The Cloudcounter is a My Little Pony story rooted in the world of the original generation of toys, circa 1980-1990, following the adventure of a anxious, prophetic pegasus from the tiny town of Baleor.
You don’t fly over the well in Baleor. It’s a really nice well, a big one in the middle of town that was built by magic, and in the summer it’s a beautiful thing to look down and see as you wing by. But every pegasus living here knows: you don’t fly over the well.
The thing was it’s sort of hard to remember that when you’re halfway to a panic attack, and rushing for home as fast as your wings can take you, and it’s getting dark and you were kind of already freaking out to start with, and—
… Anyway I flew over the well. I wasn’t looking where I was going. You try looking where you’re going when you’re on the edge of hyperventilating. One second I was flying, and in the next second I was head-over-hooves about ten feet higher than where I’d been before, absolutely soaked by the blast of water that had erupted from the well. Then I was drowning.
Okay, I wasn’t drowning, but you know.
Over the sound of me kicking out my legs in order to not drown I could make out three things: screeching (mine), gurgling (mine), and hysterical laughter (not mine). “Oh, geez! Oh, wow!”
Something shoved its way under me and then I wasn’t drowning anymore. Instead I was sprawled, jelly-legged, over a big, smooth thing the color of tar. I spat out water, heaved my breath in, and turned my head just enough to see a lot of sharp pointy teeth grinning at me. “That was amazing! You dropped like a rock!” the teeth said, and something splashed water in my face.
I didn’t say anything. I couldn’t really. I was still hacking up well water. Our resident sea pony rolled over onto her back and nearly dumped me back into the water. She flicked some water into my face with a flipper. “Who’d I get, is that Citrus? Citrus Sweets? I can’t tell, it’s too dark down here.” She shoved me sideways with one flipper to get a look at my flank. I still couldn’t really move or anything, but I could make out the big yellow stripe running down her nose as she squinted at my symbol, and the weedy yellow mane covering half her face. “Summer Shadow!” she said after a moment’s squinting. “I should’ve known from those giraffe legs.”
“Mrhghle,” I said.
Knifefish splashed me again, cackling.
The good news is after a few minutes I had sort of managed to calm down. I don’t know how because you would think getting knocked out of the air and dropped into a well would make you panic more, not less.
The other good news is I was kicking mad. “You could’ve killed me!” I snapped at her when I could talk again. I felt my ears pinning themselves back to my skull. “You could’ve—”
“I didn’t though,” she said, rolling her eyes. Sea ponies have weird eyes. The pupils are kind of triangle-shaped, and the iris takes up the entire thing. Like a fish, I guess. Sea ponies as a whole are kind of unnerving, with their big seal bodies and their sharp teeth. (They eat fish.) “You’re fine! Anyway c’mon you obviously wanted to hang out with me or you wouldn’t have flown over the well.”
“I flew over the well because I wasn’t looking where I was going is all,” I said, trying to get to my feet on her stomach. As pegasi go I’m kind of leggy. My sister would call me “spindly” but she’s a walking thesaurus. And Knifefish … Knifefish is big. When you think of sea ponies you think of them as about the same size as normal ponies, right? Not Knifefish. You could have fit three of me onto her all stretched out. I don’t know what she’s doing in a well and neither does anyone else, but she won’t leave. Says she was here before anyone else.
Now she snorted at me. “Summer,” she said, flipping her tail up enough that it swatted my hindquarters straight into a sit, “You don’t not look where you go. Not you.”
My ears were still flat against my skull, and I could feel my bottom lip jutting out, too. “Let me out.”
She whined, hitting the water with her massive flippers. “I’m bored!”
“You wouldn’t be bored if you lived in a lake and not a well.” At this point I was just talking to make myself do something that wasn’t panic.
“I’ve lived in lakes and in rivers and in ponds,” she said, throwing her head back so her muzzle was pointing straight up. The sun had nearly set by now, and it would have been impossible to pick her face out from the water if not for that big yellow stripe running down the middle of her upper lip. “And they’re all the same amount of boring.”
“Then why did you pick a well to live in?” To be fair it’s a big well. You could mistake it for a pond. I’m not actually sure why it’s that big. A lot of the architecture in Baleor is like that, though. It was founded by unicorns, so most of the older buildings are a little weird. They built so much with magic that they didn’t pay attention to how you’re supposed to do things. There aren’t many unicorn architects, after all.
Knifefish said, “Because it’s slightly less boring,” and rolled over in the water. I fell right off with a splash and a shriek.
I should probably mention that I don’t know how to swim.
Knifefish didn’t let me drown, which is something. Eventually she put me on her head and hit something on the inside of the well with her tail, and the next thing I knew the water level was rising. I had no idea that was something she could do, or that the water level ever changed, but I guess it makes sense since when the weather’s nice she comes and hangs out on the edge of the well.
I stepped onto said edge of the well when we reached it, hopped down to the nice, safe cobblestone, and promptly collapsed. Between my crying fit and falling to my certain doom, all my strength was just gone. I don’t have a great constitution. I kind of wanted to start crying again but I was too tired even for that. I’m a grown mare and this is the sort of stuff I have to put up with.
Knifefish leaned her chin on the side of the well and watched me, because I hadn’t been humiliated enough yet I guess. “Don’t ever do that again,” I said, trying to gather my hooves under me.
She snorted. “Don’t fly over me if you don’t want to play archerfish!”
I didn’t know what archerfish was, but I didn’t want to ask her, so I just left. I was sore everywhere and all I wanted to do was go home. My wings were still soaked, but if I took it slow I could walk. So that’s what I did. I walked home in the dark, dripping wet and shivering.
But I wasn’t freaking out anymore, so I guess I had to thank Knifefish for that much.
I managed not to think about anything until I got home. I live out on the edge of town, just far enough so the resident weather ponies don’t really change anything above me. It’s a nice little house. I got inside, shook myself as much as I could, and headed for the kitchen because where else in your house do you go when you’re distracted? I pulled open the fridge, stared inside it, then closed it and walked around the kitchen without really knowing what I was looking for. Then I opened the fridge again. I did this about three times before I snapped out of it.
In the end I didn’t eat anything, which was probably dumb, and decided if I was going to be wet, I could at least be warm, too. I made for the washroom, drew a bath and crawled in. I could have slept there. I almost did.
You know that feeling when you’re nearly asleep, but then you suddenly feel like you’re falling and jerk back awake? That’s what happened. After that all I could think about was falling asleep in the bath and drowning, even though I’m not even sure that’s possible (wouldn’t you wake up as soon as you breathed the water in?). So I got out, dried off, and went to bed before anything else could work me up.
(Didn’t work, if you really want to know. I lay there thinking about how dumb I felt now about the thing I had been freaking out over, the one that made me fly over the well. By the time I fell asleep, the clock read two in the morning.)
What woke me up the next day was the mailmare landing on my roof. There’s only the one mailmare that comes out to my neck of the woods. Her name is Zip, and she’s got smaller-than-average wings so she has to stop to rest a lot. I think she must have iron horseshoes or something, too, because when she’s on the roof it is loud.
I lay there for a while listening to her stomp around, yawning and blinking as I glanced over my room. I’m not a great housekeeper, so things are usually messy. I’ve got a little chest of drawers for my bad weather gear and things like that, and four or five night lights. I really don’t care for the dark, and once that got out among my friends I started getting a lot of light-related gifts. It’s a little embarrassing. They’re beautiful, though, they’re all things like a glass globe filled with artificial fireflies, or colored ether suspended in magic. I like things like that.
The only other really interesting things in my room are the closet and the desk. On the desk is the stuff for my job. In the closet is where I keep all my flower-pressing things. I press flowers and leaves and make things out of them, like jewelry and decorative bottles, and I like to think they’re quite nice. Everyone else seems to think so, too, because they sell at a pretty good rate. It’s how I supplement my income, since my real job hardly brings in any money at all.
Looking at them reminded me that I needed to get over to the town hall with a few that day—I had promised to donate some as prizes for the town’s hundred-year anniversary festival. When I checked the clock, it told me I was already ten minutes late.
I’m not a late person. I hate being tardy. I scrambled out of bed, threw ten pieces of glassware and resin-cased flowers into a bag, and was out the door before Zip had even finished delivering all of my mail. She called something after me as I shot past, but with the wind and my wingbeats in my ears I didn’t catch it.
The town hall is a solid thirty-minute walk from my house and a twenty-minute flight. I made it in thirteen, according to the big clock tower the hall is built around. I’m not a big fan of that number, so I pranced in place for an uncomfortable minute to make it fourteen before legging it inside.
My hooves echoed pleasantly on the wooden floor of the hall as I passed through the foyer and down a side passage toward the office, where I needed to drop my donation off. The mayor himself, an old unicorn named Pinewood, isn’t actually here much. Nothing much happens in Baleor and more often than not old Pine can be found in his garden all day, or sometimes gossiping in one of the cafés.
His secretary, on the other hand …
I nudged the office door open with my nose and peered inside. It’s a bright, clean place, our town hall, and the office in particular has massive windows that catch the sun almost all day. It’s always spotless and meticulously organized. So when what greeted me inside was stack after stack of papers as tall as I am—and I’m tall—I had to stop and double check that I was in the right place. “Hello?”
I heard nothing but rustling paper at first, and then a pair of blue ears swiveled upright over one of the stacks. It was followed by the sound of someone getting to their hooves, and then a pair of big amber eyes were blinking at me. “Oh,” said Sun Dog, “Good morning, Summer Shadow.”
“Hi, yeah,” I said, easing inside. There were more stacks on the floor, surrounded by beautifully wrapped gift baskets and other things that must have all been prize donations for the festival. And I’d just thrown mine into my bag. I’d forgotten to do anything with my mane and tail, too, and I’m pretty sure my breath smelled like moldy hay. Sun Dog was going to think I was a slob.
When Sun Dog became the mayor’s secretary about a year ago, no one really noticed until several hundred dust bunnies came tearing out of the town hall en masse. Everyone knew the place had dust bunnies living in it—you’d see them scuttling around in the corners now and then, but since no one used the town hall for much of anything no one paid much attention to how bad it had gotten.
It was incredible, watching them all pour out from the doors and in the gaps beneath the building. It was a sea of terrified squeaking. A couple ponies screamed and ran for cover, and a lot of the pegasi present took to the air only to be knocked head over heels by the rising dust cloud.
Me, I stayed right where I was. I might have glazed over a little. It took almost five minutes for all the dust bunnies to run out of sight, and when the dust cleared someone new was standing on the town hall steps. It was a pegasus mare with her whole snout wrapped up in a bandana, watering so badly at the eyes it looked like she was crying. You could hardly tell that her coat and hair was blue, there was so much dust in it. She sneezed twice, and then said in a strong, if scratchy and hacky, voice: “Could I ask any of you for your help in cleaning the town hall?”
Then she broke down into a massive coughing fit and had to be rushed to the nearest doctor. She was totally fine once she got some fresh air, but that was how we all met Sun Dog, the new secretary and holder of the title of Has More Allergies Than Any Other Pony I Know.
She had no bandana today—the building had been kept furiously clean ever since she was put in charge—and so I could see the pale blotches of white she has just under either eye. As I sat down and pulled off my bag, careful to keep my wings tucked in so I wouldn’t knock anything over, she picked her way through the papers toward me. “Sorry ‘m late,” I said before sticking my head into the bag and starting to pull the crafts out with my teeth. “Hhr’s th’stuff. Th’hestifal prizez.”
“Oh good,” Sun Dog said, rolling one over with a hoof as I set it down. She didn’t seem to be worried about the poor presentation, but I couldn’t get it out of my mind. “And don’t worry about it. I don’t have any appointments today—tomorrow’s another story, but.” I looked up in time to see her grimace. “I’m glad to have the interruption just now, if I’m being honest.”
“Yeah? You uh, you’ve got a lot of papers here.”
The grimace turned into a full-blown look of exhaustion. “You would not believe how much paperwork goes into a festival. I’ve been in here since six.”
“Six P.M.” She shook her head. Come to think of it she did look more frazzled than usual. I hadn’t noticed because looking directly at people isn’t really my thing. “And I think I’m going to go crazy if I don’t get out of here for a while. Would you like to get lunch with me?”
“Um,” I said. Suddenly all I could think about was how bad I knew my hair had to look, and how I hadn’t brushed my teeth, and I really had some things I needed to do for my job and she probably just being nice anyway—
My self-defeating spiral was interrupted by Sun Dog reaching up and tapping the end of my nose with her hoof. “Summer,” she said, “are you freaking out again?”
“… Maybe.” She knows me too well.
What I like about Sun Dog is she’s very patient. I’ve only known her for a year (I was one of the ponies recruited to clean the town hall, and I was so frazzled from the bunny stampede I didn’t even realize it when someone pushed a broom into my mouth), but it feels like we’ve been friends much longer. She never seems to mind that I’m always worked up over something, and furthermore she can always tell. I’ve had a lifetime’s worth of practice hiding it, so that’s sort of impressive.
After I answered her, she nodded. No tutting or telling me to calm down. Just a nod as she gathered up my donations and put them where they wouldn’t get trampled. “Okay,” she said. “Would you like to get lunch anyway?”
I was gnawing my bottom lip to pieces, but eventually, I said, “Sure.”
We set out. Food wouldn’t be hard to find this close to the town hall, at least. There’s a lot of nice restaurants and little bistros nearby. This is good news for Sun, because like I said—
—she’s allergic to everything.
Between a chain of sneezes and me taking little hopping flights now and then to avoid stepping on cracks (not that I really believe anything bad would happen, but I don’t like to invite disaster), we wound up at a little place I’d never been to before, a cafe called Twigs. It was nice, with low lighting and checkered floors and work from local artists on the walls, and the barista that I gave my order to had dreadlocks. Sun Dog and I settled in next to this tiny banzai garden that stood in the center of the room (miraculously, it didn’t set her nose off), and set about sipping our drinks and catching up.
“Oh, gosh, I don’t even want to talk about it,” Sun Dog said with a groan when I asked her about the festival preparations. “Half the merchants haven’t registered yet, I’ve been to the decorators’ three times and they always say they’re too busy to talk right now so I’ve no idea if they’re actually going to have the bells and whistles for me on Saturday or not, and the baker and the caterer had a personal tiff so trying to get them to work with one another is a nightmare.”
Baleor’s anniversary festivals are always something else, because as I said the town has a very high population of unicorns and magic-users. The reason there’s so many is because when the town was founded it was as a kind of last guardpost between the civilized pony lands and the North, which is home to nearly anything that isn’t a pony. Attacks from things like gnolls and nagas used to be a real fear, until everyone wised up and realized for the most part gnolls don’t care about us as long as we stay out of their territories and nagas are a lot more friendly and cooperative than you’d think a race of snakes would be. The only genuine threat I can think of would be the sergals, but they live beyond the northern mountains, and the last I heard they had been beaten into submission years ago by the dragons that rule those lands.
But anyway that’s why there’s so many unicorns: they were valued soldiers, and magic was the strongest weapon we had against what we thought were our strongest enemies. It’s hardly an issue now, but a lot of the town is made up of those soldiers’ descendants: unicorns that now put their magical skill to use on things like fireworks and illusions.
I digress. Sun Dog listed off a few more harassments about the festival planning to me, then dropped her head to the table with an exaggerated ugh as I looked on sympathetically. “I’m going to pretend it’s all fine until I have to go back. How are you?”
I made a face. “I’m alright, I guess. I managed to fall into the well last night, though.”
“Yeah, Knifefish knocked me in.”
She put her hooves back onto the table and lifted her head, giving me a slow blink. “You didn’t fly over the well?”
“I flew over the well.”
“How’d you manage that?”
Me and my mouth. “Wasn’t looking where I was going,” I said, stirring my straw in my strawberry-basil tea. “I got spooked down in Everfree and I was just trying to get home.” She watched me patiently. I wanted to drop it, and I knew she wouldn’t press if I did, but it was Sun Dog. She’s the only person I really care to tell about this nonsense. “I stayed out too late,” I went on. “The shadows started looking like … things.” And that’s really all that had happened. If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m sort of a scaredy-cat. In Everfree the night before I had let my imagination get away with me—again.
She made a ponderous kind of sound. “Well, it is Everfree. I think I’d get spooked if I stayed out there past sundown, too.” See? Always nice. “Were you out there for work?”
“Sort of. Just picking flowers, mostly, with a little cloudwatching.”
She nodded. And then she said something that made me nearly spit out my tea. “That reminds me. I’ve been reading up on cloudcounting since we last talked.”
If you didn’t sleep through History 101, then you know about cloudcounting. If you did, I need to tell you that, no, it’s not actual counting of the clouds. It’s a kind of fortune-telling, sort of like geomancy, or astrology but with clouds instead of planets. If you look it up in the dictionary that’s all it will say. But most people know cloudcounting as the thing that this pre-Ponyland cult was infamous for back before the alicorn sisters came to power. They were wiped out before recorded history really got going, and their name has been lost to time, so historians just call them the Helios.
The Helios weren’t the kind of ponies you’d want to hang out with. They were this huge, militant tribe of pegasi that worshipped the sun, and they invented—or discovered, depending on what you believe—cloudcounting. They justified literally everything they did with cloudcounting, saying it was the sun’s will, and they did … well, they did a lot. They were awful, is what they were. At the height of their power they invaded the largest city on the continent and killed or captured everyone in it, from stallions to fillies, and the ones they captured they sacrificed to the sun. Again: all because of cloudcounting.
After that everyone else around at the time, from the ponies to the garudas to the perytons, decided enough was enough and banded together to wipe them out. They did a good job of it, too. The entire tribe was destroyed, and cloudcounting was made punishable by death under the thought that the very act was evil. To add to it, just about anyone else ever mentioned in history as a cloudcounter also wound up being a psychopath or evil. Just look up Countess Marigold or Blitzen of Sky Ferrous. And don’t get me started on how it’s depicted in fiction. Stellarr the Slayer had its counters summoning eldritch horrors.
So that’s cloudcounting for you. And incidentally, if you couldn’t tell by my extremely clever and elusive narrative, I’ve been avoiding telling you what my actual job is. By now, though, I’m sure you’ve figured it out:
I’m a cloudcounter.
Back in the café, my anxiety had jumped up all over again. I had kind of assumed that Sun, being Sun, already knew everything there was to know about cloudcounting. And if she didn’t, well. Let’s say I wasn’t looking forward to the interrogation. You should have heard her the first time she met Knifefish—she’d never met a sea pony before. Knifefish couldn’t even escape.
Eventually it occurred to me that maybe she was expecting an answer. “Y, yeah? Why’s that?” Oh wow. Someone tie my muzzle shut.
“It’s really interesting,” she said, lighting up. “I’d heard of it before we met and I always meant to read more about it, but I just never had the time … is it true only pegasi can do it?”
“Uh,” I said. I stared at her blankly. Then automatic kicked in. I’ve had to explain how it works to clients a hundred times. “Yeah, yes, I mean. I’ve never heard of a unicorn or earth pony doing it, anyway. There’s a lot of nuance to it, being able to use your wings to read the wind is very important. And once you hit the cloudstate you pretty much need to be able to fly.”
“I didn’t know the wings were involved.”
“There’s really a lot more to it than the name suggests.”
“Is it very accurate? None of my sources could seem to agree.”
I shifted in my seat. “Depends on the counter,” I started, and then I was saved from going on because our meals arrived. I’d gotten some kind of fruit and dandelion salad, and Sun had a peanut butter-jelly-banana sandwich practically the size of her head. She has this thing about bizarre sandwiches. I saw her eat one that was 90% kelp once.
We dug in, and I scarfed mine down about as quick as you can blink. I don’t know why more people don’t like dandelions. They’re my favorite food and my favorite flower. My yard was full of them growing up, and I still let them grow where they will every spring. Sun Dog took her time. Sometimes I wonder if she can absorb information from food with how slow she eats. That’s her thing, if you couldn’t tell, knowing things—especially secrets. She’s usually good about not prying and never tells a soul, but, well, her symbol is a skeleton key. She lives up to it.
She continued to live up to it. “Depends on the counter?”
“It sort of … depends on how in-tune you are with the whole thing,” I said, making a vague gesture with my hoof. “You’ll misinterpret them if you aren’t careful or don’t know what you’re doing.”
She nodded in the slow, ponderous way she does that means she’s running all her info through her head and figuring out exactly what it means. “I hope this isn’t rude, but how accurate are your predictions?”
And there it was. “I, uh. Well.” I squirmed in my seat a little. “I’m never wrong.”
Sun lifted an eyebrow. “Really?”
Ahh, good old skepticism. It’s not bad, I mean. Especially in a subject like divination. Any old shyster can grab a crystal ball and call themselves a fortune-teller. The good ones have pedigrees, sort of, track records. The best ones have something better. “It’s my thing,” I said. “My talent. It’s what my symbol means.”
She made a surprised “Oh,” automatically glancing down to where my flank would have been if the table weren’t in the way. “I had wondered. Does it not represent the sun, then? I’d only ever seen it in the context of alchemy, I honestly assumed you were an alchemist when we first met.”
“No, it’s the sun. Lots of different practices use it, though,” I said, lifting one wing to look at it myself. All it is is an orange circle with an orange dot in the center—a circumpunct, if you want to get technical. (You learn these things when they’re permanently marked on your flanks.) “But the first recorded instance of it came from the guys who invented cloudcounting.”
“The Helios, right?” I nodded. “How on earth did you figure that out?”
“I had my symbol when I was born,” I said, shrugging. It’s not a super rare thing to have happen, especially when your bloodline runs as close to Dream Valley as mine does, but you’d be surprised at how many people think symbols are exclusively a thing that just appears when you find your talent. “I had a lot of time to research it.”
“Oh, so was I!” Sun Dog said, leaning forward. “That’s fascinating. So you’ve really never been wrong? Where did you learn it?”
Ugh, life stories. Not my thing. “Apprenticeship,” I said, fussing with my drink. “Near Flutter Valley. Then I moved here.”
“And you’re never wrong? How on earth do you not have ponies knocking down your door?”
I gave her a Look. “I thought you said you read about cloudcounting, it’s not exactly popular. Anyway I don’t exactly go out of my way to advertise myself.”
I could tell she was about to launch off into another string of questions when in the distance the clock tower began to toll. “Oh, shoot, there’s my time’s-up,” Sun said, just before hastily stuffing the rest of her sandwich into her mouth. Her cheeks bulged out exactly like a chipmunk. Amazing.
Somehow she managed to gulp it down without choking, and we bussed our plates and made for the door. I excused myself from dallying anymore, because I really did have some things to do. “Then don’t let me keep you,” Sun Dog said, giving me a smile. “It was lovely having lunch, thank you.”
“Yeah, you too,” I said, returning it. I did feel better for having made myself go out. Then a thought occurred. “Say—I’m going to be doing a reading for a client come Friday. You can come watch, if you want.”
I had just waved Knowledge under her nose. Her ears perked. “Ooh, I don’t know, that’s the day before the festival … but …” She did this hilarious little prance. “Oh, I really want to. Is that okay? I mean, a fortune-telling, that seems like a private sort of thing.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine. It’s for your sister.”
I say “sister,” but everyone knows Sun Dog and Sunspot aren’t even remotely related. Even so, with the way Sunspot hangs on Sun Dog, and how Sun Dog’s parents have essentially adopted her, they might as well be. I think they even have big sister/little sister necklaces, which change hooves between them on a regular basis.
Sunspot was actually one of my most loyal patrons. I don’t know if she did anything with the things I told her, but she always got a kick out of hearing them. And it kept me in work—as long as they pay I don’t really care what people do with their fortunes. I hadn’t seen her in a long time, but she’d sent me a letter just the week before saying her and Sun Dog’s parents were going to be in town for the festival and did I have any time beforehand for a reading? (I did. I had lots of time. All I did was watch clouds and pick flowers.)
Anyway, after Sun Dog and I split up I went home. I puttered around aimlessly for a while, putting off the inevitable, but I eventually ran myself back out to Everfree (with plenty of daylight to spare this time). I’d left my bag out there when I’d flown off the night before. I only noticed my mailbox’s flag was up after I was already on my way out—that was right, Zip had tried to say something to me as I left that morning—but I figured it would keep until I got back. I don’t get too much in the way of important mail.
The reason I’d stayed so late the night before was I got caught up in watching a bizarre cirrus radiatus formation in a clearing. That’s a type of cloud, if you weren’t sure, and they look like lines across the sky all meeting at one point on the horizon. In cloudcounting terms, they’re sort of useless, at least in my experience, and get in the way of more informative clouds. But the one I saw over Everfree that evening wasn’t like the ones I’d seen before.
By its nature a cirrus cloud is almost always thin and wispy, looking kind of like strokes from a paintbrush without much paint on it. This radiatus formation was band after solid, sharp-edged band covering the entire sky, all pointing unerringly north-south, to where Baleor’s sculpted weather began and into the depths of Everfree respectively. It made me nervous, to tell the truth—but so do a lot of other things.
I didn’t read it. There’s a difference between looking at a cloud and reading it, and I don’t like to cloudcount to satisfy my own curiosity. That’s a slippery slope, if you ask me. I’ve read about too many fortune-tellers that went crazy reading and re-reading their own futures, trying to change things. But I did sit there watching it for a long time, waiting to see if it would change or blow out of shape. It never did, and eventually I started to wonder if it wasn’t some bored weather pony’s project. I only snapped out of it when I heard something in the black, and that’s when I realized I was in the middle of Everfree after dark.
Before I noticed the radiatus I had been collecting more materials for my flower-pressing, and I’d gotten some really lovely, rare specimens: candypops, Arbissa lilies, shimmerweed, even some white claudia. At some point I’d put down the bag I had been carrying them in, and honestly I forgot all about it around the time something came exploding out of a bush right next to me as I tried to find my way back to town.
Know what it was? Just a bird. A crow or something. But it broke my nerve, I’ll tell you that. My panic switch flipped and before I knew it I was breaking through the tree canopy, making for home without a thought in my head.
In retrospect it was a lucky thing. If I’d had the flowers when Knifefish shot me down they probably would have been ruined, but when I found them right where I’d left them upon my return they were all intact. The candypops and shimmerweed were past saving, but the claudia still looked as if it had just been picked. Candypop lives up to its name fresh or old, you’ll never find a more sugary flower, so I popped those into my mouth, pulled my bag over my head, and went about my business.
Business entailed gathering myself for Sunspot’s reading, mostly. I can do them impromptu, but I’ve always found it helpful to warm up if I know I have a client soon. Like I told Sun Dog, there’s a lot more to it than just looking at clouds.
Why Everfree? Everfree has its own weather. Trying to read clouds sculpted by weather ponies would nearly be the same as making things up. That’s why I live on the edge of town, too: clients rarely want to go to Everfree (and who can blame them), so I need to be able to take them somewhere where the clouds are real.
If you’ve never lived somewhere with natural weather, you’re missing out. Weather ponies keep everything going like a machine: there’s always a rainbow after a storm, there’s never dry spells or weeks where it does nothing but rain, and the seasons always come on time. In Dream Valley, where I did my cloudcounting apprenticeship, there are no weather ponies at all. There’s specialists, sure, ponies that get called in when there’s big events and it looks like it’s going to rain, but it’s still different from Equestria proper.
Something happens to nature when you spend too long kicking it into shape, is what most people don’t know. It loses something. There’s a rawness to things in Dream Valley that’s pretty hard to describe, and it’s the best place on the continent to learn cloudcounting. The clouds there practically spell the future out for you. In Equestria we’ve been changing things around for so long that it’s had a ripple effect, and even out in the wilds things aren’t as clear. It’s a bit like light pollution and stargazing.
That’s part of why I moved to a remote place like Baleor. Even with the resident weather ponies, there are plenty of places to get to real clouds: Everfree surrounds it to the southeast, directly west is the sea, and then there is just the North, past the boundaries of Equestria. Ponies are the only species that actively changes the weather on a day-to-day basis; in the North things carry on much the same as they always have, as far as that’s concerned.
Where was I?
I was still chewing the candypop flowers when I got back to the clearing. It’s about the size of our town square, so it’s plenty roomy, with a few old stumps and lots of tall grass. I shrugged off my bag and flopped down into the grass. A few good rolls later—and you’re never too old for a good roll in the grass—I had flattened the grass out enough that it wouldn’t get in my way, and then I looked up.
You almost couldn’t see the sky for the altocumulus perlucidus stretching across it. The clouds dappled it in a white sheet, all ripples of white with thin trickles of blue between them. A gentle wind pushed the clouds along, one I could feel gliding over my feathers and fur, and shapes that looked a bit like the sea ponies you see in heraldry added to the illusion. I lay there a long time, tasting the atmosphere and letting the sky wash over me like the ocean, until finally the sound of lapping waves reached my ears. I measured my breathing, my eyes fixed on where the clouds had enveloped the sun. Only when my vision began to blur did I close them.
Remember that feeling when you’re nearly asleep and suddenly feel like you’re falling? Cloudcounting is like that, only when you jerk awake again you come up somewhere a little different. I waited until the falling sensation became too much to bear, and then I opened my eyes.
The sky had become the sea.
White-capped waves rose and fell in rhythm with the distant tide, and the water was murky and gray. The shadows of winged things skimmed over the surface. I couldn’t feel the earth or the grass beneath me anymore, just the cold, misty texture of a cloud.
This is my warm-up. It’s very possible to enter the needed mind-state for cloudcounting without doing any actual reading, and it’s a necessary thing lest you lose the skill, so this is what I do once or twice a week to stay in practice. It can be quite a while between clients for me, so I can’t rely on regular readings to keep me steady.
In a regular reading, I would have begun flying, looking for the answer to whatever question I had. The future is rarely left on display wherever it is in the clouds you fall in. As it was I stayed where I was on the cloud beneath the ocean. I could still hear the Everfree birds and the grass rustling in my ear, but sounded far-off.
For a long time I watched the water and the shadows of the things flying over it. Try as I might I couldn’t see what was making the shadows; they were gone every time I looked. The cloudstate is somewhat like dreaming, and as with all forms of divination things don’t always make sense. I wasn’t lying to Sun Dog when I said I had never been wrong, but even I can’t always be sure of what the clouds are telling me. (When you aren’t sure of a prediction, you don’t make it. It’s as easy as that.)
I was nearly ready to step back into reality when it happened. One of the shadows skimming over the waves grew bigger, blacker. I focused on it, curious, and after a moment realized it wasn’t just one shadow, it was dozens. Hundreds. The rush of uncountable wings beating the air rose over the sound of the sea, but when I rolled over the look off the edge of my cloud I could see nothing.
I turned back to the sea. The shadows remained, as did the sound, but now there was another new thing: bright flashing forms just under the waves, quick as thought and almost as many as the shadows. Now and then one would breach the surface with a crash of water and the snap of a wet mane. Sea ponies, all headed in the same direction as the invisible shadows.
They seemed never-ending, both armies. I did not get to watch long. A few seconds later that falling sensation returned, and then I was thrown out of the clouds.
When I fell back to earth—out of the cloudstate, I mean—I jerked hard enough that I banged both wings on the ground. I spent the next several seconds whining aloud and preening the feathers where I’d bumped them. As I did, I tried to collect what I’d seen in a more cohesive way. I said being in the cloudstate is like being in a dream, and like dreaming it can slip away from you quickly.
As soon as my wings felt a little better I dove for my bag and pulled out my paper and pencil. Upside-down ocean. Army of shadows above, I wrote, paused, then added “flying” between “of” and “shadows.” Army of sea ponies. Air vs water? No sign of conflict. Maybe not an army, maybe an exodus? A gathering? ???
I stopped, stared at what I had written with what I imagine was a very stupid look on my face, and then flipped the notebook shut. Something about the whole thing made me uncomfortable.
My gaze was drawn back up to the clouds again. The altocumulus were still there, but they had begun to drift northward, fading away.
I tossed my things back into the bag, got up, and shook the grass out of my coat. By the sun it looked like I had been in the cloudstate for an hour and a half or so—it’s easy to lose track of time in there—but there was still plenty of daylight left. I spent some time looking for more flowers and got a bunch of lion’s-claw and mintrose for my trouble before heading home.
By the time I got home I was feeling pretty good about things despite the foreboding sort of sense my vision had given me. I’d had a good lunch with a good friend, I was giving a reading in a few days, and didn’t have much else that I needed to do at home that night except start drying my flowers. When I got there I stopped at the mailbox before heading inside, left everything on the table, and as it was nearly dinnertime I started getting ready for that.
I threw together some apple slices, alfalfa, millet (yes, all the jokes about pegasi and birdseed are true), and the last of my dandelions into something vaguely resembling a salad and sat down with it to pick through my mail. Not a lot, as usual. A magazine I hadn’t subscribed to, a flyer for the festival (with Sun Dog’s hoofprint), and something I didn’t usually see—a rose-pink slip that had NOTICE OF MISSED DELIVERY printed on it in big block letters. Underneath, in writing, it said:
Dear Summer Shadow,
Hello! I tried to catch you on your way out but I guess you had somewhere to be! Yesterday we received a package for you with explicit instructions that it be delivered in-person at the post office, so I’m afraid you’ll have to pay us a visit to pick it up!
Hope you made it to where you needed to go,
—Zip (your mailmare!)
I reread it a few times to make sure I understood it. I wasn’t expecting any packages, and for sure nothing that would require being picked up in person. That was weird. But by then it was much too late for me to go and see about it that night. I decided I would take care of it tomorrow.
As it happened, I didn’t. Not tomorrow and not the day after that, either, thanks to a lethal combination of forgetfulness, laziness, and being distracted by all the little things a home always has to keep you busy. Not only that, but I had to hurry up and clean the place before Sunspot’s appointment, and that took up more of my time than I’d like to admit. I hardly left the house. When there was finally a knock on my door that Friday, though, the place was spotless.
When I opened the door I was met with a blur of neon orange. “Summer!” it hooted as it threw its forelegs around my neck, knocking me flat on my hindquarters. I had to throw my wings out to keep myself from bowling over backwards.
“Hi, Sunspot,” I said, halfheartedly trying to pry her off. I didn’t really mind except it was suddenly hard to breathe. “How’re you?”
“I’m great!” Sunspot said, leaning back to actually look at me. Up at me, really. Even sitting there’s a pretty significant difference in eye-level between us. Once she told me she has fey corgi in her family tree but I think you’ll excuse me if I find that a little hard to believe. “Look at you, I think you’ve gotten even taller, have you been turning into a giraffe?”
“I hope not,” I said, disentangling myself and getting to my feet. As I looked up I saw someone else in the door. That was right—I’d nearly forgotten. “Sun Dog, you came!”
Sun Dog had been watching us the whole time, because I guess that’s what you do when your friend is being mauled by miniature pegasi. Now she stepped through the doorway with an amused smile. She had these bright green leg warmers on all four legs; she’s told me before that they help keep her allergies down. “Of course I did,” she said. “How could I turn something like this down?”
“It’s just I’ve always got this idea you’re going to get trapped under a pile of paperwork one day,” I said, grinning as she rolled her eyes. “Alright, ladies. Come on back.”
I led them through the house to the back porch, where my readings start. It was a beautifully sunny day again, and there weren’t a whole lot of clouds, but not few enough that I had to call things off. It’s a rare day that happens, but it certainly has. You can’t exactly read the clouds if there aren’t any to be seen. As we came outside, Sunspot bounded ahead and threw herself into the pile of pillows I always bring out beforehand. Sun Dog settled in more carefully beside her, and I sat down opposite them, behind the bench where I put my notes and baubles during a reading.
You don’t need anything to cloudcount, but people are so used to seeing fortune-tellers with decks of cards and crystal balls that as silly as it sounds, they’re less likely to trust your prediction if you don’t have anything like that. On my bench I keep my notes and pencils, two decorative suns, and a little box of cotton and polished stones I sometimes use to help me explain the things I see. I do bring out one other thing I don’t normally use on my own: a broad, low bowl, filled with water. I could tell Sun Dog was dying to ask what they were for, or at least for something to happen, so I forewent the niceties and got straight to it. “So, Sunspot—”
“—what do you want to know?”
Sunspot finally sat up from where she was sprawled out, lightly tapping her chin with a hoof in thought. She never has any idea what she wants to ask until she gets here. “Hmm,” she said, “Oh, I’ve got it. Windy Day is running our Labyrinths and Leviathans game and he’s been stringing us along for weeks. There’s this crazy big bad with an army of stratodons and they’ve just been pounding us into the ground, so me and the paladin are trying to get to this tower that’s supposed to have an amulet or a crossbow or some macguffin, I don’t remember, but we’ve been stuck at the bottom for ages because we can’t solve the puzzles at the gate, and Windy’s a jerk about this kind of thing so we have to get it exactly right or he won’t open the door.” She took a deep breath. “So how do we get into the tower?”
Next to her, Sun Dog blinked. “You’re using fortune-telling to help you win a game?”
“The obvious concerns aside, isn’t that a little like cheating?”
In my opinion it was, but I wasn’t going to tell a paying customer that. I always have fun reading Sunspot’s game questions, anyway—and she comes in with them a lot more often than she doesn’t. As for Sunspot she just made an exaggerated gesture with her wing. “Maybe a little, but you know Windy Day, he’s a stickler about everything.” Sun Dog let it go after that.
I looked to Sunspot, trying to hide my smile. “Okay, so you want to know how you can get your characters into the tower?”
I pulled the bowl of water up in front of me, and Sunspot scooted closer. I put my hooves up on either side of the bowl and flared my wings just enough to catch the wind. Sunspot mimicked me, and I felt the light pressure of her hooves knocking up against my own. Prepared now, I looked down at the clouds reflected in the surface of the water—a much more convenient way of watching the sky when another person is involved.
The sky was a paler blue than it had been a few days ago in Everfree, and no altocumulus were in sight. Instead it was daubed with cumulus humilis and fractus like big mounds of cotton. At the angle I could see them in from the water some of them looked like they were stacked like building blocks.
When I’m on my own I can wait for the cloudstate to happen, but in a reading I have to speed things up. Forcing it’s not a great thing to do, but it’s a necessary evil as most ponies aren’t interested in sitting around for half an hour while you get in the right state of mind. It’s not too hard—I clear my mind as much as I can, focus on the clouds in the water and the air on my wings, and—
—I fall in.
My hooves hit cloud, and I flared my wings to keep my balance. A second later, I heard something as if from a great distance: “Oh—what was that?” Sun Dog. Then another voice: “She’s doing her cloud thing!” Sunspot. I’m not sure what I look like when I’m doing a reading, but I’ve heard the surprised reaction more than once, so it must be interesting. The pegasus I apprenticed under never reflected it in his body language when he went into the clouds, and I’ve never met another cloudcounter other than him, so I don’t really have anything to go off of. “She can still hear me, though,” Sunspot said. “Summer? Hellooo?”
“Hello,” I said to the air, tucking my wings and looking around at where I’d been dropped. Beneath me was a sprawling plain, lush but empty. I couldn’t hear birds or insects or even the wind. In the distance a dark, high column rose up against the horizon, taller than any of the little stands of trees dotting the landscape. “I think I see your tower, Sunspot,” I said, stepping off the cloud to fly toward it. “Can you describe it to me?”
“Yeah!” came her answer, again from nowhere. It’s something that takes a while to get used to—it’s a little like having a voice in your head. “It’s really, really tall, and it’s made out of black stone and above the entrance there’s a carving of a beholder.”
I heard—and felt, as a vibration in my legs—her tap her hooves on the bench a little impatiently. “It’s like a big eye with tentacles.”
Like time, space works a little oddly in the clouds. The tower had easily been several miles away when I began toward it, but I was circling around it in less than a minute. I reoriented myself and glided down in a broad spiral until my hooves touched the unnaturally green grass in front of it. When I looked up at the tower, sure enough, a massive eye wreathed in tentacles and bearing a huge mouthful of sharp teeth glared down at me from the stone. I stuck my tongue out at it and looked at the door.
The door was a massive wooden thing, maybe oak, painted a pristine white. It had a weird chemical smell to it, and there was no visible handle. There was something inscribed on it in no language I could read. “What’s this written on it?”
“Windy Day said it reads, ‘Etiquette.’”
I blinked. “That’s it?”
“That’s what he said.”
“Do you have to be polite to the door?”
“Well, what have you tried?”
I heard her huff out her breath. It must have made the water in the bowl ripple; everything went fuzzy for a few seconds. “We’ve tried breaking it down, lockpicking it, blowing it up, I headbutted it once, yelling, saying ‘please’, saying ‘please’ very loudly—”
Sun Dog’s voice interrupted her. “Have you tried knocking?” Beat. “It’s polite to knock.”
“Well … no.”
I made a low hmm to myself and looked around. I try not to interact too much with the cloudstate—you can seriously screw things up if you do more than watch, and about half the time you’re too ghostly to touch anything anyway—so I didn’t want to try knocking on it myself. There was nothing to be found, though, so I started off in a slow trot around the tower. I could hear the Suns debating the odds of knocking being the answer as I circled it, looking for any sign of a solution. There was nothing until I reached the place I had started from.
As I rounded the corner the scenery changed. I slowed to a halt next to a large pile of beanbag chairs and pillows, all encircling a low table covered with papers and dice. Around it sat ponies I recognized from the circus Sun Dog’s family ran, among them Windy Day, Rocketeer, Noontide, and yes, Sunspot. With a sigh of relief I snuck in close to them and sat where I could listen. The days where the clouds simply give me the answers are the easiest.
“So let’s go back to Noontide and Sunspot,” Windy Day was saying, peering out from over the cardboard screen in front of him. “As the sun rises for the third time since you two arrived, things are beginning to feel hopeless. The beholder door watches you with its stone eye, unrelenting.”
Noontide, a flighty pegasus stallion who I hear plays a fantastic paladin, sighed. “I’m gonna kick that beholder in the eye.”
“It’s too high up, how’re—”
“I’m not actually doing that, Windy,” Noontide said, rolling his eyes. Beside him, Sunspot was tapping her hoof on the table impatiently. “Okay, what haven’t we tried?”
“Blowing it up,” Sunspot said.
“I don’t have any dynamite, do you?” Noontide lowered his head, resting his chin on the table. “Shoot, I dunno. Maybe we should knock.”
Sunspot squinted. Then she looked at Windy Day. “I knock on the door.”
Windy spread his hooves, smirking. “At first the door does nothing. As you step back from it, though, you notice the beholder’s expression has changed into a smile. There’s a loud grinding sound, and then the door begins to open.”
“Are you serious, that’s all we had to do—”
Sunspot was interrupted by Noontide cackling with glee, rapping his hooves on the table hard enough it made some of the dice jump. I had to laugh to myself. I picked myself up, flew out through the opening in the empty circus tent they were using into clear blue sky, and called: “Got your answer, Sunspot.”
“What is it!”
“Give me a second.”
I flew straight up, turned myself toward the sun, and winged toward it, the wind rushing in my ears. The sun got bigger and brighter until it took up the whole sky, and right before I felt I was going to go blind from it, I snapped back to earth.
-The water jumped in its bowl as I came back with a jolt that nearly knocked the bench over, leaping high enough that it hit me in the nose. I sputtered and snorted until I got it clear, and when I had the presence of mind to look at my guests I found Sunspot staring me dead in the face with her huge eyes just inches away from mine. She didn’t say a word, just stared. I leaned back, cleared my throat, and found my composure. “Sun Dog was right.”
“I was?” Sun Dog said.
I nodded. “Knock on the door. It’ll open.”
A smug sort of grin began to form on Sun Dog’s face, and Sunspot’s face was kind of screwing up. “Seriously?! That’s it?”
“The door did say ‘etiquette’ …” I said, right as Sun Dog chimed in with “How did you not think of that?”
Sunspot made a frustrated sort of whinny, throwing herself backwards onto the pillows. “You have no idea what our game’s been like! It’s been nonstop beat’em’up since we started. I can count the amount of peaceful encounters we’ve had on one wing! Knocking,” she said again, incredulous, and then she looked at me again. Her mood brightened immediately. “Knocking. Windy’s going to be kicking mad, I bet he expected us to get stuck there for days. How much?”
“Glad to help,” I said, wiping at the last of the water dripping off my chin. “And your usual’s fine, twenty bits.”
I couldn’t help myself from glancing over at Sun Dog as Sunspot nosed open her bag and fished out the money. I wanted to impress her, of course, though solving Sunspot’s game puzzle probably wasn’t going to leave much of an impression even when I was proven right. “Sun Dog,” I said, and her ears flicked up as she looked at me. “Do you want a reading? First one’s free.”
“Oh,” she said, blinking. A shadow of something flickered across her face but vanished again in a moment. “Sure, I can’t see the harm.”
I gestured her over and had her sit the same way Sunspot had, across from me with the edges of our front hooves touching. The physical connection isn’t terribly important, but it helps to bring you closer to where in the sky their answer is when you fall in. “So,” I said, “what do you want to know?”
I watched her think about it for a few seconds, her face contorting in concentration. “The festival, I think,” she said at last. “I’d like to know if I should prepare for anything unexpected.”
I grinned. “Don’t you do that already?”
She gave me a look. “Particularly unexpected. I can always use more information.”
“Okay, okay,” I said with a laugh, “can do. Is there anything in particular you’re worried about?”
“No, I don’t believe so. Just anything I might be able to prevent beforehand that I wouldn’t otherwise know about.”
Nodding, I looked down into the bowl again. The clouds hadn’t changed much, still white puffs against blue, though more were starting to gather. The wind had begun to sweep them into long, wispier shapes. “Alright,” I said. “Look into the water and tell me what you see.”
She obeyed. You’ll notice I didn’t do this part with Sunspot—I’ve worked with her enough that I don’t need to, and her questions rarely need any interpreting. With new clients, though, having them tell me what they see gives me a greater idea of what to look for. “Um … clouds?” I lifted an eyebrow as she glanced up at me. “Oh, give me a moment. … A whale. I see a whale.”
“Is it doing anything or is it just hanging out up there?”
“Its mouth is open. I think it’s chasing something.”
That was good enough to start. I looked down at the water, and let myself fall back into the sky. When I touched down on cloud this time, it was a frigid, ice-white one. A wind rushed through my mane and I shivered.
I had dropped in somewhere very high. All I could see below me was an unending cloud bank, with blurry green-brown gaps of land to be seen through the few cracks. Through a few of them I could see the ocean and what I imagined to be Everfree. Above me were more, though not so dense, and through a break in them blazed the sun.
It was so bright I could scarcely see. I tried to shield my eyes with a wing, peering around for any indication of where I should go. I had hoped this would be another straightforward prediction like Sunspot’s, but apparently it was not to be; what did being miles above the ground have to do with Baleor’s festival?
In my ear, Sun Dog’s voice: “Summer?”
“Hang on.” I squinted as much as I could, but it was so hard to see with the glare of the sun and the bright of the clouds. I could pick out shapes in them, barely; from where I sat they looked sort of like tents. Shapes sat upon them, but I could not tell what they were. Birds?, I thought, but I had never heard of a bird that could interact with clouds the way pegasi can. “I’m—”
A cloud bank is not like an ocean, though it can seem like one when you’re above it. That’s why when something came crashing up from beneath the clouds with a sound like an explosion I was so alarmed I nearly fell off the cloud I was sitting on. It came up straight through the tents and the dark things on the tents, dashing them to pieces. In my startle I must have done something back down on earth, too—“What was that? Summer? Can you hear—”
Sun Dog’s words were dim and distant. “It’s fine,” I mumbled, getting my feet under me again, “hang on, found something—”
The thing that had burst through the clouds and shattered the shape of the tents raced straight up, blazing like fire. It was too far away for me to tell what it was, and anyway in another second I had something much bigger to focus on. A second boom came, and with it an impossibly vast black thing shot up after it. I stared as it rocketed toward its climbing target.
The second thing was, of course, a whale. That much became clear almost at once. Now the first thing was far too high up for me to see, and showed no sign of dropping. I didn’t want to, but I did my job: I took flight after them.
Even though they kept climbing, up and up and up, I managed to get close enough to not lose them. Just as I thought I might have figured out what the first figure was, it banked hard to the side, toward me. Although it had been far away a moment ago within seconds it was nearly upon me, and then I was certain of its shape: three huge pegasi, flames coming from their wings and their nostrils. I scarcely got out of the way in time, and as they shot by I could see they were drawing a golden chariot. In another second the whale was after them, and as it passed I realized the whale itself was made of clouds; storm clouds, gray and heavy. Lightning trailed in its wake.
My wings ached with the cold of being so high, and my lungs burned with it. Nevertheless I forced myself along with the chase; my fatigue was not exactly an illusion, but I knew it would be reduced to phantom pain at worst once I returned to land.
Again the chariot began to climb. The whale, larger and slower, took longer to maneuver after it. By the time it had shifted its bulk to follow I had caught up, and I was eye-to-eye with the thing. It looked at me as we raced upward, looked at me with a golden iris and a strange triangular pupil as large as my head.
There was something ancient in that eye. Ancient and feral and piercing, infinite even. All at once I felt exposed—trapped—like the beast would turn on me next.
My stomach dropped.
Before I knew what I was doing I had done a side-slip, tilting sharply down and sideways, and I was plummeting back toward the cloud bank. Every hair on me seemed electrified, standing on end, like the lightning in the whale’s wake had latched onto me. I couldn’t think straight. I couldn’t even see straight. Something red flickered by my vision—I was bleeding from my nostrils.
The last thing I saw before I dropped through the clouds like a rock was the chariot vanishing into the sun, and the whale, following, blotting it out.
I don’t know what happened after that.
When I came back to earth I was no longer on the porch. I was in my own house, I realized a few seconds after waking, on my own couch. “What,” I said, but it came out as more of a gurgle.
My vision was swallowed up by something orange. Something orange that put its hooves on my cheeks and started babbling. “Oh, oh gosh Sun Dog, Sun—!She’s awake!”
The orange became partially blue. I kind of wanted to be sick with all these colors getting in the way of my not having to focus on anything. “Is she okay? Summer? Can you hear—?”
I groaned and threw both forelegs over my face, suddenly very determined to not be awake, or possibly alive. “‘M fine,” I got out. I felt like I’d run a marathon and that phantom pain in my wings and my lungs had settled in nicely, but other than that nothing on me actually hurt. “What’s—why’m I … ?”
“You fainted!” Sunspot blurted out. “You stopped talking after you said you found something and you wouldn’t snap out of it, and then you did but you just yelled something and passed out!”
“… I what?” I raised one leg from over my eyes. “… What did I say?”
“Iii … I didn’t catch it, but it was really loud. Sun Dog?”
I looked to her. She shook her head. “I didn’t either. But you were out cold right after you said it. Nearly knocked your head on the railing.”
Slowly, I sat up. My head spun as I did, but it eased off after a few seconds. “I was flying,” I said, trying to piece things together. “I was flying and I dropped back into the clouds …”
The shock was still enough to startle me as that vast eye resurfaced in my memory, rendering me silent. A few seconds passed before I got ahold of myself. Then I slung my legs down onto the ground, nearly lost my balance, and started toward my room. “Should you be up?” Sun Dog said from behind me.
I ignored her, pushing my door open and going straight for my workdesk. Plenty of paper—where was a pen, I needed a pen—
“Summer?” one of them said as I finally found one. I grabbed it in my teeth and started writing, but I could already feel it slipping away.
tents, birds—whale, black, storm—chariot, pegasi, flames—chase—yellow eyes—danger—
Someone said my name again. When I whirled around I nearly smacked Sun Dog in the nose with my wing. “Sum—”
The pencil fell from my mouth. “Call the festival off.”
She leaned back, both eyebrows jumping upward. “Sorry?”
“The festival. Cancel it. Now.”
I stormed past her, trying to keep as much as I could of the clouds with me. Walking helps me think. Already I could feel the details slipping from me. Sun Dog tailed me. “I can’t just cancel the festival for no reason—”
“You consulted a seer. That’s a reason.”
“This is baseless! Why on earth should I, you haven’t even told me—”
I stopped on my heel, turning on her. “Something’s going to happen.”
“People are going to get hurt!”
“That’s not good enough!” She stomped her hoof, scowling at me. “I can’t cancel the entire festival because of—of what, a vision? You haven’t even told me what the danger is, Summer, give me a reason!”
We glared at each other, silent. In the corner of my eye I could see Sunspot gaping at us. Eventually I said: “I saw your whale.”
“It was black and made out of a storm. It chased a chariot pulled by pegasi made of fire. And I saw tents made of clouds, and the chariot and the whale blew through them like they were nothing and destroyed them—I was bleeding—”
I trailed off, caught in the memory of the whale’s eye on me. To her credit, Sun Dog waited to see if I would continue in my raving. And in retrospect it was raving. I had never, in my eight years as a cloudcounter, experienced anything like that whale. And I had never passed out from the cloudstate before. I wasn’t myself. After a few seconds longer she said, “Is that it?”
I stared at her, still lost in the clouds. “They blocked out the sun …”
She sighed. “But—and I’m trying to understand here. What does that have to do with the festival?”
“The—? The tents. The tents, the festival sets everything up under huge tents every year, and it was in the sky above Baleor. The tents were destroyed. It’s in the tents. It—I mean it’s not going to be a literal whale but something is going to happen tomorrow …”
For all my height, the way she was looking at me made me feel small. Uncertainty and unbelief colored her face. It reminded me of the way my father looked at me when I made my first visit home during my apprenticeship, and I told him I’d seen my granddam’s death in the clouds. At the time she was perfectly healthy. Two weeks later she died of nothing more than a fall.
Slowly, Sun Dog shook her head. “That’s not enough for me to cancel the festival, Summer.”
Something in me tightened. Sharpened. “It’s the future. Seeing the future is my job,” I snapped. “I’m a cloudcounter.”
“Yes, you are. And what do you think people will say if I tell them I’ve canceled the festival—the one-hundredth anniversary festival—because a cloudcounter wanted me to?”
The words stung. I could tell she knew they would, too, by the unhappy slant of her mouth and the downturn of her ears. That didn’t make it hurt any less, though. Sun Dog sighed and shifted her weight from hoof to hoof. “I’m sorry, Summer, but I can’t just call it off because of something as vague as prophecy.”
I looked away, out the window. The words left my mouth before I could stop them. “… You should leave.”
I got no answer. A few seconds later, though, she walked past me. I heard the door open. “… Thank you for the reading.”
The door shut again. I finally let my legs, which had gone weak and unsteady the moment I had realized I was in an argument, fold under me. Confrontation isn’t my strong suit. I dropped to the carpet with a groan, and let my head sink forward until my chin touched the floor. My eyes stung.
“Um,” said someone. I blinked. Sunspot. “I uhm …” A few seconds later two orange hooves stepped into view. Sunspot lay down in front of me, ears flat, eyes wide. “… I’m sorry.”
Lifting my gaze, I let it settle on her morosely. My pride still hurt, but with Sun Dog gone I was rapidly losing my anger. It was replaced by a slow, gnawing apprehension. “Hey,” Sunspot said with a faint smile, reaching out with a wing and brushing the tip of it over my forehead to get my mane out of my eyes. “I’ll talk to her. Like maybe I can get her to get some extra security or something? Okay?”
“Can security stop a whale?”
She just put her head a little to one side, smile fading. I shut my eyes.
“I just hope I’m wrong.”
So of course I went to the festival anyway. What would you have done? I mean, I was scared out of my shoes, but I was the only one who might be able to notice something going wrong before it happened.
I’ll tell you this: I’ve predicted bad things before. It comes with the job. Sometimes I can see an approximation of how things will happen, as I did with Sunspot’s game; sometimes they’re drowning in symbolism, too distant to be seen properly. The specifics may not be exact, which is why I don’t give specifics. But they are always correct. They always happen in some shape or form.
With that said, after I’d had a good night’s sleep I felt a little less uneasy about the whole thing. Maybe I’d overreacted, I thought to myself as I pulled my bag on the next morning. Maybe I really would be wrong for the first time. I wouldn’t mind it in this instance, I thought, even if I was still sore over what Sun Dog had about listening to a cloudcounter. And either way, I still needed to go get my package. I double-checked that my delivery slip was in the bag and headed out the door.
I wasn’t sure if the post office would even be open on the weekend, much less the day of the festival, but when I arrived at the squat little building near the center of town I could see ponies inside. I trotted inside and who else was behind the desk than Zip?
I called out a hello to get her attention, and as she noticed me she hopped up with a smile. We’re not exactly friends, but she’s one of the friendliest ponies I’ve ever met. “Summer Shadow! Here for your package?”
I dug out the pink slip and passed it to her, and less than a minute later she was nudging a small brown rectangle toward me. “I think it must be a book,” she said brightly as I put it in my bag. “Strangest thing. Had a fellow trot right in here with it Monday and ask to speak with whoever was in charge, I guess. Made it real clear you were s’posed to get this in person or not at all.”
Oh, please, no—small talk. My one true weakness. I forced a polite answer. “Yeah? Does, uh, does that happen a lot?”
“Dunno, not that I can remember. Lucky you came when you did, though! I was about to shut things down and make for the festival. You’re going, right?”
“Yeah, of course.”
I managed to escape after that. This close to the center of town I could hear the sounds of a gathering: voices and music and laughter. With it came the smells of food from the vendors and smoke from the bonfires. In another few minutes I was there, and it was something to behold. I’ve never been to the capital cities for anything like a festival, but I’d bet you our little town could give them a run for their money.
I arrived to the heart of it soon enough. The town center was strung up in purples, blues, and greens, every lamppost festooned with balloons and ribbons that waved in a gentle wind. The high-ceilinged tents that characterized the festival every year were set up perfectly, ringing the place in concentric circles that got taller the further from the center they got. As I arrived I could see the smallest tent, set up over the well, and Knifefish resting her head on the well’s edge. She looked—not bored, but it wasn’t the usual smirk she wore. Tired, or maybe even worried, which was strange. There was someone talking to her: a stallion I didn’t know, with a clay-red coat and white hair, and one of those formal capes that was typical of this sort of occasion draped over his back and flanks. As I watched he turned his head slightly, and I could see the horn on his forehead.
It didn’t hold my attention long. Naturally, the first thing that happened to me when I made my way into the midst of the festival was something almost smacked into me. It dropped right out of the sky and hovered at eye-level with me, grinning wildly. “It worked!” Sunspot cried, clapping her hooves together before dropping to the ground in front of me. “I got Noontide to knock on the door since he’s a paladin and I’m this squishy mage and if it was a trap he’d have to deal with it. But it worked! We totally got inside.”
“Glad to hear it,” I said, relieved to have the company. I do alright by myself, but crowds can get overwhelming. “What was inside?”
“We only got up two flights of stairs, there’s another dumb puzzle at every new floor. We solved one but the other’s being tricky.”
She told me about the campaign they were playing as we walked around the festival. I thought I was doing a good job of paying attention to her until after we got flowerwheels—big bunches of things like sugarpops and molassas-leaf woven together in a circle and dusted with powdered sugar and cinnamon—and had stopped to eat those. “You’re completely distracted,” Sunspot said, licking pollen off her lips. She gave me a grave sort of look. “Do you still think something’s going to happen?”
I heaved a sigh. “Yeah. But I mean—maybe it won’t be as bad as I thought.”
“Didn’t you say you were bleeding when you did the thing yesterday?”
“Nosebleed. High altitude, it was really high up. I haven’t ever bled doing a reading before, though.”
Sunspot made a long hmm sound, finishing the rest of her flowerwheel in one enormous gulp. Her cheeks bulged as she chewed. “I did try talking to her,” she said once she’d swallowed. “I dunno how much good it did. She said she’d be extra careful.”
Ugh, that made it sound like I’d told her she was just going to have an accident or something. I just shook my head and went back to eating. Eventually, Sunspot prodded my bag. “What’s in there?”
“Oh, package I had to get. It’d been sitting at the post office for a week. Whoever sent it said I was supposed to get it in person, I guess?” I pulled it out.
“Oooh, mysterious. What is it?”
“Might be a book? I guess I can open it, huh.” I did, ripping the packaging open as carefully as I could. The brown paper came away with ease, and inside there was, indeed, a book.
A book with my symbol embossed into the leather cover.
I blinked down at it, caught off-guard. From the corner of my eye I saw Sunspot look at the book, then at my flank, and then at the book again. “Isn’t that—”
The book itself was not very big or impressive. It looked old and well-worn, and apart from the circumpunct and a few scratches there was no other decoration on it. Looking it over, I found a metal clasp securing it shut. I pressed on the mechanism, and a blue spark crackled out at me, running over my hoof and up my leg. It stung like a bad zap from something electric, and I yelped and dropped the book. “Geez, what?!”
“Ohmygosh,” Sunspot said, diving after it where it had hit the street. She grabbed it up and took a careful look at the clasp that had tried to kill me. “Yeah! Ohhh, somebody sent you a book with a magic lock!”
“How do you know?”
“I see ‘em all the time. In games, I mean. But they always get described exactly like that. It shocks you if you try to open it.” She tilted her head, squinting at it. “There’s different kinds … I’m not sure what sort this is, though.”
Great, game advice was what I needed for evil books. As she poured over my new possession, I noticed something left behind in the packaging that I had missed: a little piece of paper. I pulled it out and started reading.
To Summer Shadow, cloudcounter of Baleor (it said, in a very sharp and hard-to-read way of writing),
I hope when you receive this you still have no idea what is happening—that they have not yet reached you. Otherwise I fear they will have turned you against me.
There is not much time left. The lock on the diary can be opened only by the creature that closed it. Another cloudcounter lives still in Baleor. Find her and show her the lock—she will tell you where to go, and this book will tell you what to do after that.
Please believe me when I tell you everything you will read in this diary is the truth. And that I am sorry.
I reread the note twice, bewildered. The foreboding feeling that had accompanied my vision of the whale seemed to double in an instant.
I jumped as Sunspot shoved her head between me and the note, and I scrambled to pull it out of reach. “Don’t know,” I said, keeping one hoof firmly on it. “The whole thing’s weird. Where’s the book?”
She gave it back to me, saying she would talk to Windy Day and see if he remembered anything more about locks like the one on the diary. Game magic is very similar to real magic, I guess. I suppose it makes sense.
And she was gone again, just like that.
I stayed where I was for a while, looking down at the book and the note, and felt my worry grow. There was no other cloudcounter in Baleor, not that I knew of. Who was T? Who were “they”?
What was going on?
At long last I lifted my head and blinked around at the oblivious crowd. Nothing much had changed. I wanted to go home and crawl into my bed. Eventually, though, my eyes fell on the well. Knifefish was still hanging out at the edge, alone now.
When she saw me looking at her, she grinned at me with those sharp teeth and waved a flipper—no, she was gesturing me over.
The last thing I wanted to do was talk to Knifefish, honestly. She’s alarming at best and downright scary otherwise, and I have enough problems convincing myself things aren’t routinely out to get me. At the same time, I didn’t exactly want to tick her off. She’s never hurt anyone as far as I’m aware, but the last pony I knew to really annoy her got water thrown in her face every time she came by the well for a month.
So, predictably, I went over. “Giraffe!” Knifefish said as I trotted up, slapping the water with her tail fins. I couldn’t be sure—I don’t exactly study sea pony expressions—but up close something about her smile seemed forced. “I wondered if you were coming.”
“I think the whole town’s coming.”
She approximated a shrug. “Yeah, sure looks like it. Hey, so I need a favor done.” At my blank stare she rolled her eyes. “I know, I know.”
“You nearly killed me the last time I saw you.”
“I did not! I don’t kill people, I never hurt anybody. When’s the last time someone drowned in this well?”
Never, as far as I knew, but I didn’t really want to give her the satisfaction of the answer. “Well, what’s the favor?”
Knifefish glanced around. We weren’t exactly alone, but no one was paying attention to us. “It’s not anything big. You and the mayor’s assistant are friends, right? Sun Dog, I think is her name?”
“I’ve been trying to get somebody to get her over to me for like a week now but nothing’s happened. But since you’re friends maybe you can arrange it for me.” She stopped a moment, frowning. “This is a lot later than I’d like, but it’s imperative that I talk to her.”
“Why?” She fidgeted. “I’m not gonna do anything unless I’ve got a good reason.”
“Look, the festival’s in danger. And don’t tell anyone but Sun Dog that, the last thing we need is a mass panic.”
I went very still. “What kind of danger?”
“I can’t tell you.”
“Sun Dog’s going to ask.” She groaned and slid backwards, further into the water. I put my hooves on the edge of the well and looked down at her. I could feel my pulse ratcheting up. “You don’t know, do you?”
“Look, I need you to trus—”
“No no no, I do, I completely believe you,” I said, slumping down. “Shoot. Horsefeathers, I wanted to be wrong.”
She tilted her head in the water, watching me carefully. I groaned. “Look, I’m a … seer. I saw that something was going to happen today but not what or when or how, and I told Sun Dog but she wouldn’t listen—”
Water spattered my snout as Knifefish rose up to stick her face directly in mind. “You’re the seer? You’re—” She pushed herself up high enough over the edge to see my hindquarters. “You’re the other cloudcounter. Oh, beach me. I’m an idiot.”
“Nevermind. Later. Go find Sun Dog,” she said, pushing me off the edge of the well with her massive snout. “Tell her two seers have seen danger for the festival. Go!”
When I still didn’t move, she spat water directly into my face. In the next moment she had disappeared beneath the surface. With no other option I turned and took off, still dripping.