It was a novel feeling - this fear of heights.
How many times had she stood at a precipice just like this one, body vibrating out of excitement, out of breathless anticipation?
Why does her body now quake in trepidation, how could she hesitate when her dream is now within her grasp, especially after having abandoned it so long ago?
Oh, right - the ground.
She had never paid it much mind, except to scoff at the onlookers - concerned and otherwise - who simply refused to believe.
Her mind was always on what stretched before and above her, rather than what lay below - the vast, ever-changing sea of air that filled her childhood daydreams, unceasingly beckoning her with its promise of ultimate freedom.
Those dreams died a long time ago, along with many other things that used to fill her days with hope.
Reality was a cold-hearted bitch and it had a malicious tendency to dangle those hopes just out of reach, eventually allowing you to hold them for just a brief moment before cruelly tearing them away and leaving behind a wound that would fester for years until it scabbed over and scarred you for the rest of your days.
Ugh, that was cringey as all hell.
Worse, it was a delaying tactic.
She was... just afraid that reality was pulling another nasty prank on her.
It did come in a ridiculous little package after all.
After all that had happened the past few days, it just seemed so preposterous.
In the middle of what looks to be the war to end all wars, the very struggle for existence itself, fate decides that her dream gets to come true?
A sudden gust of wind buffeted her lonely form, cutting through her jacket and adding another layer of shivering upon her anxiety-induced tremors.
Wrapping her arms around herself, she once again peered over the rocky edge, a sheer drop of well over a hundred feet greeting her.
She pulled back and forced her eyes to glare at the horizon, bright blue splotched with puffy white stretching over a sea of sandy rock.
If you truly believed that it wouldn't work, you wouldn't be here right now.
Yes, that much was true.
Why else would she be up here, freezing her ears off while beneath the vast canopy while everyone else was warm and most definitely not in any danger of falling to their death
Believe that it will work.
Believe that you will fly.
Her eyes narrowed, blocking out everything else but the sky.
The tremors ceased.
Slowly, she unfolded her arms and extended them out to either side, unfurling the fleshy membranes as she stretched out her fingers.
Her clawed feet dug into the dust, muscles tensing.
She fixed the view of the horizon in her mind, just in case - if it all went south, she wanted it to be the last thing she ever saw.
For a single second, time stopped.
Her body floated, weightless, suspended in the air just past the edge, nothing but space below and blue sky above.
Then reality kicked in.
Time resumed its pace with a sudden jerk as gravity wrenched her from the air.
The horizon she had tried to burn into her eyes was snatched away and replaced by the ground, flying upwards to meet her.
She opened her mouth to scream, but the wind stole it away.
This was it.
I'm going to die.
Funny how she sounded so much calmer in her head - she must look quite the sight right now, mouth comically agape in a wordless scream, falling like the doofus she was.
At least her last thought would be a laugh, even if her last sight would be the ground rushing up to smash her face in.
But that wasn't what reality had in mind for today.
The membranes of her wings suddenly bulged as something caught in them.
Panicking, she quickly adjusted their angle and began to flap frantically.
Her vision began to rise, slowly, bit by bit -
What was initially a gradual change in perspective abruptly morphed into a jerking cut upwards, blue and white filling her sight.
Her mind blanked, failing to comprehend.
She felt her body shift, its steep upward climb leveling out until she beheld the horizon once again.
She drifted for a moment, her face still stuck in the silent scream.
Passively, her facial muscles relaxed into a look just as blank as her mind.
The air whistled as she glided in silence.
Her cheeks bulged.
``Ppbbt - ha.''
She didn't know why she was holding it back.
``Pppbbbtt - pfft - ha - snrk - ``
Because it worked.
``Pfft - hahahahahahaHAHAHA!''
She screamed at the horizon in pure, unfettered, childlike joy.
Harmony, are you seeing this? Can you believe it? I did it. I'm really flying!
She hoped with all her heart that, somewhere, Harmony was smiling.
Seized by a reckless spirit, she folded back her wings and dived down into a shallow canyon, the walls launching upwards and throwing her into shadow.
She pulled up at the last second, clawed toes skimming the sandy bottom.
As the craggy rock raced by on either side, she imagined that she was being pursued by hostile flyers - Dark DKs with glowing halos and ugly, monstrous Nightmares with snarling maws and grasping claws.
She glided to the right, imaginary orbs of purple energy whizzing through the empty space she left behind, blowing apart the canyon floor and sending smoking splinters of stone spiraling through the air.
A Dark DK bearing an automatic springer anticipated her dodge and launched a volley of bullets - but she was too fast for him!
She did a barrel roll and returned to the left, the projectiles just barely missing her.
Her mouth stretched into a grin - the tards didn't know what they were dealing with!
Darting back and worth, she dodged every bullet and every burst of energy by the skin of her teeth.
Suddenly, the end of the canyon loomed before her, ending in a sheer rock face.
Nestled in its shadow lay the entrance to the enemy base, a dark hole leading to a vast tunnel network the Nightmares were using to stage their attacks.
It was disturbingly close to HQ - it's only a matter of time before they would be discovered.
The only surface entrance - the one ahead - was too well-defended for a ground assault and they had no means to breach their tunnel network from underground.
Ironically, the only viable means of attack was by air - but they had too few flyers to mount a strike capable of destroying the entire complex.
They had only one chance - an experimental explosive compound developed by Scinter himself, a bomb that had to be delivered straight into the tunnel entrance, where it would destabilize the network's central hub. The primary tunnels would collapse, killing or trapping most of the enemy forces underground, delaying them long enough for a more permanent solution to be found.
The plan - a single flyer would infiltrate their defenses and deliver the payload.
They would need the very best.
And it was me!
Green bolts of lightning whizzed out from the cave entrance, not caring if they hit their allies behind her.
They were clearly desperate to stop her.
Good - it meant that they were scared.
She twisted and turned, ducked and rolled, flying nimbly between the green streaks from ahead and the mixture of purple blobs and bullets from behind.
She rose up a tad, and then snapped her wings closed, dropping like a stone.
During the brief moment of freefall, she hooked her right claw beneath her and loosened the bomb, the device beginning to snap free from the specially-designed harness.
She re-extended her wings before she splattered herself across the canyon floor... and summoned her Power.
A sterling silver - no, wait - an awesomely dark purple halo materialized above her head as she focused a maelstrom of pitch-black energy swirled around the bomb, cradling it, preparing for launch.
The rock face rose before her, the black entrance much smaller than it looked before; she had to be perfectly precise, or the weapon would just impact on the surface.
She could make out the freakish shadows of the Nightmares responsible for the green bursts of energy, trying to shoot her down...
With all her might, she projected the dark mass of energy forward, launching the bomb with it, streaking forward as a black orb that sucked all the nearby light with it.
She jerked herself upward to a near-vertical climb, smirking as her less-agile pursuers slammed into the wall with dual cracks.
She kept climbing and climbing, eager to escape the blast zone.
Hopefully she'll make -
She didn't just hear it - she felt it, a vast shockwave roaring upwards as the cavern entrance disintegrated and collapsed in upon itself.
I did it!
She broke her vertical momentum with a few celebratory loop-de-loops before leveling out.
Meanwhile, imaginary voices in her imaginary ear piece hooted and hollered, a single voice finally breaking through to congratulate her on a job well-done.
Thank you, sir, but it was nothing, really. Just doin' my job.
She beamed at the horizon, contentedly coasting on an air current.
She glided like that for a few minutes, before her smile began to fade.
It was fun while it lasted.
But reality was a bitch.
Because this wasn't true flight, not really.
She would never fly like a true flyer.
Not like Harmony.
But this was close enough.
A single tear gathered at the edge of her eye, the wind eventually grabbing hold and streaking it across the side of her face.
She reached up a claw to wipe away the moisture, no longer holding up the pretense of catching the air with her wings.
...there were a few things she could do with this kind of flight that no true flyer ever could.
Adopting a visage of feigned boredom, she twisted around, folding her wings behind her head while crossing her legs.
Looking like she was flying backwards through the air on an invisible magic lawn chair, she regarded her companion with a look that said is that the best you got?
Whip, who had been trailing her the whole time, light blue halo blending into the sky behind him, raised an eyebrow.
She maintained her posture, patiently awaiting a response.
Suddenly she felt herself jerk side to side, back and forth, invisible hands gently bouncing her around in the air.
She tried desperately to maintain her composure, but she only lasted a few seconds before she broke into a fit of giggles.
Whip zoomed in closer, hovering about her head, giving her a cool look.
``Yengh flashki feh?''
She still couldn't understand a thing he said, but she got the gist of it.
``Okay, okay, you win, just, please, stoppit!''
He halted the jiggling and twirled her around to face forward, before settling into a lazy glide next to her.
She couldn't help but extend her wings again, feeling the air flow around them, savoring the sensation.
But it had to end sooner or later.
She glanced toward Whip and noticed a slight trembling in his extremities.
Frankly, it was astounding that he lasted this long - she better stop him now before he gave out and they both plummeted to an early grave.
``Hey, Whip, it's time to go back. You can take us down now.''
He tried not to show his relief as he twisted them around, descending at a gentle incline.
Once they were only a few feet above ground, he slowed them to a halt, hovering for a second before dropping her off.
A puff of dust jumped from the ground as she landed, her knees a bit wobbly from the experience.
She heard a quiet vzzt as Whip's halo went out. Dropping all pretense, the poor little guy flopped onto the ground, panting like he had run a marathon.
She reached down, offering a claw.
Gratefully, he hooked his little stubby arms around it and she shuffled her wings beneath his feet, cupping him with the membranes.
She scooped him up and raised him to her shoulder. He pulled himself off her wings and took a seat. She could hear his panting in her ear.
They started to make their way back to base, the sun now at an angle as it began descending toward the horizon.
The reality of the situation dawned on her as she imagined how angry the rest will be once they get back. Technically, they had risked exposing one of the Troika's most important installations for a bit of childish fun. It would best to come up with some kind of explanation before they got there.
As she brainstormed a number of possible of excuses, another aspect of reality caught her attention.
She jerked to a halt, nearly throwing Whip off her shoulder.
She answered by silently offering her right claw to him.
Instead of climbing on, he instead used it to pull himself up to a standing position. Once up, he gently hopped off her shoulder and floated in front of her, looking expectantly at her.
She stared back, hesitant.
A simple ``Thank you'' wouldn't suffice. Not at all.
Perhaps she could...
It would be a simple thing, really - people did it all the time, nothing to read further into.
It would just be one step above a ``Thank you''; it wouldn't mean much more than that.
Oh, don't fool yourself, it would definitely mean much more to him.
And for her...
Funny - she had never expected that it would happen this way.
Before fear could stop her, she leaned forward and gave him a little peck on the lips.
Whip jerked back, ears, tail, and limbs splaying outward in a hilarious imitation of what it would look like if he flew headlong into a brick wall.
Red eyes wide, he started to float down and to her right, oblivious to his descent.
She gently extended her wing, the little guy floating into it.
The soft impact jolted him to his senses.
He righted himself and returned to his former position, staring at her, mouth working, but nothing coming out.
It took a full minute of mental gymnastics before he made a sound.
``Ih - Feh - Zesh - ``
Wow. It was just a little kiss, dingus. No need to have a meltdown.
Maybe she should have just said ``Thank you...''
He suddenly stopped his gibberish as he adopted a look of determination.
She understood that one a little bit better.
Before she could open her mouth and question him as to whether that ``foof'' was directed at her, he dove forward... and planted a teeny little kiss on her lips.
It was her turn to jerk backward, wings flapping out, her cheeks burning.
That little shit.
She glared at him.
``You're a brave little shit, you know that?''
He regarded her coolly, his expression clearly saying well, you started it.
He had a point.
Oh, hell, what had she gotten herself into?
Just look at him!
He had no thumbs!
He talks like a complete tard!
And he was probably the only Dreamkeeper in the Dreamworld truly capable of understanding her.
Plus, just a few minutes ago, he had made her fly.
Oh, damn, that sounded a bit too sexual in her head.
You get what I mean!
Great, now she was mentally shouting at herself.
She sighed, lowering her wings.
Whip remained where he was, his cool countenance melting into one of apprehension.
Frowning at the ground, she began to walk toward the Troika base.
As she neared him, he tensed up, as if expecting her to swat him out of the air.
Instead, she passed him by without a glance.
He stared after her wearing a befuddled expression.
``Yo, Whip, hurry up; sun's setting.''
He started at the sound of her voice, dropping a few inches.
Gathering himself, he tentatively flew forward and settled into a hover alongside her, just out of swatting range.
A minute of silence passed before she spoke again.
``Um, y'know, if you're tired, you can ride on my shoulder like before, if you want.''
After a moment, she felt a light weight settle on her shoulder.
She breathed a sigh of relief.
Let's see where this goes.
Vanth didn't turn to look, but she couldn't stop a small smile from alighting on her face.