Dum Spiro, Spero
Soarin had never been in a warzone before, but he was sure it sounded like one outside. He let out a pained groan. He didn't want to open his eyes just yet; his head felt like he'd plowed through a brick wall. As his memories settled back into place, he wondered if that would have been less painful. Where was he? He was lying on cool earth, he knew that much.
"Soarin? You awake?" The voice was barely above a whisper, making it hard to hear above the sounds of carnage above.
Soarin forced his eyes open and sat up, regretting it instantly as a fresh wave of pain shot through his head. The room was dark, lit by a single candle on a table at the center of the room next to his hat, uniform (who'd taken that off?) and saddle bag. Dark bottles sat in racks, occasionally jostled by the shockwaves from above. Above? Definitely above; he was in somepony's cellar. But he didn't see who was talking until somepony trotted up behind him and gave him a comforting nuzzle. He turned and his pain disappeared. "Applejack!"
"Glad to see you too." She laid down next to him and pressed against his side. She kept up the nuzzling, which felt less like a loving gesture and more like she was trying to convince herself he was real. "Y'all had me worried there. Ah was startin' to think you weren't gonna..." She let the thought trail off.
Soarin finally got a good look at her. He almost wished he hadn't. Her fur was dirty and matted, there were large bags under her eyes and he could faintly feel her ribs as she leaned into him. He put a wing around her. He struggled to come up with something meaningful to say. "Are you okay?" That wasn't it.
Applejack looked up at him with a sarcastic, half lidded glare. She was good at those. "Well, ah ain't exactly been out enjoyin' the sea air, but ah'm a mite bit better now. Them apples in your saddlebag hit the spot, seein' as ah ain't had fresh food since Thursday... at least, ah think it was Thursday. Plus, you're here." She punctuated that with a much more loving nuzzle. "Once the other Wonderbolts arrive, we can get somethin' done." She closed her eyes and leaned into him again, giving an exhausted little smile that prompted Soarin to nuzzle her. "So now we just wait fer the cavalry to show up."
Soarin blinked. "Um... the other Wonderbolts?"
Applejack stiffened instantly. "Oh no." She shot to her feet and backed away slowly, looking at him like he'd grown another head. "Oh no. No no, don't y'all tell me... you came with somepony, right?"
He shook his head slowly.
"What the hay, Soarin?" Applejack stomped her hoof. The look of shock and rage on her face robbed the gesture of any hint of petulance.
Oh no. A storm was coming.
She was in his face in an instant. Her exhausted eyes burned with anger. "What the hay? Y'all must've known somethin' was wrong and you just came out here on your lonesome? What were you thinkin'?"
Soarin wished she wouldn't yell. He didn't deal well with yelling. He shrunk back. "W-well, I..."
She leaned in further. He wasn't getting away that easily. "Oh don't you interrupt me!" The fact that she'd asked him questions didn't seem to occur to her. "Ah've been out here dodgin' dragons and hidin' in cellars fer ah don't know how many days 'cause days don't mean much when y'aint seen the sunlight! And then you had to show up and get mah hopes up that maybe somepony back home had noticed and now you're stuck right here with me!"
"Somepony back home did notice, AJ. Big Macintosh and his friends are coming if they don't hear from me by tomorrow." Her eyes burned even hotter. Oh nuts, that wasn't what she wanted to hear.
"Ah couldn't even keep 'em from cartin' off my friends to do heaven knows what to 'em and now you're tellin' me more ponies are gonna show up? You big idiot!" That stung. Applejack knew it too and winced when she said it. Still, she kept going. "That don't help nothin'! Now ah got all them other ponies' fates on mah head!" Now, rather than being in his face angrily, she has leaning forehead to forehead, her eyes shut as tears started welling up in them. "Ah had a plan, durnit. It wasn't much, but it was a plan. They know when ah'm above ground somehow, but ah can hide in these cellars and ah've been making progress. Ah was three days from the city limits and then ah was gonna make a dash fer the forest and now it's hopeless. Big Macintosh and all his friends're..." Soarin felt the hot tears hit his face. "Y'all should've gotten more help. Ah can't do it, Soarin. They got 'em all, the whole town, mah friends, they even torched Pappy's hat right off mah head. All ah could save was mahself and now everypony's wrapped up in this 'cept the ones who could do something about it."
It took Soarin a minute to figure out what to say. That "big idiot" comment made him freeze up inside, but now Applejack was crying onto his face; waiting for it to blow over wasn't an option. He reached a hoof up and cradled her face. "Applejack, it'll be okay."
"How can you say that?" The anger was spent; her voice quavered with despair. "Mah friends're probably dead and all ah could do was hide!"
"Because I don't think they are dead. That demon-monkey-thing told his dragons to take me alive and called me a slave. Wherever your friends are, they're probably alive." He hoped he wasn't remembering what Scorpan had said wrong; he'd been busy being terrified at the time, so some of the fine details were fuzzy.
"Oh yeah, that's better! They're off workin' in some salt mine!" Her eyes snapped open and a little bit of the fury returned.
"You can free prisoners, Applejack. We'll figure out something." He tried to make his voice as soothing as possible; at least it snuffed out the anger again.
That hopeless fear was back, though. "We're up against dragons, Soarin! Dragons and a demon against two little ponies! Ah've been thinking about it all week and ah got no plan 'cept runnin' away." She sighed. "It's all ah'm good for in a fight. Ah act all tough, but when everypony needed me ah couldn't do anything."
He locked eyes with her and tried to look as intense and serious as he could. "Applejack, you need to stop blaming yourself. This is normal; the training manuals call it survivor's guilt. Thinking about everything that went wrong isn't productive."
"Well what is productive, smart guy? You read a lot of manuals on dragon fightin'?"
Soarin didn't let himself rise to the challenge in her voice. "What's productive is calming down, AJ. It's nobody's fault except Scorpan's. I promise you, I'll figure something out. We'll get out of here and we'll find your friends." He meant it, too, even though he wondered how he was going to pull it off.
Soarin felt like his soul was being probed as Applejack looked deep in his eyes. After a long moment of silence, she moved to his side and pressed into him again. "Okay Soarin. Ah believe you. You von Richthofens always keep your promises." Oh good, at least somepony believed in him. "Not like me." She started crying again.
It was kind of scary, really. He'd only seen Applejack a few times, but he'd gotten the impression that she was a strong, take-charge mare. Until today, he would have had trouble thinking she could cry, much less randomly vacillate between angry and weepy and back again. He was very tempted to just let her cry and have his shoulder do the hard work for him. He didn't give into temptation. "What do you mean? Did you promise somepony you'd never hide out in a cellar?" That joke was bad and he felt bad.
Applejack didn't seem to notice. "Pappy's hat. Ah promised him ah'd keep it forever. It's gone and it almost hurts as much as losing mah friends and ah just feel terrible for saying that. But it's like he's really gone now." She looked up at him, her eyes still dewy. "That must just sound so silly."
"Nuh uh." He nuzzled her again. "You told me what it meant to you, and there's nothing silly about it. I've met a lot of silly ponies, Applejack, and you aren't silly. I just wish there was something... hold on." He got up and trotted over to the table. Applejack shot him a quizzical look as he grabbed his cowpony hat. He walked back and carefully placed it on her head.
Applejack stayed silent and her face became unreadable. She was obviously deep in thought. Finally, she cocked an eyebrow. "Do you think you can replace it that easy?" Her tone was slightly accusatory.
Soarin sighed and laid down next to her again. "No. Nopony can. I just thought I could do something to try and help, but I can't seem to do anything right tonight." He rested his head on his hooves, feeling completely dejected.
After a moment, he felt a kiss on his cheek. "Ah'm sorry, Soarin. Ah'm just all out of sorts and ah've been takin' it out on you, and it ain't fair." Applejack moved his head so she was looking him in the eye. "You're sweet and you've never been anything but sweet." She adjusted the hat a little. "Thanks for the hat; it fits just right and ah like the color. Maybe it'll mean as much as the old one someday."
There was a pause. Neither knew what to say. Soarin felt this inexpressible desire to show her he cared. Apparently she was thinking the same thing; she leaned in a little, her lips puckered expectantly. Soarin was going in for the kiss when Applejack yawned, ruining the moment. She giggled, a sound that made Soarin's heart sing. "Sorry. Ah ain't exactly been sleepin' much." She yawned again, closed her eyes and leaned into him. "We can make plans and swap info in the mornin'."
Soarin tried not to let the disappointment enter his voice. He really needed to get his priorities in order; a war zone wasn't the place to make out. There'd be time for that later. He hoped. "Goodnight Applejack." He wrapped his wing around her again.
The dragons continued their enraged rampage above, but the two ponies slipped into a deep sleep, soothed by each others' presence.
"Good morning, Soarin."
Soarin scrunched his eyes and clutched his teddy bear harder. His attempt at an erudite response came out more as a groan.
"Soarin, it's time to wake up. We have things to do."
"Don' wanna. My wings're sore. Make Highfly do it." He hugged his teddy bear even harder. He liked his teddy bear. It was soft and warm and it smelled like apples and hay and...
His eyes shot open and he was eye to eye with a bemused looking Applejack. He let her go like she was made of lava and scooted back a foot. "Ack, AJ I don't know what we did last night, but we can't let Big Macintosh find out! I saw the way he looked... at..." Then he noticed he was still in the cellar and his memory filled in the situation. "Oh." His face flushed bright red and he grinned sheepishly.
Applejack laughed and laughed. In fact, she laughed a little longer than seemed necessary. Finally, she got mirth under control and give him a peck on the cheek. "Thanks Soarin, ah needed that."
"Um... You're welcome?"
Applejack went over to the saddlebag, snickering. "You bein' afraid of Big Macintosh. Hah!"
He waggled his eyebrows playfully. "You're right, I should be worried about you. After all, I did wake up naked."
Applejack blushed furiously. "Ah was checkin' you for injuries. Honest." She blushed even harder as he laughed at her embarassment, which made him laugh harder. She tossed him one of the apples. She sputtered, "Here, food, shut up!"
Soarin's stomach growled and he wanted to swallow the fruit whole. For once, though, he decided not to devour it with his normal gusto seeing as the saddlebag was half as full as it had been when he'd left the farm. Applejack must have had a serious case of the munchies the night before. Instead he nibbled it, chewing thoroughly.
"Nice to see you savorin' yer food for once." Applejack sat next to him, the color finally leaving her face. "So. Ah guess we oughta get to business."
Soarin nodded. "Yeah, I guess so. Truth be told, I almost forgot, seeing as the dragons aren't stomping around up there anymore."
"Thank heaven fer small favors. That's what's been keepin' me up. Well, that an' the guilt." Soarin shot her a reproachful look. "Yeah, ah know it ain't mah fault. Some good sleep and better company has a way of puttin' things in perspective." She leaned into him lovingly, and then had a small coughing fit. "'Scuse me, ah didn't notice how thirsty ah was."
Soarin smacked his dry lips. "Now that you mention it, I haven't had anything to drink since I left Sweet Apple Acres. Do you have anything?" He yawned. "Maybe coffee? I could use a caffeine hit."
She shook her head. "No such luck, sorry. We got about twenty bottles of the good stuff down here, though." Applejack gestured at the racks of bottles.
Soarin frowned. "I'm not sure this is the best time to indulge. We need our wits about us."
Applejack gave him a confused look, and then let out an embarrassed chuckle. "It ain't that kinda cellar, Soarin. Del Mare's famous for its grape juice, and after runnin' from cellar to cellar all week, ah can see why." She carefully lifted out a bottle, inspected it, then shook her head. "Though whoever owns this one oughta have his taste buds revoked. Listen to this. 'Golden Vineyard grape juice is enhanced with hints of oak and citrus.'"
Soarin raised an eyebrow. "What's wrong with that? That sounds pretty good."
"If you gotta pretty it up, yer growin' it wrong!" She popped it open. "Still, better'n goin' without." She gave him the bottle and began the search for something more to her taste.
Once again, Soarin suppressed his inner gourmand and savored the juice. Hm. The supposed hints of oak and citrus were pretty much nonexistent, and it was pretty tasteless to boot. Maybe Applejack had a point. Still, no reason not to have some fun with her. "Y'know, I've never seen this side of you, AJ. I wouldn't expect you of all ponies to be picky about anything."
She snorted huffily. "It ain't pickiness, it's professional standards. That's mah story and ah'm stickin' to it." She sat back down next to him.
Soarin playfully said, "Looters can't be choosers, Applejack."
"Ah ain't lootin', ah'm working up a tab. So there." Just as playfully, she stuck her tongue out at him before imbibing from her own bottle.
Soarin grinned. This was the Applejack he'd met in Fillydelphia. He had a sudden urge to pick up where they'd left off last night, or at least start a tickle fight.
And then he noticed that she was wearing his hat, not her father's. That brought him back to the hard, unpleasant reality of the situation. "I think we got a bit off topic. Again."
Applejack frowned slightly. "Yeah, ah suppose we did. You want to go first or should I?"
"You're the eyewitness, so you."
Applejack nodded. "Well, like a lot of our adventures, it started with a letter from Princess Celestia. A dragon was takin' a nap by Del Mare." She saw the confusion in his eyes. "A snorin' dragon puts out enough smoke to block out the sun and they sleep for a hundred years. If they pick the wrong spot to nap, they can wipe out a whole town."
Soarin's eyes went wide. "Wow. They didn't cover that in the manuals."
"What did they cover, then?"
"They mostly said that if we ran into a hostile dragon, we were supposed to distract it until a combat mage could get called in."
It was Applejack's turn to look surprised. "Combat mage? As in one combat mage? For a whole dragon?
Soarin nodded. "Yeah, apparently back in the day a well trained unicorn could take out a dragon by themselves. It's enough to give a guy a little horn envy."
"Huh. Ah guess you learn something new every day, whether you like it or not. Why, just last week, Apple Bloom..."
Applejack trailed off. She frowned and looked down, tracing a meaningless doodle in the cellar's floor with her hoof. "We're gettin' off topic. No more interruptions 'til ah'm done, okay? Ah just wanna get this done in one go, like when you take off a bandage." Soarin nodded and wrapped a comforting wing around her. "It was gonna be easy. We'd dealt with a dragon before. Last time, Fluttershy saved our bacon all on her lonesome, and she took hours to get over her fear of dragons. She was rarin' to go this time, so ah figured we'd be done lickety-split with plenty of time for a little vacation."
Soarin resisted the urge to ask questions, choosing instead to nod.
Applejack shut her eyes as they began to tear up. "Fun and sun. That's all Pinkie and Spike could talk about. 'Bout five minutes after we got into town, them clouds rolled in and the dragons were everywhere. Ah saw that monkey thing, though ah didn't know his name. He didn't talk to me, he was just barkin' orders at the dragons. You just saw two, but there were dozens after us. Next thing ah knew, ah was in one of these cellars." She bit her lip as she wracked her memory. "Now that ah think about it, ah might've just fallen down the stairs on accident." She barked a joyless laugh. "Least now ah know ah didn't abandon everypony on purpose."
Soarin knew he wasn't supposed to interrupt, but Applejack looked like she was in danger of slipping into another unproductive funk. So, he gave her an encouraging nuzzle. That wasn't technically an interruption, right?
She gave a wan smile. Her eyes said, "thank you," though her mouth continued the story. "After that, it all sorta runs in together. The cellars and basements are the only safe places ah have; any time ah'm above ground, them dragons show up right quick. Ah ain't had much time to get out when ah had to scavenge food, so mah escape attempt has been a mite slower than ah would've liked. Every time ah set 'em off, they stomped around the town for hours, then left when they got bored, ah guess. It's been hard to sleep or think. And that's all ah got. How about you?"
Soarin thought carefully. "I showed up and the whole town was deserted. Then Scorpan, the monkey guy, showed up with two dragons. He said something about taking me alive and then left. And I'll tell you this much, those things are not clouds. I tried to kick one and was like I was touching vapor or something; they weren't solid like real clouds. Then I got smacked 'cause... frankly, I made a rookie mistake. Then I woke up here." He gave her a little squeeze with his wing. "See? You saved me. That's worth something."
Applejack grinned slightly. "Ah hadn't thought of it that way. Makes me feel better 'bout my track record this week. So, what do we do about keepin' up the winning streak?"
Soarin was silent as he thought through the variables. Finally, he said, "We run."
"Huh?" Soarin wished Applejack wouldn't be so cute when she was confused; it made it hard to concentrate.
"Well, it seems to me that you were right. We're just two ponies against all of those dragons, and it just doesn't add up."
Applejack looked ready to object, but decided against it. "You're right. Fancy mathematics is makin' things pretty dang clear, for once."
Soarin took his now empty bottle and laid it on the ground. "Okay, so this is Del Mare." He drew a line with his hoof, connecting the bottle with his apple core. "About twenty miles west of here, further inland, is Sierra Maredre. It makes Ponyville look like Manehattan, but they'll have a post office, and a good mail pony can get word to Princess Celestia in a few hours."
"Why not just go straight to Celestia ourselves?"
"Because I can't fly us both that far. It'll be pushing it getting us to Sierra Maredre."
Applejack shook her head. "No, that's just silly. Just go yourself. Ah've been fine all week, ah can wait another day."
Soarin got up and started putting on his uniform. "Nope, sorry. Leaving you isn't an option. I promised your family I'd find you and bring you home if there was trouble, and I think this definitely qualifies."
Applejack looked ready to disagree, but Soarin put on his most determined, no nonsense face. Apparently it worked, because she broke eye contact and chuckled. "Ah thought ah was supposed to be the stubborn one. Okay fine, ah'm goin' with you."
Soarin resisted the urge to comment; now was the time for authority, or else she'd see an opening and then she'd make him cave in. He hated saying no in general, and his willpower wasn't exactly at full strength today. He grunted as he got to his feet. His wings weren't at full strength either; a full day of flying followed by a dogfight and a Whistling Immelman had left them feeling a bit spongy. He hoped he wasn't blowing smoke about getting them to Sierra Maredre; he'd felt so confident in that moment and he didn't want to undermine it.
Then he felt a hoof poking at his wings. "You sure you can get us both all the way to Sierra Maredre? Yer wings're lookin' a bit spongy."
His wings were a bundle of nerve fibers, ready to adjust to the slightest change in air pressure. Applejack's ministrations were making him giggle. "How would you know?"
Applejack kept it up. Curses, she saw his weakening resolve. "Ah've seen what Rainbow Dash's wings look like after a hard day of flyin' and that's the way yers look now."
"I can make it, s-seriously, okay please stop, those are sensit- hee hee!" He was losing it!
Applejack's face was far too stern for a tickle war. "Not 'til you admit that you can't fly us both to the woods, much less twenty miles."
"N-no, hee hee, I-I can do it, hee hee hee, I-I'm good to, hee hee hee, please, ha ha, oh fine!" He collapsed to the ground, his knees even spongier than his wings at this point.
"Ah knew it." Her expression softened a bit as she locked eyes with him. "Ah know a thing or two about takin' on more'n you can really handle, Soarin. It don't lead to anything good. Now be honest with me. Do you think you can get us to Sierra Maredre?"
He couldn't lie to those beautiful green eyes. "On a good day, maybe. But it isn't a good day."
She nuzzled him. "Well, you're our ticket out of here. Ah ain't gonna make you break your promise... plus, ah'll admit, ah want out of here as soon as possible. Ah was just bein' practical a minute ago. So what can ah do to make this a good day?"
"Well, I have a few ideas..." He waggled his eyebrows.
"Okay, we're down to two apples and y'all've gone through five bottles of juice. You feelin' ready to go yet?"
"Do I!" He hopped up on his back legs and flexed his forelegs for effect. "Between the power nap, the back massage and that small meal, I feel like a million bits!"
"Small? That was twenty apples!" Applejack looked at him incredulously.
"Well, you know me." Soarin shot her a grin. "Next stop, Sierra Maredre!"
Applejack quickly tied a lasso she'd made to her tail. Noticing the confused look Soarin was giving her, she added, "It's just an insurance policy."
"I didn't know you could work a lasso with your tail."
Applejack smirked proudly. "There's more to bein' a cowpony than ownin' a hat."
"I meant I didn't think anyone could work a lasso with their tail." He flicked his own for emphasis. "All mine does it keep the flies away."
"Ah'll show you how it's done when we get out of here." She made her way up the stairs.
Soarin smiled. She'd said "when," not "if." That confidence in him made him feel warm and tingly.
Soarin's "power nap" must have taken longer than he'd thought; when they got above ground, he couldn't see the sun; he guessed it was just after twilight.
Applejack prodded him. "Alright, Soarin, ain't nothin' you haven't seen before. We need to get runnin' 'fore them dragons show up." Her voice was tinged with fear.
Soarin considered saying something comforting, but decided that there wasn't time. She got up on his shoulders and grabbed him tight. He could feel her tremble and decided again that the most comforting thing he could do was get her away from Del Mare. He was getting ready to take off when a gout of blue flame toasted the ground in front of him.
Before he knew what he was doing, he'd flown back twenty feet, taking a surprised Applejack with him. Soarin gasped, "Sweet Celestia!"
A familiar, gurgling voice came from above. "I'm afraid she can't help you now."
As Scorpan and a single, navy blue dragon landed in front of the burning remnants of the cellar door, Soarin hazarded a glance upward. He cursed aloud; he should have known those unnatural clouds were back! He couldn't see a star in the sky, much less the moon. Those clouds definitely weren't natural; how dark clouds could emit light was a question for another time.
Applejack hopped off his back. "What are you doing," he whispered.
"You won't be able to get away with me weighing you down. You get on, a-ah'll be f-fine." She stumbled over the obvious lie.
"For the last time, I'm not leaving you." That came out a bit harsher than he'd meant, not that there was time to apologize.
Scorpan glared at them, his lips curled in a harsh sneer. "You have proven annoying, Wonderbolt. But I must thank you for drawing out my real target. She has been rather elusive this week."
Crud crud crud. Scorpan wasn't supposed to be here! Applejack had said there was always a five minute delay! Scorpan and the dragon must have been camped out in the town. And how did Scorpan know he was a Wonderbolt? He hadn't mentioned it before.
It was as if Scorpan could read his mind. "My slaves know you very well, Wonderbolt. Apparently you're famous for your flying skills. That certainly explains how you escaped my other servants."
Applejack whispered, "He might mean Rainbow Dash!" The hope in her voice seemed completely out of place, given the circumstances. For one thing, Scorpan was severely overestimating his role in his earlier escape, but Soarin wasn't about to tell him that.
The demon continued, "And apparently there are more of you out there. This is unfortunate... for you. It means that it is more convenient to kill you than to risk your escape."
It was poker face time, no matter how many butterflies were fluttering around his stomach. "I got away from two of your dragons. What's one going to do?"
"Hmph. Clearly you don't know your dragons." Scorpan stroked the dragon's haunch almost tenderly. "Xerxes and Fafnir are a bulky breed, suitable for bringing down castle walls and hauling heavy loads. Vibria here is a racing dragon. She caught the blue Element of Harmony, and I am assured that she is much, much faster than you."
What the hay was an Element of Harmony? And did they mean Rainbow Dash? She was the only pegasus he could think of that anypony could describe as "much, much faster" than a Wonderbolt.
Apparently Applejack knew what he was talking about, and wasn't too keen on it. With a cry of inarticulate anger, she charged in and lashed out with her tail. The lasso whistled through the air and hit home, binding Scorpan's arms and wings to his side. The demon was caught completely off guard by the attack, not even having the presence of mind to struggle yet.
Unfortunately, Vibria was on the ball. She let out a blast of flame, incinerating the rope and very nearly Applejack and Scorpan with it.
"You stupid beast!" Whatever tenderness had been there before was gone now. Scorpan kicked her in the side as he slipped out of the remains of the rope. Vibria flinched under the attack, even though it couldn't possibly have hurt her. "We need her alive! Just kill the pegasus! I'll capture the Element of Honesty!" With a flap of his wings, he was in hot pursuit; Applejack was already making a dash for cover.
And now he was calling Applejack an Element too? Before Soarin could consider what this meant or move to help, he was forced to fly out of the way as Vibria lashed out with more fire. It was close; this time he definitely smelled burnt mane. Simple fear took over and he bolted for the tree line, the dragon right behind him.
He had to get away. His wings pumped desperately, vainly trying to put distance between him and the rapidly closing dragon.
Sweet Celestia, that thing was fast. His instincts told him to fly away as fast as possible, but it was an impossible race. Like his instructors had always said, his instincts could get him killed if he let them have their way. So it was time to get them under control and... oh Celestia, the dragon was as big as a house and it was coming just for him and it was faster than him and it was hopeless! He was going to die! And Applejack...
That did it. Soarin told his instincts to shut up and let the tactical part of his brain take over. He swerved left and flared his wings, braking as hard as he could. The dragon, intent on her chase, bowled into a stand of trees. It cried out in pain and anger. Much to Soarin's dismay, though, it got up almost instantly, apparently none the worse for wear. So much for his hopes that a racing dragon was more brittle than the regular ones. She seemed satisfied to stay where she was and just shoot flames at him.
Fine by him. Dodging the fire was easier than dodging Vibria's claws; the hard part was getting close enough to the flames that she wouldn't get frustrated and give up before he had a moment to think. He wracked his brain for a strategy.
Physical attacks were out; he'd just seen her shrug off going through a whole stand of trees, so anything he could do would just bounce off. He couldn't make lightning from the unnatural clouds. He couldn't outrun her. Plus, every minute he spent playing with the dragon, Applejack was alone against Scorpan.
That meant it was time for some maneuvers his dog fighting instructor, Blood n' Guts, called "damn foolish." In mid dodge, Soarin put on a burst of speed and flew back towards town, leaving a trail of sparking storm clouds in his wake. With an enraged shriek, Vibria was on his tail. Disappointingly, she was able to fly through the clouds like their weren't there, despite their high voltage. Oh well. He already knew she was tough; that was why he was resorting to damn foolishness.
He went faster and faster, building up his elemental aura. His suit began to crackle with electric energy as he let less and less of it enter his wake; the clouds thinned, then petered out sometime after he cleared Del Mare.
If Blood n' Guts had been there, he would have told Soarin this was beyond stupid. Soarin had never even tried it in practice, much less under this sort of stress. Plus, this was how Blood n' Guts got his wooden leg. Soarin was always glad to listen to the old stallion... when Applejack wasn't in danger.
With a grunt, Soarin started to shunt the electrical energy from his suit to his right front horseshoe. He was over the harbor now, and Vibria had finally caught up with him. After a minute of desperate dodging, the metal hoop started crackling loudly and his foreleg was starting to go numb. That was exactly what had happened before Blood 'n Guts' horseshoe had exploded. Thor's Hammer had been a desperation move in the old days, when the suits were made for it. They weren't anymore, so every second he waited brought disaster nearer. He needed to get rid of the energy and fast.
Vibria had stopped wasting fire and was now focused on grabbing him. She'd come close many times as they looped over the harbor, since Soarin had to split his attention between dodging and the Hammer.
Oh well, now he had his trump card. With newfound confidence, he quipped, "You know what happens to a dragon when it's hit by lightning?" He braked again and swung around, hovering in place. The dragon was too big to match the maneuver, but why would she? She was about to smash him like a bug on the window of a freight train.
Or at least, she thought she was. At the absolute last moment, he swooped up and to the right. "Neither do I! Let's find out!" With all his strength, he slammed his sparking hoof dead center on her back.
The world went white for a moment; if he hadn't had his goggles down, Soarin could have been blinded permanently. As it was, it took a moment for his vision to clear. He didn't like what he saw; the dark ocean was racing up at him.
Worse, Soarin's entire body was as numb as his hoof. His wings refused to work and he dropped like a stone. He strained, but it was no good; he might as well have had turnips growing out of his back. "Come on! Come on! Work!" Just before he hit the waves, he managed to force his wings to respond. As he pulled up, he heard an enormous splash behind him.
He still wasn't up for flapping, though, so he glided onto the beach. It was a nice beach, really. He'd have to come back when he wasn't fighting for his life.
His landing was as graceful as his mouth-writing on Novocain; his hoof caught in the black sand and he landed hard on his back. He let out a groan. "At least I'm better off than whatsername."
After a moment, the feeling returned to his limbs and he vowed never to try that again. It had been close; a quick inspection of his horseshoe showed that it now looked more like a modern art piece than hoofwear. After letting it cool in the sea water, he pried the still hot shoe off, wincing with pain as it singed his lips.
He was about to make his way back to town when a dark blue head broke the waves not twenty feet from him. In an instant, she was above the water up to her waist. Despite spending more than a minute underwater, Vibria's back was still smoking. That was the only sign that Soarin's desperation move had done more than annoy her. Soarin backed away, as if a few more feet would make a difference.
The dragon's enraged roar was as powerful as the rest of her; Soarin felt it as much as he heard it. She flapped her wings twice, clearing the ocean. With that, the chase was back on.
As Soarin had learned, he couldn't hope to match her speed. Fortunately, he had a much smaller turning radius; that's all that kept him alive. They bobbed and weaved through the sky, Soarin staying just ahead of her claws.
But for how long? She'd just shrugged off his trump card. He was sunk; it was only a matter of time now.
Really, the end had never been in doubt, now that Soarin thought about it. Vibria had caught Rainbow Dash, if Applejack was right. Dash was probably the single most talented flyer he'd ever met. She'd done the Sonic Rainboom twice, learned the signature Wonderbolts cloud trail in five minutes and copied his Whistling Immelman with no help from him. And Soarin, if he was completely honest, was an average member of the Wonderbolts. There was nothing he could do that she couldn't, given a few minutes to figure it out. He just wasn't as good as her.
He turned that phrase over in his mind, before smiling. "I'm not as good as her!" He hatched a plan. It was a desperate plan; if it didn't work, he'd have more problems than a numb leg.
But, it's not like he had a better option.
He swooped under Vibria's jaw, narrowly avoiding a clawed swipe. "Hey Vibria!" He gave her a two legged buck to the chin, causing her whole head to shake. "Try and catch me!" With that, he flew straight up, and she followed, bellowing with rage.
However, this time she wasn't closing in. In fact, he was quickly losing her. It was just like he suspected; in level flight, she had the advantage, but with her bulk, she couldn't climb as well as he could. And she seemed to realize it too; roaring with frustration, Vibria let out another burst of flames, which Soarin easily dodged around. He was getting good at that.
Just short of the unnatural clouds, Soarin danced through the air a little, blowing a raspberry at the dragon. "Nyeah nyeah! You couldn't catch a stunned yak!" Another roar and another blast of fire showed him that he was getting her riled up. Good. For what came next, he couldn't let her think straight.
After a moment, she finally made it up to his altitude. Soarin noticed that she slowed, seemingly reluctant to touch the clouds. As soon as she began to hover, he made a face at her and dove down. With a bestial snarl, she followed.
He was picking up speed rapidly. Too rapidly; his instincts, long silent, told him that he was going to crash. They were right, of course. He was going too fast to stop in time. He just had to hope for...
Yup, there it was. He could see the sound barrier before his hooves. It felt like he was flying through molasses, though he didn't slow a bit. "Oh no, don't tell me I'm going to pull it off this time." That'd be his luck. He was going to break the sound barrier and plow right into that shop below. Wait, he was slowing now. "A little more... a little more..."
There it went! His forward movement stopped suddenly, and was flung straight up, narrowly missing Vibria. As he was catapulted away, he heard a thunderous crash below him. He went end over end through the sky, chuckling to himself cockily. He couldn't do much else yet; he was going too fast to steer properly. "If she gets up from that, I deserve to lose."
All of the Wonderbolts had tried the Sonic Rainboom at one time or another. After Rainbow Dash had bailed them out at the Best Young Flyers competition, it was only natural. After the first dozen tries, he'd given up on it. Some, like Spitfire, had been more obsessive. For the last few months, her yelps of surprise as the sound barrier flung her away had become part of the routine at the training grounds. Still, who knew you could intentionally bounce off the sound barrier in combat? He didn't remember it from any of his manuals. He wondered if they'd name the maneuver after him.
Finally, a mile out of town, he ran out of momentum. He unfurled his wings and looped around, gliding back towards Del Mare. He was sore, especially in his right hoof, but who cared? "Let the combat mages handle the dragons! Hah! When I get back, I'm writing a whole new manual!" He was on top of the world, though he couldn't shake the feeling that he'd forgotten...
"Applejack!" He poured on the speed again. He was at the center of town in under a minute, but he saw no sign of Scorpan. What he did see, though, was Applejack desperately digging through the rubble around the unmoving dragon. "Soarin! Soarin, say somethin'!"
He landed in front of her as quickly as he could manage, not wanting her to worry any longer than she had to. "I'm right here, AJ. Where's Scor-" He was cut off as Applejack grabbed him and brought him in for a kiss on the lips. When he'd imagined settings for their first kiss, being next to a dragon half buried in Linens and Fireworks wasn't one of them.
He decided to close his eyes and just enjoy it.
Mm. That settled it; Applejack did taste like apples.
It was far briefer than he would have liked, though. She broke it and in a scolding tone said, "Don't do that to me! Ah thought you were crushed under a ton of dragon!"
Soarin nuzzled her. "Well, of course I wasn't. I couldn't get you home very well if I was."
Applejack's widened excitedly; she grabbed his hoof and started dragging him towards one of the untouched houses. "Oh we ain't goin' nowhere no more! Ah got 'im!"
Soarin blinked. "What?"
Applejack smirked at him cockily. "That monkey came after me. Them wings got in his way indoors and a good buck to the face dropped him."
Soarin's jaw went slack for a moment. "Really? You KO'd a demon lord?"
Applejack puffed herself up proudly. "Yup! Did it in one buck!"
Following a hunch, Soarin looked up. Stars! He didn't realize how much he'd missed them. Oddly, it was darker now than it had been under the unnatural "clouds." He guessed it to be a couple hours to sunrise. Just how long had AJ let him nap? Then again, he'd spent a lot of time knocked out or sleeping. Applejack was right, without the sun, time was kind of meaningless. "I think it's all done, Applejack. We did it."
"Hold yer horses, Soarin." Applejack gave him one of her sarcastic glares. "Ah think y'all're forgettin' the matter of the missin' townsfolk and mah missin' friends."
"Oh. Right." Nope. He refused to let the fact that there was still work to be done ruin his joy. He gave her another victory smooch, this time on the cheek. "Still. One buck! I can't think of another mare who'd even try that!"
She smiled at him lovingly. "You didn't do too bad yourself, dragon slayer." She abruptly turned and glared at the house. "But for now, ah think that monkey has some explainin' to do."
End of Chapter 2