What did you do when one of your best friends caught fire? The question was as ludicrous to Rainbow Dash's mind as the actual situation. Flames rushed over Fluttershy's coat as if she were doused in kerosene, and yet she did not budge.
"Fluttershy!" Even as she called the pegasus' name, Rainbow suspected she might as well have tried to yell up to her friend in space. Her own voice sounded remote to her, like it was trying to cross a vacuum to reach her ears. But, short of burning herself as well, yelling was the only thing Rainbow could do. "Fluttershy!"
The other pegasus failed to respond, at least out loud. What took only a few moments seemed like hours before Fluttershy's back left leg buckled. Like the toppling of dominoes, her other legs failed one after the next so that her body twisted toward the ceiling. Her eyes, wide enough to see into another world, did not blink.
Rainbow Dash could do nothing but stand by as her friend collapsed, the flames leaping to replace the space she had previously filled.
A flash, one as intense as the birth of a star, lit the air outside of the house. The thunderclap, just as savage, hurled everything that wasn't bolted down backwards—books and loosed pages, shelf fragments, the table and chairs, flames, and a rainbow-maned pegasus, whose world screamed from a lurching blur to a sharp impact against the far wall. Her head rattled off the baseboard on its way to the floor.
Her thoughts only caught up to her after she tottered back on her hooves, drops of water christening her muzzle. At least she was not hurt badly—her ears sang like a gull with broken wings, but she would recover soon enoug—
Wait. Why was her muzzle wet?
Rainbow Dash craned her head up. Several banks of thunderheads wove dark patterns across the sky, and threads of lightning crackled between the clouds like the lash of a coxswain's whip. This would have been fine by her were all this taking place, well, outside. It took her a few moments to determine that yes, she was still within a library. Well, what was left of it, now.
Where'd the ceiling go?
The incoming deluge made short work of the remaining flames scattered around the floor amid the gobs of soggy carbonized paper. Rainbow Dash scraped her wingtips through these gobs knowing full well how much trouble cleaning the gunk off of her pinions would bring, but better her wings were soaked through than burned away.
She froze up. Burned away—? Fluttershy!
Rainbow half-galloped, half-tumbled to where her friend lay, and her momentum took her where her balance could not follow. A confusion of hooves and heavy feathers later, her chin connected with the floor. She sprung back up, bracing herself for what was left of her first friend of summer flight camp. What she saw—
What she saw, with her ears still ringing...
Nothing short of the Princess' intervention could explain the whole and unharmed pegasus lying before her. No patch of her coat bore any sign of charring, and no lock of her pink, flowing mane had disappeared to the fire's appetite. She looked for all the world as if she had fallen asleep after a shower, having neglecting to dry herself off beforehoof.
Rainbow Dash's reaction was automatic: her hooves wrapped around Fluttershy's shoulders, and a blue ear, questioning, pressed itself against her chest. The rain falling on the two pegasi drowned out all other noise, and bits of water-weighted mane flopped across Rainbow Dash's eyes. Her heart rose horribly against the base of her throat.
And just like that, it sank back into her breast—Fluttershy's heart answered her with a strong, steady pulse. She slumped against her dozing friend and closed her eyes, the warmth of her coat oddly soothing on her cheek after what just happened...
"Does she yet live?"
Rainbow Dash's ears perked at the remote voice, one she'd heard for the first time only the previous night. She sat up, coming face to face with a pair of solemn teal eyes. "I—uh."
In the ongoing downpour, Princess Luna's celestial mane undulated as if caught in nothing more than a small breeze. She disguised it well with her even tone, but the swell and ebb of her torso betrayed some manner of fatigue.
Stupid filly! Bow! Lowering her muzzle to the floor, Rainbow sputtered, "I-I think she's fine."
The Princess stepped past her, unaware of her tail brushing against the tip of Rainbow's hoof. The pegasus flinched. Holy haystacks—whatever that stuff was, it was cold!
Her mind spun with questions, the foremost of them being, "Why are you here?" Of course, that hardly covered what she wanted to ask at all. She wanted to know why the Princess had come—what made her come, rather, to Fluttershy's house, of all places, but that wasn't a hard question to answer if Princess Luna had been the one to ask the Elements of Harmony to aid her sister. A small slice of her knew her arrival had something to do with the sudden rainstorm, even though the rest of her demanded proof that such a connection existed. Had she known Fluttershy was in trouble? If fireballs were landing everywhere in Flamewithers, did the Princess try to help the ponies there, too?
What did she need to ask?
"And what of your friend, Fluttershy?"
Rainbow twitched at the strangeness of the question. "I said she was fine, didn't I? Who else would I be talking about?" she snapped, turning around.
The Princess was not even looking at the unconscious pegasus at her hooves. The corners of Rainbow's mouth drew into a taut snarl. Was she blind? Who walks past the brightest colored thing in the room to look at a pile of burned, dripping books?
The pegasus blinked. Her eyes were faster than her thoughts—they knew to slide over to the middle of the room before she knew not to—for that was when Princess Luna dragged a silver-shoed hoof through the cinders before her. It encountered no resistance, and no pony cried in alarm at its touch. All that followed after it was a trail of silent char.
"Princess Luna?" Applejack was the first to trot through the threshold, with Rarity and Pinkie Pie bringing up the rear. She remembered to bow, of course, but she subsequent shiver told Rainbow she was having just as hard a time as the pegasus had figuring out how to ask after the reasons behind the royal's appearance. Then Applejack's eyes glanced over to the ashes, and Rainbow braced herself for the terrible question.
"Is she not behind you, fair Applejack?"
All heads followed the Princess' gaze out to the mezzanine, where a familiar, straight-maned unicorn emerged into the doorway. The mild confusion lifting her brows as she looked from pony to pony turned to wide-eyed epiphany an instant later.
"Oh. Hi, girls." She put a hoof behind her head. "Looks like I missed something."
"Missed something?" Rainbow dashed over to the newcomer with enough speed to leave scuff marks on the floor. Jabbing a hoof into the unicorn's chest, she said, "Yeah, you missed something. You missed all of us thinking you were a goner!"
Twilight frowned. It was an impressive frown, even for Rainbow Dash, and she'd gotten some serious frowns from the instructors at flight camp in her day. But before she could dwell once more on Amber Swift's great ugly jaw poking out at her, swift hooves circled around her back and pulled her into a firm embrace. Nopony spoke as Pinkie Pie was the next to join the hug, followed shortly by Applejack and Rarity. A collective sigh of relief rose into the air the next moment, and the ponies separated as Twilight geared up for an explanation.
"I found this excellent compendium of pegasus mythology in here," she began, approaching Princess Luna and bowing before her. "While I was reading, I noticed the light outside turning orange, which I thought was strange—morning was still several hours off. When I looked outside the window, I saw all of these fireballs raining down on Flamewithers, so I put the book I was reading away and teleported outside to get a better look at things. I thought I might have been able to help. And that's when I ran into these two."
At Twilight's gesture, all eyes in the room turned to the doorway for a second time. Those closest to the door drew aside as a pair of ruffled pegasus ponies entered: one mare, one stallion. The mare was immediately recognizable as the model for the armored statue in the Lighthouse, except now she had color: dull ashed smudged parts of her light orange coat, while her mane and tail were streaked like strawberry creme candies. Her eyes were the color of sienna clay, and her cutie mark was a whirling hurricane of flame.
Unlike his companion, the stallion dressed himself in a tie and physician's coat, and the sooty cast on the white fabric hinted at several flights through banks of smoke. His natural coat bore the color of rust, and his mane and tail ran with a warm shade of grey like the color of wildfire remnants. His eyes, however, were a shade of teal-green Rainbow knew she'd seen before, and confirmation arrived but moments later.
"Our daughter," said the stallion, his eyes somber and his voice even—too even. "Where is she?"
"Be at ease, Sundown," Princess Luna replied, standing aside to let him pass. "She is at peace."
The stare the physician skewered the Princess with could have started a blizzard over the Mild West Desert. The alicorn actually backed away, her ears folded in contrition. "Have I spoken wrongly? Do ponies not wish each other to be "at peace" in this day?"
"Yes, Your Majesty," Grand Marshal Summer Sky answered, escorting her husband by. "Unfortunately, the language—"
"—has changed since my return oh stars how many times must I hear that?" Princess Luna gouged the floor with her hoof as a bolt of lightning crashed through the clouds above. It did not take her long to recognize that the eyes of everypony on her were not where they needed to be, and she grimaced. "I suppose I shall have enough time to catch up eventually," she concluded, retreating to the perimeter of the library to give the newcomers their space.
"As it turns out, Mother is a high-ranking officer with the patrols here, and Father is a senior doctor at the hospital." What a difference there was between hearing about Fluttershy's parents and seeing them in person. They were standing in the rain with a full wing of their house demolished while their daughter lay sprawled on the floor just yards away—and they walked over to her with such, well... Rainbow was not sure of what word she was looking for, so she settled instead for standing up and bowing out of the way as quietly as she could manage.
Sundown knelt by his daughter's side, the hem of his coat sliding over a puddle as he held the back of his hoof over her mouth. He nodded at his wife as she took her place on Fluttershy's opposite side. Raising a wing above his daughter's body, he glanced over the rest of her for injuries and found none. This Rainbow knew beforehand, of course, but she wasn't the pony in the room with a medical license.
Satisfied with his daughter's physical condition, Sundown tapped her shoulder twice, brought his muzzle to her ear, and whispered. "Fluttershy?"
The physician pulled back just in time to avoid his daughter's head as it shot up like a broken harp string. Rainbow had fallen over backward, Twilight, Princess Luna, and Applejack were staring, and Rarity had fainted on Pinkie Pie, who stood on her hind hooves with her front ones knifed against Celestia-knew-what.
Well, let all doubts fall with the rain, so the saying went. Fluttershy's eyes thrashed side to side as she tried to figure out where she was. She started as she noticed the armored mare kneeling at her left side. "Mother?" She looked to her right and found her father there too, calling him by that name as well.
And then she surprised everypony when she was the one to reach out with her hooves and hug them. Fluttershy enjoyed songs, often to Rainbow Dash's chagrin, but she was never one to initiate an embrace. Mountains would sooner flip on their heads singing showtunes before Fluttershy ever worked up the courage to ask, "Can I get a hug?"
"You're safe," she whispered.
"Because you're still ours to treasure," answered Summer Sky, nuzzling her daughter's mane.
"It was all a dream, then." Fluttershy let go of her parents and hunched over. "Thank goodness."
Rainbow Dash's eyes narrowed in suspicion. "'Thank goodness?' What are you talking about? Half your house just got blown away by a bunch of freaky fireballs."
Fluttershy spun around to look at her with startling speed. "That's not what I'm talking about, Dash."
"Huh? Then what are you talking about?"
"Eep..." And as quickly as it had come, Fluttershy's assertiveness left her behind with nothing but reddened cheeks. "I mean, I dreamed about something else that was kind of related to all this, but—."
"Darling...!" Heads turned as Rarity sallied forth to Fluttershy's side. "Everything's going to be fine. Just try to concentrate on relaxing for now." Her true motive for approaching became clear as a brush floated into the open from behind her back, though its wielder frowned at the sky a moment later. "Rainbow? Would you kindly pop into the sky and do something about this horrid rain? How am I supposed to tidy up our Fluttershy with this nonsense going on?"
"For cryin' out loud, missy," Applejack butted in, sticking her hat on Fluttershy's head. "We've got bigger things to worry about than messin' with the weather and brushin' each other. The sooner we get out there and reason with this Zimmy fella about all these darn fires, the better."
"And you're certainly one to talk," the unicorn fired back. "Your older brother got a week off after hurting himself wearing your grandmother's girdles, but there's hardly a minute to tend to a pony coming out of a firetrap you sent her into in the first place? How can you be so insensitive?"
A violet ring of sparks swirled between the two ponies before their noses collided in argument, producing a very stern-looking Twilight with her hooves held out to both sides. "Girls, the slumber party was months ago," she groaned. "You both have very good points, and you both have some very short-sighted ones, too. How about this, then? Rarity, you and Pinkie take Fluttershy downstairs and help her parents make breakfast. I think the kitchen's still in one piece. Applejack, you and Rainbow can join the Princess and me while we discuss our plans for departure. Does that sound fair to everypony?"
Not a few quizzical glances wound their way toward the unicorn. Princess Luna's eyebrow arched like a falcon preparing to dive; Summer Sky, on the other hoof, could not hide a small smile. A sudden rush of blood filled Twilight Sparkle's cheeks.
"Iiii mean—far be it from me to tell you what to do in your house," she said, nodding toward Fluttershy's parents. More deliberately, "And your kingdom," to the Princess.
Everypony turned in time to see Fluttershy climb to her hooves. Her voice was quiet, but clear.
"Applejack's right," said the pegasus. "We can't afford to stay here just because I'm weak. We need to leave for the dragon lands, and we need to do so today."
She spotted the question forming on Rainbow's lips and answered it. "The dragons aren't the only ones to blame for these fires. Last night, I met the red-maned mare."
Met the red-maned mare? Rainbow Dash glanced at her friends to make sure she'd heard that right. Pinkie Pie, Applejack, and Rarity were exchanging confused looks, which wasn't a surprise. On the other hoof, Twilight's ears had perked up. The look she shot Rainbow, the kind that asked "you heard that too, right?" told the pegasus everything.
"Fluttershy?" Rainbow knew she had to phrase this delicately. Then again—delicate speech was far from one of her many amazing talents, so she grunted and forged on her own way. "You realize the red-maned mare is only something pegasus parents tell their foals about so they'll stay in bed at night, right?"
Fluttershy looked as if she were being impaled. "Rainbow, please—"
"She's right," Twilight cut in. "Fluttershy, the red-maned mare I read about last night snatches up naughty foals and breaks their wings— ah..."
The unicorn took a moment to collect herself, as if she were trying to force unpleasant images out of her head. Rainbow could hardly blame her—the pegasi Bearers of the Elements drew their wings tighter against their flanks on reflex.
"Maybe I could've done without saying that," said Twilight, apologizing. "But the fact remains that the red-maned mare is never once said or foretold to burn down all of Equestria. Unless you saw all of this happening in your dream, you're better off leaving it at that—aaand the way you're nodding your head right now's telling me that's exactly what happened?"
If it bounced any faster than that, Fluttershy's head was gonna fly off into the clouds.
"Rrrright." The tone of Twilight's voice fell short of accepting her friend's pleas for belief, but if Rainbow knew anything about the biggest egghead in unicorn history, that unicorn would be turning it over in the back of her head for the next several days. "I guess we'll have more time to talk about this later. Are you sure you're feeling well enough to leave home?"
Rainbow wasn't sure her friend from flight camp was all there in the head. Being on fire tended to do strange things to ponies! But she wasn't sure she could argue with the results, either—anything that got Fluttershy to confront her problems, much less for her to do so on her own, couldn't be all that bad.
"All right, girls." Stepping up in front of the others, she spoke with authority while Fluttershy's parents and Princess Luna stood out of the way. "Let's be ready to leave for the dragon lands in one hour."
Pinkie Pie and Rainbow Dash saluted in unison. Applejack stomped the floor with gritted teeth, and Rarity let off a stiff nod. As for Fluttershy, she looked over her shoulder at her parents as they watched her from the demolished eastern half of the library.
Twilight began leading her friends back toward the bedrooms. "We've got a dragon to talk to."