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by on September 11, 2022
The sun was not far from setting as the last train of the day lumbered into Ponyville Station. Only a few ponies filtered out when the doors open; the last train is rarely the most popular, and is typically only taken by those who missed their intended earlier ride.
One of the last among them was a silver mare, stiff from her journey. She stopped for a moment to consult the Ponyville map. The Equestria Historical Society had lined up accommodation for her outside of town, near a Clock Tower. Fortunately Ponyville was a small town, so it didn’t take long for Stormfeather to find the landmark on the map.
Unfortunately, the Clock Tower was all the way on the other side of town.
Stormfeather sighed, then spread her wings and launched into the air, somewhat shakily due to her loaded saddlebags. She rose into the twilight sky as the first stars begin to show. She always preferred to fly when she got to a new place; it helped her establish a mental map, and it was far easier to navigate when she could see from above.
Besides, she had too much to do to risk running into anypony tonight. She hoped the Historical Society’s accommodation wasn’t too hard to find. By the map, it appeared to be surrounded by only a few cottages, but she would hate to have to knock on somepony’s door to ask for directions, especially this time of night. Ponyville had a reputation of being a friendly place—it housed the castle of the Princess of Friendship herself, along with her school—and Stormfeather was simply too eager to get on with her appointed business to deal with well-intentioned ponies.
Ponyville was serenely still as Stormfeather glided overhead. She saw one or two ponies below, heading back to their homes after some evening outing, but they did not notice her, as her form failed to cast a shadow as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. She was glad she wasn’t living in this part of town—it was too congested for her taste.
She flew past Town Hall on her way out of Ponyville. According to the map, all she had to do from here was find a small lake and follow one of its adjacent streams toward the Clock Tower. She was glad it was a clear night; if it wasn’t for the reflection of the stars on the surface of the lake, she may have flown right over it.
Stormfeather dipped down until she could feel the night-cold rising off the lake, and headed for an opening in the trees along the shoreline. She was right: A stream flowed between them, which she followed for a few wingbeats before rising up to fly just above the canopy of the forest—though she could tell by the trees that it wasn’t a forest at all, but an orchard of some kind.
Before long she spotted the bell tower glowing in the moonlight, and she headed towards it. As expected, there were only a few cottages dotted around its base. She descended and landed as quietly as she could along the path between them. It was hard to see the numbers in the dark, but she managed to find the correct one—the only one on its side of the path—and inserted the key she had been given.
The cottage was a small one, but more than sufficient for Stormfeather living on her own. Since she only had what she was carrying in her saddlebags, it only took a few moments for her to unpack—and then repack, for she had no intention of turning in for the night after having spent so much time sitting on the train. It was time to stretch her wings.
Stormfeather trotted out of her new house and took to the sky, much more spryly than before given her lighter saddlebags. She relished the feeling of the wind tingling through her feathers as she angled south, toward the Everfree Forest. Perhaps it wouldn’t be advisable for a pony to go into the strangest sector of Equestria alone, but this was why she had come to Ponyville in the first place. The Equestria Historical Society had sent her to observe and document the books and scrolls in the library of the Castle of the Two Sisters, and do what she could to preserve them.
As she started over the canopy, she began to wonder if she had made the wrong decision. It was impossible to see the ground through the thickness of the trees, even if she wanted to. She had assumed she would be able to see at least the towers of the partially-ruined castle, but in the dark it was hard to tell what might be a tower and what was merely a tall tree. What’s more, the sky was darkening fast as clouds began to gather. It looked like a storm was brewing—which meant it would be very dangerous for Stormfeather to stay in the sky much longer. Uncontrolled weather patterns. So it was true.
The canopy was thick, but she managed to find a slight opening and angled for it. It was so narrow that she had to tuck her wings in order to fit through it; given the darkness and the unusual size of her wings, this didn't go quite as she envisioned, and she lost a few feathers on the way down. To soften her landing, she quickly flared out her wings again as soon as she was past the canopy, and found herself plunging into a thick patch of undergrowth. The spread of her wings caused full impact, and she landed with a heavy and apt oof. It was at this moment that she discovered the rumors of the thickness of Everfree Forest were absolutely true.
With a short struggle and some awkward flapping, Stormfeather managed to disentangle herself from the foliage and found a slightly less overgrown area in which to pluck the stray twigs and fronds from her feathers. It wasn't until she had finished that she realized she had done this entirely by feel; the jungle was far too dark to make out anything. She groped in her saddlebag and pulled out a lantern, which she lit and held aloft in her mouth. A shiver ran down her spine. Somehow the shadows cast by the lantern made the forest seem even more eerie than it had in pitch darkness, and rain had begun to fall.
There aren't many jungles in Equestria, and Stormfeather quickly realized that her moderate forest navigation skills were useless in a place where the sun never reached the ground. There was no sign of a trail, and it was impossible to listen for running water over the sound of the rising storm. She would have to pick a direction and hope for the best.
It felt like ages of aimless wandering before Stormfeather heard rustling in the undergrowth. She put her lantern down and backed swiftly a few paces away, hoping that keeping the light between her and whatever-it-was would at least put them on even ground. She shook the water out of her wings and took up a defensive stance, knowing that there wasn't enough room to take flight to flee. If something came for her, she was earthbound, and she would have to think quickly.
To her surprise, it wasn't a massive beast that pushed its way out of the undergrowth, or one of Everfree's infamous timberwolves—it was an Earth pony, pale orange and muddy, with her lavender mane sopping wet, and a large backpack lashed up with gear. "Hello!" the mare called over the downpour. "We saw your light. Are you camping near here?"
Stormfeather blinked and allowed herself to relax, but she was so surprised that it took a moment before her brain registered that she was supposed to respond. She shook her head and went to stand over her lantern, where the pony could hear her better. "I'm looking for the Castle of the Two Sisters," she yelled.
"At night?" A second mare, a Unicorn, probably white under the smudges of the jungle storm, came out of the undergrowth behind the Earth pony, using her magic to clear her path.
"I thought I might see it," Stormfeather explained, lifting a wing slightly to indicate she'd been scanning from the air.
"That explains why you're here. No flying in this weather," the Earth pony said. "You're just a little ways from the trail."
"You'd better come with us," the Unicorn added. "We were camping with our friends when the storm hit. Safety in numbers!" She led the way back through the undergrowth, barring the foliage with her magic. The Earth pony followed close behind, and Stormfeather picked up her lantern and hurried to catch up. She certainly hadn't planned to meet anypony tonight, but she had to admit the Unicorn was right, and besides, maybe they could point her toward the castle.
When they broke out of the undergrowth, they came upon a pair of brown stallions shivering on the trail. "What did you find?" called one as soon as he saw them.
"No campfire. Just a lantern," the Unicorn replied, and revealed Stormfeather. Seeing all the heavy backpacks these ponies were wearing, Stormfeather suddenly felt very exposed and unprepared.
"What are you doing out here?" asked a stallion, whom Stormfeather realized was a Pegasus. He was clinging his wings so closely to his body that she almost didn't see them.
"She's looking for the Castle," the Unicorn told him.
"Right now?!" The Pegasus looked at her in disbelief.
"Maybe we ought to go there," suggested the other stallion, an Earth pony. "It could give us shelter from this storm."
"Good idea," said the Earth mare, and the other two nodded.
"Come with us," the Earth stallion said to Stormfeather, picking up a lantern and taking the lead. "The castle's got to be around here somewhere."
As the others fell in behind him, the Earth mare extended a hoof in greeting to Stormfeather. "I'm Whistling Wind," she said, her voice barely audible over the canopy crashing overhead.
Stormfeather clopped her hoof against Whistling Wind's. "Stormfeather."
"Nice to meet you." Whistling Wind led the way after the other three ponies and indicated them from front to back. "That's Royal Gift, Star Stream, and Broken Arrow. What a night for a camping trip, eh?"
Stormfeather nodded, but didn't feel particularly moved to reply. She was soaked through and cold, and she didn't have much cover from just her saddlebags. She looked at Broken Arrow with his wings slicked against his sides, and for once she was grateful that hers were larger than normal. Wet as they were, at least she had an abundance of feathers to help insulate her. Besides, if they were folded, nopony would notice they were the wrong size.
Whistling Wind looked as if she was going to say something else, but before she could the sky flashed again. It was barely visible to the ponies under the dense canopy, but the sound of it nearly tossed them forward. They paused and turned their gaze upward, and dread rose in each of their hearts as smoke began to roll from the branches above them.
"Go!" neighed Royal Gift, and bolted into a gallop. The others sprinted after him. Hoping beyond hope that he knew where he was going, Stormfeather followed. Her gratefulness for her amply feathered wings dissipated as they became soaked through and heavy. She fixed her concentration on keeping sight of Whistling Wind's purple tail, slicked dark and waterlogged, but with the flashing lightning and dense undergrowth, a few times she thought the other ponies had left her behind. Still she refused to look back, trying to ignore the crackling of flames and sucking of air behind her.
She had no idea how long they had been running before Royal Gift stumbled to a stop. The others gathered as closely around him as possible, though the undergrowth was unforgiving and it was nearly impossible to hear one another above the storm as it was.
"I lost the path," Royal Gift said as soon as he had enough breath to shout. "I don't know where we are."
"I'll fly up and look around," offered Broken Arrow, spreading his soggy wings.
"Don't be stupid," Star Stream snapped. "You'll be fried."
Broken Arrow looked sheepish and Whistling Wind piped up, "We shouldn't keep moving without knowing where we're going. It's too dangerous."
"There's nowhere around here to wait for the storm to pass," Royal Gift pointed out, "unless you don't mind pulling thorns out of your mane."
Thunder boomed again and the ponies started. Looking around at their terrified faces, Stormfeather knew she had to make a decision. She was a decent navigator, and even in the storm, she had experience with camping that they could use. If she only knew which way the castle or Ponyville was, she was certain her sense of direction would lead her true. But in such a thick jungle, it would be very difficult–or impossible–to figure out which way was north.
Maybe it was a good thing her wings were so large after all.
In one swift movement, she reached over and tossed her saddlebags to the ground. "No time to argue," she said, unfurling her wings, and with a powerful downstroke she launched herself into the air. She thought she heard one of the ponies call after her, but the voice was drowned out by the storm.
Probably for the best.
Beneath the protection of the canopy, flying was easy. Getting through and beyond it, however, was another story. It would have been hard enough to fight through the thick branches on a calm day; during a storm, it was like flying through a tornado of razor-sharp leaves and pointy sticks. By the time she finally broke out, she was scraped, bleeding, and barely knew which way was up. What's more, she couldn't risk hovering too high above the trees with the lightning flashing.
Fortunately, she didn't have to wait long. Within heartbeats of her escaping the canopy, the blackness was shattered by a streak of lightning so nearby Stormfeather felt it singe her wing feathers. The resulting static nearly sent her into a tailspin, but her broad wings held her steady and she caught a fleeting glimpse of a tower.
The castle! Stormfeather kicked up her tail, pinned her wings, and dropped into a dive.
Getting down through the canopy was much easier going up, and she shot down like a missile, nearly bowling over Broken Arrow, who had apparently begun to fly after her but hadn't made it all the way through. She just managed to slow her descent enough to avoid breaking a leg upon landing, but she still stumbled. Star Stream reached out to steady her, but Stormfeather didn't want to risk losing her mental map of the tower, which was quickly fading. She shrugged the Unicorn off. "This way," she gasped, grabbing her saddlebag and slinging it onto her back.
She took off at a dead gallop, not waiting to see if the others were following. She'd caught only the barest glimpse of the tower and the surrounding terrain, and she knew the navigational instinct to follow would remain only for so long. She ignored the booming of thunder and the cracking of what she daren't imagine was fire, and busted through the thick undergrowth. All that mattered at the moment was reaching shelter–it just so happened that it was also her intended destination.
She was running so fast and was so focused that she didn't notice when the ground suddenly vanished beneath her. She found herself falling; she heard one of the other ponies cry out, and felt an invisible grasp snag her tail. Broken Arrow flew up beneath her and steadied her until she realized she needed to flap her wings to stay aloft.
"Thanks," she gasped to him, and nodded back to Star Stream, who had grabbed Stormfeather's tail with her magic. Beneath her, a river roared, black and angry in the storm. If the ponies hadn't caught her, she would have been swept downstream, with no hope of breaking free.
"I know where we are now," Royal Gift called, and took the lead again.
Stormfeather was relieved to fall in behind him; her recall was fading fast, and her legs were aching. She could tell by their weary gaits that the other ponies were quickly tiring too–at least Star Stream and the Pegasi were. Earth ponies were known for their endurance, and both Royal Gift and Whistling Wind seemed strong.
With Royal Gift leading, it wasn't long before they found themselves galloping across a tedious bridge overlooking what appeared in the dark to be an abyss. Stormfeather could only guess what lay at the bottom. The ponies rushed into the castle as lightning split the sky once more, and fell relieved onto the stone floor.
It was a few moments before Stormfeather caught her breath enough to look around. It was very dark, but she could tell by the feel of the air against her ears that they were in a large room, probably a great hall, by what she knew of castles. Star Stream lit her horn so somepony could find a torch, and Stormfeather's instinct was confirmed. From a logical standpoint, she could only imagine the creatures that might make their homes here; while not what she would call welcoming, the castle was shelter.
"That was crazy, flying into the storm like that," Whistling Wind said to Stormfeather as Royal Gift lit a torch. "You could have been killed."
"Is that why you're called Stormfeather?" joked Broken Arrow, wringing out his wings.
"We needed direction," Stormfeather said, shrugging. If she'd been on her own, she probably would have stayed in one place and waited until the storm let up, but she didn't mention that to anypony.
"That was good flying," Royal Gift said.
"Definitely better than Arrow could do," Star Stream added, and the ponies laughed at Broken Arrow's protest.
"That's not fair. Her wings are bigger than mine!"
Stormfeather clutched her wings to her side, embarrassed, but Star Stream said, "It's a good thing they are. We wouldn't have made it here."
"Why were you looking for the castle?" asked Whistling Wind.
"I came for the library," Stormfeather explained. "Do you happen to know where it is?"
This time it was Star Stream who answered. "Toward the back. It ought to be warmer in there." She stood, and the ponies all hefted their bags again to follow.
They headed down a corridor without a word. Now that the sounds of the storm were muffled by the stone walls, Stormfeather felt a bit awkward and wondered if she should say something. Their hoofsteps sounded unnaturally loud in her ears.
Whistling Wind seemed as uncomfortable with the silence as she was. "It's been a long time before anypony came to Ponyville for the Castle of the Two Sisters," she commented. "What are you looking for?"
"Stories," said Stormfeather.
"I don't know how much use you'll find here," said Star Stream. "The library's probably full of old archives and outdated magic scrolls."
"The best stories are those we have lived ourselves," Stormfeather answered.
The other ponies fell silent again. Finally they passed through a doorway and it opened up into a large room full of shelves overflowing with books. Stormfeather stops in her tracks and gazes around in wonder. There was far more here than she had expected, and she knew in an instant her journey here was not in vain.
Royal Gift began to say something about setting up camp and spreading their things out to dry, but Stormfeather didn't hear him. She walked up to the nearest bookshelf and unstrapped her saddlebags, sighing in relief as the sodden bags dropped to the floor. Almost immediately she sneezed, sending a tiny cloud of dust up off the nearby books. She walked down the row, her excitement and anticipation building as she read the titles.
Oh yes, she thought. I could spend a very, very long time here.
Before she could get too engrossed in the books, however, Royal Gift called out, "Come dry off."
She returned to the others to find that they had started a small fire. Stormfeather felt uncomfortable having an open flame close to the invaluable treasure trove of information, but she didn't say anything. She was dying to spread her wings to dry, like Broken Arrow was doing, but despite Star Stream's kind words, she still felt self-conscious.
The others were tossing their manes and laying out their camping gear around the fire, trying to get everything close enough to dry off. Stormfeather went to retrieve her saddlebags from where she'd dropped them by the other shelf. Back at the fire, she opened them up, and sighed as she lifted out a couple of dripping notebooks. She was glad they were unused ones, so she hadn't lost any valuable notes, but she hated to admit they were probably beyond saving. Her quills and ink had fared better, and fortunately her written permit from the Equestria Historical Society was laminated, so it had survived the storm unscathed. Her sketchbook was a bit water damaged on the edges, but the hard cover seemed to have taken the brunt of it. Surprisingly, her pencils were the most damaged, the graphite practically dripping off them and the wood heavy with water. But, after a thorough drying, they ought to be salvageable.
When she tuned back in to the conversation, Whistling Wind was saying, "It's a good thing Ponyville has its own weather. A storm like this would wipe out my crops, even this early in summer."
Noticing she was now paying attention, Star Stream asked Stormfeather, "How long are you in Ponyville?"
"Indefinitely," Stormfeather replied. "I'm doing archives for the Equestria Historical Society."
"So that's why you wanted the castle library," said Broken Arrow.
"Stormfeather–I thought your name was familiar," mused Royal Gift. "I work in Ponyville real estate. I set up your house for you. Did you see it yet?"
"Yes, it should do nicely," said Stormfeather.
"Where is it?" asked Broken Arrow.
"Out by the Clock Tower," Royal Gift told him.
"That's pretty far out," Broken Arrow commented.
"It's a good location if you're going to be here a lot," Whistling Wind said to Stormfeather. "You're lucky you can fly here instead of walking through the forest."
"As long as it isn't stormy!" Broken Arrow said, and they all laughed.
Stormfeather looked at the ponies around her and wondered if she'd found friends so quickly after arriving in her new home. They seemed friendly enough, and there was no denying the rough evening had bonded them somewhat, but she couldn't say yet whether she considered them friends. One thing was certain, though: she sure was glad she knew somepony.
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