- - -
- - -
Rainbow Dash, all sixteen years and three months of her, reclined against her favorite cloud for a quick snack. There was little scheduled weather over Ponyville to manage today, for once, leaving her with plenty of time to catch a catnap or otherwise chill out and shoot the proverbial breeze. A paper bag of Spring Crisp brand hay chips rested comfortably on her stomach.
In her hooves, she unwrapped the bag's surprise.
"Hey, cool! A new one!" Ripping open the paper, Dash flipped through the three trading cards included in the bag of chips.
Wonderbolts trading cards!
It was a pure merchandizing gimmick, of course, to sell Spring Crisp brand chips (now with ruffles). It was also, needless to say, a huge success! She already had almost all entire set! A few of the cards were really rare, though, and others were super common. Just as an example, she had something like twenty Blue Streak cards back home but still no Thunderhead or Wind Shear. She knew other ponies, adults, had to be collecting the cards, too. They weren't just throwing them out, were they? If worst came to worst, she was always happy to trade.
Except for her Spitfire card. She only had one and it was in mint condition. There was no way she was parting with her Spitfire, but she had duplicate Soarins and Snow Flakes. Today was lucky, she had another new card! Only three more and she'd have the complete Wonderbolts roster for the last five years!
"Hey! Awesome! A Ritterkreuz card!" Dash made sure to handle the card carefully and wiped her hooves to not get grease from the chips on it. "Squadron Four, Rookie All Star."
On the front of the card was a lithographic color print picture of the gray mare, leaning forward and grinning as she flew. There wasn't even a trace of hesitation in her picture or expression. All that mattered was going forward and winning. Rainbow Dash stared at the card for a long while before deciding that, when she finally made the Wonderbolts, she'd have the same sort of picture taken, with the same cool, confident look.
"Someday ponies will be collecting my card, too! Heck yeah!" Dash flipped the card around. "Let's check out the stats...!"
The reserve side had all the usual juicy statistical minutiae and biographical information. Ritterkreuz was right-hoofed, accepted into the team the previous year, and came from the Air Guard (like most Wonderbolts) but instead of squadron deployment there was just a single 'border guard' posting. That was a bit of a let-down. Pegasi put a lot of stock into their wings and squadrons and teams, but Ritter's service background looked pretty dull.
The card had complete data on everything else though. It had her birthday, her astrological sign, her home town: Cloudsdale. It had her weight and height and wingspan. Below all that was her racing record for the year, including the names of races and her placing in each one. There was another adjacent section for air shows she had participated in and the tricks she had used in flight. A final bracket on the right side of the card recorded her wing strength and lift, plus her highest recorded speed.
"The newest addition to Squad Four, Ritterkreuz enjoyed a mid-year streak, placing in the top two four times in a row," Dash read with a grin. "Highest top speed: fourteen hundred and twenty hooves per second. That's... four hundred something knots. Not bad. Wing strength: class eleven. Wow!"
Those were some strong wings, and Dash remembered seeing Ritterkreuz race once. She was fast, with high acceleration. She was big, too, for a mare.
And her average wing-power...
- - -
Windows rattled as Rainbow Dash blasted up and along the periphery of Ponyville. Details of the houses and shops of her adopted home town shot by leaving only a blur of faces and signs and brightly colored facades. Cyan hooves touched, barely tapped, the sill of a shop as she angled upwards, wings straining with the sudden change of direction.
Curving up through the air a glance back confirmed a yellow-green blur just beyond the rainbow bridge of her tail. Facing forward into blue sky, feathers angled to increase the rate of climb. She knew these skies even better than she knew the town below. How many hundreds of hours had she spent up here, not just working, but training?
The snap of cold cloud against her cheek; through the first bank and then the primary coverts of her wings were in, cutting and shaping a corkscrew into the cloud as she twisted around and around. It slowed her for just a second or two, only to accelerate her sharply once she reached the end of the now cork-screw shaped cloud.
Behind her, the cloud came apart moments later as Ritterkreuz's own Corkscrew Climb shredded the nimbus into vapor. Banking to the left, Dash dove hard and fast into a flurry of hardened weather-clouds. They were all built and stamped to a given size and humidity density; normal pegasus magic couldn't modify them except to produce pre-approved levels of rain, thunder and lightning.
Blasting between two cracks in the dense clouds, Rainbow Dash rolled around and dove up - her up being the real down - back into and through another bank of storage clouds. A collision with one or any of these would be like flying face-first into a tree. She slowed only enough to feel confident of not regaining her title of Rainbow Crash.
Or Rainbow Smear.
A pair of on-duty pegasus weathermares shouted in surprise as she roared past them well above safe flying speeds. Wings angled abruptly, slowing her to allow her hooves to find and then gallop along the edge of a particularly large high-density storage cloud. Daring another look back, at the sound of another pair of shocked cries, Dash could see her pursuer blast out from around another bank, having found an alternate route.
"She's good!" Dash almost hated having to admit it, refocusing on the obstacles ahead. "But then, she is a Wonderbolt..."
Or... she was one.
"They're a boring bunch, you know! All rules and safety and orders! Like being back in boarding school. I'm honestly amazed I stayed there as long as I did."
Ritterkreuz's words filled Dash with angry, restless, indignant energy.
"I've already taken out... what? Five of them? Six? The idiots keep coming, wanting revenge for what I did when I left. Poor Captain Thunderhead. He must've been great in his prime."
Up ahead, Ponyville's cloud-cutter magically separated blocks of bulk cloud matter shipped in from Cloudsdale. The tall, narrow circular-saw of a cloud was one of the few things that could safely break apart the larger clouds into smaller, useable chunks. A team of weatherponies were currently using it to tear through a thundercloud, like a log into a woodchipper.
Puffs of low-density rain-cloud emerged from a vent at the rear, directly below darker billows of storm-cloud. The pegasi operating the cloud machine all wore cold-weather jackets. The device was, as Twilight would called it, endothermic. It sucked in heat from all around to operate. Smaller clouds, each sporting a yellow stripe, warned away any fliers from the area.
Needless to say, fooling around near one was dangerous.
"They'll be a lot more training accidents in the papers tomorrow."
To heck with it being dangerous!
Cantering along the top of the cloud-block, Dash pressed in her hooves to generate some static electricity. Brief flashes of lightning shot up from her wake, courtesy of the Canter Conductor, but when she turned to see if she had caught her pursuer, the chromatic pegasus only saw a gray hoof inches from her face. Bright cyan colored wings flapped to try and frantically right her posture as her head yanked around, eyes wide.
"HA-HAHA!" Ritter's maniacal laughter punctuated her slamming Dash into the charged cloud below. The gray hoof pressed down, and then a ripple of magic followed, hitting harder than the physical blow. Dash felt her entire body flatten.
"A little shock like that isn't worth flicking my tail!" Ritter chortled, leaning down to look her prey in the eyes. "You've got the right moves, but haven't you ever fought another pegasus before? You keep looking over your shoulder like an earth pony!"
Dash coughed, trying to catch her breath and work feeling back into her wings.
Ritter, meanwhile, found some distraction in the slowly approaching cloud-cutter. With a single flap of her wings, she took off -
And as she did, a deafening roar filled Dash's ears, crushing her body back down. The cloud below was unyielding, worse, it was excited by the magic on it's surface. Reactive crackles of electricity danced along the dark surface forming pinpricks in her back. A warning siren blared. Dash barely registered it. The cloud-cutter was getting closer.
'Move. Move! Move you stupid body! MOVE!'
With a cry, Rainbow Dash pulled herself out of the indentation in the storage cloud. Jumping off the edge, she spread her wings to glide away. A few seconds later and the Dash-indentation disappeared into the mouth of the chipper. The sounds of two hooves clopping in approval showed where Ritter had flown off to. She was standing on the cloud-cutter controls on just her hind legs, keeping anypony from turning the machine off.
"Good! You recover pretty quickly!" she complimented. "But you wouldn't have been in that mess if you knew how to use your momentum. Come on! Step up your game! Get serious!"
Her left wing snapped out, huge and gray, before sweeping forward.
There was a shimmer in the air, like a split second mirage, and then only thunder. Dash protectively tucked into a ball as she tumbled through the air, her ears ringing. It was like being too close to one of Pinkie Pie's firecrackers. What in Celestia's name had hit her? Some kind of mid air explosion?
"And again!" Ritter cried, from another direction.
Dash dove straight down, going into a brief free fall to let the explosion go off above her. Wings snapped out, arresting her fall and converting it into controlled acceleration. Slowly drifting high-density clouds quickly gave way to the paper-thin cosmetic barrier that kept ponies below from seeing the bank above. Rainbow punched through it, hooves in front of her. It was too large to go around.
Ritter's insane laughter exhorted Dash to look back, but -
"Ain't ya ever fought another pegasus before? You keep looking over your shoulder like an earth pony!"
If she did -
"...you wouldn't have been in that mess if you knew how to use your momentum. Come on! Step up your game! Get serious!"
Another explosion damn near knocked her out of the sky. Spinning wildly to her right, Dash barely pulled out of a stall. The recovery was almost instinctive for her but... but checking her wings for damage, she noticed: they had angled differently to recover from her spin. Of course, that was what a pegasus did. The wings could and did angle independently. All the best tricks relied on -
Struck by the idea, Dash turned one wing up and kept the other level, stabilizing herself with her legs to keep from making a banking turn. Instead, her entire body whipped around like a top. A split second readjustment of her wings and she was facing backwards while her momentum bled off, keeping her going in her original direction.
It was just in time to bat away a gray hoof that tried to snag hold of her. Ritter had a size and reach advantage and, disturbingly, her eyes were alight with excitement at seeing Dash pull off her... well, she didn't have a name for the move yet. The Frantic Filly Flip sounded cool!
'Later! Name the new acrobatic techniques later!'
Her blue hoof quickly ended up caught in Ritter's grip instead of her mane or tail; trying to extricate herself, Dash grabbed onto the other mare's mane while Ritter did the same. Pegasi rarely actually touched in flight if it could be helped; it made control of flight difficult. Both mares refused to go limp and let the other fly, so instead they entered into an acceleration war, spinning and spiraling out of control. Straining and pushing and tumbling, the two top notch flyers created dizzy, erratic scribbles against the pure blue sky.
Then Ritter laughed again, and her wing flexed -
"What are you...?!"
'She'll blow us both up?!' Dash realized, too late to prevent it. 'Oh crap!'
Ears folded back as a blast send the already out of control pair end over end, all sense of coordination or equilibrium tossed to the winds. Ritter wasn't done, either. Her other wing snapped, and another explosion bucked them to the other side. It became impossible to distinguish sky from ground or retain any sense of orientation. Dash could almost feel the ground rushing up to meet them.
"You'll kill us both!" Dash tried to pry herself loose, planting a hoof into the bigger mare's left eye. "Are you insane?!"
"Shut up and enjoy it!" Ritter yelled, pressing her face in close. "Here it comes!"
Whatever Rainbow Dash had thought she could say to dissuade the madmare from bringing them both to a grisly end was itself ended by the sudden impact. No stranger to high speed crashes, the weathermare's body still screamed in protest. The ground gave way like solid rock and dirt never did, and in the span of a heartbeat, everything was cold and dark and heavy.
She felt Ritter let go at last.
Her entire body numb, Dash floated in the darkness... before sheer will snapped her eyes open. Bubbles escaped her mouth as she gasped for air. Red eyes took in the blue water of Ponyville Lake.
She was... underwater?
It felt like she had nose dived into liquid concrete. Paddling her legs, it took a second to remember to use her wings as well. Thank Celestia they hadn't been broken in the crash! Even if her mind had forgotten, Dash's body had somehow known and remembered to tuck them in at the last second. Looking up, she could see the surface of the lake.
When, suddenly, something fast slammed into her as it swam by.
"A shark?!" Dash nearly spat out the last of her air as she whirled around. Of course, no, it couldn't be a shark. There weren't any sharks in Ponyville Lake, were there? Celestia's flanks, she hoped not! The lake was unusually deep and dark, was it possible there were monsters in it?
A dark shape twisted around, just far enough to see as a blur in the dark water.
Dash started to back paddle and the dark form soon resolved into that of a pony, the tail slashing back and forth like the tail of a fish or crocodile. It took a second to realize it wasn't some predatory hippocamp, hungry for the flesh of an innocent virgin land-walker (Dash silently cursed all the scary stories and movies she had seen with this premise). The black shape turned gray, the tail colored a murky yellow.
The underwater menace grabbed Dash with a hoof that was far from a flipper, pulled her in close, and head butted her. The air rushed and heaved out of her lungs from the impact, stinging her nose and throat. Another butt to the head and Dash nearly blacked out. Everything became distant and light headed.
'W-wha...? What the hell have... I gotten into...?'
Behind her eyelids, she saw Cloudsdale, far below her. Her body felt light, like the wind itself.
'NO!' Gritting her teeth, Dash slammed her forehead into the gray face in front of her.
The grip on her loosened and she shot straight up, wings flapping and legs kicking in a mad, heady rush to the top. Breaking the surface of the lake, her chromatic mane plastered to her face, Rainbow Dash greedily sucked in short, frantic gulps of air. A retching sound heralded her lungs vomiting up cold water.
Dash's wings broke the surface, trying to get her back into the air, but pegasus feathers were not waterproof. To be exact: only a fastidious preener like Fluttershy went through the trouble of oiling up her wings enough to be waterproof. Dash hardly bothered, and as a result, she was soaked basically to the inner later of her coat.
She got maybe a hoof length or two off the surface.
Only to be bowled over and blasted through the air. She skipped like a stone across the lake, before hitting the shore. Groaning, Ponyville's number one weathermare barely registered the thud of four hooves landing next to her, one of them close enough to almost touch her nose. Bleary eyes opening, she saw a spray of water as her pursuer shook like a dog, whipping water out of her feathers and mane.
Snorting, Ritterkreuz spat a wad of blood into the grass. Dash could see a trickle of red from the other mare's nose, probably from where she had been head butted. Jasmine-yellow eyes watched the prone pegasus for a few long seconds.
"You have a great body!" A gray hoof smashed down, forcing Dash to roll away and onto her stomach. "And good wings!"
A kick knocked Dash off her stomach and onto wobbly legs.
"And you're tough! Not many ponies can survive that level of explosion," Ritter said, not advancing but not retreating either. Her mouth was twisted into a mad grin as she waited for Dash to steady herself. "Your instincts are good, too. You're a good flyer... but..."
Her large gray wings extended, out, and then forward.
"Is that really it?" she asked, smiling fading yet still remaining vicious. "I want to see more. Maybe if I push you harder, you'll show me something even more interesting!!"
With a laugh, her wing snapped and Dash barely escaped another explosion. A small one. Just enough to prod her into moving. Of course, a 'small explosion' was still relative. It was enough to blast away enough dirt and grass to produce a bare spot on the ground.
It also gave Dash her first good look at what was causing those blasts in the first place. It was obvious that Ritterkreuz was doing something with her wings. From the look of it, she was grinding together the feathers close to her body, the so called 'secondary feathers.' She then pushed whatever weather magic she had formed forward with the whole of the wing.
"Move! Move! MOVE! Come on! Do something!" Ritter demanded, growing angrier by the second. "Don't bore me or I might just blow you up!"
"You want to see something new?" Dash yelled back, jumping away from another small explosion. Without another word, she broke into a gallop, shedding the excess water from her wings and taking off. It was harder than usual, but a few seconds of serious flight and they began to dry off.
Spinning quickly, she saw Ritter close behind her. Transitioning out of the Frantic Filly Flip, she blasted up and then across a hill. Trees shot by as blistering speeds, thick with the oranges and reds of fall. Traditionally, it was up to the earth ponies to bring down the leaves in Ponyville, but as Dash picked up speed, blasting and weaving through the trunks, her wake tore hundreds of the leaves from dozens of swaying branches creating tornados of amber and titian.
An explosion from behind ripped one of the trees out of the ground and sent it tumbling like a match stick. Dash nimbly dodged around another two thick trunks before a tingle of wind on her right wing prompted her to move, hard, to the left. A blink of an eye later and a long series of explosions, a veritable column of fire and ash, uprooted three trees with terrifying ease. As if it hadn't been clear before, Ritterkreuz could vary the power of her explosions.
Dash tucked in, shot through two of the burning trees, and then made a sharp right.
Up ahead loomed a gash in the earth, one normally and wisely avoided by most ponies. A weak trickle of a stream ran through the bottom of the ravine, fed by water leaking out from cracks in the walls. Knowing exactly what she was getting into, Rainbow Dash angled back her wings and dove straight into the quarry. She didn't need to see Ritterkreuz to know the bloodthirsty pegasus was hot on her heels. She could feel her. She could feel the ripples in the air as she tried to line up another explosive projection.
Then the eels came out.
Huge red toothy maws snapped out from crevasses and burrows in the rock, beady nearly-blind eyes attracted to the movement outside their lairs. Dash's vision filled with a fleshy fin and then a snapping mouth as she twisted, rolling and spinning away. More and more of the eels emerged from their lairs forming a hungry wall of jaws and slime-covered skin. The monstrous amphibious fish passed by in a frenetic blur as Dash swept up and out of the ravine.
Turning around, still gaining distance form the terrible mass of quarry eels, she heard an enraged roar. Down below, the less nimble Ritterkreuz had been caught. The savage pegasus was half in and half out of the mouth of one of the large red eels. Her wild, yellow eyes glared up at the weathermare.
Then the eel's mouth opened, permitting the inner set of jaws to grab hold of their prey and drag her down into the gullet. Ritterkreuz vanished beneath the white teeth and pink gums. The huge fish shook its scale-less body, already easing back into his burrow. A few others searched in vain for nearby prey before also retreating into their holes.
Dash caught her breath high above the carnage. She had almost been caught by those eels before, her first time practicing near the ravine. It was not a fate she wished on anypony, but if it came down to being blown up or leading her pursuer into a trap...
The gorge shuddered as a wave of black and red exploded from one of the quarry crevices.
Not just one of the crevasses. The same one -
The ragged, severed head of the quarry eel tumbled out of the burrow, hit the other side of the ravine, and then bounced until it splattered against the shallow water at the bottom of the canyon. A spreading pool of blood and slime, crimson and splotched yellow, oozed out to pollute the stream, fed not just by the eel's decapitated head, but by the waterfall of viscera that streamed out of it's nest in the wall.
From that charnel house of a burrow, a small gray form emerged, dropping with ichor.
That small gray form was laughing.
A wing swept, pulsing with weather magic -
And a parade of explosive charges ripped into several more eel burrows, powerful enough to leave aftershocks in the hills above. Cracks split the quarry as entire sections collapsed, crushing whatever was left of their occupants in the wake of the initial blasts. The remaining eels refused to emerge, their animal instincts counting on their moist, protective niches for protection.
Rising up from the bloody quarry, laughing loudly, Ritterkreuz resembled a demonic parody of Celestia, framed not by the rays of the rising sun, but by the guts of the creature that had tried to eat her. If she had been injured by the ordeal, she certainly wasn't acting like it. Her laugh dying as she leveled out with Dash, Ritter spit off to the side.
"Tastes like shit, these eels." She stuck out a copper-red tongue. "Fly."
Dash shot off like a bullet, once again being pursued. Her heart beat a like a drum in her chest, echoing in her already abused ears. The Quarry Eels had been the nastiest critters she could think of, short of leading Ritter to the Tartarus Approach. Even trying to trick her into flying face-first into a wall or building wasn't looking like it would help. She was definitely faster and more maneuverable than the former Wonderbolt, but if there had been any doubt before, Dash knew better now. Ritterkreuz was stronger, tougher, and as vicious as a rabid manticore.
A large explosion, no doubt just to keep prodding her, went off a dozen yards below. Riding the sudden air current upwards, Dash caught her breath and came to a decision. There was only one thing left to do: escape. And the only way she could manage that, with Ritter likely to chase her as long as she was in sight, was to use a Rain Boom. If she timed it right, she could even knock Ritterkreuz out of the sky with the shockwave.
'But... Celestia... my body hurts! I'm running on fumes here!'
"HAHAHAHA! Come on! Are you really out of tricks? Don't make me pluck your wings and send you back to flight school!"
Rising higher, Dash poured on the speed, burning the last of her energy. A small, fluffy white cloud hung overhead, and as she reached it, she dug in a wing and a hoof. Arching sharply and suddenly around, Rainbow Dash left a rainbow-colored U behind her as she shot down like a cyan blue rocket. Ritter didn't even try and veer off in case of a collision. She slowed and tried to ram her opponent with her hooves.
Just like Dash had expected.
She veered off instead, just a bit, narrowly avoiding the large, gore-covered former Wonderbolt. The maneuver had robbed Ritter of almost all her speed while preserving Dash's own. She angled out, diving away from her pursuer. Wings folded slightly before going into overdrive, pushing Rainbow Dash faster and faster into her dive.
"You won't get away!" a voice screamed, and she could feel ripples in the air.
The ripple crossed the tip of her wing, closer -
"Almost... " The wind and the air became a cone, pressing against her, crushing into her nose and hurting her eyes. "THERE!"
The ironic thing Rainbow Dash had found about a Rain Boom was that she didn't actually hear herself breaking it. One moment there was a resistance, like a wall against her body, and then it was gone and the world became - for just a moment - bright white light. The sound of her Boom wouldn't reach her until she slowed down.
The dense, rippling air she felt on her body suddenly vanished.
She was gone.
- - -
The ground was furrowed and upended leading up to the broken tree. Hundreds of leaves and dozens of broken branches littered the impact site. Beneath the fallen oak outside Ponyville, something stirred. The tree shifted slightly, rolled back and then fell hard to the ground with a groan. Emerging from the crash, a battered pegasus wobbled before righting herself.
Then she laughed.
"That was... nice..." she gaped, licking her dry lips. At least most of the eel innards had been blasted off by the high speed chase. "Very nice!"
High overhead, a vast expanding ring of rainbow color filled the sky, bigger than even her largest explosive spell. The colors lingered against the blue backdrop, an exclamation point etched into the heavens. It was fantastic. It was amazing. It was...
"Beautiful," Ritter whispered, her wide grin slowly melting into a faint smile. "A real, honest to Celestia Sonic Rain Boom. All this time, and she was the one those crazy old mares were trying to copy."
The filly was gone. She was just too fast. No pegasus could keep up with somepony who could cruise on the power of a Rain Boom. Rainbow Dash was gone, but Ritter didn't feel any frustration or anger over that fact. The weathermare had been fun. Wonderfully fun!!
And she would only get more fun with time.
"Ugh." Hovering in midair, Ritter reached down to her hind leg and wiped away a bit of eel-guts. It stunk. It tasted bad. It felt disgusting. Probably looked it too. And it hurt. Her whole body hurt.
Beneath the ichors, a deep cut from where one of the eel's inner teeth had cut through her thick hide started to become... uncomfortable. It had been a long time since anypony managed to hurt her this badly, and that 'scratch' was just one of several. She'd have to convince somepony to donate some thread so she could stitch it up. In her current state, she also knew she needed to keep an eye out for any vengeful Wonderbolts or Military Police. A brief tactical withdrawal was probably in order.
"Thanks for the fun... Rainbow Dash."
Ritterkreuz saluted the vanished pegasus and turned to fly away from town.
"Bucking Hell! All that and I'm still horny."
- - -
Rainbow Dash all but collapsed in front of her cloud house. Every muscle in her body felt like it was about to cramp up. Even her heart wanted to put off beating quite so damn hard, if only for a few seconds. Trying to lift her wings to fly was like asking her to put on a harness and cover for Princess Luna's moon-moving duty. Face buried in the fluffy, wet cloud that was her front yard, Dash finally just gave up.
What was going to happen, at this point in her life, she was prepared to just let it have it's way. She hadn't seen hide or hair of that insane Ritterkreuz since the Rain Boom, thank Celestia, but Dash still half expected her to pop out of nowhere, tossing explosions left and right. Eyes closed, she felt her body drift off. Getting inside for a nap would've been nice, but this was alright, too. Better than dragging her body up to the door, fumbling around for the key, forcing herself up to her b -
Four hooves landed with a thump on the soft cloud.
"Oh, come on..." she groaned, burrowing her face into the soft downy cloudstuff. "Can't I catch a break here?"
The landing was followed by two others.
"Rainbow Dash." The voice didn't belong to Ritterkreuz. In fact, Dash recognized it right away.
Looking up, she saw a orange mane, like fire, and a blue Wonderbolt uniform.
"Spitfire!" the weathermare gasped, trying but failing to get back up. Instead she settled for falling onto her side and rolling over onto her back. Her right wing flapped happily in lieu of the rest of her being unable to move much.
"Soarin!" She recognized the smiling stallion next to Spitfire right away, but it took a second or two to narrow down the other, older, Wonderbolt. "Raging Storm!"
"Still alive?" Raging Storm asked, the gruff mare turning to Spitfire. "Good! Get her inside and see what she knows!"
"We'll make sure she's okay," Soarin replied, snapping a salute. "What about you, Vice-Captain?"
"I'm going after the traitor, of course! If she's even half as exhausted as this filly here, this is our chance to take her down! Report in at the mobile headquarters when you're done here."
"Yes, Vice-Captain!" Soarin and Spitfire replied in stereo.
With that, Raging Storm took one last look at the prone and exhausted Rainbow Dash.
"Helluva thing, kid," she said.
Dash didn't quite understand what that meant, but it sounded good. She was being complimented by a Wonderbolt! Bereft of the energy to squee, she nodded. Then Raging Storm took off. Spitfire herself helped Dash up and carried her over to her house. As she did, the weathermare got one last look at Raging Storm's retreating form against the blue sky.
'The Wonderbolts are... after one of their own.'
The thought of it made Dash want to cry.
Ritterkreuz. She remembered the trading card, still tucked securely into a horseshoe box under her bed. It was right next to Spitfire, and it still had that confident, fierce expression on it.
- - -
Ponyville Central Station
Lyra Heartstrings reclined against the back of her seat, rather enjoying the occasional curious look from passerby. Nopony else in Ponyville sat like she did, which had always struck her as odd. The backs of most chairs and benches and even couches were perfect for leaning back against instead of just planting against your side. So far her one-mare trend-setting sitting hadn't won any visible converts, but at least it was still catching the eye of Jane Q Public.
Yawning, one hoof covering her mouth, the mint colored unicorn checked the clock next to the switchboard of arrivals and departures. She also kept an eye out for her escort. According to her invitation, she would not be admitted into the sealed private train without an escort. It seemed a little paranoid, but she knew all about visiting nobility and how they guarded their privileges and privacy. She was from a noble house herself, if a pony went back a generation or two to when her father branched off back in Canterlot.
The smell of hay fries from a vendor nearly tempted her out of her seat.
She resisted the urge; there would be food served when she got on the private car. There was no need to spend good bits filling up on hay fries. Besides, they were probably greasy and salty. It was hard enough keeping in shape living with Bon-Bon. She did not need to indulge her sweet tooth outside the house, too!
Ponies trotted by around her, on their way to the train currently stopped at the station. Ponyville was not a large town and Ponyville Central Station was not a large facility; it only had the track to load and unload one train at a time. There weren't even that many amenities in the station, just a single concourse leading from the entrance to the loading platform. At least it was colorful and bright, unlike Canterlot's main station, half of which was burrowed underground in the mountainside.
A sleek looking steam locomotive whistled in a final call. Lyra saw a few ponies galloping with tickets in their mouths to try and catch it before they left. From her seat in the middle of the concourse, she could see the train: four cars, the one in the front marked blue - for first class - and the three following passenger cars in white and pink... plus an observation car in the rear. Still not her ride. Lyra fully expected to be able to tell the private train car from the others when she saw it.
Holding her single piece of luggage next to her on the tow of chairs, the musician patted the pocket in her saddlebags with the note she had received. It was good news!
She had, in her hooves, an invitation to play for the visiting Lord Alpha Brass, Equestria's only Marquis. The stallion and his wife, Olive Branch, were in charge of all of Equestria's frontiers and border colonies. He was also a well known collector of historical artifacts, having donated enough to have a wing of Canterlot's Magical History Museum named after his family.
Lyra wasn't a foal.
She suspected the invitation also had something to do with her own small (well, tiny) collection of artifacts and paraphernalia. Twilight had been fascinated by the strange torc she had bought from Shady Deal. Lyra had let her hold onto it in the library for a while longer; had Twilight passed on information on it to ponies in Canterlot? She must have! It was only natural then that Lord Alpha Brass could catch wind of the find.
"Oh! Hey!" She quickly strapped her saddle back on, along with her lyre's traveling case. "Over here!"
She waved at a unicorn mare waiting near the loading platform. The dark gray pony was holding a plain sign that read: LYRA HEARTSTRINGS. This had to be the escort she was waiting for!
"Hi there! I'm Lyra!" She held out her hoof, noticed the other mare's hesitation, and inclined her head instead. "Lyra Heartstrings."
"You look like her," the dark mare replied, craning her neck to inspect the other unicorn. Seemingly satisfied, she nodded. "Follow me, please, Ma'am."
Lyra followed as the unicorn mare exited the station, walking out onto the loading platform and then down a flight of steps. There was a small rail yard and switching track outside. It had to be where the private car was. Did this mean Lord Brass had a private engine to pull it, too? It didn't seem likely it was going to hitch up to the train at the station.
As if to prove this fact, the train that had been calling for final boarding started moving, the copper chimney puffing out spent steam. With a distinctive "chuffing" sound it began to pull away from the station, the two pairs of drive wheels rolling as the coupling rods on their sides chugged along.
"This way, please," the dark mare said, noticing Lyra's momentary distraction.
"Oop! Right! Sorry!"
Picking up the pace to trot over, she tried to find the private car. If it was like the ones she had heard about and read about, it would be distinctively colored and marked with a family crest or blazon. Even if the outside appeared somewhat simple, the inside would be opulent, with fine furniture and all the luxuries of the crème of the Equestrian upper class. There were private cars with separate bedrooms and fully stocked pantries and -
"We are here," the serious sounding mare told her, standing for all intents and purposes in the middle of nowhere.
"Uhh... where?" Lyra asked, turning around in a circle. "Where's the private car?"
"Ma'am," the other unicorn said in monotone. "I need to see your shoes. Can you please present your back right leg?"
"My shoes? What's all this about?" Lyra huffed, angrily, but turned and stuck out her right hind leg. "Fine, see? They're clean if that's what - OW!"
Bouncing away on three legs, she whirled on the strange unicorn. "What the heck was that?"
The unicorn bowed deeply in apology. "Ma'am, my apologies, but you can not meet His Lordship without enchanting the nails in your shoes."
"Why not?" Lyra found a mostly clean spot and sat down to check under her back right leg. The horse shoe was still in place, but...
"Is that gold?" she gasped, seeing the head of the glittering metal nails now rooted in place.
"Why do....? Okay. Nevermind." She got back up and lifted her back left leg. "Go ahead. I guess I'll find out when I get... wherever I'm going."
The unicorn wasn't very talkative, but she did her work quickly. It stung a bit, and Lyra could guess that the little shock was due to the magic altering the nails themselves. The after shock of which must have been able to penetrate her hoof wall. When the foreign unicorn finished, Lyra stood up on two legs and balanced, making sure there was nothing "afoot."
"Ma'am finds something funny?" the other unicorn inquired, confused.
"Don't sweat it!" Lyra told her, dropping back onto all fours. "So, what now?"
"Now, Ma'am, please stand still and do not use any magic of your own." The dark coated mare circled Lyra, once, periodically stamping her hoof. A unicorn herself, and no slouch when it came to magic (at least the study and basics of it), Lyra could guess that the other mare was denominating a spell circle.
"You're going to teleport us?" she guessed.
Lyra's escort entered the circle, her horn glowing softly. She had her eyes closed and an intense look of concentration on her face. The light grew brighter and brighter -
Her hooves left the ground, for just a moment.
And then gravity re-asserted itself, and Lyra's hooves clattered against something pliable but hard enough to be purporting. The light faded, like a flash from a camera, and she took in her surroundings. She was inside... a building or maybe the private rail car... and it was just what she had imagined! The walls were richly decorated with paintings, recessed lights reflected from within carved glass, the ceiling was a little higher than she'd have expected for a train car, though, and...
And what was with the floor?!
"C-clouds?" Lyra stammered, rearing up as she readied to fall through the floor.
Except, she didn't.
Cautiously, she pressed her hoof into the white tile that she had assumed to be, well, anything but cloudstuff! It gave a little under the pressure, so it was a little pliable, but it didn't suck her in or let her fall right through. One hoof and then another, she tested out her ability to walk on condensed water vapor.
She knew this. This spell. It was the Walk on Clouds spell! A variant of the more widely known Walk on Water spell. But nopony had cast it on her before. She didn't feel the spell field around her. Glancing back at her hind legs, she realized: it had to be the enchantment on the nails. It was a Walk on Clouds spell!
"Welcome, Lyra Heartstrings, welcome!" A rich voice prompted her to look up, as a golden stallion entered the room through a pair of heavy doors. Wooden doors. With a cloud floor? It was... Lyra wasn't sure what it was, but it wasn't what she had been expecting.
"I am the Marquis of the Frontier and the Greater Equestrian Reach, Alpha Brass," the stallion introduced himself, reached out to take one of Lyra's front hooves and bring it to his lips. He wore a snug and finely trimmed wool vest with Prench cuffs; a pocket square peeked out from one of the pockets, trimmed in gold. His cutie mark was uncovered: a snake, in a circle, eating its own tail.
"Welcome," he greeted her warmly. "To my home away from home."
"Umm. I'm Lyra..." She stammered a bit, a bright blush darkening her cheeks. In her mind, she could just imagine a tiny Bon-Bon on her shoulder, laughing away at her roommate's embarrassment. She had heard of the charming Lord Alpha Brass, even growing up. "L-Lyra Heartstrings... I was invited..."
"Yes, I know. I do so look forward to hearing you play for me," Lord Brass said, releasing her hoof and leading her towards the doors.
"Huh? Oh, right!" Lyra took the opportunity of his turning away to conk herself on the head. 'Come on, Lyra. Keep it together! Don't make an idiot of yourself!'
"If I can ask," she found her voice again. "Where are we?"
"We are in my personal retreat," he replied, opening the doors... not to another room, but to the outside.
Lyra's eyes widened in awe as she took in the sight before her. It was like no cloud castle she had seen before. A great circular ring of structures seemed to emerge from within the clouds, but they were not clouds themselves. From a distance, the ring and the buildings within and around it looked to be made of stone. In fact, as she took the sight in more, it looked less like a ring and more like a wall.
A circular stone wall, built into a cloud.
Smaller clouds hung in the air overhead, supporting other structures, hanging literally upside-down. Lyra craned her next to try and make sense of the orientation. They were towers, but inverted, pointing down instead of up. Towards the center of the main cloud below, it dropped away in three tiers. It was as if they had been cut, quarried away, from within one huge cloud. It was enough to disprove that they had just been moved to the peak of a mountain somewhere.
"We're in the sky?" Lyra asked, dumbly.
"Far from earthly concerns," Alpha Brass told her, chuckling at her shock. "I call this place my Hanging Garden. It is my pleasure to share it with you, Miss Heartstrings."
- - -
"Well, that settles it. That settles it, Flim! Our last twenty free bits. We're broke."
"Say it ain't so, Flam! Our last twenty already?"
"Fraid' it is, brother o' mine! Celestia's mercy, not a bit in the basket!" Flim's ears twitched as Flam lamented their financial situation. "If this next con doesn't work-"
"It'll work," Flim promised, squinting against the light of his horn as it illuminated the cramped and bafflingly complex interior of his life's work: the Cider Squeezy 6000.
"We've always had backups before, Flim," Flam continued to fret over the pressure cooker that contained their food for the evening. Despite the seal, Flim could smell the fragrance of apple and oats from where he worked.
"Think about it, big brother!" Flam's hooves could be heard as he paced worriedly. "We'll be hundreds of bits in debt! To who, we don't even know! We don't even have the papers we signed! They could send griffins after us to collect from our hides! We'll have to flee to the desert and sell moisture condensers! Or work off our debts in a salt mine!"
"Sorry. Sorry." Flam's voice calmed slightly. "That was foalish. Clearly we'd have to spend our twilight years on the coast building super speedy desalination machines."
"Flam!" Flim snapped, very nearly extracting himself from the Cider Squeezy to face his brother. "First of all: stop worrying about our new partners. They're good, respectable noble ponies. Not griffins. Second: I need a three-fifths radiant emerald with an induction calibration. Float one over, would you, brother?"
"Of course, brother. But..."
"No buts," Flim corrected, and noticed the small gem float over in the familiar glow of his younger twin brother's magic. He took control of it with his own telekinesis and swapped out another burned out gem of the same size, it's color distorted and warped. "There we go! One more refit down."
"Six more to go," Flam fretted again from behind his brother's back. "That's not including the stress testing. You know, brother, I had a bad feeling when we were given the money to upgrade the Squeezy. I've heard weird things about Ponyville. If our benefactors are who I think they are-"
His head still half-way into the mechanized steam-powered guts of the Squeezy 6000, Flim barely heard the tell-tale pop-hiss of unicorn teleportation from behind him. It wasn't a spell either brother were skilled in. Conking the back of his head, more than a little painfully, he hastily extradited himself from the two brothers' combination of transport and livelihood. The Squeezy really was a marvel of magi-technical innovation and engineering. It hadn't gotten them rich-quick yet, but Flim was confident it would eventually. Third year was the charm!
"Oh, uh, Flim, we've got guests..." Flam said, and Flim barely had the time to take a breath and ponder a response of, "who is it?"
This was largely because he found himself enveloped in a hug.
"Hi there, Flam!" an overly familiar, cooing voice declared, and he looked down to see a pale coated unicorn mare with a wild bright blue mane nuzzling his chest. "Been a while, hasn't it? Ooh! You smell like motor oil! Sexy motor oil!"
The sight of her, less her close contact, sent a quick shiver down his spine. It was countered a moment later by a flash of contentment. He forced his eyes closed and sucked in his breath.
"I'm Flim, Miss Mosaic," he gently corrected her. "Flam is my brother."
"Ohh?" the flirty mare asked, whispering into his left ear. "Does it matter?"
Pushed back onto his rump, the con-pony and inventor coughed, daring to open his eyes and compose himself when he could feel the mare back off. Quickly running his hooves through his peppermint colored mane, Flim pinched his cheek, using the little spark of pain to help control his thoughts. He knew he couldn't afford to have his mind impaired when dealing with... important investors.
"Your machine does not appear to be in the condition we require it," another mare said, standing in the middle of a smoking teleportation circle. She was virtually identical to the one that had been snuggling him, save for the severe and humorless expression on her face and her stock of bright red for mane and tail, contrasting with her sisters' blue, done up in a librarian's bun and folded tail-knot.
The other mare strutted over to the other mare's side, smiling pleasantly.
"Our apologies, Ladies," Flam spoke up, moustache twitching as he smelt the magic around the two unicorn mares. It was heady, confusing, inebriating.
"We expect you in Ponyville tomorrow," the red-maned one continued, not caring for Flim's apology. "The Apple Family begins Cider Season in two days. You must arrive a day early."
"The modifications to the Squeezy have taken longer than we initially planned," Flim offered, seeing Flam shrink back from the strict mare. Neither brother even knew their names, only that these two had been willing to support them and fund them on their way to Ponyville's next apple harvest. They were mysterious benefactors who arrived and departed only by teleportation. They had mentioned being part of the noble Mosaic Family, but privately, Flim just called them 'Red' and 'Blue.'
"What's the problem, Flam?" Blue asked, once again mixing their names up.
"It's Flim, Miss Mosaic."
Nevermind that both sisters, twins, were technically Miss Mosaic.
"Flim? Flam! Whatever!" Blue exclaimed, still giddy as a schoolfilly. "What's the problem with the Cider Squeezy? You guys said it would be ready." Her light orange eyes took on a dewy pout. "You promised it would be ready!"
"You signed a contract with me," Red reminded them. "Failure to abide by the terms of our arrangement will not be tolerated."
Flim and Flam both gulped in stereo. As weird as she was, it really was much more pleasant dealing with just Blue and avoiding her scary sister entirely. Luckily, Blue turned to said sister, whispered in her ear, and trotted forward. Sill smiling. Flim couldn't recall her ever losing that perpetual smile.
"Is there any way we can help?" Blue asked, batting her eyes.
"First of all, the upgraded Squeezy needs to be properly and thoroughly tested before we risk using it on this sort of scale," Flim explained in a professional, engineering tone. "We can probably finish swapping out all the low amplitude gems tonight. Thanks to your generous contributions, we've converted entirely to high amplitude gems..."
"Despite the cost," Flam added.
"But the chassis may not be able to keep up with the increased power," Flim picked back up, used to speaking in tandem with his brother. "A failure in one part could result in a breakdown lasting days. Somepony could even get hurt. The Squeezy is a delicate machine."
"We need more time," Flam said, simply. "Even with all the bits we've been given to make the upgrades you wanted, we're only two stallions."
"I hope you understand that we can't risk an accident. Our livelihoods, literally every bit we have to our name, is wrapped up in this," Flim finished, patting the side of the Squeezy.
Standing further back, Red narrowed her eyes in silent displeasure.
"I totally understand!" Blue announced, bouncing up to him close enough to rub noses. "You need to work super hard to make the deadline! Right?"
"Y-yes, that's it exactly, Miss Mosaic," Flim muttered. "Please accept our apology..."
She just giggled. "Silly stallion! That's not a problem at all!"
"I - eh - uh, what?"
"I said," Blue repeated, teasingly tapping his nose with her own. "That's not a problem at all! Not for us! Sis and I are great at motivating ponies!"
"You... are?" Flam asked, glancing from Blue to her somber sister, Red.
"Oh yeah! We're super motivational ponies! That's our special talent even!" She slowly trotted over to the mustached stallion, a mysterious smile on her face. "All we have to do is motivate you to do the work of four stallions in half the time. Without sleep."
"All you have to do?" Flim asked, raising an eyebrow as he nervously ran a hoof through his mane. A glance at Red didn't provide any answers either, but he could only imagine the sort of answer these mares could give. What kind of motivation was Blue talking about?
"You don't know me, yet, but my name is Euporie," Blue told them, giving her tail a cute little flick as she took one bounced over to where her sister stood. She smiled prettily as she explained, "I motivate ponies. This'll be easy!"
Euporie's own smile was radiant. Magical, even.
"My name is Eunomie, and while I am not prone to boasts, I do believe our combined talents will resolve this to everypony's mutual satisfaction," Red assured them. "Tomorrow, you will enter Ponyville. No delays."
Flim and Flam anxiously licked their lips but bowed in acquiescence, at least willing to give their new sponsors the benefit of the doubt. Realistically, their choices were extremely limited. Their financial situation hadn't exactly been sunshine and rainbows earlier, but now they were deep in debt to the two Mosaic twins. Red - Eunomie - had even had them sign a legally binding contract. One that apparently included a clause that they could not have a copy of their own. It really was "sink or swim" at this point. Either the Ponyville con went off as planned, and they paid off their debts in full - and more! Or...
Flam coughed, adjusting his untied black bow tie.
"Miss Mosaic," he said, and both mares turned to stare at him, one bubbly and smiling, the other icy cold and glaring. The attention only added to the stallion's nervousness. "I've been thinking."
"Go on," Eunomie prompted.
"About what, Flim?" Euporie asked.
"I'm not... ah, nevermind. When we get to Ponyville and begin to undercut the town's Apple farmers," Flam said, repeating himself as he spoke up a little louder. "Won't the local nobility step in to protect their business interests? I mean, we've been chased out of towns before, and even when the con worked, it really only stuck until the local Baroness drove us out with subsidies. What if that happens here?"
"You describe this situation as if this it were a problem," Eunomie answered, her severe expression still not cracking despite her twin sister’s amused snickering. "So long as you have the papers we gave you, you can not be legally prevented from operating a business. And so long as I hold you to my contract, you will be ... protected from uncomfortable questioning."
Flim felt a bead of sweat run down his forehead. What did that mean?
"And if the local noble bails out the apple farmers...?" Flam inquired. "What then?"
Eunomie's lip finally twitched in what might have passed for a smile. Euporie, on the other hoof, broke out into wild giggles.
"Like anything else," Eunomie lectured the two brothers, a dark and intimidating counterpoint to her ever smiling and laughing sister. "Even the Magic of Friendship can be crushed by golden bits."