Just knowing you’re there for me is enough to make me happy.”
“What? Aw, geez.” Rainbow raised her head a little, finding herself struggling for words of gratitude. Strange work for a pony who’d grown used to relying on herself. “I don’t feel like I do enough for you.”
“Well, I’ve never asked you for anything, have I?” Fluttershy resumed her ministrations, nudging an errant primary back into alignment.
“Not that I can think of.”
Fluttershy made a contented noise. “Then everything’s fine.”
“Shhh... lay your head back down, now, and just focus on breathing. Let Auntie Fluttershy take care of the rest.”
Rainbow paused, opened her mouth to protest—and, seeing the contented smile on Fluttershy’s face, closed her eyes and did as she was told. A little smile of her own emerged soon afterward, and her mind went blurry.
Cloudsdale was not a city of many secrets. There are things to be said for cities on hills which apply even more to cities in the sky, and chances were that if you were a pony living somewhere in Equestria, you could look up on a clear day and spot the pegasus settlement swaying in the atmosphere.
But looking at Cloudsdale was not the same bag of oats as being in Cloudsdale, and for those who ate and played and slept and lived within its borders, theirs was a sight not even the Princesses, dwelling within their twilit spires of ivory and stained glass galleries, could lay claim to.
Cloudsdale enjoyed two sunrises a day. This was not a secret, but a fact, and facts are rather boring. This was only the natural consequence of overlooking two horizons: the one far in the distance that welded earth and sky together in a blue line wider than vision, and the one running along the edges of the city’s hoofprint.
The city’s secret, rather, lay with that second sunrise like the dew beading on its roads, fora, and parks. In the early morning, this dew rose into the air in thin curtains a wandering pony could part in place. A brief interlude followed these ascensions when everything stood still—no breeze dared stir such perfect air, nor any sound move the immense silence.
Then rose the sun.
Walls of golden light surged forth from its top edge over the streets and houses, reducing the dewy curtains to prismatic haze with kinetic efficiency. In the moments before the haze faded away, it threw the light in all directions like a fountain, and the walls and terraces danced with swirling magentas, baby blues, and greens. It was during those moments, when light caromed off the clouds and illuminated the gaps in between, that Cloudsdale itself seemed to take its first waking breaths.
Rainbow Dash stood transfixed beneath the arching gates of Cloudsdale Circuit’s main entrance, unable to tear her eyes from the auras rising above Titan’s Curve. A brisk northern wind swept across her body and tugged at her mane. She barely noticed.
“Why didn’t you tell me mornings had stuff like this?” she asked, rounding on the pony standing next to her. “Why did you never wake me up earlier?”
Fluttershy wilted under Rainbow’s gaze. “I-I’m sorry! I thought you enjoyed sleeping, so I didn’t want to wake you up too early...”
“It’s cool,” said Rainbow. “Ha, I just never thought about being a morning pony before. Come on. Today’s the day we bring down sweet justice on a pair of deserving jerks.” She held out her hoof for a bump.
Fluttershy obliged her. “I know you can beat them,” she said.
Rainbow Dash flared her wings as she walked her way toward Cloudsdale Circuit’s starting line—they felt as light as paper and as sharp as the edge of a sword. They hungered to carve up the sky, and it was all she could do to keep herself contained as she stepped onto the track. Buster and Buck were already out there waiting for her arrival.
“‘Sup, guys?” she said.
“Ooooh, check out Rainbow Crash!” cooed Buster. “She thinks she’s so big and tough, doesn’t she?”
“We’re gonna pound you down to size,” Buck added, swinging a slow hoof at Rainbow’s head.
She ducked it without even noticing it. She was in the zone, and nothing would shake her out of it. Not this time.
“Yeah, yeah, I’m here.” The filly turned with a grin and snapped her tail against Buck’s muzzle. Ooh, that got him mad. “Let’s go ahead and get this done,” she continued, taking her place behind the line, “while there aren’t as many ponies to watch you two crash and burn.”
She looked to either side of her. The grandstands running along the sides of the starting line gleamed in the morning light and were large enough to accommodate a hundred times the current enrollment of flight camp. A few clusters of campers had already taken seats along the front rows and whispered excitedly amongst themselves.
“Hey, Klutzershy!” Buster had noticed the gangly filly lurking off to the side. He tossed a checkered flag at her head—only to provoke gasps from the audience when she caught it between her teeth.
“Her name’s Fluttershy.” Rainbow’s grin at that moment threatened to tear her face apart. “And she’s a hundred times the cool you two dweebs will ever be combined.”
Buster spat to one side. “Hmph.” He ponied up to the starting line with the others. “One lap. First pony across the finish line wins.”
Fluttershy flapped over to the starter’s cloud only a few yards in front of the starting line. She gave her friend a worried look from beneath her mane.
Rainbow, in turn, pulled the corner of her lip up and nodded once. Her heart pounded against the base of her throat like a jackhammer.
“You’re going down!” Buck taunted, jabbing his hoof at her.
“In history, maybe! See you boys at the finish line!”
Shaking their heads, Buster and Buck turned their attentions to the course before them. Rainbow did the same, tracing the starting stretch leading into Circle Slalom with her eyes as adrenaline gnawed at her insides. The cloud beneath her hooves was firm and suitable for an explosive start, and the breeze tumbled over her back.
Fluttershy raised her head, her eyes screwed shut, and the world stopped to balance on the edge of a checkered flag.
Rainbow licked her lips. This was it. This was her chance to show the world what she was made of.
The flag fell.
The opening straight vaporized behind her in a heartbeat, and a snarl etched itself onto her face as she tore between the pillars leading into Circle Slalom. The first gate rose up several wingspans off to her left, but no sooner did she tilt toward it was it directly before her, and then behind her. She swung right like a shuttle sliding through a loom, passed through, swung back left, passed through, again and again.
She had no time to think. She had no time to doubt. Her wings had gained minds of their own, and they tossed her back and forth with careless perfection every time.
Entering the hairpin leading into Lark’s Head Loop, she took a glance over her shoulder and saw Buster and Buck lagging behind by several lengths. The short one was already beginning to sweat, and his teeth ground together so hard that she could even hear them from where she was. She looked ahead once more, just in time to bank her wings and brush a safety pillar with her belly as she screamed through the turn.
Buster was not so lucky. Unable to rein in his speed behind her, his head punched through the pillar with an air-splitting clang. When Rainbow exited the first loop of the section, she saw him stuck there with his eyes rolling in his head and his tongue hanging out like a banner.
She pumped her wings hard going into the second loop and rolled onto her side, catching a glimpse of the forest below becoming a floorless wall to her left. She had an instant to consider what she was doing. It passed, and she pulled her head back.
The hard hoof of inertia slammed into her like a train, and dark fringes immediately crawled into the edges of her vision. No—she had to hold onto her speed, no matter what happened, and she kept pumping her wings all the way through the turn even as her blood drained from them. And just before she slipped away, a spark in the back of her mind told her to level out, and she rolled back upright just as the next line of rings snapped into place in front of her.
Her maneuver paid off: rings, flags, and an occasional spectator whizzed past in seconds on her way to the top of the southeastern hairpin, and she crested the top of the turn with plenty of momentum to spare for the descent. On the other side of the turn, her only remaining rival struggled to gain altitude, having run out of speed halfway up the incline.
“Hey, Buckyballs!” she called. “How do ya like my wake?”
The bully shouted back something rude.
Rainbow Dash didn’t hear it. She was too busy being awesome as she rolled right and glided through the first ring of Titan’s Curve. The second ring came and went as easily as the first, as did the third. By that point, she had to flap a little harder to maintain her speed, but that was an improvement over the beginning of the summer by far. Fluttershy’s preening accounted for some of that, definitely—but the rest of it had evolved over their long hours of flying together, building the younger filly’s stamina a little higher with every day.
She could enjoy all of this, now: the speed of the wind, the adrenaline shooting through her heart and wings, the wind whistling in her mane—the sky was her domain, more so than any other pegasus. A smile dawned across her features as she made this realization, and by the time she had left Titan’s Curve behind to wallow in sad mediocrity, her cheeks had begun to ache.
Swayback’s generous turns fell away behind her as she wove her way through them, one, two, three, and four. Long Gone Drop yawned seductively behind the final ring. She leaned to her left in preparation, and—
Pow! A hard tackle sent her skidding off course. She barely hauled herself up short of a section of grandstands, the red and gold insignia of Cloudsdale Circuit mere inches from her muzzle.
“Haha! Later, Rainbow Crash!”
“Hey!” The fouled filly glared at the larger bully as he saluted her from the top of the course’s ultimate speed straight. Now she was the one chasing after him, and he already had a sizable lead going into the Circuit’s final stretches.
You can’t let that jerk win, she told herself, angling her body toward the ground. All you’ve got left is End-Around, and—waitaminute. What is he—?
The familiar warnings and arrows pointing ponies into the Circuit’s safety flyout closed on the speeding colt with shocking velocity, and soon he would be going too fast to heed their directions. Rainbow Dash relaxed her dive a little, only to realize her mistake a heartbeat later.
He smacked one of the warning arrows with a hoof as he shot past the baricade. He’d never planned on playing it safe.
He was running Deadmare’s Dive.
You’re not gonna get away from me! Rainbow Dash stretched her front hooves out as far as they would go, dropping into the Circuit’s condemned section only a couple of seconds behind her enemy.
She saw him copying her pose off to the side, but her attention suddenly turned elsewhere. As she streaked through ring after ring with increasing force, the ground below her loomed large like a tidal wave of fields, forests, roads, and rivers.
She willed herself on, suppressing the fears crawling along the sides of her brain. This was her sky. Her wings had carried her this far.
They would carry her wherever she needed to go!
Her wings lashed the air with redoubled tenacity, and the ground up ahead shuddered in response.
The last of the guiding rings had fallen away. First bit by bit, then length by length—Rainbow Dash was closing the gap faster with every passing moment.
More! She implored her wings to flap even harder, and they answered. Her heart pounded against her ribcage like a tap dancer on a stage.
Individual trees rose from the forests below, gaining detail and dimension as the racers drew closer.
He’s still too far off! Faster! Her lungs began to burn as her windpipe throttled her breath. Faster!
A shining wall of air shimmered into existence before her hooves. Before she could blink and wonder at it, it begin to push back at her.
Rainbow Dash could not believe this was happening to her—of all the times for this to happen, it had to pick that moment? She had not come this far only to be turned back, and as much as she wanted to scream in frustration, the wind would only jam her voice back down her throat.
So be it. That rage stayed inside her, swirling like a terrible hurricane, and it charged her breath with new-found energy.
She pushed back at the shining wall in front of her, and pushed, and pushed—and it yielded enough to allow her a glimpse of her rival as she ripped past his head.
“Whoaaaaaaa!” Buck’s voice modulated as Rainbow’s backwash swept him up, up, and out of sight. It was the sweetest music she’d ever heard, and a tune she would keep with her forever.
The ground advanced upon her at a steady pace—she could pick out lanterns and flower patches planted near the roads below. However, she also saw the last ring of Deadmare’s Dive at the very bottom of the track: under-maintenance and overexposure had stained its exterior a dirty blue. To any pony, it looked like it was ready to move on to whatever afterlife clouds believed in.
Rainbow Dash understood her duty then: to be the ferrymare who shuttled that decrepit circle of cirrus to its new life.
How quickly could she go before she hit the ring? Sure, she had put the other two out of commission, but how else would anypony truly know she won if she didn’t leave a memento of hers to be remembered by?
She urged her wings onward. Her chest felt hollow and her eyes stung in the wind as it howled against them. The air, definitely trespassed upon by that point, pushed back at her with doubled fury.
The ground was definitely close now, and growing larger in a hurry. Before she could worry about making a pony-sized crater in the grass, though, she saw it just beyond the air she pushed against: a circular distortion of colors like what she’d seen only minutes earlier at sunrise, all of them as vibrant as her mane. She knew she had to reach out and touch it, and if she wanted to do that, she had to work even more.
Tears were ripped from her eyes as soon as they formed. The veil of color was just an inch away from her hooves! Even as the blue ring closed in impossibly quickly, even as it looked like she had no chance to pull out of her dive—she knew it would not end like that. All she had to do was reach out just a little bit further.
The wall of air buckled beneath her hooves, and the veil transformed into a luminescent cone that swirled and buzzed all around her. Her body stretched to impossible lengths and shuddered, and her wings were beating so fast they were beginning to hum.
C’mon, c’mon, c’mon! Her entire body wanted to shake apart. And maybe that would happen. But it wouldn’t happen at that moment. She knew she was on the cusp of touching greatness, and the laws of physics would step back to grant her that greatness.
Her hooves touched the veil.
The world exploded in silence, accompanied only by a light of immeasurable white that subsumed everything it fell upon. Rainbow Dash’s vision filled with swirling colors that spun around each other like water reflections on the ceiling of a cave. Her mind had turned peaceful, and her body felt free of gravity’s nattering call.
I did it, echoed the words in her head. She floated around for a few more seconds until she heard them again. I did it.
A whistling, faint at first, began to creep into her ears, and she gradually became aware that her hooves were still locked in place out in front of her. She blinked, and each time she did so made the sky above a little bluer.
She was still flying. Somehow. She looked back over her shoulder.
A massive ring of color sprawled over the land beneath her and continued to spread outward like a wave in a pond. Trees bent and rocks split in its wake. A rainbow-colored contrail originated from its center, and the filly traced it up from there all the way to—herself.
Whatever that thing was down there, she had been responsible for it. The words sprang unbidden to her mind, and she knew right away what to call her signature move.
Her momentum had shot her well up to Cloudsdale’s height, and she crossed the finish line at Cloudsdale Circuit only as a side thought. She left behind the cheers and celebrations of the other campers as she careered ever higher, higher than the camp, higher than Skyhead Falls—higher even than the cirrus sheets forming the very ceiling of the sky.
She stopped only when the air turned dark and her ears brushed against the cold edge of space. Far into the distance, the sun rested upon the bright blue arc of the planet like a signal fire, large and powerful. Mountain ranges like frosted chocolate drops danced with little cottonball clouds beneath her hooves. The only sound she heard was her breath in her ears. It was just her and the border of the great ghastly cosmos, breathing, soaring. Living.
A sharp tingle stitched itself along her flanks. Rainbow Dash turned to look—and gasped. There, tattooed into her coat until the day she left for the Summer Lands, was her cutie mark: a lightning bolt, trisected into the three primary colors as it burst forth from a cloud.
She lingered for one last moment as her contrail faded into nothingness—the infinite, the world, and herself in between, and she wished for a moment that she could stay there. But gravity extended its hoof out to her, and she had no choice but to accept its gesture. She took her time gliding down, feeling no heavier than a shadow, and the grandstands of Cloudsdale Circuit soon fixed themselves in her vision.
By the time she touched down by the starting line, the scattered campers had become a throng, as if the entire camp had assembled to witness her victory. A rainbow-colored mob moved in toward her from all angles, every one of them competing to make themselves heard over their neighbors.
“Congratulations, Rainbow Dash!”
“Way to go!”
“That was totally awesome!”
But Rainbow Dash knew who she was looking for the most. She quietly pushed the other ponies out of the way as she made her way toward the main entrance. She beat her bullies, pulled off some crazy rainbow thing, and had earned her cutie mark in the space of a morning. And she wanted to share her best day ever with the one pony responsible for keeping her there.
The filly froze in place. That wasn’t Fluttershy’s voice.
Wind Storm’s voice called out from over by the main gates with her camp bag at his side. The stallion skewered her with a gaze that could have turned a circus into a cremation, which was exactly what the little filly felt was happening to her insides the moment she heard her name.
Gotta fly, she thought, just before a hoof hooked itself over her back. When Rainbow looked up, the stern eyes of Amber Swift looked back into hers. He escorted her over to Wind Storm without a word.
Rainbow searched the ponies behind her as the head counselor took her back out of the circuit. But alas—the pony with the yellow coat and pink mane she’d gotten to know so well, the pony who’d never spared any kindness to her, the pony who had always been there for her in times of need—was nowhere to be found.
“I know, darling—these spa treatments are always over too soon!” The white-coated unicorn threw a curl of her immaculate purple mane onto the other side of her neck as she walked down the hall.. “Lotus and Aloe are the best of the best, though, so I always make sure to enlist their services whenever I come by. I do hope you enjoyed yourself?
“I did, um, Miss Rarity.”
“Oh, please, dear, how many times must I say this? There’s no need to be so formal around me.” Rarity stopped before the door leading into the main reception room, as if to linger in the comfortable, jasmine-laced air for a moment longer before stepping outside into the dirt and dust of the world once more. “I understand the stress of moving into another town that isn’t your own. Perhaps you’d like to make this a weekly thing for now, to get you comfortable while you’re here? I mean—if you say you’re going to be working with animals—” She let the implication hang in the air.
“They’re not all bad,” said Fluttershy, pushing the door open for her spa partner. “A lot of them are quite skilled at cleaning themselves. Besides, I made the mistake of bathing a cat once—never again.”
“You’re too nice a soul to be dealing with such creatures on a regular basis,” sniffed Rarity.
Fluttershy blushed and hung her head as she passed through the door.
“Aaaaand I want that one. No, wait—gimme that one instead. Orrrr was it that one? Hang on, that one’s part of a set? Just grab me something that comes in one bottle. Aw, haystacks, I don’t even know what I’m doing here.”
The pegasus’s head bounced back up as she stopped in her tracks. She knew that voice from somewhere.
“Rainbow Dash?” Rarity gasped.
The noise of glass bottles shattering on tile filled the air. “R-R-Rarity? Boy, of all the ponies I had to run into today, I just—”
Fluttershy’s eyes grew wide at the same time the other pony’s voice died away. They gaped at each other for a moment that could have spanned the life of a glacier. And then Fluttershy broke out into the largest smile she’d smiled ever since she moved to Ponyville.
“Rainbow Dash!” She launched herself across the room just as the other pegasus threw her hooves out wide, and the two of them embraced as if the years after their last meeting had never happened at all.
“I-I-I can’t believe this!” Rainbow’s voice sang in her ear. “Fluttershy! I looked for you everywhere after I got kicked outta camp! You live here now?”
Fluttershy’s throat tightened in ecstasy. “I moved here last month, yes.”
“Ahhhh! Get outta here!” Rainbow hugged her all the tighter, and the two of them moved toward the front door. “You’ve gotta tell me what you’ve been up to all this time!”
Behind the animated chatter of their reunion, Rarity reached up and scratched her head. “Goodness, Rainbow Dash,” she sniffed, surveying the broken bottles by her hooves. “I, well... hm. If you wanted to get the right conditioner for your mane, all you had to do was consult me on the matter and I could’ve saved you all this trouble.”
~ W i n g m a r e s ~
If you have had enough patience with my writing to make it all the way down here, I thank you first, and hope you consider the time you spent reading to have been well spent. Please consider telling your friends about this story if you enjoyed yourself, but whatever you want to do is fine, too.
I could not have written “Wingmares” by myself—only the support of amazing friends kept me going on this project at times. First, I wish to thank Riza for being my primary pony pal and inspirational bulwark. I never would’ve started writing “Wingmares” without you. I also wish to thank Hagil and Teddie for frequenting my WIP and offering suggestions and encouragement on their own time.
I wish to thank the pre-readers of EqD next, since they’re the ones giving this story (among myriads of others) the go-ahead on the blog. Here’s to reading ALL the fanfiction (ALL the fanfiction?)!
I’d also like to give a shout-out to TwilightSnarkle, the author of “Order from Chaos” and “Justice”. He inspired me to tackle writing a long one-shot of my own. Supreme thanks are due to CloudySkies as well, a commendable author who volunteered several hours of his time to help me tighten up my rough draft. Thanks, too, to InertialSky over on DeviantArt for pointing out some more fixes.
If you enjoyed this story, I would love to hear from you. I have a DeviantArt account here so you can keep up with my writing endeavors whenever I get around to them. You can also reach me at [email protected].
Finally, you may be familiar with my other project, A Fire on the East. If you are not, may I interest you in having a look? With “Wingmares” out of the way, I hope to start work on Part 5 this week.
Post-finally, I’ve yet another project I’m looking to get off the ground (haha). “Via Equestria” will be a multi-parter inspired by a commercial I saw for the “Official Training Bike of the Tour de France” at a sports bar one day. Like “Wingmares”, it involves a race—one that’ll take our favorite ponies all around Equestria. Check out the prologue if you’re interested!
I have prattled on long enough. Thank you for reading.
Pasofino had once been a tiny hamlet, ignored by the rest of Equestria, but now it boomed, crowded with new construction and new faces. Prosperity reigned over the once-quiet village. Despite springtime rains and muddy streets, visitors from far and wide availed themselves of the services and goods of the bustling shops on the way to their destination: a toy shop.
Worker’s Toys had moved several times in the past five years. First run from his home, and then from a tent in the pavilion, it now had its own storefront. It was located at the end of a new thoroughfare, and the large yet homey shop was surrounded by a motley assortment of the village’s more prosperous businesses and restaurants.
The shop was busy at all hours. Ponies traveled great distances to buy what could only be found on its shelves. The town’s fillies and colts crowded the sales floor as they tested the merchandise while familiar and foreign faces lined up at the till. Business was brisk, and Worker’s days were made brighter simply by bringing such joy to his fellow ponies.
That Friday afternoon, however, he closed early. He loaded up a wagon behind the store with all manner of toys, games, and surprises, from wind-up butterflies and frogs to simple ring-puzzles. This would be his first shipment to Canterlot, discounting the occasional visitor who made a special request, and his first step into larger distribution. It promised to bring in a great deal of money, as well as a little recognition. While the money wasn’t needed, Worker admitted the recognition was pleasant indeed.
Skyshine smiled at him from her position beneath one of the wagon’s yokes. He nodded back, then stood next to her, slipping the harness over his shoulders. Together, they began the journey towards the famed city.
“Goodbye, Mr. Worker!” called a young unicorn filly, dangling from a nearby tree. “Have a fun trip!”
He slowed his gait, and nodded back. “We will, Sparks. Take care you don’t fall. If you drop head-first, you might damage the roots.”
“I won’t, Mr—HEY!”
Chuckling to himself, Worker picked up his pace once more, and the wagon rumbled down the path. Skyshine rolled her eyes in amusement.
“You really should be nicer to the foals, dearest.”
He looked affronted a moment before his smile won out. “I was nice! She knows I care for her.”
“Mmm.” She smiled back, and glanced over her shoulder at the giggling filly, who had been joined by a few friends. “I suppose that’s true. Didn’t you leave a surprise for her birthday, tomorrow?”
“I did indeed.” He nodded to himself, keeping his eyes on the horizon. “That little filly’s got the best night-light ever.”
“I thought it was a music box.”
“Does that too,” he noted, satisfied.
“I’m not going to win this conversation, am I?”
“Oh, are we competing?” He was careful not to meet her eye. “You know I would never dare, Skyshine, because you always win.”
She leaned over and nuzzled him as they walked. “Charmer.”
He gave her a sidelong look, and smiled faintly. “I’m inspired by beauty.”
Obviously pleased, with color rising in her ears, she looked towards the road ahead. “Shush, you. We have days left to go.”
He eyes twinkled merrily in the late-afternoon sunlight. “I look forward to it.”
The nights were clear and warm, and the days sunny. If Worker didn’t know better, he’d suspect Sundown had a hoof in that. The two ponies made good time, often walking well past moonrise and starting their mornings before the sun peeked over the horizon. In the darkness, they would sit around a small fire, regaling one another with childhood fantasies of derring-do and romance.
“Skyshine?” Worker checked on the embers of their fire, and pulled their blanket closer. “Are you ready?”
“I’ll be right there,” she replied from the treeline on the other side of the road. “Set things up for us, won’t you?”
As had become habit, Worker checked the goods, took out a bottle of cider, and lay on the thick blanket beside the dying fire. Skyshine joined him there, leaning against him with a sigh of contentment, and the two of them watched the stars.
Worker shared the myths of the constellations, pointing out their places in the Equestrian sky. Orion, Scorpio, Cassiopeia, and the Ursas Major and Minor were all known here, but with different legends attached. Skyshine, in turn, told him the tales of some constellations unique to Equestria, pointing out the Progenitor, the Two Sisters, the arm of the Mist Sea, and many others. Tonight’s story was her favorite.
“It is said that many years ago,” she proclaimed, her voice gaining the tones of a skilled vaudevillian, “the four stars of the Vanguard rested at opposite corners of the sky, drawing nearer to one another as the centuries passed. They served Nightmare, and sought to return it to power over all of Equestria. Their dark plot might have succeeded were it not for the Elements of Harmony, a band of heroes who lived in an enormous enchanted tree surrounded by a dangerous forest.”
He’d heard the story a hundred times before on a hundred different nights, but each retelling was just as magical as the first. He knew it was the company that made it so. Half-listening, he rested his muzzle on her neck, and her words became a quiet lullaby that he felt more than heard. A few moments later, her tuneless song became a muffled sigh, and then a steady susurrus as she fell asleep. He smiled as he snuggled closer, and soon joined her in dreams.
It was shortly after noon on their fourth day when they approached the gates to Canterlot. Its sweeping arches and slender spires gleamed in the warm spring sun, creating a vista unlike any other in Equestria. Skyshine looked over the yoke at her partner, and smiled to herself as he stared in wonder.
She had visited the city often as a filly, when her father had business with the bankers. It was still a beautiful, impressive sight to her. She could only imagine what Worker thought of it.
“It’s...” he began, then paused, gazing at her. “It’s the second most beautiful thing I’ve seen on this journey.”
Her ears turned bright-red and flicked with embarrassment, then she gave him a wry look and pulled the cart forward. He stumbled, struggling a moment to regain his hooves, but his smile never wavered. Together, they entered the city and began the next step of their journey.
Stopping at a nearby hotel, she struggled out of her yoke while Worker levitated a bag of coins from the wagon. “I’ll try the stores in the foreign quarter first, dearest,” he began, “and then the estates, if I have time before sundown. Please get us a room and a place to store the wagon overnight.”
Skyshine smiled, “Of course! Good luck on your pitch. If I get settled in quickly enough, I’ll join you.”
He trudged away with a nod, pulling the laden wagon behind him.
Skyshine strode into the hotel and waited behind a satin cord. To say the hotel was busy would be an understatement. It seemed as if every other traveler chose this location for their stay. Eventually, she made arrangements for a ground-floor room and a berth for their wagon, then winced at the price. It was significantly more than they had budgeted.
She tsked to herself as she counted the paltry change back into her purse. If their sales did not go well, she calculated, they’d have to leave before the week was up. Troubled, Skyshine located their room, entered, and stuffed the coinpurse into the room’s safe. She paused to check her mane in the mirror, then left to rejoin Worker. The walk, she hoped, would help lift her spirits.
As she strolled through Canterlot, her thoughts flew in all directions, eventually converging on her past. If Worker hadn’t always been a pony, he certainly was one now. Ever since his arrival five winters ago, he had made strides in his understanding of pony culture, but that was the lesser of two miracles. The greater was his physical change, seemingly overnight, into the form of the shaggy, disheveled unicorn she sought now.
He wasn’t hard to find. A crowd had formed outside Tinker’s Toys, a large storefront bedecked in all manner of hoofcrafted playthings. They clamored to peer through the windows as Worker made his sales pitch. Skyshine stepped closer to the wagon, keeping one eye on the goods strapped within and the other on her wild-maned companion. He appeared to be finishing up, and by the proprietor’s broad smile and gestures to the crowd outside, she seemed eager to agree.
Worker had a gift for communication. No matter the subject, he could relay what he intended with utmost clarity, so long as the other party was willing to listen. On the many nights they spent under the star-strewn sky, he would regale her with his dreams and ambitions, his thoughts and designs, his plans and his preparations. She drank it all in, and worked hard to keep up, wanting to know more about this strange creature who had become her closest friend.
Not that all his tales were pleasant. He often spoke of a dark past, a troubled time before Equestria became his home, but he would never clarify. She didn’t care. He was here now, and he was a good pony. He spent every waking hour crafting wondrous toys and magnificent machines, serving the town of Pasofino, and when he thought she wouldn’t notice, donating his bits to the town’s coffers.
Over time, the two of them had grown to depend on one another. When he was lost in his work, she would be sure to keep him in good health. When she was buried in yet another task for the mayor, he’d be sure to listen—if he didn’t have a good idea, he would at the very least be attentive and supportive. To the rest of the town, they were inseparable. To one another, they were everything.
As in any small town, ponies talked. And these days, the ponies talked about Skyshine and Worker. Had he proposed? Were they going to settle down? Raise a family? Whenever they asked, Skyshine would smile, and shake her head, and move on with her day. She didn’t know if, where he came from, that was something that occurred, and she was happy with the company she had. Still...
“...shine?” Someone was speaking. “Skyshine.”
Her world snapped back into focus, and she realized she was staring at the palace. Blinking, she found Worker waving a hoof before her eyes. She managed a wan smile. “I’m sorry. I was thinking.”
“I saw that,” he replied worriedly, his brow knotted. “Are you alright?”
“I’m fine, I’m fine. Really.” She remembered the shrinking purse back at the hotel. “How did the sale go? Are we on track?”
“Marvelously,” he answered, beaming. “She offered to take half our stock straight out, and depending on how they sell, she might be interested in another shipment very soon.”
“Half the stock?” She nickered with joy. “That’s wonderful! At this rate, we won’t have to worry about the budget at all. Uh, just a little concern, though. Doesn’t that change your sales plan?”
“A little, but it also simplifies the work.” He levitated a number of parcels out of the wagon, and carried them inside. She followed close behind, a package on her back. “Listen, I have an idea...”
It was a remarkable plan, ingenious but easy to execute. They could focus their sales through two main outlets in different parts of Canterlot. Each would receive a unique model that the other store would not, providing customers a reason to visit both shops. “I was thinking the butterfly line here,” he explained, “and at our next stop, the turtles.” Those two lines were his biggest sellers.
“It makes sense,” Skyshine replied. “I’ll make sure the turtles stay on the wagon, and look for any extra butterflies.” He nodded in reply, and left in search of the owner. She headed back outside, sorted out the remaining parcels, and secured them tightly. By the time she was done, Worker returned with a bulging purse which he stuffed into a chest built into the wagon.
“Her largest competitor is just under an hour’s walk around the palace.” Worker stretched out his neck with a groan, then approached the harnesses. “Shall we get going?”
“Anywhere with you, dear,” she replied with a smile, slipping into the yoke.
The wagon rolled easily down the pavers as the pair walked towards the other shop. “By the way, Skyshine,” Worker began, “what’s the problem with the budget?”
An hour and a half later, the two ponies, exhausted from their labors, walked towards their hotel. Worker pulled the empty wagon, while Skyshine walked alongside and kept watch for any colts and fillies underhoof in the lengthening shadows.
Rounding a corner, Worker heard one last package slide across the wagon’s planks. Skyshine heard it too. “Worker?” she called. “There’s one left! Did we short one of the stores?”
He shook his head, and called over his shoulder, “No, dearest. That’s a package for somepony else. Special delivery. We’ll take care of it tonight, if you’re up to it.”
“That’s fine,” she replied, “but I want to get in a hoof soak and a meal first.”
“Let’s dress up and hit the town. After our good fortune today, I feel like celebrating.”
They reached the hotel soon thereafter. Worker levitated the package out of the back as he walked the wagon around the elaborately landscaped grounds. “I’ll see you inside, Skyshine.”
She nodded and strolled into the hotel, pausing to smell a few blossoms not found in Pasofino. When he could no longer see her, Worker let out a quiet breath he had not known he was holding. He left the wagon in its bay, stretched out his legs and neck, and followed her lead.
He entered the room and set the parcel down by the door. Judging by the sounds, Skyshine was in the shower; she had already laid out a gown for dinner. It was a remarkable garment of shimmering gossamer, elegant yet understated, like its owner. He could hardly wait to see her in it. He pulled out his dinner jacket and cuffs, then opened up a book and waited for her to finish.
The water cut off shortly thereafter, and Skyshine left the bathroom with a towel wrapped around her mane and a robe over her shoulders. Worker stood, closing the book, and strode towards the bath, pausing as he passed to peck her on the cheek. Grinning, he hopped into the shower for a scrub.
The restaurant’s decor was rich and vibrant, and the meal was superb. Worker had spoken with the concierge and was recommended to a number of restaurants, selecting one that overlooked Canterlot Park. A little splurging didn’t hurt, especially since they planned to return home the next day. But first, Worker had a surprise.
Across the dining hall, a string quartet tuned their instruments and scattered couples began to rise from their seats. The floor slowly began to fill, and Skyshine gestured towards it in invitation. “Would you want to?”
“You know I’m not one for dancing, dearest,” Worker replied, “but if you’d like to take a walk in the park, I’d be honored to accompany you.”
She smiled and nodded, and the two of them left the restaurant side by side. Worker glanced at the sky as they walked, calculating in silence the time to sunset and moonrise. He nodded towards a hill, and the pair climbed to its peak to get a better view.
To their surprise, they were not alone. A small crowd had gathered to watch the princesses work. An excited filly pointed at a balcony on the palace and shouted, “There they are!”
Sure enough, Princess Celestia’s coat shimmered in the sunlight, and next to her stood the dark silhouette of her sister, Princess Luna. The elder sister turned to the west and lowered her head, and the sun quickly followed suit. As its light faded, the younger of the pair reared up on her hind legs, and the moon began to rise on the opposite horizon.
Scattered applause could be heard throughout the park as families and couples stood to leave. Skyshine and Worker sat motionless, watching the moon continue its ascent. Soon, they were alone. The locals saw this show every night, but to Worker and Skyshine, it was a unique experience. When the lower arc of the moon cleared the horizon, Worker leaned close, and nuzzled his beloved. “Skyshine?”
He smiled in the darkness, concentrated, and brought out a small velvet box from within his mane. It hovered between them, and he lowered his head as the lid opened. Skyshine gasped.
“Will you make me the happiest stallion in all of Equestria?”
Princess Luna’s chambers were alive with all manner of buzzing, clattering, and chirping toys. Butterflies fluttered near the ceiling, turtles trudged beneath the bed, and a caterpillar was making itself at home as it crawled up the draperies. Luna sat at her desk, happily watching a tiny hedgehog run around in circles. It paused every now and then to scratch at an imaginary itch before continuing on its spiraling path.
A gentle knock sounded at her door, and the lack of a guard’s challenge told her who it was. “It’s open,” she called, looking over her shoulder as the handle turned. Her sister stuck her head in, winced at the cacophony, and then stepped inside.
“Good afternoon, Luna. You’re up early. I was coming to wake you when I heard these most interesting devices.”
“Aren’t they marvelous? They’re all the rage in the city; as soon as they reach the shelves, they’re sold. I was lucky to find these.”
“Lucky, my sister? When you can teleport, fly, and bear the crown?”
“Oh, nonsense, Tia. I always wear a disguise when I’m not on official business.”
Celestia knew about the disguise, as did every resident of Canterlot. Still, she was trying her best to rejoin her subjects, and Celestia couldn’t fault her for a minor oversight.
“Oh! That reminds me, sis. Here, I got this one for you.” With that, Luna levitated a package from behind her bed, spinning it about as it hovered before her elder sister. “Don’t worry, it doesn’t creep or crawl or buzz. I know how you like things just so.”
Celestia examined the expertly wrapped parcel. “Thank you, sister. Did you want me to open it?”
“You can, but you’re probably busy. Open it when you have a moment.” She rose from her desk and walked over to her big sister, nuzzling her neck and burying her face in Celestia’s flowing mane. “Love you, Tia,” she said simply, her clarion voice muffled in her sister’s coat. She pulled away, and added, “I’ll see you downstairs after I’ve eaten.”
With that, Luna left the room, smiled at the guards outside her door, and cantered away, humming a quiet tune.
Celestia took one last look around the room and its bizarre mechanical menagerie before shaking her head in quiet resignation. “I don’t know that I’ll ever understand you, sister, but I do love you so.” She doused the lights, closed the door, and carried her gift before her as strode towards a lesser hall and another meeting.
Celestia, while wiser in years than any of her ponies, never claimed to be the brightest. Still, with a little thought, she was able to unravel most puzzles and solve most of the problems she faced. When she could not, some consultation with her advisors would often set things aright. Despite this trait, or perhaps because of it, she faced the device before her with great consternation.
It was a timepiece—that much was certain—and it seemed to be able to sense the position of the sun in the sky and adjust itself accordingly. It had a heart of gears, wires, spokes, and assemblies that were so layered and mysterious, that it made the clockmaker’s craft seem simple. Indeed, when she had summoned the Royal Timekeeper and suggested he take it apart, he blanched, declining her offer.
Every hour, on the hour, while the sun was in the sky, the device played a short tune that changed according to the time. It was hopeful and earnest in the dawn, methodical throughout the morning, triumphant when the sun reached its peak, urgent as the sun sank, and sleepy as it rested on the horizon. As the day progressed, the device mirrored the position of the sun with a golden orb on a slender wand.
She had wound it fully, three days ago. Thirty rotations. She counted. This morning, the wind-key would only make one rotation. Most other clockworks required a daily refresh, and none would last a week. This device seemed ready to run for two months on a single winding.
It was a remarkable machine by any measure, one whose likeness she had not witnessed in Equestria before. That last part concerned her. Being interested in the gifts of all her ponies gave her a unique insight into the latest advancements in the arts and sciences, but this piece had neither an obvious predecessor nor an equal.
Turning it over, she read the markings once more:
Worker’s Toy Shop, Pasofino
It was time to find out more about this remarkable device and its maker.
The town of Pasofino was buzzing with the news: After five long years, Worker and Skyshine were to be wed within the month. Skyshine was beside herself, transfixed at a point between anxiety and joy, and Worker bore an absent-minded smile wherever he traveled about town.
Saber Dance was named bridesmare, and Bulwark—after some good-natured ribbing—accepted the role of best stallion, despite the difference in gender. Whisper, of course, agreed to officiate.
Wedding preparations were well underway when the letter arrived: a roll of luxurious, smooth paper bound with a velvet ribbon and pressed with the Royal Seal. Worker, with Skyshine at his side, opened it with some trepidation.
To my loyal subject, Worker of Pasofino:
Greetings, and congratulations on your wedding! It is truly wonderful to hear of your upcoming nuptials, and I wish you the utmost happiness in your marriage.
I write to you today, dear Worker, to inquire into the nature of these wonderful toys that have suddenly become so popular around Canterlot. I imagine Pasofino’s ponies enjoy them as well. Each one bears your mark, as well as your inimitable craftsmanship. Indeed, I have never seen such fascinating machines.
Princess Luna is quite taken by your craft. She owns several of your devices and gives them free reign of her room at all hours of the night. I believe a miniature hedgehog is her favorite of the set.
I ask that you present yourself to my court at your earliest convenience. Please, do not consider this a summons. I am eager to meet you and learn more about your tiny miracles, but I am happy to wait while you and Skyshine explore your new lives together as husband and wife.
I look forward to your reply.
Princess Celestia of Equestria
Worker sat in a stunned silence. Dumbfounded, he turned the letter this way and that as it levitated. The seal was a duplicate of the design embossed on every bit, and the ink was exceptional: a deep midnight black with tiny flecks of gold that caught the light as the letter spun.
“I guess it could be authentic,” he mumbled, shocking Skyshine from her reverie.
“What? Of course it is! Nopony would impersonate Celestia, Worker. It’s... unthinkable.”
“I suppose I’m still a little wary of the new, is all. Still, why me? Why do my little devices cause such a stir in a place like Canterlot? What would they think about some of my larger works?”
“I don’t know, dearheart, but this sounds like a wonderful opportunity. If you can impress the princesses, imagine what ideas you could bring about, what changes your devices could br—”
Worker lifted his hoof to interrupt, and then rested it against his forehead. “That’s what I’m afraid of.”
“Success?” she asked, brow furrowed in confusion.
He lowered his hoof, and sighed. “Changes. I’ll... I’ll explain later.” Carefully rolling up the letter, he set it on the table, then glanced at the clock over the mantle. “For now,” he grinned impishly, “some slip of a filly is late for her fitting.”
“Oh, my!” Skyshine clattered to her hooves, and gave him a peck on the cheek before she trotted out the door. “Goodbye!”
“Goodbye, Skyshine,” he called after her. As the door’s latch reset, he whispered, “I love you.” His smile faded as his plans dissolved into worry. Picking up a pen, he levitated a piece of paper onto the table, and began to fashion a reply.
The day of the wedding had arrived, and the town bustled with final preparations. The old Pasofino Conservatory had been remodeled and reopened just in time for the reception. Its owner, Silver Chimes, claimed she had simply been waiting for a reason.
Worker waited in the field behind the conservatory, pacing back and forth beside the pledge-stone where he and Skyshine would soon swear before the people of Pasofino and formally become husband and wife. Bulwark waited with him, leaning against an oak as she watched him burn off the nervous energy.
“You’ll do fine, Worker,” she reassured him. “All you have to do is remember three lines, and be able to hold up your hoof long enough for Whisper to tie the fasting-cloth about it. Child’s play.”
“You seem awfully confident,” he replied wryly. “How many times have you been married?”
“Hmph.” She stared into the limbs of her shade-tree, and theatrically stuck out her lower lip into an enormous pout. “See if I try to help anymore.”
Worker continued his pacing, beginning to sweat in his black coat. The wind picked up briefly, cooling him, but also carrying with it the sounds of a number of happy ponies.
“That’ll be the undertaker, my friend.” Bulwark lowered her gaze from the treetop and gave him a merciless, savage grin. “Judging by the sun, you’ve got about fifteen minutes of bachelorhood left. Anything you want to do while you still can?”
“You’re not helping, Bulwark.”
“Said I wouldn’t,” she replied simply.
Worker considered a withering response, but decided otherwise when he saw the crowd approaching, seemingly composed of half of the village. Within minutes, the open field was covered in brightly-colored ponies, each wearing their finest attire. He forced himself to stop pacing, but his heart took up the duty by pounding in his ears. Where was Skyshine?
A quiet cough from Bulwark’s resting spot brought Worker’s attention to the fore. There, on the other side of the field, stood a trio of mares. Two wore simple moss-green robes, and the other... She was bedecked in a dazzling white gown: layers of silk and satin that cascaded from her poll and flowed like water down her crest, across her withers and croup, finally breaking like a wave where it reached the ground.
“Skyshine...” His pounding heart nearly stopped as it tripped over itself. Worker was dimly aware that his mouth was open. He closed it and forced himself to swallow. He could hear Bulwark laughing.
He watched as she approached the pledge-stone, shadowed by Whisper and Saber Dance. She shyly met his gaze from behind a lace veil. His ears flicked wildly as they reddened in response. He simply could not take his eyes off of her, and stood stock-still before the gathered crowd.
Worker realized he was beginning to feel light-headed, and the edges of his vision had begun to fade. Somepony nudged his shoulder, and he suddenly recalled the importance of breathing. By the time the dots cleared from his vision, Whisper was nearly done with the ceremony.
“...and so, we bring these two ponies together to begin a life anew. Each will state their pledge, and then join their hooves together as a symbol of the path they now take as one. Skyshine?”
He watched as she placed one hoof on the pledge-stone, then looked into his eyes, and smiled at him before speaking.
“I, Skyshine, pledge to be a faithful wife. I pledge to trust my husband in all he does. I pledge to deserve his trust in me.”
Skyshine and Whisper looked at him expectantly. With equal parts love and terror, he placed his hoof aside hers, and recited his pledge. “I, Worker, pledge to be a faithful husband...”
Celestia peered across the gardens at her sister’s court. Its doors were opened, and a pair of silver-clad unicorn guards maintained watch outside. She sighed, stepped out onto the plaza, and ascended the spiral staircase to the parapets. She preferred to watch her sunsets. While she did not have to see the sun to control it, she found that doing it by ‘feel’ often left her irritable.
She focused, and brought the sun safely to the horizon. I’m sorry, Luna, she thought. I wanted to do this with you, today, but... As if answering, she felt the familiar surge of magic that raised the moon. At least their duties had been met, even if they had not seen one another.
She walked back down the stair, mentally checking off a list. It had been one of those days. The morning session had run long with a diplomatic session between a pair of villages that each claimed to be the furthest East from Canterlot. The absurdity of the claim seemed only to serve as fuel for the heated arguments that followed. Then there was a matter of a missing envoy from the griffin territories, and a sighting of an Ursa Major in the Everfree...
Celestia reached the plaza once more, and shook out her mane. As she stepped through the door, she nodded at a stocky grey pegasus clad in a gold and ivory tabard. “Silvermoon, is our guest still waiting?”
“Yes, Your Highness,” he replied, ascending from a reflexive bow and furling his wings. “Master Worker has been in the side chambers for roughly an hour, now.”
The princess tsked in frustration, paced across the gallery, and mounted the stair that led to her throne. As she settled into it, stretching each wing in turn, a horn sounded from the other side of the gardens, and a high voice called into the gathering darkness.
“Hail the Night! All hail Princess Luna!”
“That would be Herald Dazzle, wouldn’t it?” She smiled kindly at Silvermoon. “How is your sister?”
“As insufferable as ev—” he began, before remembering where he was. “Ah...” His ears burned brightly and he stared, poleaxed, at the tiles before him.
Celestia chuckled quietly, sparing a sympathetic look for the mortified pegasus. “I did ask. Well, I think our guest has waited long enough. Would you be so kind?”
“Yes, of course, Your Highness.” He turned and nodded to the guards at the chamber. Quickly regaining his composure, he stood at attention.
The heavy door opened, and a shaggy orange-maned unicorn in a black jacket turned to peer into the gallery. An uncomfortable silence began to build as he stood, stock-still, staring within.
A nearly imperceptible cough sounded in the side chamber. The pony stepped forward, looking left and right, attempting to get his bearings. Celestia waited upon her throne, watching the silhouetted pony stride as confidently as he could into her court. Despite his high chin and steady steps, he showed some signs of nervous reluctance. That would not do; she wanted him to be at ease. He passed the herald, and slowed, able to now see the princess clearly.
“Announcing Worker,” Silvermoon shouted, startling the newcomer. “Toymaker of Pasofino!”
“Thank you, Herald Silvermoon,” the princess replied with faint exasperation. She turned to study the pony that stood in the center of the gallery, treating him to a warm smile. Behind her peaceful features her mind raged with intense curiosity. The nervous pony tried to set his shoulders, and took a deep breath. He remained silent, and glanced throughout the gallery, shuffling his hooves.
Celestia wanted nothing more than to begin questioning him immediately. She longed to learn about his methods, his techniques, and what other creations he had devised, and was intensely curious about how his talent could affect the lives of Equestrians. Decorum, however, demanded otherwise. He was a subject, and thus deserved the utmost respect.
He also appeared to be frozen in place.
“Worker,” she intoned, “thank you for coming so soon. Please, approach. It would not do for us to shout at one another.”
Woken from his reverie, Worker stepped closer. “Ah... greetings, your Highness. I have come as you have requested.”
“So you have,” she replied, a hint of merriment dancing in her dulcet voice. “Welcome to Canterlot, Worker, and welcome to the Court of the Sun. I do hope my invitation did not upset your wedding plans.”
“Of course not, your Highness.”
He continued to try to meet her gaze, and seemed to be gaining ground. Celestia was pleased. He might not have known precisely why he was there, but he was confident he could manage. Excellent.
“I am happy to serve,” he replied with a smile, although it did not reach his eyes. “I must admit Skyshine wanted me to wait another week.”
The princess mused on his words. Was he reluctant? Perhaps, but it seemed to her that he was stuck between warring priorities. If that was the case, how should—of course. “I’ll see that you have speedy transportation back to Pasofino,” she replied. “After all, it’s not good to keep a new bride waiting.”
“Thank you, Your Highness.” His smile seemed genuine, now, and his tone more relaxed. “That is most generous, and I accept eagerly.”
He seemed relieved. There must have been some friction at home, after—Ah, she was doing it again. Her tendency to analyze others, while useful in diplomacy, did nothing to help her relate to her ponies. Forcing suspicion from her mind, she attempted to move the conversation closer to her goal.
“Now, it is well past the time when I normally hold court, and my personal guard has pulled an extended shift due to some minor emergencies. Would you walk with me, Worker? It would do me some good to stretch my legs and give these fine ponies a well-deserved rest.”
“Certainly, Princess,” he replied quickly, then remembering himself, added, “I would be honored.”
Nodding, the princess stood and gracefully stepped down from the sun-emblazoned dais. Gazing past Worker, she called, “Captain Cadence, please dismiss the Court. If you would also notify the Night Watch that I will be touring with a guest, it would be most appreciated. We will likely stay to the parapets and gardens.”
Cadence bowed low, nodded to the herald, then left through the doors by which Worker had entered. Once he was out of sight, her personal guard bowed as well, then followed behind.
Worker turned to walk beside her without comment. As he did so, Herald Silvermoon struck the floor with his right forehoof thrice, and announced, “So closes the Court of the Sun! All hail Princess Celestia!”
Her ponies did like ceremony. Some effort had been required to get them to agree to such a simple dismissal. It was only after convincing them that, in times of need, a swift dismissal ensured the safety of the crown that they relented. Still, it kept them happy and alert, and that was as good a reason as any.
She passed through the great doors and took a left towards the wide expanse of stairs that spiraled gracefully to the upper walks. Worker kept apace, more intent on the placement of his hooves than his words. Soon, the pair arrived at the top of the inner wall of the palace. Either side of the moonlit expanse was flanked by a crenellated wall and dotted with the occasional unicorn clad in silvery armor.
“So, Worker,” she began, stepping out into the night, “tell me: What inspires your work?” She slowed her gait to match his, to let him better focus on his answer.
“Inspiration?” He mused a moment, suddenly looking comfortable. This was familiar terrain. “The concept of a toy reflecting the natural world is nothing new, as you undoubtedly know, and...”
Celestia allowed herself a smile. Her answers would come soon enough.
The moon was nearing its zenith, and Celestia was still no closer to finding what she sought. Her guest was well-versed in every topic she thought she might use to regain control of the conversation, and more than once she found herself gaining an insight into some esoteric, unrelated point simply by listening. Still, they had been speaking for hours, and while the garden was lovely at night, she did have a few minor concerns elsewhere in the palace that she wanted to address before sunrise.
Celestia rested on a long stone bench beside a burbling fountain. Worker, electing to stand, paced back and forth, animatedly gesturing as he did so. He was elaborating on the topic of something he called “fractals” and how they helped his efforts to miniaturize his work. That discussion had spawned from one on a concept called “number theory”, and that one developed out of a chat on how his machines ran so efficiently. The topic seemed familiar, uncannily so... Ah, yes.
“These fractals, Worker,” she interjected. “They’re infinitely complex, correct? A pattern that never ends?”
“Well, yes. Following the mathematics, the patterns disregard scale.”
“What do you believe would happen if you were manipulate the pattern at a given level?”
“Manipulate? In what way? The calculation results in the pattern. There are some systems that can reverse-engineer that, but...”
“I mean, what would happen to the rest of the pattern?” Celestia felt a little guilty for leading Worker on, but she had to know...
“It’s a new question to me, your Highness. I suppose...” Worker’s voice trailed off as he stared at the stars, lost in thought.
Celestia stood from the long stone bench and stepped close to Worker. She joined him in the study of the stars, and then quietly asked a simple question of her subject.
“Worker, who taught you how to use magic?”
“Magic?” He shook out his mane, clearing his head, then looked at the princess, only to be met by a warm smile. Under that knowing gaze, he decided to keep his answers as direct as he could. “I learned from Whisper.”
“Have you known Whisper long?” The princess’ voice was low and urgent, tuned not to carry over the noise of the fountain.
“About five years, now...”
“And you are not a colt, Worker.”
“Well, no, I...” He froze. His jaw worked silently as he struggled to regain his speech, his eyes wild with fear.
Celestia stepped back slightly, and looked into his face. She knotted her brow in genuine concern, and compassion tempered her voice. “I did not wish to trap you, Worker, but I must know.” She looked about for a moment, her horn glimmering under the moonlight. “Good. There are no ears that can hear us. Tell me, Worker: Where is your home? Truly?”
“I...” His eyes were still wide, but the earlier panic had faded to resignation. “Princess,” he sighed, “what gave me away?”
Celestia walked to the nearby fountain. She watched the rippling water for a few seconds before returning her gaze to the pony before her. “At an early age, every unicorn in the realm is offered formal instruction to master the basics of their magic. Every so often, a family refuses. This is rare, and I hear about each instance.”
She glanced back to the fountain, and channeled briefly, bringing out a small sphere of water.
“One of first concepts taught is that of resonance. Resonance states that small changes—”
She tapped the bottom of the sphere with her horn. Ripples traveled across its surface, crashing together when they reached the top, converging with a tiny splash.
“—unfold into large changes, if channeled correctly. It is very similar to these fractals, Worker, and had you been introduced to the concept earlier, I do wonder what works you might have accomplished.”
She glanced at the sphere of water, and it poured itself back into the fountain.
“But that is neither here nor there.” She looked at him once more, and continued, “Tell me: From where do you hail?”
Worker looked up at the stars in a silent plea. He sighed, and met the princess’ gaze. “I come from a world called Mobius—that is, a planet by that name. I came here through a portal, a tear in the fabric of space, when I sought retirement from that world. When I arrived here, I wasn’t a pony. I found myself in a cavern...”
As his story continued, Celestia’s serene mask slowly faded, her face darkening in the moonlight.
Celestia gazed down from her throne, a dark silhouette against the brilliance of the morning sun that shone through the stained glass behind her. Standing at the foot of her dais, a new pony—and a new friend—anxiously awaited her answer.
“I promise you, Worker, that I do not seek to upset your livelihood, nor separate you from those you love. In the future, however, I would like to speak with you at length about the subjects we discussed last night, as well as your homeland.”
“I am grateful, your Highness, and would be honored to do so. Again, I thank you for the chariot for the journey home.”
Celestia smiled and nodded her acknowledgement. “Go on. I’m sure Skyshine misses you.” Worker bowed and left the Court as gracefully has he could. Once he had stepped from her sight, she heard him pick up his pace. In short order, it sounded as if he might be at full gallop.
Celestia stepped down from her dais. Every member of the court stiffened and watched her with wary eyes, ready to serve. Her personal guards wordlessly took up their positions as she stepped towards the great archway at the entrance to her throne room.
“Herald Silvermoon, tell me, when is my next audience scheduled?” She knew the answer, but part of keeping a satisfied staff was allowing them to perform their tasks, no matter how mundane.
“Your schedule is clear until just past noon, Your Highness, when the Minister of Finance has requested your thoughts on a matter involving Hoofington.”
“Very good, Herald. Thank you. If you would follow the standard protocols for contacting me in case of emergencies, I believe I will take a tour.”
Silvermoon bowed low, his muzzle nearly touching the ground. A faint smile hid at the corners of his mouth.
One job done, she thought, and now... “Captain? While I appreciate the honor guard and have only the highest praise for their professionalism, I think my travel today would best be performed alone. If I might?”
“They are, of course, yours to command, Your Highness.”
She nodded, and turned to the armored pegasus to her right. “Sergeant Sturm, you may be dismissed. If you feel so inclined, the schoolhouse just outside the South Gate has been asking for volunteers.”
Sturm smiled, and bowed low. “By your leave, Your Highness.” He left quickly, off to spend the day with his little sister.
Turning to her left, she said, “And you, Sergeant Downburst, may also be dismissed. I seem to recall a fishing tournament being announced for this afternoon. Be sure to ask Lentils about it.”
“I shall indeed, and thank you.” Downburst bowed as well, and went to speak to his wife about their plans for the evening.
Celestia nodded in response, and turned back to their commanding officer. “Captain, my tour shall take me through the palace and its grounds. I do not believe a detail will be needed. If you can return by noon, I would like to offer you a few hours to your own devices.”
“I respectfully decline, Your Highness. I shall be here at your return.”
“Very well. I shall see you this afternoon, Captain.” She stepped through the archway, and into the Twilight Gardens, the immense plaza that separated her throne room from that of her younger sister. This early, the Gardens were almost vacant, but the few ponies that strolled its walks paused at her appearance and bowed in greeting. She returned each instance with a warm smile and a nod. Past the elaborate flowerbeds and fountained walks, the doors to Luna’s chambers were firmly secured at this hour. Its guardponies, both unicorns, regarded the few passers-by with practiced disinterest.
Celestia passed the great spiral stairway beside the court where she had walked with Worker the night before. She briefly considered walking the rest of the way to her destination. Time, however, was of the essence. She made a turn down a narrow passage between buildings, stepping out of the sight of her ponies, and then teleported into the empty, silent plaza before the imposing colonnade of the Royal Archives. She stepped through the portico and into the arcade, approached the open foyer, and smiled at the suddenly alert librarian.
“G-good morning, your Highness!” she stammered, brushing her mane from her face and forcing a awkward smile. “I certainly did not expect today to be so honored!”
Celestia nodded slightly, and quietly soothed the nervous unicorn. “Be at ease, Zephyr. I’ve come to browse the archives, not perform an inspection.” Her smile vanished as she crooked an eyebrow. “That is, unless I need to?”
Dread crept across the librarian’s face. Before she could respond, Celestia grinned.
“I’m only joking. I’m certain you perform your job to the utmost of your ability. Indeed, the reports I receive on the archives are never late and always expertly written. Thank you.”
Zephyr’s fear faded, but shock and pride wrestled across her features. To her credit, she managed to croak, “Thank you, Princess,” before hiding in her ledger.
Celestia shook her head, bearing a faint smile as she walked towards a remote corner of the building. After weaving around bookcases, reading desks, and the occasional surprised researcher, she came to a nondescript, forgotten door. Its knob would not turn, but this was by design.
She focused for a moment, and a quiet clicking sounded from the other side as the door swung open. She entered, and the door swung closed behind her. Darkness briefly reigned, and then a pale light flickered into existence, emanating from globes placed at regular intervals along a narrow, steep staircase. Now that she was alone, her outward serenity faded. She descended carefully, and her expression darkened with every step.
Six passages, then a left turn. Two more, and right. Three passages, and right again. The magic that sustained this place, deep beneath Canterlot, was as fickle as it was ancient. Celestia remembered casting the wards when she set the first courses of stone. After all these years, she could recall how the work taxed her abilities; the enchantments were subtle, meant to misdirect and confuse, and her magical prowess lay in the truth of things. Her sister was the enchantress, after all, and had not been present during the city’s founding.
Which brought up an interesting question.
When the city was founded, her sister had been... elsewhere. Confined. If she had traversed these halls, how did she know the paths to take, and the dangers to avoid?
It should have been a comfort—any possibility of eliminating Luna’s involvement in this was worth exploring—but it was a hollow one. If not Luna, then who? If not her sister, what manner of creature, event, or curse had transformed an outsider into one of her children?
She pushed the thoughts away, pledging to examine them later. In these depths, any distraction could be hazardous.
Before long, Celestia arrived at a small, unexceptional iron door. She lowered her head, beginning to channel a spell, and stopped. She gingerly placed a hoof against its handle, and was alarmed to find the door swung open easily.
“Could the spells have worn off?” she asked herself. Cautiously, she stepped into the room, then paused to study her surroundings. “Or could they have been removed?” By the dim globelight, she could see three bookshelves at the far end of the room, each sagging under the weight of their entrusted burdens. Before them stood a low table, cluttered with spheres, flasks, vials, and a single heavy tome on the verge of disintegrating.
Something about that book tickled Celestia’s memory. She hastened to the table and stood over the tattered remnants of the ancient tome, focusing the barest trace of her magic to turn its pages. In these neglected storerooms, using magic was dangerous; she could not begin to guess how her surroundings might react.
Glancing from one diagram to the next, the princess paused, her breath catching. There, on the page, was a single sparkling strand of Luna’s mane. The spell the page contained...
“No.” Celestia’s voice was the shadow of a whisper, a hopeless plea against the stones. “Luna, what have you done?”
The rite was one of the oldest forms of magic, a spell insidious and irreversible. Its use had annihilated entire battalions of the Equestrian army in battle, long ago. Once it had been deciphered, the spell was banned. Its very name was made taboo, and the books which held it were hidden away in the darkest parts of the Palace of the Sisters. When that place was reclaimed by the Everfree Forest, the collection was brought here.
Celestia had forgotten it.
Her sister had not.
Celestia paced the length of the dining hall, counting out the steps for what might have been the thousandth time. Her sister should have been here by now; she was never late for her breakfast. Silently, the door at the end of the hall crept open. Celestia froze, anxiety knotting her features, until a pair of unicorns in toques stepped inside, each levitating a large tray covered by a silvery dome. When they noticed the hall was already occupied, they froze as well.
A brief waiting game ensued until Celestia forced herself to smile and nod in greeting to her ponies. “Thank you, Lentils, Julep. You may set the table.”
Exchanging a hasty glance with each other, the two ponies hurriedly set out their trays and silverware, then made a beeline for the door. Julep exited first, and then...
“Lentils? A moment?”
The pony paused at the door, then turned and bowed. “Yes, princess? How might I serve you?”
“No need to be so formal. Have you seen my sister? I don’t suppose she’s snuck down to the kitchens for an early snack?”
“No, Your Highness. Or, if she did, I was not there to see.”
“Thank you, my friend.” She glanced at her sister’s empty seat, and then turned to stare out the window towards the horizon.
Lentils turned to leave, then stopped, one forehoof still lifted. “Princess? Are you alright?”
Celestia forced the worry from her face, and stepped towards her cushions, bringing the book that rested nearby into view. Wincing, she looked back at her old friend. “Yes. Thank you. I’ve just got a number of things on my mind.”
She pursed her lips a moment, then offered, “If you’d like, I could arrange some warm milk for bed?”
Celestia’s smile in return was the first genuine one since that morning. “I’ll let you know, my friend. And thank you for asking.”
The mossy green pony grinned, and dipped into a mock curtsy. “I live to serve, princess,” she replied with a wink, and vanished through the open door, closing it behind her. The latch clicked into place, and the room was silent once more.
Groaning, the ancient alicorn gracelessly flopped onto her cushions. She twisted this way and that until she was comfortable, and then sighed at her own foolishness. She should know better, after all these years. There’d be rumors throughout the palace, now, of some problem between her and her sister, or some great and terrible crime. Unfortunately, she mused, this time they’d be true.
Celestia closed her eyes and tried to relax. To say her day had been eventful would be an understatement. She hoped she hadn’t worried Zephyr too much when she did not leave the way she arrived. It couldn’t have been helped; there had been so much to do. The Minister of Finance had been very understanding when he was informed of a reschedule. Then she had to visit the Judiciary, and then her own private library, and then...
“Augh!” she growled, her eyes fluttering open. She stood, shook out her mane, and paced to the window where she watched the sun approach the horizon. “So much for a rest, Celestia. You just can’t stop poking at—”
Celestia started at the word, her head jerking around and her eyes briefly going wide before she noticed the presence of her sister. “Oh, Luna, it’s you. Thank goodness.”
Luna stood at the end of the table, seemingly hovering between seating herself and approaching her elder sibling. “Tia, what’s wrong?”
“Nothing that can’t be solved, Luna.” At least, she hoped that was true. She could not bring herself to meet Luna’s gaze, and she peered back towards the horizon. “It’s almost time. Shall we attend our duty?”
“From the dining hall?”
“I suppose we could head for the usual balconies, but...”
“You’d rather stay. I understand, I think. Alright, go ahead, sis.”
The celestial magic, while far from a simple endeavour, had become rote over the millennia. With a little concentration, Celestia lowered the sun, setting it safely on its course to rise again in the morning. Moments later, she could feel her sister work a similar magic, pulling the moon towards its rightful place in the night sky. Royal duty done, and stomachs empty, the sisters sat to enjoy their meal.
Celestia was well into her second slice of melon when Luna set down her drink, cleared her throat, and asked, “Tia? Do you want to talk about it?”
Her appetite suddenly gone, Celestia lowered her fork to her plate, and frowned at it. An uncomfortable silence gathered, and Luna stood to approach her sister. Celestia spoke first, staring at the meal before her.
“Luna, do you remember, a few years ago, when I worried about your sleep? When you said you were completing a project?”
Luna nodded slowly. “Yes...”
Celestia looked up, meeting Luna’s gaze. Her face was smooth, expressionless, and perhaps a little unsettling. Her stare was intense, and Luna could almost feel its weight. “Do you recall when you asked about redemption? How you wanted to know if I would have acted in the same fashion to rescue you from your corruption, even if you had not been my sister?”
“I do,” she replied, her features troubled. “Why?”
“When were you planning on telling me what you were up to?”
“It... slipped my mind, I guess.” Luna glanced down, and then to her left, studying something only she could see.
Celestia sipped her juice, then asked another question. “Luna, those toys you so admire, and the gift you gave me, do you know where they are from?”
“The shops in Canterlot, Tia,” she replied, clearly flustered by this change in direction. “Where they get them, I could not begin to guess.”
“The little town near the mountains? About a day’s flight?”
“Yes. Near the mountains. Near a cavern. Near a disturbance that you noticed, five years ago.”
Luna looked at her sister inquisitively. “A disturbance?”
Celestia nodded, almost imperceptibly. “The same time as your project.”
The indigo pony blinked. “What do you—” Her eyes went wide, and then she returned her stare to the table. “Oh.”
“Luna, I met your... project, yesterday.”
“He was here? Wait, he made the toys?” She could not hide the excitement in her voice.
“So you do not deny it?” Celestia’s voice was cool, a practiced tone that hid emotion.
“Deny what, Celestia? Why are you interrogating me as if I were a suspect?”
In reply, Celestia channeled, lifting the book from its resting place on the cushions beside her. “Do you recognize this?”
“Damnation, Celestia,” she swore. “Yes, I do. It’s a book. It’s the one I found the spell in.”
“No. Do you recognize it? Do you remember where this book comes from?”
“From the old palace, I presume?”
“Where in the palace?” she coaxed.
“From the—” Luna suddenly stood, and backed away from the table. She eyed the book warily, as if it were a rabid animal. “By the stars...”
“So you do remember.”
“I do, now. Yes. From the Occultus Arcanus—the archives of hidden magic.” Luna swallowed hard, fear clutching her heart.
“And you remember why it was hidden.”
“The Bellum Draconis,” she replied. Her voice hastened, and she begged, “Sister, you must understand. I didn’t recall. I only remembered there being a transformation spell, and—”
“And you decided to transform a stranger to our nation, to our world, into a pony,” Celestia interrupted. “Into a pony with access to magic.”
“I... yes.” Luna stared at her hooves.
“Using a spell that had been banned, upon penalty of exile.”
“Ex—” Luna’s eyes went wide and her jaw worked silently. She tried to take a step back, to physically move away from Celestia’s words, but her legs gave out. She collapsed, dropping heavily to the floor. Her mane flared wildly as she pleaded, tears welling in her eyes. “No, Celestia.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I—I can’t leave again. Tia... Sister, I...”
Celestia stood, and walked towards her sister. Upon reaching her, she leaned close, and tried to nudge her to her feet. “Luna, I promise, I will do everything in my power to prevent that. But I must also uphold the laws. If this were a matter solely between the two of us, I might be tempted to ignore it after this discussion, but someone else was affected.”
“Tia, I... I only changed his shape. Nothing else. He wanted to belong, and... I understood that, and I...”
“Shh. I want to hear everything, but not right now. Do you have any audiences scheduled for this evening?”
“No, not tonight.” Luna sighed, and continued, “The Ministry seems content to deal with you in the day. I had thought to open the gardens and my court to the public, and have an impromptu party, but...”
“Mm. That would be awkward, now, yes. I’m sorry. Sister, I have so much to do, and so many things I need to review to refresh my memory. I suggest, if you can, to take care of your duties tonight quickly. If the hour is not too late when I’ve completed my work, I’ll seek you out, and we can talk then. Is that okay?”
Luna nodded numbly, her expression blank. “I... yes. Okay. Later. We’ll talk later.”
“Come, little sister. Let’s do this together.”
The two alicorns left the dining hall, side by side.
When Lentils returned later to clean up, she found a note at Celestia’s place.
No milk tonight, my friend, but if you find you have a moment to talk, please stop by at lunch tomorrow. It’s been far too long.
Thick, acrid smoke hung in the air, obscuring the field of battle and burning her eyes and nose. There, in the distance, was the dragon encampment. Celestia peered through her spyglass and studied the shadowy, slumbering shapes. There were at least a dozen, possibly half that again if there were sorcerers mixed with the larger warriors. Still, even two dozen should be easy enough to handle with the force at her disposal, with minimal losses. She returned the glass to her saddlebag, and motioned to her commanders.
Celestia tossed and turned, her sleep troubled.
With her five best tacticians gathered around her, she explained the situation as well as her ideas for a speedy resolution. After some consultation, they came to an agreement, and the ponies returned to their companies to relay orders. Celestia began her examination of the terrain anew, when something sparkled in the distant encampment. She peered into the darkness, and dug out her spyglass once more. She had not set it to her eye before the screams sounded behind her.
The sheets tangled about her legs. She kicked at them in vain, mumbling incoherently.
She turned to look, and the ground detonated at her feet. She found herself prone, covered in smoking earth and rock. Shakily regaining her feet, she surveyed the battlefield, and was met with horror.
Her commanders, as well as ponies throughout the ranks, screamed and convulsed on the ground. As she watched, they swelled as if they were balloons, and began to change. Their limbs shriveled, their skins split, and strange growths pierced their coats. The lucky ones died almost immediately, but a few kept changing, and growing. In seconds, they became hideous, armored, serpentine beasts which immediately fell upon the ponies that attempted to clamber away, devouring them whole.
Lairworms. They had been turned into lairworms—bloodthirsty eating machines that lurked in the dark places, the nymph-like states of some of the rarer dragon breeds. Somehow, the dragon sorcerors had converted her troops into their own. One of the immense beasts turned, sensing her presence, and charged. As it bore down upon her, she could see the confusion and terror in its too-familiar eyes.
Celestia woke with a start, panting, her mane and coat soaked with sweat, her bed linens torn and knotted. She untangled her limbs, then forced herself to stand and walk, wearily moving away from the remnants of slumber and towards wakefulness. She left her rooms, nodding at the guards in passing, and made her way to the kitchens for some tea.
“So much for sleep, tonight,” she said to herself. Celestia knew it had been a dream, but that did not soothe her nerves; she had lived it once before. As she paced the halls towards the kitchens, she examined the tapestries and paintings, trying to push the memories away. Instead, she found herself musing on the solution.
“It is done, Your Highness,” intoned the head scribe. “The study is complete, and the counterspell designed.”
“Excellent work, Springs. Have the source material confined to the Arcanum. As for the counterspell, what do you predict to be its success rate?”
“That depends on your definition of success, princess. The spell works quickly and efficiently, and if it cannot overpower the enchantment, it kills the target. Of course, it only can counteract a transformation in progress. If the transformation is complete, I’m afraid the sword is your only choice.”
“I see.” She pursed her lips in distaste. “It results in death every time?”
“By our calculations, if it cannot reverse the spell, then yes.”
“What if it were to be cast on someone who was not under the influence of the primary spell, or a variant?”
“As with a completed transformation, it would have no effect, Your Highness.”
“Well, that’s a small relief. Thank you again, Springs. Please have five hundred copies ready by the end of the week. I will need a dozen by morning, myself. Make that your top priority.”
“As you request.” He bowed low, and returned to work.
“Your Highness?” inquired a new voice.
Celestia found herself standing at the doors to the kitchens, the guards to either side watching her warily. She did not know how long she had been there, nor which guard had spoken.
An awkward silence overtook them. Celestia was not quick enough to dispel it entirely. “Ah, yes. The kitchens.” She tried to sound reassuring. “I did not mean to worry you, my fine ponies. I was simply exploring an idea.”
The guards nodded in unison, then returned their gazes forward, attempting to resume their professional demeanor.
Celestia pushed the doors open. ‘My fine ponies’? Really, Celestia? She needed that tea desperately.
“I don’t see why you have to go back, Worker,” she fumed, pacing through their living room. “It’s only been a month since you left.”
“Skyshine, I need to do the right thing.” Worker stood before his suitcase, double-checking its contents. Beside the case was a stack of books detailing the intricacies of Equestrian law. “For this, more than anything. According to that letter, it’s my fault this is happening.”
The letter, and its unpleasant contents, sat on their mantle. Skyshine had threatened twice to burn it, as if that would somehow erase the events it described.
“Forget the letter, Worker! Remember your wife! I don’t want you to go. You told me yourself that Celestia has no intention of bringing you into this, by name or by reputation. She wants you to have a chance to live out your life, with me, in peace.”
“If I don’t go, we won’t have that peace.”
“If you do go, you great lummox, I won’t give you any either!” she threatened, stamping a hoof to the floor in anger.
“Skyshine, you mean the world to me. You’re my everything, and you always will be. But there are things you do not know, things in my past that, when I try to bring them up, you push away.”
“Because they’re not important! They aren’t who you are, now! You’re Worker, a pony of Pasofino, and husband to Skyshine, a pony who is very tired of this conversation. You make toys for children, and wonderful devices that benefit all of Equestria!”
“I know all this, Skyshine, and I love every facet of it.”
“Then...” She sighed, the fight in her voice dying away. “Why do you have to go?”
“Because I would be a poor pony indeed if I abandoned the one who made all that possible.”
“I’m going, Skyshine,” he said, gently but firmly. “You’re welcome to come with me, as I’ve said before. I would miss you otherwise. Even a lummox can miss his loved ones.”
Skyshine slumped onto her haunches, defeated. “You win.”
Worker walked to stand before his wife, and gently kissed her. “I won when you said ‘I do’, beloved. Now, let me show Luna my gratitude.”
She nodded, then rubbed her eyes, and stood. “I’ll go pack something,” she declared sullenly. “If the chariot arrives, let them know I’ll be right out.”
“Yes, dear,” he replied.
“Shut up,” she snapped, glowering, as she stomped into their bedroom, slamming the door behind her.
Worker closed his case, and stared at the bedroom door. He shook his head, picked up his possessions, and arranged them outside on the stoop in preparation for the chariot’s arrival.
He heard the soft thump of hooves on the path leading to his door, and turned to greet his visitor. To his surprise, there was more than one.
There were, in fact, more than a few, and more filtered down his walk to stand before his home. At the vanguard were Holly, Bulwark, and Saber Dance, along with her daughter Tea Blossom. Behind them stood Whisper, Swift Winds, and Sundown, his upgraded wing nearly indistinguishable from his natural one. A dozen other ponies joined them. Sparks and her family were just now passing the gate, Pearmain lingered outside the fence, and more familiar faces smiled back wherever he looked.
There was a moment’s silence as he stood dumbfounded at the sudden gathering. He blinked once, and then twice, trying to think of a proper response. Saber Dance spoke first.
“We couldn’t help but overhear the argument. The whole town heard it, actually. We’ve decided the only way this will come to any sense of closure is if, uh...” She chuckled at herself. “I should know better than to try to prepare a speech. Worker, we’re going with you.”
“What?” He stared at them in disbelief. “All of you?”
“Most of us. We’ve arranged for transportation to the city, which should arrive tonight or tomorrow. We’ll be in Canterlot in time for the opening statements.”
“But nothing. You’ve given this town more than you know. It’s time we gave something back.”
“I... thank you. Thank you all, very much.”
“Don’t thank us.” Saber Dance replied, nodding towards his front door. “It was Skyshine’s idea.”
“What?” He turned to look and saw Skyshine leaning against the doorjamb, a satisfied smile on her face.
“I said you were a lummox, and I still think so. But I also know the kind of pony you are, and I would never change that. I hope you forgive me for leading you on.”
“I have married a very dangerous mare,” he declared.
“Hey, I tried to warn you,” claimed Bulwark. There was scattered laughter throughout the crowd, which then organized itself to one side of the path. Worker lifted his parcels, and his wife’s, and hugged the score of ponies in turn as he passed. Skyshine walked behind him, chin held high, a satisfied smile affixed to her muzzle.
The courtroom buzzed with quiet conversation as the restless crowd waited for the trial to begin. Most did not know why they were there, save to support a friend. A few in the audience had interest in the law itself, and a scattered hoof-full simply had nothing better to do on a Wednesday.
Somewhere in Canterlot, a clock tower chimed, counting the strokes towards noon. At the far end of the courtroom, a door opened, and an older dun stallion with a black mane strode into the room.
“All rise for the Princesses, Celestia and Luna. All rise for the Seventh Special Session of the Royal Court.”
The buzz vanished, and every pony stood at attention. From his vantage point at the front of the gallery, Worker could see the princesses in a small room beyond the door. They exchanged a quick hug, and then Princess Celestia broke away, entering the courtroom.
The bailiff announced to the gathered crowd, “All hail Celestia, Princess of the Sun, and sole Justice for the special session.”
Not pausing for recognition, Celestia mounted the short stairs that led to an imposing seat above the crowd at the far end of the room.
Behind her, Princess Luna entered, striding towards a table before Celestia’s seat. At her appearance, the bailiff declared, “All hail Luna, Princess of the Night, and defendant for the special session.”
A murmur bubbled throughout the gallery. The princess, on trial? How was Worker involved in this? What was the crime? As the crowd reacted, a few other ponies entered the courtroom, and stationed themselves at the desks arranged before Celestia’s bench. The murmuring grew into a dull roar until, suddenly, the bailiff stomped his hooves against the floor.
“Order in the court! The Royal Court is now in session!”
“Thank you, bailiff,” Celestia said, then turned to the gallery. “My ponies,” she began, her eye pausing on Worker before she continued, “I ask that you remain silent throughout the proceedings. Unless you have cause to speak, any distractions may prove troublesome.” She levitated a small stack of papers before her, aligned them, and then began to read. “The Seventh Special Session of the Equestrian Royal Court concerns itself with the use of banned magics, specifically transformation magics. Solicitor, how does the defendant plead?”
“We plead No Contest, Your Highness.” Luna’s solicitor was a thin tan mare, dressed in a severe black suit, with her green mane wrapped into a bun. “We seek to move the trial into the sentencing phase, and wish to plead our case before the court.”
“So noted. Prosecutor, as the defendant has entered a plea of No Contest, do you wish to pursue sentencing, or will you rely on the wisdom of the Court?”
“Your Highness,” replied an older white stallion in a similar suit, “I am certain that the Court can find an appropriate response without my input.”
“Very well. You and your team may be dismissed, and the Court thanks you for your time. Bailiff, please see the prosecutor out.”
The small group of ponies in identical suits and ties filed out of the courtroom. As the last pony left, the Bailiff closed the door behind them and stood before it at attention.
Celestia rapped her hoof on the floor behind the bar. “The Court moves to the sentencing phase. For the crime of performing banned magics, the sentence is exile. The Court will now hear arguments to modify the severity of this sentence. Any can speak, but first right goes to the defendant.”
There was a moment’s silence, interrupted only by a quiet cough from the gallery, before Luna stood. Despite the confidence in gaze, her steps were shaky. She walked to the witness station, turned, positioned herself behind the rail, and faced the gallery.
“Justice Celestia,” she began, her gentle voice carrying a power that brought it to every ear. “I do not deny that I cast a spell that is banned, nor do I deny that the spell’s target was unaware of my actions. I do, however, ask for special exemption for two reasons.
“The lesser reason I seek exemption is that I was unaware of the ban at the time of casting. Had I been aware of the ban, I would have not cast the spell, as I do not think myself above the law. I do realize, of course, that the law makes little provision for those who are ignorant of its strictures. I undertook my project with an eye solely towards the benefits, and did not desire to usurp, alter, or corrode the strength of law. As the law still stands, I seek the wisdom of the Court to modify my sentence.”
Luna steeled herself, and then continued. “The greater reason is one of need. My sist—Justice Celestia, you once spoke of the right of all creatures to a chance at redemption, regardless of station or circumstance. It was this right that I pursued.
“Some time ago, I sensed a new voice in dreams. An intense voice, full of promise, and pain, and despair. It intrigued me, and so I took special notice of it. It was the voice of a visitor from another world, one who sought to escape the troubles of his past, and build a new life for himself. This is not an uncommon dream, but it was unique in other ways. It showed a strong desire to grow, to learn, to know, and to belong.
“It was that last which caught me most. I know what it means to feel like an outsider, even surrounded by others. I kept an eye on it—on him—and his development. Soon, he discovered a town, and its ponies. Rather than threaten, or flee, he sought to understand. With a friend’s help, he understood far more quickly than he imagined.
“Over time, he began to accept the ponies of this town as his friends and his companions. Soon after, he relied on them, and they on him. It was then that I decided to give him the ability to truly belong.
“In my study of the spell, I found that the faster the resolution, the more harm that could come to the target. I did not wish to see him harmed, and so I started slowly, allowing minor changes to take place before the final conversion. First came his mane, then a horn, and finally his body as he became a pony in all respects.
“In retrospect, it must have been terrifying, but his dreams were regular, and peaceful. Even hopeful, once he learned magic. He felt at peace, and at home.
“If I might note a final point for the Court, my spell was limited to the physical. The rest of the changes that he adopted, in thought and deed, were his own. As all are aware, there is no magic that can force a cutie mark to appear earlier than it should. The fact that this pony has his cutie mark should be sign enough that he desired this transformation, even if he did not know it at the time. While I apologize, now, for the manner in which it happened, I do not believe he would have turned it down if offered.”
With that, Luna stepped from the witness station, and strode towards her seat. In response, the gallery buzzed once more, as many of the ponies began to put together the reason they were here. Celestia permitted it for a few moments before again rapping her hoof on the floor.
“Order, please. The Court will consider this argument in its deliberation. Are there any others who wish to speak on behalf of the defendant?”
“Very well,” Celestia continued. “The Court shall take a short recess to deliberate. Sentencing resumes at forty-five minutes past the hour.” She struck the floor of the bench once more, and then stepped down the stairs, exiting by the door the bailiff guarded.
Worker glanced at the clock, noting the time. Twenty minutes to go. Twenty minutes before he would know his savior’s fate. He was hungry, but he could not bring himself to leave, not while Luna stayed behind. She sat, motionless, staring at the carafe on the table before her, while her solicitor tried to make small talk. After a few minutes, the mare resigned herself to doodling on a pad of yellow paper.
Skyshine excused herself with a peck on Worker’s cheek, and left with their friends to get something in their stomachs. Worker continued to watch the clock, both impatient for resolution and fearful of the decision. His mind wandered, and he found himself wondering if Luna knew what he looked like, or if she could identify him by sight, after hearing his dreams.
He realized he was staring at her mane, watching it flow in an otherworldly breeze. Then he realized she was staring back at him.
He forced his gaze away from her and back to the clock. From the corner of his eye, he noticed her standing, and then approaching. He found his eyes irresistibly drawn back to hers, and then looked away again, swallowing hard. She was just as beautiful as her sister, but in a different fashion, a manner difficult to explain. Her countenance was mysterious, alluring, yet knowing.
She stopped a few feet from him, on the other side of the rail. “Worker, I presume?”
He hastened to bow in response. “Y-your Highness. Yes, I am Worker.”
“Do not feel yourself responsible for this. While I regret what has happened since, I do not regret bringing you closer to your friends and loved ones.”
“Nor do I, princess. I thank you for all you’ve done. It is, after all, why I’m here. I hope to be able to provide some small measure of support with my presence.”
She smiled in reply, and nodded. “We shall see.” She looked over Worker’s shoulder at a small group of approaching ponies. “Your wife is a beautiful mare, by the by. And she loves you very much.”
“That is, perhaps, the only thing I know for sure.”
“You are a charmer, sir. I wish you two the best.” Luna turned away, and walked back to her seat where she waited for the clock to mark out the proper time.
He could only think to bow in reply.
“The princess, hm?” Skyshine teased, faux scandal in her voice. “You’ve met both of them now? Should I be worried?”
“Of course not, my dear. What fool would seek a princess when he already has a queen?”
Across the gallery, Luna giggled quietly, and then poured herself a glass of water.
“You’re horrible, Worker. I love you.”
“And I you.” He gave her a gentle kiss, and then nodded towards the clock. “Almost time.”
Past the guarded door, with a guarded expression, Celestia paced. Her thoughts churned with possibilities, and her stomach with worry. She argued with herself, imagining the worst, and countering its implications best she could.
What do you do, Celestia? What can you do? The law clearly states that the use of that spell, for any reason, results in exile. The fact that the law does not state the duration of the exile does not mean that it is not permanent. Instead, it implies it is. What game are you playing?
Celestia poured herself a glass of water from a waiting carafe, and then placed it on the table, forgetting it instantly.
And what of the populace, when they hear of this? What of Luna’s reputation, when it emerges that she has committed a magical crime? She’s worked very hard, these last few decades, rebuilding her image to that of a competent and sensitive ruler.
“That much is true,” she mused, aloud. “Since her return, Luna’s made incredible strides towards reconnecting with her people. She’s even shed that ridiculous Canterlot Voice. She’s adopted more modern forms of speech and mannerisms, and has worked hard to understand the concerns and wishes of contemporary ponies.”
And beyond Luna’s reputation, Celestia, what of Luna? Don’t you care that the very thought of exile is enough to crush her? How much she’s missed you, these last thousand years? Because you sent her away once before?
“Of course I care,” she hissed in frustration. “I care a great deal about my sister, more than anything else. But I must also keep Equestria in my thoughts. I must be a ruler who can be trusted. A ruler who respects the law which grants her the right to rule.”
And what of the ponies you protect, Celestia? What will they see by your actions? A wise ruler, upholding the word of law, or an unjust opportunist, exiling her sister for a trifle that the majority can never comprehend? You’ve heard the rumors, of course, of the tyrant in the palace.
Celestia sighed. Her initial attempts at lifting the mood of her ponies were still whispered about to this day. It was true that her first pranks, to modern sensibilities, would seem needlessly cruel, but it wasn’t as if anyone alive knew the details. Still, doubts lingered from one generation to the next about the alleged bizarre cruelties of the Sun Princess.
And what about Worker? Isn’t he tangled up in all this? Isn’t he the central piece? Without his transformation, none of this would have happened, and you and your sister would still be rulers over a peaceful Equestria, side by side.
“He does seem remarkably well-adjusted,” she agreed. “He’s even requested an audience with Luna, whenever she is next available. In fact, he seems to be taking the whole event in stride, looking forward to whatever the future holds with an unbridled optimism.”
So where’s the problem? No victim, no crime, right?
She poked at this idea for a moment, remembering her glass of water. As she sipped, she unraveled the concept.
“No. The law has been broken, and whether or not Worker took offense at the changes forced upon him, the law demands a price. “
Unless, by no victim...
“No! How could you consider that? I’ve promised him that he faces no responsibility for this, and is permitted to live out his days in peace.”
You need to decide, Celestia. You need to choose. Your law? Your reign? Your sister? Your friend?
A gentle rapping sounded at the chamber door. “Your Highness,” called the bailiff, “the recess is about to end.”
“Thank you, bailiff,” she replied, forcing her voice into a neutral tone. “I will be right out.”
Celestia grimaced, then set her jaw, and strode towards the door. Something had to give.
“All rise for the Seventh Special Session of the Royal Court!” barked the bailiff.
The door behind the dour pony opened, and Princess Celestia entered, her expression unreadable. The gallery fell silent as every pony tried to find an answer in her features.
She mounted the stair immediately, sparing no attention for the gallery or the defendant. As soon as she stood behind the bench, the bailiff once again struck the floor with a forehoof. “Order in the court!” he demanded, despite the deathly quiet. “The Royal Court continues its session!”
Celestia cleared her throat, and then looked at her sister, immediately regretting the course of action. She pulled her eyes away, and gazed into the gallery, noting the presence of Worker and his bride, and close to two dozen other ponies.
For what she hoped would be the last time, she rapped the floor with a hoof, and announced, “Deliberations have been completed in this, the Seventh Special Session of the Equestrian Royal Court. The gallery may be seated if desired. I ask that the defendant and counsel remain standing.”
There was a period of quiet shuffling as a few ponies found comfortable positions. Celestia bore the delay with good grace, counting silently to sixty before continuing. She cleared her throat, took a breath, and began.
“In the deliberation of this case, the Court has considered the severity of the crime, the circumstances of its commission, the impact upon the victim, and the intent of the defendant.” She took another breath, and her blank expression melted into one of compassion. “It is with a heavy heart, then, that the Court accepts the plea of No Contest, and has decided upon a sentence.“
Luna’s cautious optimism faded away, leaving in its wake a mask of stark terror. She shook her head, staring at her sister, silently pleading.
Celestia continued. “The Court hereby decrees that Princess Luna—”
“Your Highness, I object!” In the gallery, a familiar pony stood on his hind legs. One forehoof rested upon the gallery rail, and the other lifted into the air, waving wildly. The crowd’s confusion created a dull roar which echoed through the court.
Celestia’s melancholy was buried under a crush of anger and frustration. Can he not see how difficult this is, without interruption? “Order!” she shouted, banging on the floor with ferocious strikes. “Order! Bailiff!” She stared daggers at the orange-maned unicorn. “Seize that pony and bring him before the bench.”
The older stallion strode forward, his expression grim, and opened the gate to the gallery. At the other side waited Worker. “Sir,” he stated, his voice flat. “The Court demands your presence.”
“Of course, bailiff,” Worker replied calmly. “As the Court wishes.”
The black-maned pony stepped aside to let Worker pass, and then shadowed him to a spot between the defendant’s table and the bench. As he passed Luna, she shook his head at him frantically, begging him to back down.
The princess seethed, glaring at the pony before her, every word falling from her lips as if bitten off. “What right do you have to interrupt these proceedings, Worker?”
“I possess the right of the wounded, Justice.”
“Oh, you’re a clever pony,” she chuckled mirthlessly. “You do not expect me to allow you to turn this Court into your own personal soapbox!”
“I expect precisely that, Justice.” His chin was lifted in defiance, and his tone grim, but his eyes showed the depth of his fear. He was terrified, yet he spoke confidently. “It is my right as the wounded party to address the court before final sentencing has been decreed. I have not yet availed myself of that right.”
“You have never once complained about your circumstances, Worker,” she replied, ice replacing fire. Her rage cooled, but her anger was no less intense. “Not once, in all the times we’ve spoken. Do you expect the Court to allow you to demand its attention for something you have not bothered to pursue until now?”
“I demand my rights, Justice,” he declared simply. As Celestia glared, a bead of sweat trickled across his temple. The crowd’s murmurs built once more into a buzzing cacophony.
“I said order!” she roared, striking the floor a final time. “Bailiff! The next pony who speaks without permission shall be ejected bodily from the Court!”
In response, the dun pony returned to the gate, and stared wordlessly into the gallery.
Celestia returned her attention to the pony before her. “Very well, Worker,” she replied, every hint of emotion excised from her voice. “You have your rights. Exercise them. The witness station is yours.”
Worker bowed in respect, and approached the station. His jaw set in grim determination, he entered its confines, rested his forehooves against the rail, and faced the crowd.
"Princess Celestia,” he began with a nod in her direction. “Princess Luna.” He nodded to her as well. “I thank you for the opportunity to address the Court. There has been a grave injustice done, but it is not the one you pursue."
A whisper passed through the crowd, cut off as if by a switch when Celestia fluttered her wings in annoyance. Silence awaited Worker, then, and he tried to speak.
"My name..." He sighed, then, and looked across the gallery, at the faces of his friends, and of the mare that meant the world to him. He caught her eye, and mouthed a silent apology, then closed his eyes.
He drew himself up, then, and seemed to radiate a new charisma, a potency. His eyes again open, he gazed across the gallery, regarding those gathered there as so many faces in a crowd. He took a breath, and began again.
"The name Worker is an affectation, an attempt to translate my given name into something that makes sense in Equestria. My true name is Julian Kintobor, of the house of Ivo. It is also Dr. Ivo Robotnik, and some," he continued, his voice lowering for a moment, "called me the Eggman.
"I am a man—or was—from a realm called Overland, and before that, from a place called Earth. I have been many things: a friend, a foe, a pawn, a king, a servant, and a god. Above all else, I have been a monster.
"I was born into privilege, given every chance to express myself and grow into my own being. Instead of challenging myself, and becoming what I could be, I compared myself to another—my brother, Colin—and envied him.
"It was that envy that begat my desire for control. For power. If I could not be someone, I could at least rule over them. It was a small thing at first. Paranoia. A desire to be seen as first, seen as best, by my peers. Soon, it began to consume me—and I welcomed it.
"My friends showed me great caring and kindness, teaching me all they knew. My appetite for knowledge is enormous, and I was as a starved man at a banquet. I took it all in. And when they had nothing more to share, I arranged their banishment."
He paused, then, and looked out into the gallery once more. There stood his friends, shocked into silence, with expressions somewhere between fear and revulsion. And next to them, tears rolling down her grey muzzle, stood Skyshine. He forced himself to stare at her, to meet her eyes, and tell her precisely what she had never wished to learn.
"Seeing my promise, I was taken in by a mentor. He was a great man, who devised many a wonderful thing, and took joy at his creation. After learning all he had to teach, I used his creations against him, blaming him for a horrific explosion that I myself engineered. Because no lives were lost, he, too, was banished, although execution had been my true goal.
"When war broke out between my people and the Mobians, I saw it only as a path to power. Harming my own kind, forcibly using them as test subjects, or as living targets, I advanced the art of war for my people. I was found out. Tried. Convicted. Cast out. But I only grew hungrier."
He couldn't look at Skyshine anymore, and she had already turned away. He addressed Luna, then, as she sat next to her solicitor. His eyes were wet, yet his voice remained strong.
"I escaped my prison, evading recapture and death, and was rescued by two creatures from a land named Acorn. I swore allegiance, and quickly learned the intricacies of their society. Given a chance, I cast my only obstacle into a realm known as the Zone of Silence, and assumed the title of Warlord. Then I began my plans anew.
"I developed cyborgs—cybernetic organisms, a... merging of machine and flesh—through illegal testing on innocents captured from another land. One by one, they died in my testing, save for the strongest, who became my living weapon. He destroyed my kinsmen and their machines, but eventually proved unstable. I confined him cruelly. To my knowledge, he might still wail in his prison."
Luna, then, looked away as well, uncomfortable with the parallels. Worker turned back to the gallery once more, and steeled himself for the rest of his tale.
"It was then that the Roboticizer was created. Realizing my cyborg army was unreliable at best, I was enamored by the idea of a machine that could completely convert living flesh to a being of cold steel, which would be reliable, dependable, powerful, and completely subservient to my will. I immediately set to work, forcibly converting countless creatures to mindless slaves. The first one I converted was the one who rescued me after my escape.
"The Roboticizer became my greatest tool. Every challenger, every creature suspicious of my work, every ally who showed the slightest moment's weakness became fuel for my beloved machine, and then another servant. I converted entire cities, and those I could not convert, I expelled into the Zone of Silence.
"I conquered the entire world, placing in key positions those who were slavishly devoted to my will, to keep my grip tight on the populace. I was sole sovereign. I was a god.
"Not all could be captured. Not all could be enslaved. One in particular, who led a group named the Freedom Fighters, fought against me and my mission of conquest. Time and time again, his persistence spelled out another of my failures. His devotion to his ideals proved stronger than my will to rule.
"Over the course of our battles, I destroyed great forests, corrupted immense swathes of land, burned jungles, all to cement my reign. The crimes against the planet were just as horrific as my crimes against those who once lived on it. Eventually, I was able to trap my foe and convert him as well. Thinking my victory complete, I set him to work as my right hand. He was rescued by his friends, but not before he turned one of the largest cities, and its cybernetic inhabitants, into radioactive slag.
"It was then that I developed my final plan. I would rule, or I would die, and I crafted the Ultimate Annihilator."
He turned to Celestia, his tears dry now, as the gallery slowly emptied. The ponies, sickened at such atrocities and repelled by their calm recounting, could stomach no more. Skyshine, however, stayed, and soon was one of only a hoof-full of souls that remained. None of his other friends were among that number.
"Before I completed my work, I saw a potential problem in that persistent creature who sought to undo my efforts. Taking the most expedient path, I murdered an innocent solely to frame him. One more death among so many seems like a small thing, I'm sure, but I knew of her prowess, and of her connection to my enemy. I selected her solely because her death would cause him the most pain. In the end, she was a pawn, and one I could sacrifice.
"I targeted the remnants of the opposition, and began my final stroke. It occurred to me that there was a third option, then. While the machine did its work, powering up to dissolve the very city that opposed me, I did my own work to find an escape.
"I was tired. Even if I had won, there would be nothing left to accomplish. I would be god-king over a world of mindless steel. And if I had lost, well, looking back at what was happening at the time, I would not have survived. Neither of those outcomes truly mattered to me. I wanted out. I wanted to be away from the entire thing. I felt I deserved, after all I had done, peace.
"As the Annihilator churned away, powering up and targeting the populace below, I modified one of my machines to cast me away from that place, into the unknown. Gathering a few possessions, I flipped the switch just as the Annihilator fired. I tore open a hole across time and space, cast my materials into it, and as I stepped towards it, was greeted once again by my foe.
"We battled. I felt the Annihilator working... but it worked against me. Knowing the portal was my only escape, I managed to force him away, and dove through the hole in the continuum. He must have tampered with the machine. Its explosion in my wake propelled me faster than I'd hoped, and I watched as the portal collapsed behind me. I was free.
"I wound up here, in a cavern, in the mountains outside Pasofino. I thought myself alone, at first, and sought to create a home for myself. I planned to live out my final years alone, and then die, unchallenged ever again. Master not of a planet, but of myself.
"Then I found a path, and a town, and the remarkable ponies of Pasofino. They welcomed me. They took me in. Claimed me as one of their own. It was their purity, their innocence, their willingness to love a stranger—love me—that changed me.
"Your Highness,” he said, producing a small book from beneath his vest, “I wish to present to the court a journal which I wrote during my conversion. It is in my native tongue, and if your scribes cannot translate it, it would be my honor to provide that service to you. If I may?"
She nodded, slightly, and he channeled a trickle of magic, lifting the slim, worn tome and placing it atop her desk.
"Detailed in that journal are my experiences here, as I began a man, and ended a—a pony. It covers how I feel about my life here, and my fellow ponies, and the world in which you all live, and how that simple, all-encompassing love changed me for the better. But I understand there are other changes that concern this court.
"I admit to being concerned as I began to change. First, my mane... I mean, hair. Then, I developed a horn. And finally, over the course of a night, I was remade a unicorn. I understand this is forbidden magic. Evil magic. Dark, unspeakable work. And looking back, it is similar to what I have done: convert another to a form more suitable to my needs, more to my liking.
"But evil is not simply an act. Evil is an intent. Your sister Luna sensed me enter. She felt my dreams. That is, after all, her domain, and dreams such as mine must have felt strange indeed. She saw the one thing I would not admit to myself: the need to belong. With Luna’s help, Justice, I did more than belong with friends. I belonged to them, and they to me."
He turned again to Luna, who regarded him with an unreadable expression, although her lip trembled.
"Princess Luna, what you did, regardless of the law, or the strictures, or the traditions, was the second greatest gift I have ever been given: a chance to begin anew, a whole lifetime ahead of me, with a world that both cared for me, and accepted me for who I was—not that they knew. The greatest gift was the love of a young mare —who I, too, love deeply...” his voice fell, becoming nearly a whisper, “although I fear I have driven her from me, now."
He spared a glance for Skyshine, but she was gone. He did not blame her. Turning to Celestia, he lifted his voice once more, and concluded his plea.
"Princess Celestia, your people speak of your limitless wisdom, your everlasting grace, your all-encompassing love for your ponies. While I wear the form, I admit I was not born here, although I feel I was reborn here. That rebirth was due to your sister's love, and her trust of dreams.
"I ask you, Celestia, as Justice and as her sister, to forgive her. She acted out of compassion, out of love, and sought only to make me happy, regardless of whether it was right that I had that happiness. And she did: for five glorious years, she did. I have never been happier, across all my days.
"If the Sun must deny its light for any creature, let it be me. I have earned my time in darkness, and felt more joy than I deserve. It is only right that I be sent to it in her stead. Will you, Your Highness, show her that love?"
The courtroom fell silent, and it was empty. All that remained was Worker, the bailiff, the solicitor, and the princesses.
Worker fell back to all fours, hung his head, and walked out of his station. He plodded, the weight of his deeds clearly borne upon his shoulders, and stood before the Justice, who gazed down upon him from her seat above.
"I await your bailiff, Your Highness, and my just exile." With that, he bowed low, forelegs folded, and remained motionless.
“Bailiff,” Celestia whispered, “please recess the Court.”
The sun had set hours ago, and in the heavy rains it was often said that only Diamond Dogs and pegasi would go out. The pony who trudged down a lonely road was neither, yet he continued his journey, setting one hoof before the other. The muddy morass squelched underhoof. It sucked at the weary pony’s legs as he plodded along, oblivious to the dark, or the cold, or the wet. As he walked, he thought, and as he thought, he remembered.
He had once been a man, he recalled, even if the memories were unpleasant. Then, he had become a pony. Those memories were happier, and more valued by far. Now he was nothing, and it had been his own doing. He had done the right thing, of that he was sure. He had done the necessary thing. He had decided to tell the truth. He recalled, dimly, an old saying: The truth hurts now, but a lie hurts forever. He was not sure whether or not he agreed.
His orange mane was soaked through, and it clung to his poll and crest. His yellow coat was stained with mud and worse. He still had his saddlebags, and their contents, but some miles back he had lost his glasses. Despite that, he could make out the road immediately ahead of him well enough, even at this hour of the night. Somewhere above the clouds, the moon shone brightly enough to show him the way home.
It was out there, somewhere, in the distance. He was unsure exactly how far, but knowing that it waited ahead drove his progress. He had not eaten for days, and could not remember if he had slept. It would not do to sleep, now. He had too far to go, and he never knew who might be listening.
The stallion crested a rise and, in the filtered moonlight, he saw it: Pasofino. His home. At least, it had been. He hoped it might still be. Suddenly, he found it difficult to move any closer.
“She’s waiting there, Worker,” he reminded himself, his voice barely reaching his own ears in the torrent. “She told you she didn’t care about your past, and Skyshine has never lied to you.” His attempts to reassure himself weren’t particularly effective, but he found that as long as he spoke, he could ignore the growing dread.
One hoof before the other, as he had done for days, he traveled the final mile to the sleeping village.
Skyshine sat up with a start. In the hazy moments before wakefulness, she reached out with a hoof to wake her husband. She remembered too late that he would not be there. Skyshine glanced at the softly-ticking timepiece on the mantle, and groaned quietly. Three o’clock. She had managed two hours’ sleep, at least, which was an improvement.
She slid her legs from beneath the covers, and stood, wobbling slightly as she stretched first one limb, and then the next. Perhaps some warm milk will help, she thought. I’m pretty sure I can manage to heat a pot without too much thought. Deciding against a robe, she nudged open her bedroom door and stepped into the greatroom. She had taken three strides across the floor when she noticed something wrong.
A trail of muddy hoofprints made a looping path across her floor. They appeared from the foyer, then led to the center of the room, then to the bedroom door, and finally returning to the foyer. She poked at one, gingerly, as if it might bite. The prints were still wet.
Hurriedly, she returned to the bedroom and snatched up one of Worker’s lanterns. It flickered alight as she took its handle between her teeth, and filled the room with an amber glow. She turned back to the greatroom and shined the light within. Something glittered on the table near the center of the room.
Skyshine approached it warily. As she did, the lantern’s light revealed the glittering object to be a silvery disc, about a hoof wide. It bore Luna’s emblem, and that of Equestria. She stepped closer to get a better view, and was startled when she splashed through a shallow puddle. She reared back, scrambled away from the table, and angled the lantern’s light beneath it.
A pair of soaked saddlebags, their flaps down but their straps unsecured, leaned against one of the table’s legs. Each contributed a rivulet of muddy water to the growing puddle. Skyshine recognized the stitching. “Luna be praised,” she gasped aloud. “Worker!”
Before she had finished his name, she found herself at a gallop towards the front door.
Worker made his way around the house, towards the impromptu workshop he had built when he was still a man. It would be dry there, and warm. More importantly, it was far enough from the house that he would not disturb Skyshine.
The rain was beginning to let up as he reached the shop’s door, and when it slid open with a surprisingly loud rattle he was sure he had woken the village. He froze, standing outside the shop, and searched the nearby homes for signs of activity. Worker counted to thirty, then sighed in relief.
He entered the darkened shop, switched on one of the lamps in the corner, and found a clear spot among his boxes. He picked up a small heater from a pile of leftover gadgets, set it to its lowest setting, then curled up next to it. He glanced at the still-open door, and the flickering lamp. I should probably take care of those, he thought to himself. A yawn split his muzzle, tensing every weary muscle across his shoulders and up his neck. I’ll get them in just a minute, he pledged, but as soon as he rested his chin on his hooves, sleep rolled him under.
Skyshine burst through the front door, her heart racing, her mind consumed with worry. Was that Worker? She couldn’t assume anything, at this point. Who else would enter our home at this hour? Seeing nothing on the stoop but more mud, she scanned left, and then right, seeking a sign of any pony braving the rains.
There! Are those hoofprints? She could not be sure, but even a glimmer of hope was enough to drive her forward. Around the house… the shop! No longer searching the ground, she raced towards the back of the house, where Worker had built a shop to accommodate his… previous…
She slowed to a walk, and then stopped, a few paces from the walls of the shop. His previous form. When he was a… a man. When he… Am I ready to talk to him again? Am I ready to see him? After what he said in court, in front of our friends. After what he revealed about himself?
She took a breath. Does it matter? You made a promise, Skyshine: ‘til death do you part. And you know you’re still madly in love with him. Skyshine walked towards the door, and stopped a pace from the entrance. From inside, a light flickered, and she could hear someone’s low, regular breathing. She lifted a hoof, and rested it against the wall of the building. Let him sleep. Then she turned away and walked back to her home.
Within the shop, the sleeping pony stirred once, and then drifted back to sleep.
Dawn came reluctantly, battling against the overcast sky, but arrived too soon for Worker. An errant sunbeam shone into the rapidly warming shop, glinting off the accumulated tools and devices that were strewn about its confines. Grimacing with discomfort, he blinked himself awake.
He forced himself to his hooves, and immediately regretted the decision. Every joint hurt, every muscle ached, and his senses were flooded by a singular throb that seemed to encompass his entire body. A low moan escaped his lips, belying his stoic expression. Despite the pain, he had the presence of mind to switch off the heater, and as he passed it, the lamp on the counter.
With every step he took, dried mud broke free from his coat and fell to the floor. Once he stepped outside of the shop, he took a moment to shake out his dirt-encrusted mane and tail, then turned to shut the door with his teeth—his head ached whenever he thought about magic.
The pony blinked in the cool morning light, then shuffled across the sodden turf and towards his home, wincing with each step. He did not know what might await him within, but she always woke early, and he wanted to be there when she did. He rounded the house, and stepped into the nearly-empty streets to round his fence. Jumping was out of the question.
He must have looked very strange, indeed. Down the street, ponies stopped, one by one, to watch him pass. They leaned close, speaking conspiratorially, keeping one eye on the odd pony that neared the home at the edge of the village. He marveled at their reaction. Normally, any new pony would be eagerly approached, and welcomed. Today, they seemed content to watch him from afar. Something about it seemed odd, but he couldn’t be bothered with trivialities. He wanted breakfast. He wanted a hot shower. Most of all, he wanted to see Skyshine again.
Sighing, he shrugged off the question, and wished he hadn’t. New knots stitched themselves across his shoulders. Worker pushed through the gate, trudged down the path to his door, and stepped inside. It was darker than he expected.
As quietly as he could, with a throbbing head and stiff limbs, he walked towards his bedroom door. He paused when he stepped on something that crumbled underhoof. Glancing down, he saw regular half-moons of dry grey mud. He’d need to clean those up; Skyshine would be furious at him for tracking mud into the house.
Worker placed a hoof against his bedroom door, and slowly opened it. He peered inside, and found the room empty, and the bed made. There was no pony within. He was surprised at first, confused, but then the pieces began to come together. The staring ponies, the darkened home, the empty bedroom: Skyshine was gone.
He rested his head against the doorjamb, and sighed. “I am,” he said to nopony in particular, “a very large fool.”
“I would have said ‘lummox’,” chimed a voice from the darkness, “but ‘fool’ is a good option.”
Skyshine sat on an overstuffed chair in the greatroom, shrouded by darkness. She held a mug of tea—now cold—between her hooves, and stared at the clock on the mantle, willing it to run faster. The rain had stopped, which meant that sunrise was on its way. Sundown tried to make sure that every day was sunny, even if he did cut the technicalities close.
She heard a low rattling from outside, and moments later the noise of the front gate. There were hoofsteps on the stoop, and then the door swung open. She tensed, staring from the shadows at the unfamiliar silhouette. Whoever the pony was, it entered slowly, as if unsure of its steps. It strode towards her bedroom door after pausing to examine one of the muddy hoofprints on the floor. Finally, it opened the door, and stopped.
Skyshine could tell it was a stallion from this distance, but the darkness that concealed her also hid the stallion’s identity. She could see no glasses, and this pony did not have the wild mane that her Worker did, or his vest. If he enters the room, she promised herself, I will run outside and report an intruder.
Skyshine leaned forward, preparing to bolt, when the stallion finally spoke.
“I am a very large fool,” he said, and it took every ounce of Skyshine’s will to not scream with delight. It’s him! He’s come back, alive and well, and… still without explanation, she recalled.
Steeling her nerves, she replied from her seat, “I would have said ‘lummox’, but ‘fool’ is a good option.” She instantly regretted it—she missed him terribly, and did not want to put him on the defensive so soon, but...
“Yes, Worker. It’s me. You remember me, don’t you?”
“Skyshine, I—“ Worker turned towards her voice and took a hesitant step forward.
“Decided to stay for the week?” Her words were cruel, she knew; she mocked, she taunted, and yet she could not stop the torrent, or restrain the tone. “Decided not to write me, or ask the princesses to send a letter on your behalf? Decided that perhaps you were better off?”
“I was afraid—“ he began, tossing his mane.
“Afraid?” she hissed. “What do you know about afraid? I’ve been sleeping alone, in this empty house, for a week! I’ve been dealing with the whispers and the inquisitive stares of the entire town, for seven days! I can’t even help the mayor any more—I draw too much attention!—and you want to tell me you were afraid? Afraid of what, Worker?”
Something glittered in the darkness. She had only a moment’s warning before her chair, with her in it, slid across the floor and came to rest in front of Worker. His horn sparked with energy, and the chair glowed in the same mystical hue.
“Afraid of you, Skyshine!” he shouted in a fury. “Afraid of all my friends, who came to support me at the trial, and who I rewarded with the truth! I was afraid that they had abandoned me, that you had abandoned me, especially after you left the courtroom! Afraid that you didn’t… that…”
She could see his tears welling, illuminated by the glow of his horn, and the paths they cut across his mud-caked cheeks. She saw the weariness in his face, and the condition of his mane and coat, and the hope that flickered as it died, deep within his eyes.
“…that you didn’t love me anymore, Skyshine.” His voice gave out, and he dropped his gaze to the floor as he sobbed, each breath wracking his body. His horn’s glimmer faded, and so did whatever strength he possessed. “That you were better off without me.”
The stallion dropped to his knees and buried his face between her hooves, pressing his filthy head against the chair’s fabric. “Please don’t leave me, Skyshine,” he begged, barely audible through his ragged breathing. “I can’t do this alone. Not without you, my wife. The rest of the world can burn, but I need you.”
She winced at the ferocity of his words, briefly imagining Equestria in flames. Shaking the vision away, she gingerly reached out with a forehoof, placed it on his head, and stroked his stringy mane. The details could come later. He needed her now. “You are a lummox, Worker. You are a fool, and a dunderhead, and a great many other things.” Her husband looked up at her, confused, bewildered by the contrast between her words and her tone. She smiled, and felt the tears well in her eyes. “Especially if you think I could ever stop loving you.” Then, she bent down, and kissed him—first tenderly, and then more deeply—without a care for dirt, or tears, or reasons.
The two lovers rested, limbs intertwined as they lay on their bed, holding one another as close as they could. Worker’s mane and coat were still damp, despite the use of a towel and curry-comb, and Skyshine played with the heavy curls that dangled in front of her face. “We should try braiding,” she suggested.
“You can, dearest,” he replied with a kiss. “I rather like my unruly look.”
“You love it.”
Skyshine buried her muzzle in Worker’s neck, sighing, and then asked, “Worker? Why were you so late in returning?”
Worker thought for a moment, and then kissed her on the cheek, before rolling over onto his side so he could speak more comfortably. “Equestrian law is strange.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“I know. I’m getting to it.” He studied the wall behind Skyshine for a moment, and then answered, “On Mobius, before…” He sighed, and continued. “In my experience, if the victim of a crime is unwilling to press charges, then the crime is, for the most part, ignored. There are, of course, exceptions. Some laws were written to reflect a certain severity, in that the commission of the act was a crime itself, whether or not there was a victim at all. Here, it seems that all formal law is written in such a manner.”
“I don’t understand.” She rolled over onto her stomach, and rested her head on a bunched-up pillow. “Wouldn’t you want all laws to be treated the same way?”
“Ideally, yes. A universal code, if it works, is far simpler. That’s what the princesses had designed: an ideal system of law.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“Whether or not I felt victimized by my changes, the law made no exceptions. The penalty for using physical transformation magic on another without their consent is exile. The way that spell was written, it eliminates the possibility of consent. It can also be fatal, if cast too quickly. Thus, the law treated all applications as forced.”
“So, wait, was Luna exiled?”
“No. And it was because of her history that she was not.” He turned to look into Skyshine’s beautiful eyes. “Do you remember, back when we journeyed to gather my things from the cavern, how you told me about the moon? About the events that were marked by Luna’s changes?”
“Do you remember when you told me about Nightmare Night, and how Luna was rescued from the Nightmare? How the holiday, which used to be a warning about monsters, is now a celebration?”
“Yes, I do, but I don’t see how that matters.”
“Do you remember when you told me about the Elements of Harmony? How they were instrumental in defeating the Nightmare, and rescuing Luna? How they defeated something called ‘Discord’ soon after?”
“Worker,” she said, exasperated, “stop leading me on.”
Worker grinned, and flopped onto his back, raising his hooves in defense. “Fine, fine. I’ll cut to the chase, but you can’t go telling everyone. I don’t think the princesses have shared the full version; in fact, I’m pretty sure they haven’t.”
“Tell me, or I’m going to get up and take a shower.”
“Killjoy,” he chuckled. He closed his eyes, and continued. “Luna was Nightmare Moon. Same pony. She wasn’t rescued so much as freed. Changed.” He opened one eye, watching Skyshine’s expression. “One might say she was ‘transformed’.”
Skyshine blinked, trying to assess the information. “Wait. Wait. The Elements transformed the Nightmare—Nightmare Moon, you say—into Luna?”
“Yes. And I can safely say that whatever else was going through Nightmare Moon’s head at the time, she didn’t want to be transformed. She didn’t consent. And yet, the Elements of Harmony were neither exiled, nor even punished. In fact, I understand they have great stained glass windows displaying their courage in the palace itself.”
“So that speech you gave, where you listed those... horrible things?”
Worker sighed. He knew what she was asking, but he couldn’t give her that peace of mind. He rolled back over to his side, and reached out with a hoof to stroke her cheek. “My love, I told you, before I came to Equestria, I was different. I was… not a good pony. Everything I told the princesses that day was the truth. You cannot lie to either of them, Skyshine. Celestia can see through any falsehood, and I think Luna can feel them being woven. They are, very much, two sides of the same bit.”
“But that made it easier. I proposed that Luna had not cast a spell on an unwilling traveler. I proposed that, instead, she recognized a threat—a villain, as it were—and defeated him, revealing the true pony within.” He smiled despite himself. “Luna was no criminal. She was a hero, who alone could see and vanquish a looming danger!” He finished with a vaudevillian flourish.
“That’s not funny.”
“No,” he agreed, his voice gentle once more. “It’s not.”
“So you’re a looming danger?” Her tone shifted, rising with impatience. “Is that how you see yourself?”
“Not anymore, my love,” he soothed. “The idea was born in a burst of creativity, but the more I think about it, the more I realize that it’s true. I am a different pony. I am your pony, and I will never again be Julian, or Robotnik, or Eggman.”
“So many names. Were they all bad?”
“After a time,” he said simply, “yes.”
“What of Worker?” She watched him with an unreadable gaze, searching.
“Ah, he’s a special case.” He reached out and stroked her cheek, then folded his arms across his chest. “He has someone who loves him, after all, and who he loves just as much.”
Skyshine blushed, and then met his gaze once more. “So you gave everyone—all three of you—a way out. Why did it take so long to return?”
He frowned, his ears flickering. “There was a small celebration, and a formal welcoming to Equestria,” his voice lowered in embarrassment, “and a title, but...” Worker cleared his throat. “I told you the truth this morning. I was afraid. I needed time to think, so I elected to walk, but all I did on the entire journey was worry.”
“And you didn’t ask the princesses to send a letter ahead of you?” She did not sound pleased.
“No,” he admitted, ashamed at his lack of foresight. “I didn’t know what to do, and so I chose to do nothing. I didn’t want to face the possibility of receiving a letter in reply, telling me I was not wanted.”
Skyshine crawled across the bed and swung a leg over Worker’s chest, pinning his shoulders under her forehooves. She leaned in close and kissed him soundly, sighing deeply at the touch of his lips. “You are a lummox, my dear Worker.” She smiled down at him, a fire in her eyes.
“I know,” he replied glibly, smiling back. “But if I can be your lummox, Skyshine, I think it will work out just fine.” He reached up to her , and pulled her close, kissing her again and again as he channeled the lights out.
“Darling,” Skyshine prompted in the cool darkness.
“The town will be wondering.”
“Let them. We’ll answer their questions later,” he replied. A warm breath sounded in his ear, followed by a nibble. “Mrrr,” he rumbled, “make that tomorrow.”
In the darkness, the lovers—once again entangled in one another—giggled happily.
“Tia,” Luna complained, stamping a hoof against the kitchen’s tiles, “you’re taking forever. We were supposed to leave half an hour ago!”
“Look who’s suddenly worried about schedules,” Celestia taunted. “I just wanted to make sure everything was packed.” She levitated a large hamper towards the back door.
“Fine, fine. Lentils has everything squared away, like she always does. Can we go?”
“We can go. I’m sure the countryside is still there, awaiting our glorious picnic.” She opened the door, and the pair strolled out of their kitchens, and out of the palace.
“It really is a wonderful idea to take a day off, Tia,” said the younger pony, feigning self-importance. A fan appeared out of nowhere, snapped open, and floated before the suddenly demure alicorn. It waved lazily, more for appearance than function. “I’m glad I thought of it.”
“Mm.” Celestia paused, tapping her chin with a forehoof. “You thought of it, did you? I was unaware. I could have sworn the arrangements bore my signature. Have you been forging my name again?”
Luna stuck out her tongue in reply. Her fan, as if shocked at such a vulgar display, vanished in a puff of blue smoke.
For a few minutes, they walked together in silence, and stepped through a small sally-gate set into the city walls. On the other side was a simple platform carved into the mountainside.
Celestia set down the hamper. “Still,” she said, grinning impishly, “I agree. It is a wonderful idea. We should make this a regular event. Canterlot can manage itself one day a month, don’t you think?”
Luna peered over the platform’s edge, surveying the rolling, grassy plain below. She turned to her sister, nodded in agreement, and then pointed towards a copse of trees near a winding stream. “There.”
Celestia smiled. “That looks lovely. Shall we?” She stepped to the edge of the platform, levitated the hamper, and stretched her wings wide.
Luna, not waiting for decorum, leapt from the edge, screeching with glee as she dove towards the rocks below.
“Oh, no you don’t!” shouted Celestia, powering after her sibling.
The two sisters soared down the mountainside, exulting in the feel of the wind, banking to and fro over the green fields below. Luna laughed, hooting and hollering with unbridled joy as she looped and climbed. Celestia glided effortlessly beside her, allowing herself an earnest smile in the mid-morning sunlight.
It was the first time they had flown together in over a thousand years.
It was going to be a wonderful day.
Two of the three remaining Freedom Fighters stood about a massive machine which held a single glimmering Emerald in its depths. Their expressions were grim, yet their eyes shone with hope.
A pink-furred hedgehog clad in tattered overalls sat hunched over a series of controls. She pushed her hair from her face, and rubbed at her eyes. I’m getting too old for this, she thought. She looked to her left and nodded to her partner. “Give me a status on the Emerald?”
A hulking red echidna squinted through smoked glass and tried to make sense of the glowing crystal’s pulsations. “I think we’re ready, Amy.” He smiled at her reassuringly. “Let’s try again.”
“Sonic!” Amy shouted. “We’re firing it up. Get to the launch platform!”
“On my way,” a voice called in reply. “Go ahead and start the sequencing!”
“You know I can’t do that while you’re outside the—” A chime sounded, indicating pressure on the launch platform. “—platform. Of course. Starting the sequence now, Sonic!”
“Roger that. And Amy? Knuckles? Thank you.”
“You make it sound like a funeral, hedgehog,” Knuckles replied.
“C’mon!” he chided playfully. “This is me we’re talking about. I’ll come back just fine.”
“I hope so,” Amy called back. “Return to the same spot in two weeks, and we’ll reopen the portal. Don’t forget. The Emerald’s taken a few hits, and I don’t know if we’ll have another chance.”
“Two weeks,” he acknowledged with a nod. “I’ll be there.” He pressed a large red button next to the platform. At his command, the machine powered up with a whine that increased in pitch, and was soon out of the range of hearing. Every hair on the hedgehog’s body stood on end, and the air around him began to darken. There was a rending noise, like thunder being sucked into a bottle. A web of electricity was followed by an explosion somewhere deep in the machine, and it ground to a halt.
Amy raced to the top, while Knuckles peered into the Emerald’s chamber.
“It’s still in one piece, Amy!” he called out.
Amy searched the platform, finding nothing but the metal pressure plate and the red button. “I heard you, Knuckles,” she replied, peering over the railing to the echidna below. “I just hope he is.”