So, the bad news is this took nine months to update. If you've kind of forgotten what happened, remember there's an appendix with summaries of each chapter so far.
The good news is that Chapter 10 ("Shadows in the Dark") is already complete and being reviewed by pre-readers. I hope to publish it after I return from BABSCon on the 25th or so. It's even longer than this chapter, so you'll have plenty of Hole in the Sun this month.
The bonus good news is that I put up a previously unpublished story I wrote almost two years ago, and maybe that'll tide you over for the extra week or two.
A series of short vignettes, from various realities and times, centered around the theme of everyday miracles.
Okay, enough notes... on with the show!
Chapter 9: The Donner Party
Rich Industries Ship, Little Diamond, Great Eastern Sea.
Seven weeks later. (Eleven months after The Hole.)
The Rich Industries ship, Little Diamond, cut through the ice-pack like her name implied she would. The vessel was equipped with two of the latest Equuium fueled boilers, each driving a massive, steerable azipod/propeller combination, which could thrust independently in any direction. The bow of the ship, like most ice-breakers, was shaped to lift itself onto the ice, letting the weight of the ship crush downward to make a clear channel. There was one major improvement the Diamond had over typical ice-breakers though, and that was a trace amount of Equuium in the hull's alloy. It wasn't much, but it would keep the metal of the ship's exterior at least slightly above freezing, even in frigid arctic waters. This meant the Diamond could actually stop and anchor in the most hostile of conditions, and not be in danger of becoming ice-locked.
Sweetie Belle trotted to the port railing and scanned the horizon. Same as yesterday. She couldn't make out much of anything, save the white icebergs, gray sea, and even grayer sky. They were headed north, well into the arctic, and the weather was doing them no favors. Not that the pegasi had ever had much control over the great eastern sea even in the best of times, but since The Hole, the region was nearly uninhabitable... at least to anything living.
Sweetie shivered, less at the cold than at the thought of Windigoes and other malevolent spirits purported to roam the northern wastes. Now they were headed straight into it, and at the rate their progress had been slowing, she expected the captain to call it quits any day now, leaving their party to continue on hoof.
A voice sounded out through the wind, "Hey Sweetie!"
Sweetie Belle rolled her eyes. Of course it'd be Blitzen. The young Caribou seemed to always be talking, even when he didn't have anything to say. Sweetie turned and put on her best—if slightly tired—smile. "Hi Blitzen, what's up?"
"Donner told me you'd be out here!"
Of course she did, Sweetie thought. If there's one thing more predictable than Blitzen's ever-chattering nature, it was his sister's careful steering of it away from herself. "Well, I did say 'I'm going to get some fresh air', so it wasn't exactly a secret."
"Oh yeah, right! Well still, glad I found you!"
"The captain says the ice is thickening pretty quickly in the past few hours. He doesn't think we'll be able to go much further. He wants you and the others to come look at potential landfalls."
A helpful message? Sweetie thought. Maybe the colt—was that the right word for a Caribou? Well, maybe he wasn't entirely useless after all. Of course, she had to hope so. His participation in the expedition had been one of Gunnar's non-negotiable requirements. After the Little Diamond had docked in Hartholm, and they'd explained their mission, the Caribou Chieftain had taken Sweetie Belle aside and confided in her his concerns about his children.
It seemed that Donner, whom Gunnar had assumed his successor, well... she wanted no part in leadership of their people. Blitzen, however, was almost too eager. Not power hungry, but just "young and naive" in Gunnar's words. If his son was to take over as Chieftain, he wanted the boy to have some real—and dangerous—experience under his hooves. So while the Chieftain was happy to give the party everything he could in terms of support, including the (voluntary) assistance of Donner, it came with the caveat that they must take Blitzen as well.
Sweetie could see the logic in Gunnar's idea, and it was, frankly, a small request compared to the material and logistical assistance the Caribou were providing, but... well it didn't help that the kid still seemed to have a crush on her, despite the fact that they'd only been around each other for one Hearthwarming many years ago.
"Okay," Sweetie said to Blitzen. "I'll go round up the others. Tell the captain we'll be there in ten."
Blitzen gave a mock salute and flashed a smile her way before bounding off toward the bridge. When everyone else on board seemed so dour, the kid was at least cheerful, she thought. Though that naive enthusiasm was probably why she kept thinking of him as "the kid" in the first place, despite the fact that he was barely a year younger than herself.
Sweetie took one last glance at the gray horizon, then headed below decks to find the rest of the party.
She found most of them in the ship's small rec/dining room off the galley. Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy were playing chess across one of the tables, with Discord snuggled up next to Fluttershy, watching. Judging from the animated pieces, and the strained aura around Dash's horn, it seemed the game was doubling as another magic lesson for the two ponies as well. Fluttershy had been, unsurprisingly, reluctant to come on the trip, but with the uncertainty about what sort of magics they might be facing, Sweetie had convinced her to join. Very few things could counter the chaotic magic Discord had transferred to her. Dash, while not yet adept at magic, was still Dash, and well... no pony was going to convince her to miss out on an epic adventure.
Off against the far wall, Donner was curled up on the sofa, hooves tucked under herself as she read a book. She was always reading it seemed, and Sweetie found it hard to reconcile the quiet and reserved nature of the caribou with her massive size. While not as big as her father, Gunnar, Donner never-the-less stood a full head higher than anyone else on the trip, including her brother. Her antlers gave her another foot and a half above that, and meant she had to duck under nearly every door. Discord was technically "taller," Sweetie Belle supposed, but the draconequus seldom stood fully upright, and was always slouching, curling, or twisting in some way that belied his actual height. But even if he was taller, he was still smaller by all other counts. He certainly didn't make the couch bow when he sat on it... though he probably had made a couch into a bow at some point.
"Hi guys," Sweetie called, by way of announcing herself. "Seems we're about as far north as we can get to by boat." All eyes turned toward her as she continued. "The captain wants us up on the bridge in a few minutes to try and pick a spot for landfall."
"Oh," Fluttershy said. "Are we really going ashore already?"
"Seems like it," Sweetie said.
"But I thought we were going to be sailing for another week."
"Apparently the ice is getting too thick. The weather is even colder than we expected, so we're going to have to go the rest of the way on hoof."
The collective mood in the room chilled to match the weather outside. Nopony was thrilled by the daunting journey ahead of them, and the fact that they were now starting even further south than they'd planned was, well... disheartening to say the least.
Donner stood up from the couch, which groaned as it rebounded from her weight. Sweetie was surprised by how quiet the caribou's hoofsteps were in contrast, making only the slightest clink against the metal decking as she walked toward the door. "Shall we?" she said, as she set her book—a very practical arctic survival guide—by the chessboard and ducked into the hall.
"You heard her," Sweetie said. "Let's get up to the bridge." She turned and followed Donner out the door, feeling a bit like a foal following her parent, even though she was technically older by a week.
Fluttershy and Discord stood up, but Dash took one more moment to send one of her pieces charging into the row of pawns on the far side of the board. The errant and animated knight crashed though Fluttershy's now-inert pieces like bowling pins, before skewering the king on her long spear. "Ah ha!" Dash shouted in triumph. "I win!"
"I, um... I don't think that's a legal move." Fluttershy said, looking at her scattered pieces.
"No, it's an attack move," Dash responded. "She's a knight, not a lawyer!"
Discord quirked an eyebrow. Even after all these years around Fluttershy and her friends, he still found it hard to tell when Dash was being clever, or just very, very dense. He suspected it was often a bit of both, and found the thought amusing. Sure, all this time around ponies had certainly changed him, as their concepts of friendship and harmony rubbed off on him, but he'd come to notice in recent years that a few of his own chaotic ways were rubbing off on them as well. Breaking the rules and charging the ranks is exactly what he would've done before he'd learned to control himself—Fluttershy didn't think cheating was very nice, after all. But the fact that he could see a little glimmer of himself in Rainbow Dash made him smile in a way far warmer than he would've for most of his previous life. That her bad pun, intentional or not, was actually kind of funny was just icing on the cake.
Discord threw back his head and laughed. "Bravo, my multi-colored friend!"
Fluttershy, however, was frowning.
Well, he thought, can't have that. "What?" he said, turning toward Fluttershy. "You must admit, her logic seems quite unassailable on that count."
"Well, yes, but..."
"And it was certainly an efficacious tactic, was it not?"
"Well, I guess, but..." Fluttershy trailed off again.
"But...?" Discord prompted, smiling softly at her.
Fluttershy hung her head. "But... I really wanted to win." Her voice was even quieter than usual, and she blushed as she said it.
"Brilliant!" Discord cried. He did love it when Fluttershy's assertive side came out, even when it was timid. "Then win you shall!"
"Wait, what?" Rainbow Dash said. "But I already won!"
"Oh reeeally...?" Discord drawled, smirking. "Are you sure about that?"
"Um, yeah! I totally shish-ka-bobbed the king!"
Discord didn't respond, but instead leaned over to whisper in Fluttershy's ear. A lopsided grin formed slowly on her face as he explained his tactic.
"What?" Dash said, getting nervous—as any sane pony would when confronted by the living embodiment of chaos with that smile on her face. "What'd you say to her?"
"Two words," Discord said, as Fluttershy's antlers and horn started to glow. "Ghost. Army."
The fallen pieces on the board began to shake as Fluttershy concentrated her magic on them.
Dash looked toward the board, and sure enough, pale, translucent forms rose from the previously scattered pawns and other pieces, and began galloping through the air in a circle. A larger ghost rose from the skewered king, joining the miniature whirlwind at its center, before leading the undead phalanx in a charge on Dash's already weakened forces. The ghosts tore through the remaining pieces, flickering through defenders before turning and slashing them down from behind. In seconds, only Dash's king was left, surrounded by the endlessly galloping enemy. The ghostly form of the king moved into position, lowered his lance, and charged.
"Checkmate." Fluttershy said calmly.
"But... but..." Dash stammered. "That's not fair!"
"Another piece of unassailable logic!" Discord declared. "But you must admit, it was, how did I put it before? A rather efficacious tactic?"
Rainbow Dash muttered something inaudible under her breath.
"What was that?"
"Okay, yeah... it was pretty awesome." Dash knew when she'd been beat, and was quick to rebound once she let go. She gave Fluttershy a smile, "How did you do that anyway? I can barely make one piece at a time move realistically!"
"Oh, well..." Fluttershy began, but was cut off by Sweetie Belle yelling from the door.
"Come on you three! What's taking so long?"
Thoughts of chess quickly forgotten, they all followed Sweetie up to the bridge.
"What?!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed. "But that's more than two hundred miles from our search area!"
Captain North Wind sighed. "I know, but it's the best I can do, ya ken?" The earth pony turned his hooves upward in surrender. "The sea, she ain't been kind this past year, an' the icepack be further south than I ever seen."
Dash eyed the grey-coated stallion, not liking his answer, but seeing the truth in his eyes. It wasn't his fault; The Hole was wreaking havoc all over the world. Sea-ice was just one more part of it.
"But..." Eyes turned toward Fluttershy as she interjected. "I thought this was an ice breaker. Doesn't it go through ice?"
'Aye, that she does, lass." The captain gave her a sad nod. "But only so far and so fast. This ice here... it be driftin' south faster than we can break through it. An' I reckon with winter comin' on, we'll be on the losin' side o' this 'fore the end o' the week."
"So then, we have no choice," Donner said. "We have to set out from here." The tip of her cloven hoof touched on a small bay drawn on the map before them as she continued, "Ond Ulv Fjard."
The ponies all looked to her for translation. Only Sweetie Belle had learned some of the Caribou language, and even that was slight. Donner was obliging though.
"It means 'Bad Wolf Bay'," she said. "Legend says this is where Fenrir washed ashore after Jormungandr was thrown into the sea."
All the ponies, Sweetie included, looked confused.
"Nevermind," Donner said. "It's just a legend, and this is just a bay. One with a shoreline just shallow enough for us to disembark."
"Good enough for me!" Sweetie said, attempting to rally the troops. Dash wasn't far behind.
"Yeah," she said. "So what if we have to walk for another week! We'll conquer this stupid snowy land and get that obelisk anyway!"
"Well," Discord offered, twirling his beard. "Why give up immortality if I don't plan to take some risks?"
Fluttershy hesitated. Her first instinct demanded she apologize for taking Dizzy's powers, and for failing her friends, and for about three-hundred-and-forty-seven other minor slights, most of which the "offended" parties would never recall. But... she'd been learning in recent years, and knew Discord intended to inspire, not complain.
"I'm in," she said. It wasn't the boldest of statements, but for those who knew her, the change in the pegasus-turned-alicorn-turned-chaocorn was noticed.
All eyes turned to the remaining member of the party.
"What?" Blitzen said, all eyes on him. "I was here way before the rest of you. My stuff's already packed!"
Ond Ulv Fjard.
One day later, plus-or-minus breakfast.
"I really wish I hadn't skipped breakfast," Blitzen complained as the group watched the Little Diamond sailing out of the bay before she could be caught by low tide.
"It's your own fault for sleeping in." Donner had little sympathy for her lazy brother. "I told you last night we were leaving at high tide."
"But I thought that meant dawn or something! Not the middle of the night!"
"It's the middle of winter. Even you know the tide doesn't wait for the sun, only the moon."
Blitzen hung his head, but gamely trotted up the dark and wet sand to join the others. "So where do we go now?"
The ponies and caribou looked up and toward the north. There, the high volcanic peaks of the arctic stood in all their stark glory. Shattered cliffs of obsidian were halfway buried in glacier. Though it all, bitter winds whipped the highest peaks, creating an eternal layer of icy cloud-cover. It made even the road to the Crystal Empire seem inviting by comparison.
"Brrr!" Fluttershy pulled her front talon up from the wet and cold sand. "It's so much colder than I thought!"
"We'll be away from the sea soon enough," Donner assured her. "But the actual temperature will likely drop even further. I did warn you all to bring sufficient clothing." She and Blitzen had their own heavy fur, being born for cold climates, but brought their own extra clothing as well. The other ponies had brought at least some semblance of winter gear, with earmuffs, hats and the like. Even Discord was wearing a scarf. But Donner eyed Sweetie suspiciously. She was the only one who had brought no clothing at all.
Knowing she'd brought very little, Sweetie Belle nevertheless smirked. "Not a problem!"
She dipped her head and concentrated. Before The Hole this would've been trivial, but it seemed the use of magic was becoming more difficult every week since then, as Nemesis drained the wonderment from the world. Still, she'd been accused of being the most powerful unicorn ever. So, even if that wasn't technically true—she was a golem after all—she saw no reason not to show off every now and then.
Donner watched with a look of genuine surprise. Considering the stoic caribou usually registered little emotion at all, that was saying something, and Sweetie couldn't help but smile. She loved surprising ponies, and her metal paw usually did that well enough on its own. But after weeks together with this group on the ship, most had forgotten she had voluntary control over the rest of her body as well. As such, they were quite surprised when she grew nearly a foot in height (mostly in her legs, for navigating deep snow), sprouted fur nearly three times its normal length (for warmth) and split her hooves (and paw) into wide, snow-shoe-like platforms, even better for traction than Donner's.
"What?" she said, grinning as the others all gaped at her new appearance. "You've never seen a half-caribou unicorn with a metal wolf paw before?"
Rainbow Dash was the first to respond.
When she calmed down, she landed in front of Sweetie, still chuckling. "Alright," she said. "Somepony show me how to do that!"
"Umm," Fluttershy said. "I don't think it's that easy."
"What? I'm an alicorn! I'm sure I can do anything Sweetie can!"
Sweetie and Fluttershy gave each other sideways looks. Technically, Fluttershy lost by blinking first, but Sweetie was nothing if not conciliatory. So she took the task.
"Dash," she said. "I'm a golem. I don't even have blood in my veins."
"Yeah, and I'm an alicorn. I can probably raise the sun if it wasn't stuck with that stupid hole in it."
Sweetie just looked at her. Some habits die hard, she knew, but Dash was seeming impossibly dense lately, something she thought was far into the pegasus' past. "Really?"
Dash, for her part, actually thought the question though. No, she realized, she likely couldn't. She sucked at magic. She sucked at everything since The Hole. She could fly, like nopony else, but... even that was harder lately. And these other things were not her domain at all. But, and this was the big one... she was starting to realize that was okay.
"No," she said, hanging her head as her wings drooped. "Not really."
"Don't worry, Rainbow," Fluttershy spoke up. "I don't think I could raise the sun either."
Dash smiled a bit at that. "Thanks, Flutters."
"But we're still going to be rather cold if we don't do something."
"Don't worry," Discord said leaping into the literal middle of the group, "I told you I would take care of that."
Everypony expected him to whisper something to Fluttershy again, but instead, he simply put his talon to his mouth and whistled.
There was a loud splashing from the sea, and the ponies turned to see. What they saw was what looked like a large wooden trunk, emerging from the surf atop dozens of small, animated legs. The manifestation galloped toward the party.
"What the heck is that?" Rainbow Dash said, leaping into the air in a defensive posture.
"Oh, just the luggage," Discord said, as if it explained everything. He turned toward the trunk. "Down boy!"
The luggage obediently settled itself onto the sand, its legs disappearing beneath its bulk. The lid opened slightly of its own accord.
"Good boy," Discord said, as he reached down and patted the trunk on the lid.
"Where in the world did that come from?" Sweetie Belle asked, recognizing powerful wizardry when she saw it. "I thought you lost your magic!"
"Oh this?" Discord said, nonchalantly pointing at the luggage. "This isn't my magic. It's just something I won off a tourist in a game of Shibo Yangcong-San." He grinned and winked at her.
She wasn't exactly thrilled by the non-answer, but Sweetie knew when she'd been beat. Even without magic, Discord still managed to one-up her own surprise transformation.
While she decided to keep her mouth shut, Sweetie watched as Discord reached into the luggage and removed several large and hairy items, even one of which should never have been able to fit in the trunk. "Yes, these should do nicely!"
He handed one to Fluttershy, then tucked another under his arm. The third, he threw to Rainbow Dash, who reflexively caught it, then quickly held it at arm's length, unsure about the weird, furry thing in her hooves.
"Just put it on!" Discord said. "Or are you afraid of a coat?"
Dash landed and unfolded the bundle. She found it vaguely resembled clothing she'd worn before, but there were several straps and layers that she had no idea what to do with. Plus it was... fur. She looked up, and saw Fluttershy unfolding her own. If Fluttershy was okay with it, she supposed she must be wrong about the origins. But there still remained one problem.
"Okay," Dash said. "How am I supposed to get into this thing?
"Dear," Discord said to Fluttershy, as he held his arms out at his sides. "If you would be so kind?"
Fluttershy nodded, concentrated, and a spell formed quickly as she snapped two digits on a foretalon. It finished with a loud "pop" and both she and Discord—as well as Rainbow Dash—were wearing heavy furs in the style of Yak-yakistan.
"Hey!" Rainbow Dash cried, suddenly feeling trapped in the weird garment. "No fair!"
"But it is rather efficacious, isn't it?" Discord offered with a grin.
For her part, Rainbow Dash had to agree. The furs—magically animal free, she assumed—were amazingly warm, if a bit heavy. Still though...
"Stop saying 'efficacious!'" she demanded.
Discord glared at her, about to ask why, before the pegasus concluded, "It sounds presumptuous and loquacious!"
Feeling a corner of his mouth turn up, Discord gave in to the full smirk, then the chuckle, then the laugh, and finally the guffaw. Oh yes, he'd been transformed by harmony, but chaos was still beautifully abloom!
Great White North.
Eight days later.
The trip was not going well. They'd expected to make one hundred miles in the first week, but had barely made fifty after doubling back from the wrong valley. By Donner's reckoning, things would only get worse as they were now headed uphill into the circum-arctic mountains. The formation completely circled the northern pole of the world, with peaks reaching to nearly 20,000 feet, and the lowest passes barely under 10,000. Regardless of how one approached it, the mountains were a force to be reckoned with.
Donner consulted her map. If her navigation was accurate, one of the lower passes—a mere 11,000 feet in altitude—should be found at the end of this valley. If she was wrong, of course, they'd reach a near-impassable ascent and be forced to turn back again, undoing several more days worth of travel, and bringing them even further toward the coming winter. Time was critical, but so was accuracy.
She looked up from the map, and saw her brother bouncing through the snow like a calf. Donner never understood where he got the energy, but Blitzen had always been amazingly carefree, even in the most dire of circumstances. The fact that he was pronking in circles, when almost everypony else was barely staying upright due to exhaustion, was incredible.
"Come on you guys!" Blitzen shouted. "I think that one there"—he pointed to a gap high atop the cliffs facing them—"goes through! Let's try it!"
High-stepping through the snow on her elongated legs, Sweetie Belle looked a fair bit less enthusiastic as she joined Donner. "Is that a pass we can get through?"
Donner stared at the map. Nothing matched what it should. If they were in the valley she thought, then the pass out would be on the far right side, and have a sort of slope leading up to it. But the only thing even resembling a pass was the crag on the left that Blitzen had pointed out. No slope or entry to be seen at all.
"No," she said. "I think we're in the wrong valley."
Sucking a cold breath through her teeth, Sweetie forced herself to remain calm. This was the second valley they'd entered already, and she wasn't sure how many more dead-ends they could face, both physically, and mentally. But it wasn't Donner's fault. She knew that.
"Okay. So which one next? West," she pointed at the map, "or East?"
Donner looked up at the ridgeline facing them, then back at the map. She repeated this several times, before turning to Sweetie.
"I don't know!" she said, her voice a mix of overt panic and hushed whisper. "They all look the same!"
Leaning in—and up—Sweetie Belle gave the distraught caribou a hug. "I know, but we'll figure it out." She looked down at the map, spread across Donner's saddlebags on the snow. The mountains were almost fractal in their nature, if the map was anywhere close to accurate. Each valley radiated outward, looking much like any other as they faced the range from the outside. It looked, Sweetie thought, a lot like somepony had dropped a rock in the pond right on the top of the world. And who could tell one ripple from the next?
"We went counterclockwise from the last one, right?" Sweetie asked.
"Yeah, I thought we were here." Donner pointed at the valley next over from her current markings. "But apparently I was wrong."
"So let's go counterclockwise again, then we're sure to catch it this time."
Donner glared at the map. "Yes, if we're not even further off, in which case we already missed our target entirely, and are here." She pointed further to the east.
"So we go back?"
"But if we were wrong on our first guess, then we might be only one off, and going west would leave us headed onto the outer shelf. A month by hoof before the next passable terrain inland."
Sweetie rubbed her head, the digits of her widened paw scratching the behind both her ears simultaneously. It wasn't just to shock others that she kept her metal appendage.
"So," she said. "What do we do?"
"I don't know. I just wish we knew where we were, then we'd know for sure which way to go."
"Hmmm..." Sweetie thought it through. "Dash!" she yelled. "Come over here a moment?"
Rainbow Dash looked up from the seat she'd carved out in the snow. Sweetie waved her over, and the pegasus-turned-alicorn trotted over.
"Yeah, what's up, Sweetie?"
"Do you think you can fly up and get a better view of these valleys? We're not quite sure which one of them we're in."
Looking down at the map, Dash saw the reason for the confusion. All of them were almost identical in width and shape, and only minor details differentiated one from the next.
"I can try," she said. "But this altitude and the cold..." her normally self-assured voice trailed off.
"I know," Sweetie Belle said. "It's harder to fly since The Hole."
Rainbow Dash nodded, but ended with her muzzle downcast. "That day you gave me a horn... Well, I'd never felt more powerful. I could fly twice as fast, hit things like an arrow, and barely ran out of breath. But... yeah, it's harder now. I think Snowflake could fly faster than me at this point. Well, I mean, him before The Hole. You know what I mean."
Sweetie nodded. She once sheared a three-story-tall timberwolf in two with barely more than a blink. Now, she found just starting a campfire took more focus. "But can you do it?"
Dash gave her a grin. "I'm Rainbow Dash."
"So," Donner said. "Is that a..."
"That's a 'yes'," Sweetie supplied, as Dash dropped her furs to free her wings and leapt into the air.
Great White North, sky.
Her wings burned. Then they froze. Then that made the burning even worse. Still, Rainbow Dash forced her muscles to pull in, then out, then in again, flapping her wings in a forced rhythm she hadn't had to consciously think about since foalhood. She'd flown high before, very, very high. But even nearing the edge of space, she'd never felt cold like this. It was almost as if some evil force were sucking the heat right out of her... which it probably was.
She looked up, at the midday sun, marred as it was by the horrible black and writhing chasm in the center of it. She could still feel some warmth, but only in opposition to the cold abyss of the arctic below. To call this warmth was to call a drop of rain an oasis. But she couldn't make out the ground properly, so she flew higher.
Her primaries had lost feeling some time ago. The muscles at the end of her wings still responded though, so the rest was irrelevant. It was the bloodfeathers that stung; the new growth plumage on the underside of her wings wasn't fully in for the season. Normally, that'd be no issue. The still-growing feathers were more sensitive, but as long as they weren't deliberately pulled out, they were no more bothersome than newly grown guardhairs on her coat. But here, now, at this temperature, she could feel them beginning to freeze, and with them, the nerves they were connected to cried out in agony.
Still she pumped her wings and flew higher, as the valleys were still too difficult to resolve from here.
Finally, Rainbow Dash felt she was high enough to look down and try to match the valleys beneath her to the map Donner had showed her. She stretched her wings and went into a glide while looking down. Low clouds moved quickly across the peaks, and snow, blowing from the glaciers, obscured even more of the ground. Still though, she could make out just enough to see the neighboring valleys, and recognize the one with the pass they'd intended. It was just one more valley to the east. It'd take a few more days, but they'd be on the right path to the interior.
Dash angled her body down, tried to bring her wings in closer for a dive. She realized she had no feeling past the first joint on her left wing, and her right was nearly as bad. She needed to get down and get warm, soon.
Great White North, ground.
Not soon enough.
Rainbow Dash came in fast and hard, plowing a short furrow in the snow with her crash. Donner and Sweetie Belle rushed to her side.
"Are you okay?" Sweetie asked, as the they helped her out of the deep snow. "What happened?"
"I.. thi-think," Dash said, her teeth chattering uncontrollably. "It's to th-the ea-st."
Fluttershy brought her fur coat over. "Here, put this on!"
Dash reached for the garment, but her leg was shaking so badly that she couldn't get it through the holes in the furs.
"Don't worry, let me help." Fluttershy reached out and guided Dash's forelegs into the coat. "Now fold your wings in."
The blue wings were shaking horribly, and stood out half extended from Dash's barrel.
"Come on Dash, just fold in your wings so we can get you warmed up."
Dash grunted. "I'm... trying..." she said through gritted teeth.
"It's okay, just keep trying." Reaching up gently with her talons, Fluttershy held Dash's right wing, and began easing it closed. Finishing, she asked Sweetie to help hold it against Dash's side. She moved to fold in the other wing. Reaching for the leading edge, she felt herself grab what felt like solid ice. "Oh dear."
"What was that?" Sweetie asked over the wind.
Fluttershy didn't want to worry any of the others, but she'd only seen a wingtip that cold once before, on a hawk she'd rescued one winter. It wasn't a good sign. But for now, she thought, best not to worry any of the others. "Nothing," she called back, and began folding in the wing.
"Ow! Ow!" Dash moaned and flinched in pain as her stiff wing was closed. The rest of the fur coat was pulled on quickly, and the others escorted her out of the wind and began to set up camp.
A modestly sized expedition tent.
Just after sunset the same day.
The party huddled around the fire in the middle of the enormous tent, enjoying the relative warmth after the day's trekking. The shelter had been yet another thing Discord had pulled from the luggage which had no business possibly fitting in such a space. It was mostly quiet, save for the constant moaning of the wind outside, and the occasional slurping sounds that came from consumption of a hearty soup.
"Oww..." Rainbow Dash moaned again as she flexed her wing. "Is it supposed to hurt worse when it gets warm?"
Fluttershy made eye contact with Donner and Sweetie Belle. All three of them knew enough about first aid and frostbite to be worried.
"Let's take another look," Fluttershy offered. Dash gently extended her wing toward the chaocorn.
"Hmm..." Fluttershy held the end of the wing and gently spread the plumage near the tip with her other talon, trying to peer at the skin below.
"Ow ow ow ow!" Dash closed her eyes, but managed to resist the urge to pull away.
"I'm sorry, Rainbow, but I have to check."
"I know... just... just do what you have to."
Looking closely, Fluttershy could see dark blotches on the skin. That wasn't a great sign, but at least the pain meant some of the nerves there were still working. She moved her examination further toward the tip of the wing. The discoloration got worse, with the last few inches being almost entirely blackened. Worse, the small tremors she'd felt as Dash flinched at each touched feather stopped.
"Does it still hurt when I touch here?"
Opening her eyes, Dash looked up. "Uh, not really. It still hurts all over kinda, but it's not sharp like... Ow!"
Fluttershy made a note of where the pain had started. As Dash had talked, she'd slowly worked her touch back down the wing. It seemed there was no feeling in the last four inches near the tip of the wing.
"Sorry," Fluttershy said. "I'm done now though."
"How bad is it?" Dash asked, as she slowly folded her wing back in.
Frowning, Fluttershy debated how to respond. The second she thought about sugar coating things though, she could practically hear Applejack in her head.
"I won't lie," she said. "It's pretty bad. You've got frostbite for sure."
Across the fire, Donner and Sweetie eyed each other, but kept their mouths shut.
"What's that mean?" Dash asked.
"It umm, depends on how deep it is. Right now, it looks like you at least lost some of the nerves near the surface. But if it's much deeper, then..." Fluttershy hung her head, unable to look Dash in the eyes.
"Then what?" Dash demanded. "What? I lose my wing? Tell me!"
Fluttershy turned away, afraid to answer.
Sweetie Belle took a deep breath, then spoke up. "It means you might lose some of your wing."
Dash's voice rose to a nervous pitch as she turned to Sweetie. "Some? Some?!"
"Yes, if it's bad enough, some muscle there may have to be amputated to prevent infection. Hopefully not though. But even if that doesn't happen, some of the nerves and other tissue may be damaged badly enough that, even if it heals, you could still have trouble controlling the pinions on that wing, or they could be paralyzed entirely."
Eyes going wide, Rainbow Dash quickly extended her wing, turning her head to look at the outermost flight feathers. She concentrated and tried to move them. There was some slight twitching, but the normally agile feathers, so important to a pegasus' flight, refused to cooperate. Dash felt herself begin to panic.
"Stop it!" Fluttershy shouted quietly. "Don't panic, Rainbow. It won't help anything, and we don't know if it's even that bad yet."
"But... but I can't feel my pinions. I can't even move them!"
"You need to wait and see if things heal. But even if you can't fly as well, at least you're still alive!"
"Easy for you to say, you can barely fly as it is!"
Her eyes going watery, Fluttershy sniffled, and her lip began to quiver. Instead of collapsing into a ball of self pity though, she stood up, turned and pulled Rainbow Dash into a hug.
"I know you don't really mean that," she said, sniffling. "And you're just scared. But that's okay, we're here for you."
Leaning into the hug, Rainbow Dash found herself beginning to cry a bit as well. She really was scared. Losing the the use of her wingtip? Maybe even losing the ability to fly at all? This was, quite literally, the stuff her nightmares were made of. But even so, that was no excuse for making Fluttershy cry.
"I'm sorry, Flutters," Dash said between sniffles. "I could never mean something like that!"
"I know," Fluttershy murmured, patting her oldest friend on the back. "I know."
Same Tent, Bedroom #3.
A few hours later.
As dinner had worn down, Discord explained there were only three rooms, and apologized he'd been unable to book larger accommodations on such short notice, but assured everyone there was plenty of bedding for two in each. Splitting up, he'd been about to usher Fluttershy and himself into one of the rooms, but she had insisted on staying with Dash, in order to tend to her if needed. Being an honorable type (at least where Fluttershy was concerned) he had no option then but to room with Blitzen. He'd made a show of stuffing large marshmallows (also from the luggage) into each ear as the excitable young caribou had started yammering immediately to his new "roommate." That had left Sweetie and Donner with the third sleeping area, and the two had proceeded to bury themselves under a mound of blankets and furs the luggage had somehow provided.
"Sweetie?" Donner said quietly, sometime later. "You awake?"
The pile of blankets on the far side the bed moved and wobbled for a moment before a shaggy face poked out. "Yeah, I can't sleep either."
Donner, careful to avoid snagging her antlers, slowly craned her neck around to face Sweetie. "Do you ever..."
When no further words were forthcoming, Sweetie prompted, "Do I ever what?"
"Worry," Donner sighed. "Worry this isn't going to work?"
Sweetie rolled over and dug her way a bit further out of the blankets to face the caribou. "Of course I do. I worry all the time."
"But... you never show it. You always seem so sure of yourself."
"Me?" Sweetie said, somewhat surprised. "I mean, yes, perhaps I like to show off a bit, but I'm scared as anypony that we'll fail at this."
"You know," Sweetie continued. "I thought you were the one that was so confident. You seem... well don't take this the wrong way, but very stoic. You're calm, collected; a leader like your father."
"But I'm not" Donner said, her voice cracking a bit with emotion. "I'm just trying my best, but... but everything is going wrong. We're not even halfway there, and already somepony is injured." Her rant continued, but became interspersed with small sobs. "I got us lost! I got us nearly frozen to death! Now Rainbow Dash might not even be able to fly because of my mistakes. Some leader I turned out to be!"
Sweetie Belle wormed her way through the bedding and gave Donner a hug. "You've done a great job as leader! This situation is just an impossible one. I'm sure anyone else would've given up before they even started, but you took it on, and we all know you're doing the best you can. The best anyone can."
"Thanks," Donner sniffled, and initiated a hug of her own, squeezing the unicorn(ish) pony tightly. "Thank you for being so... well, so sweet."
"Heh," Sweetie said, blushing a bit as the hug ended. "It's what I do." Her faced moved into a slight smirk and she shrugged to cover the blush. "I mean, it's right there in my name and everything."
Donner smiled at her, then leaned in and planted a firm kiss on her lips.
It lasted several seconds.
Donner, pulling her face back slightly, opened her eyes, and found a stunned Sweetie Belle blushing furiously, even through her new, thicker fur.
"Donner, I... uh..." Sweetie found herself at a loss for words for the first time she could recall in years.
Seeing the shocked look on the pony's face, Donner panicked. "Oh no... I'm sorry!" she stammered, quickly distancing herself on the bed. "I... I thought that... I mean, that you were maybe... I'm sorry!"
The caribou scrambled out from under the rest of the blankets and quickly got her legs under herself, standing up. "I should—"
"Donner," Sweetie Belle said, a bit louder this time.
" I should just go. I'll sleep out in the main room and—"
"Donner!" she whisper-shouted it this time, trying not to wake the others, but wanting to make sure she was heard.
It was enough to get Donner's attention finally, and she turned to look at Sweetie.
"Get back under the covers, it's freezing out there."
"But I... But..."
"It's okay. Don't worry, I'm not upset. Just stop being a dummy and freezing your tail off."
Donner stepped back over toward the bed, and lowered herself into it.
Sweetie used her aura to drape a few blankets back over the caribou. "There. Now we can talk."
Donner shivered, partly from the recent exposure to the cold, and partly from nervous panic. "I'm sorry," she said, putting on as calm of a demeanor as she could manage. "I guess I read that wrong."
Sweetie Belle smiled. "No, I'm sorry. I mean, I'm flattered, but I just, well, I'm not interested in mares."
"Really?" Donner said, genuinely surprised.
This brought a chuckle from Sweetie. "Yes, really, but I have to ask what made you think I was."
"Well, it's just... well I've heard it's pretty common for ponies."
"Well, I guess compared to caribou, yeah, we're a lot more open about things like that. A couple of my best friends are lesbians, and I know quite a few more besides. But that doesn't mean I am."
"But... you kept pushing away my brother, when he clearly has an interest in you."
Sweetie laughed out loud this time. "Don't take this the wrong way," she said. "But your brother is an annoying chatterbox. That’s why I'm not interested in him. Not because he's the wrong gender."
Knowing how annoyed she got with her brother, Donner realized the logic was pretty sound. "I'm sorry, I guess I'm just an idiot. But then when you were snuggled up next to me, saying all those nice things, hugging me..." She trailed off, and Sweetie could see more small tears begin to form. "I thought you cared for me."
"Oh, Donner," Sweetie exclaimed. "I do care for you. As all your friends do." She punctuated her statement with another hug. "But that's not the same as romantic interest."
Donner hung her head. "I know. Really, I do. It's just no one has... I mean, I don't really..."
"You don't have many friends?" Sweetie prompted her.
"And you spend a lot of time alone, learning things from books, or in the wilds by yourself when you're mapping and researching."
"And it's hard to make friends, let alone find somepony to love, because the books aren't really great at explaining those things."
Donner looked up now. "How do you---?"
"Do you remember Twilight Sparkle? The purple alicorn that came with me and my friends when we visited that one Hearthwarming?"
"Yeah, somewhat, but what's that have to do with this?"
"Well, I'm just saying you and her probably have a lot in common. She's told me stories about what her life was like when she was younger. She'd been Celestia's personal student, you know."
Donner nodded again, not sure where this was going, but content to let Sweetie finish.
"But she spent so much time studying that she failed to make many friends. My sister's told me some of the stories from when Twilight had just moved to Ponyville; how awkward her lack of social experience made her at times, even the various disasters it caused."
"Seriously! Full scale disasters!" Sweetie said, her hoof and paw waving to encompass apparently big things. "She nearly destroyed Equestria because she thought she was going to fail a homework assignment!"
"That seems..." Donner paused as she thought. Sweetie was obviously sincere, yet the idea that "social anxiety" could end the world didn't seem likely.
"Impossible?" Sweetie Belle said, grinning as she held up her paw and made the digits roll like waves of grain in a breeze. "Stranger thingshave happened."
"I suppose." Donner smiled.
"I wish she was here, so she could explain it to you, but... suffice to say, it gets better. She did. A lot in fact. You know she's actually and literally the Princess of Friendship now?"
"I did, but I thought that was just a title. Like Jarl Trelägg. It has nothing to do with his personal appearance, but is just a title for the position."
Sweetie made a note to look up that word later, but conceded the point. "I guess we ponies are just a bit more literal about these things."
Donner smiled, and Sweetie smiled back. Both set in amiable silence for a few moments.
"So," Donner hazarded. "Are we okay then? I mean... are you okay with me?"
"More than okay, Donner," Sweetie said. "We're friends, and a little misunderstanding isn't going to change that, I promise!" There was another hug. "But the question is, are you okay?"
Taking a moment to actually think on things, Donner leaned her head back and used her antlers to scratch an itch on her side. "I think so, but... promise me you won't tell anyone?"
"About the kiss?"
Donner blushed a bit again at this. "Yeah, and that I'm..."
"Oh!" Sweetie's eyes lit up. "You haven't told anyone that you're gay?"
Donner shook her head.
"Not even your family?"
"No one. It's not like with ponies. Caribou are a lot more... 'traditional' about these things."
"You're afraid your family wouldn't approve then? Because I've met your family, and they love you a whole, whole lot. I can tell."
"It's not... well it's not exactly that. It'd be, well, awkward for them I think."
"And it's not awkward for you, trying to keep a secret like that?" Sweetie realized she said that last part with a little more force than she'd intended. "Sorry, but love and trust go together, and they need to go both ways. Secrets never help anypony in the long run. Trust me." Sweetie wiggled her toes, remembering the shock when that secret had been revealed.
"I know," Donner sighed. "But it's hard..."
"Being the strong one?" Sweetie finished for her.
Donner smiled at this. "Yes, I suppose that's the crux of it. I already dishonored my father by refusing to be his heir. If it comes out that I'm a lesbian, it'll be even worse for the family. So it's easier for me to take that burden, so he doesn't have to."
Pondering things, Sweetie took a moment to stretch. "I don't know about the rest of the caribou; what they would or wouldn't think. But I don't think your father, or the rest of your family for that matter, would balk for even a second at sharing such a burden with you. 'Many backs make for a light load', or something like that."
"I know, I know," Donner protested. "But it's so easy to say and so much harder to do anything. I'll try though, eventually. Just promise me you won't say anything for now?"
"Of course," Sweetie said. "It's your secret, not mine. But promise me something in return?"
Briefly the thought, "blackmail?" crossed her mind, but Donner shook it off immediately. Sweetie would never do such a thing, not in a million years. "Okay, if I can."
"Make more friends! Don't give up on other ponies just because it's difficult. Don't hide because things are weird or awkward. Heck, go kiss some more mares while you're at it! I may not be able to love you in that way, but I promise you someone out there will. But only if you keep looking!"
Pleased that Sweetie meant well, especially after her moment of doubt, Donner agreed. "I promise," she said, smiling.
"Nuh uh," Sweetie said. "This is important, you have to do it right."
"Like this." Sweetie threw off some of the covers to expose her paw, so the proper motions could be made. "Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye!"
If Twilight ever got around to making her magically updating, crowd-sourced dictionary, the entry on "incredulity" now had a new image—in the form of Donner's expression—to go with it.
"I'm serious, Donner," Sweetie Belle said, no hint of prank or smirk on her face. "If you swear it, this is a promise you can't take back."
"Okay then." Donner freed her own forehooves, then did her best to imitate the motions as she repeated, "Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye."
"Good, now let's get some sleep," Sweetie said, tucking herself back under the blankets. "We've got a long day tomorrow."
"One last question."
"So, you're not into mares, but Rainbow Dash... Surely she..."
It started as a chuckle, then some snickering, and a few snorts as well. But by the end, the light-coated mare was rolling on her side, half out of breath, using the covers to muffle the uncontrollable bouts of laughter, which were only doubled every time she looked at Donner's face and saw that genuine look of puzzlement and sincerity.
Equestrian Space Corps Training Grounds (neé Sweet Apple Acres' North Orchard.)
Nine paragraphs earlier.
Pinkie Pie was rolling through the air above the barn in a lazy one-gee maneuver when she was taken by a spasm, looking momentarily as if she'd been electrocuted in mid-air.
"Oooh, that was a doozy," she said, shaking off the effects. "But not as big as th-aaa--a-aat one!" she stammered a moment later as she curled into a ball from the uncontrollable twitching of her Pinkie Sense.
She was worried for a moment that such a big promise might mean dire things for somepony, but then she found the thread of laughter coming from the same scene and smiled as she pulled out of the canonball dive just inches above the barn's weathervane.