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by on November 14, 2022
"I'm glad we're doing this," Star Stream said. "To make up for last week." 
"You didn't enjoy the storm?" asked Royal Gift playfully. 
"Not when I'm camping in it," Star retorted. 
Given the storm that had interrupted their plans to camp in Everfree Forest the week before, the ponies had decided to organize a hike into the nearby mountains to make up for the trip gone awry. Stormfeather had been asked to go along as a replacement for Whistling Wind, who was still laid up with an injured hoof since Star Stream’s sleepover. Stormfeather had been surprised when she was invited, and she still felt like she was intruding, but the other ponies continued to be friendly and welcoming towards her. Although since they hadn't yet asked her many questions about herself, she knew the possibility was high that she would have to answer a few on the hike. With that in mind, she trailed along at the back of the pack, hoping to prepare herself as well as observe her new companions a bit more. 
Star Stream, she already knew, was competitive and dauntless, and she and Royal Gift seemed to be constantly interacting in a dynamic that somehow managed to be both playful and testy. If she hadn't spent a night at her house, Stormfeather wouldn't have known Star Stream had a soft side, but the Unicorn's staunch strength hid a deep kindness and caring for others.
Royal Gift seemed to purposefully antagonize Star, but at the same time there was something almost gentle about him. This was the first time Stormfeather had spent much time with the dark brown stallion, but already she could sense an energy about him, and a calm confidence that put her at ease. He hadn't really spoken to her, but she found him trustworthy. Maybe it was because of how he'd taken control during the storm and guided them all to shelter, but she thought she'd be willing to follow him anywhere. 
Broken Arrow was the strangest of all. Stormfeather knew almost nothing about him, but she could sense more about him than any of the other ponies she'd met. He seemed to want to be everywhere, part of everything, but he also seemed withdrawn and unwilling to connect, although Stormfeather couldn't explain why she got that impression. Right now he was up front, but he seemed unable to decide whether he wanted to explore ahead or stay close to the other ponies. For some reason, he seemed deeply familiar to her. 
As she was observing her companions, Stormfeather was brought back to the present by Broken Arrow calling over his shoulder from where he hovered up ahead. "Hey, there's a wagon up ahead!" 
Stormfeather caught up with the others and they joined him, moving together down the path toward a small, brightly colored wagon pulled by an equally small pony. The pony turned as they approached and Royal Gift called out a greeting. He was a pony, but a species which Stormfeather had not seen before. He had a short, curved horn and a limp, dull mane that hung nearly to his knees, with a tail to match. 
Royal Gift took the initiative in introducing everypony, and then asked, "Where are you headed?" 
"Ponyville, for the moment," replied the pony, "but only for a short stop. I'm an entertainer doing a circuit of Equestria. This is my first time here." 
"In Ponyville, or Equestria?" asked Star Stream. 
"Both," the pony said.
"Where are you from?" Royal Gift inquired. 
"The Fields of Forever," answered the pony. "It's on the other side of Ponyland."
"I've never heard of those places," Star said as Royal Gift shook his head agreeably. Stormfeather placidly followed suit. She wondered if this conversation would eventually lead to swapping species—or names. 
"It sounds a bit familiar," said Broken Arrow.
"Ponyland is beyond what you would know as the Griffish Isles. The Fields of Forever—my home—is even further." The pony looked skeptically at them all. "I guess you've never seen an Abada before, have you?" 
Royal Gift and Star Stream began trying to convince him that they had, quickly adding that they simply hadn't known the species, while Arrow said laughingly, "I know an Abada." Stormfeather stayed quiet, feeling completely in the dark about what was happening, and hoping her silence thus far would render her lack of culture invisible. 
"How's the trail up ahead?" Royal Gift asked at last, changing the topic as smoothly as he could. 
"Pretty good. No obstacles the way I came," reported the Abada.
"Well, you're not far from Ponyville," Royal Gift told him. "Just keep following the road. You'll be there within a candlemark." 
"Good luck with your show," added Star Stream. 
"Enjoy your trip," the Abada responded as he pulled his wagon past them. As they parted ways, Stormfeather made a mental note to look up the Fields of Forever and Ponyland when she returned home.
True to the Abada’s word, the ponies didn’t run into anything else along the trail until they reached a flat open spot on the mountainside. There, they stopped and looked out over the expanse of Equestria lying before them.
“I can see my house from here,” Broken Arrow joked.
Stormfeather settled herself on a boulder, trying to act like her muscles weren’t aching. Star Stream and Royal Gift looked tired as well, and it was a while before any of the three of them stood up to enjoy the view. Broken Arrow didn’t seem wearied at all as far as Stormfeather could tell.
“We should keep going,” he urged them. “I bet we could make it to the top in a couple of hours.”
“Are you joking?” groaned Star Stream.
“We never said we were going to the top,” Royal Gift said. “We only said we were going to camp in the mountains.”
“But the view will be way better from up there,” Arrow said. “I bet we could see Canterlot Castle.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” Star retorted. “You can fly. My hooves are aching.”
“Come on,” Arrow urged. “It’s just a little further. Don’t you want to say you made it to the peak?”
“We’re not here to prove anything,” Royal Gift reminded him. “It’s just a camping trip.”
“Stay here if you want to,” Arrow said, standing and shaking out his wings. “I’ll go up by myself.”
“We shouldn’t split up,” Star said. “It’s dangerous.”
Stormfeather knew Star was right. She also knew that she didn’t want to take another hoof step. She had come on this trip to get to know these ponies, not because she was interested in mountain climbing. She wasn’t even sure she was enjoying the experience.
“Then I’ll go with him,” Royal Gift offered, standing slowly.
Stormfeather could see the stiffness in his legs and got to her own hooves. “No, I will,” she said before she realized what she was doing. “I can fly.”
“Nopony should go!” Star said, her voice rising. “It’s a stupid thing to do!”
“It’s just a little way, and if we fly, it’ll be even faster,” Arrow shot back.
“It’s dangerous for all of us the more we split up,” Royal Gift added.
“Then let’s all go,” Arrow said, as if he’d won.
“You’re crazy if you think I’m taking another step.” Star sat back and crossed her forehooves stubbornly.
“Stop!” cried Stormfeather. “We will fly, and be back in an hour or two. You two set up camp.”
“It’s a bad idea,” Star told her. “You shouldn’t go.” She looked at Stormfeather, but if she was trying to communicate something silently, the Pegasus couldn’t read it.
“Fine.” Broken Arrow unfurled his wings. “But you’re missing out.”
Stormfeather took flight after him. Her wings felt heavy, but she was grateful to fly instead of walk. A strong gust of wind gave her a boost, and she soared alongside the brown stallion. He stayed quiet as they flew, and seemed to be keeping a slight distance between them. Was he uncomfortable flying beside her because of her large wings? Maybe he just didn’t like her very much. Or maybe he was as uncomfortable as she was. She had no idea why he’d pushed so hard to go further, and she didn’t feel comfortable asking him. But a deep unsettling feeling told her that this was a very bad idea.
The wind got stronger and stronger the higher they flew. Peering down, Stormfeather could just make out what looked like a statue carved into the rocky mountainside. She glanced at Broken Arrow, who didn’t look like he wanted to talk, and decided instead to drop down toward it to get a better look. When he noticed her descent, Arrow followed. Blinking the wind-chill tears from her eyes, Stormfeather could make out the carving of an Earth Pony with a hoof raised toward the trail. It was difficult to tell whether the hoof was in a halting or a pointing position, but Stormfeather didn’t feel very good about either option.
“What’s that for?” Arrow asked. He was the closest he’d flown to Stormfeather so far.
She shrugged. “A message?” she suggested.
“Hmm,” he answered, and flew on. Stormfeather stayed close, feeling more uneasy by the moment. Ponies didn’t just carve ominous statues into mountainsides for a good time, and the air was getting colder and colder as they approached the peak. The ground below was covered in frost and ice, not yet melted by spring’s warmth.
Stormfeather’s feathers felt frozen by the time they finally touched down on the peak. The wind was blowing so hard that it was hard to stay upright, in flight or on hoof. Stormfeather could scarcely see anything through the layer of gray clouds shrouding the peak, and she kept her gaze carefully fixed on Broken Arrow’s red tail. She wasn’t about to lose him on this mountain. She may not have wanted to come in the first place, but she was determined they would both make it back.
It was impossible to talk over the wind. Fortunately, it wasn’t necessary to, because they both spotted the lights at the same time.
The Pegasi watched, dumbstruck, as the lights steadily got bigger. Then, before they could fully register what was happening, a metal lantern-looking object with a blue flame flew at them—Stormfeather would have said it charged, if she believed it was sentient. She wanted to dodge, but her muscles, stiff now with both exhaustion and cold, refused to respond. Arrow launched a kick at it with one hoof, catching it directly in its center. The odd lantern was knocked back a few paces and landed in the snow.
Unfortunately, more were swarming forward. Stormfeather turned toward the three on her side and spread her wings wide, then charged forward. She smacked one with a wing, body-slammed the next, and narrowly missed the third. She stomped on the one under her hooves, then flinched as metal scraped against her flank.
“Stormfeather! Fly!” neighed Broken Arrow. Looking up, she saw that he was already aboveground, hovering overhead, fighting to stay stable in the screaming wind. The lanterns clustered around her, and she felt her shoulder burn as one of them struck her. Stormfeather thrust out her wings and spun in place, hoping to knock them all down, or at least far enough away to give her time for the downstroke that would send her into the sky.
She only felt herself strike a couple of them, but her movement—and the rushing wind—gave her what she needed to launch herself upward. Arrow dove down at the others, pushing them away from her and giving her an extra wingstroke to get away. He circled back upward to join her, and they hovered several lengths off the ground, hoping the lanterns couldn’t fly.
“What in Equestria are those?” shouted Arrow.
Stormfeather didn’t answer because she had no answer. The lanterns were made of metal, that much was clear, but the rest was a mystery to her. All she knew was what she could see: a metal frame with a blue flame lingering inside the glass compartment at the center. They were clearly animated by magic, though it was impossible in the fog to see whether there was a puppeteer nearby, or if they were permanently living constructs. If there was a sorcerer pulling the strings, it was likely that flying would not be an effective method of escape.
Beside her, Arrow faltered as the wind changed, his smaller wings struggling to keep him aloft. “Let’s go,” Stormfeather yelled to him, not sure whether he could hear, and began to crest the mountain, hoping the peak would shelter them from some of the wind assaulting them from all sides. Arrow followed, but at a much slower pace, flapping furiously just to stay upright. Stormfeather glanced frequently over her shoulder to make sure he was still managing, but she had no idea what she would do if he lost control.
The pattern of the wind was much different than it had been when she’d flown in the storm the week before, bashing and rebounding off the mountain and funneling at her like a chute. But for the most part, the wind caught and cushioned against her, gathering beneath her wings and sifting through her feathers. It was bitterly cold, but at the same time, somewhat refreshing—and the freezing air quickly soothed the burn on her shoulder.
The wind gradually decreased as they descended, and finally Stormfeather landed on the trail just below the Earth Pony statue. Broken Arrow landed beside her, shaking violently. “Are you okay?” Stormfeather asked.
“I think so,” he answered, wincing as he flexed his wings. Stormfeather could see the frost layering them; glancing to her side, she could see the same on her own wings, but her denser feathers had insulated her from the effects of the cold. “Did you get hurt?” Arrow asked through chattering teeth.
“My shoulder and flank,” she answered, and examined each carefully. Her shoulder was numb, the frost covering the burn having stopped it from spreading very effectively. Her flank had bled, but the cold also seemed to have staunched it. They were both lucky to have gotten away with such little injury.
“What happened?” Arrow said again, still shivering. “What were those things?”
Stormfeather shook her head. “I don’t know.” She made another mental note. This camping trip was going to send her home with a mountain of research to do, if nothing else. “Let’s go back to camp.”
He nodded and followed shakily as she lifted into flight again. She could see that it was an effort to keep his stiffening wings flapping, but she also knew that the exercise would warm them up much faster than walking. The sooner he defrosted, the more control he would regain—and the quicker they could both get to camp and turn in for the night. After the exhausting climb and the battle, all Stormfeather wanted was to curl up in her sleeping bag and sleep.
By the time they reached camp, Arrow was flying normally, though considerably slower than when they’d left. Stormfeather could see that he was as tired as she was now, though somehow she knew that most of his exhaustion wasn’t physical. He’d been the one to insist on going to the peak when everypony else had disagreed, and it had put them in serious danger that he’d had no idea how to fight. Stormfeather could almost read his thoughts: If he hadn’t been so desperate to push himself, this wouldn’t have happened. What if everypony was still upset with him? Surely they had good reason to be?
Suddenly feeling a rush of empathy, Stormfeather touched him lightly on the shoulder with her wing-tip as they landed, wanting him to know that she didn’t blame him for what happened. He glanced at her, but she didn’t see any recognition of what she was trying to communicate. He probably assumed it had been a mistake, a mild glitch of exhausted wings. He went to greet Royal Gift and Star Stream, and left Stormfeather with a drooping heart.
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