“...an’ she can buck a whole tree fulla apples in a single kick an’ she always makes a little time each day so we can play together an’ that’s why mah big sister Applejack is mah hero. The end.”
The one-room schoolhouse echoed with the sound of small hooves clapping. “Thank you, Apple Bloom!” cheered Cheerilee. “That was very sweet. Applejack must be proud to have a little sibling who adores her so much. Try to remember to slow down and take a breath once in a while next time though, okay?”
“Yes, Miss Cheerilee.” The teacher smiled as she watched her student trot back to her seat. Yes, this was what made all the time and effort worthwhile. Educating the next generation about the fundamentals was all well and good, but what really kept her coming back to her job day after day was the joy of seeing eager young fillies and colts be inspired by new knowledge and unfamiliar concepts. And what better way to find out what inspired the class most of all than having them write a page on the pony they especially admired?
“Well, who would like to go next?”
An orange hoof immediately shot into the air. “Ooo, pick me, pick me please?”
“Very well, Scootaloo, come on up.”
“Woohoo!” The little pegasus nearly flew up to the front desk, her paper between her teeth, and cleared her throat. “Everypony loves Rainbow Dash. She is a terrific athlete. She is the best weather pony in Ponyville, and she won the Iron Pony competition between her and Applejack—”
“That was rigged!”
Apple Bloom’s protest fell on deaf ears. “—and the World’s Fastest Flier contest in Cloudsdale! She can do all kinds of amazing tricks and totally has the coolest hair in all of Equestria!”
“Rarity always calls it Equestria’s most colorful rat’s nest,” squeaked another voice.
“And that’s why your sister doesn’t know anything about being cool, Sweetie Belle. Where was I... terrific, amazing... oh yeah! Rainbow Dash also goes on all kinds of adventures, like the time she singlehoofedly beat a bunch of evil sky pirates—”
Cheerilee arched an eyebrow. “Er, Scootaloo...”
“—and the time she drove an invading army of inferno spiders back—”
“Wait, wait, Scootaloo...”
“—into their volcano home an—”
The rare yell from her teacher finally got her attention. “Yes?”
As much as Cheerilee loved all of her students, sometimes she wished that a few of them wouldn’t go so far out of their way to make her life interesting. “Er, first of all, wasn’t it the ‘Best Young Flier’ contest?”
“Maybe. Is there a difference?”
“And secondly, this was supposed to be a factual report on your hero. Not a creative writing assignment.”
“Creative wri—but I didn’t make anything up!” Scootaloo’s wings sprung out in defense, unbidden.
“Really, it’s nice that you look up to Miss Dash so much, but you honestly expect us to believe a silly story like having her battle sky pirates?” asked Cheerilee, biting back a giggle. “And what was that other part, fraternal spiders?”
“But it’s all true!” the frustrated filly protested. “I went and talked to her and everything!”
“Alright, alright, you’ve had your fun, but I’m going to have to ask you to revise that part and come up with something a little more... grounded, so to speak.” She switched from her regular, beaming smile to the soft look that usually defused an argumentative student.
“But it’s true! Rainbow’s no liar!”
“That’s... debatable.” The soft look vanished as quickly as it had appeared. It didn’t hold up well to hard resistance.
“I’m no liar!” Scootaloo could feel her eyes start to sting while heat crept into her cheeks. The rest of the class kept silent, uncertain if laughing at the situation was worth the risk of drawing either side’s ire.
Cheerilee sighed. And the day had been going so well, too. Sometimes there was nothing for it but to make a quick end of the problem and deal with the troublemaker later. “That’s enough, young lady. I don’t know what that mare was thinking putting wild ideas in fillies’ heads like that, but I won’t hear any more of it.”
Scootaloo’s protests trailed off into a dark mutter. “But... she told me, and said it was all true, and, and she showed me the hat...”
“Now then, who’s next?”
Ponyville glistened. The town ordinarily wasn’t much to look at aside from a few particularly grandiose landmarks. The residents’ general consensus on which one was the most impressive varied from week to week, but the list invariably included Sugarcube Corner (Which the proprietors maintained was made of one hundred percent baked goods, and, if any impressionable fillies or colts were around, would in the same breath go on in detail about how large and fiery their ovens were and how it would be such a shame if anypony ever tried to nibble on the siding), the library tree (Which was surprisingly alive despite being completely hollow, making it the only library in Equestria that could fit in more shelving from year to year), and Rarity’s Carousel Boutique (Which was just plain gaudy and had a tendency to glitter in direct sunlight. Rarity was quick to tout it as a sign of special favor from Princess Celestia herself when visitors from Canterlot were around, and even quicker to take offense at the suggestion that she’d laced the paint with trace amounts of cheap quartz). But a good late afternoon spring shower could make even the most ordinary thatched roof shimmer with flecks of color as the lingering cloud cover gave way to the sun’s rays. Equestria’s manual approach to climate control meant that each shaft of light was the work of the local weather pegasi, the leader of which flitted around the sky haphazardly. Better organized teams in other cities knew enough to clear clouds out evenly, working from one side to the other, but Ponyville had given up on that approach a few years back. Having the fastest pony alive on the job was a benefit in some ways, but only if those ways accounted for the task being done in sporadic bursts, when and where she felt like it.
The pegasus in question was not pleased. “What was the mayor thinking when she scheduled this week? I spend all morning dragging clouds over here for what, two hours of rain, and then gotta get rid of them already just in time to do it all over again tomorrow! Totally. Pointless.” She halfheartedly kicked open another hole, then scowled as the surrounding cumulus clouds moved to fill the gap. “Oh, come on.” Being fast didn’t count for much on days like this when the clouds were still a light shade of gray and tended to clump together. Rainbow Dash enjoyed the prestige and fame of her position, but having to actually do it properly for more than five minutes at a time without an audience never failed to put her in a sour mood. “I’d have this done already if they’d just let me use my Super Speed Spin trick, but nooooooo. You cause one little tornado in the middle of Main Street and suddenly stunt flying is banned within town limits.” Frustration drove her hooves to strike harder, causing the chunk of cloud to vanish properly. “It’s not like it hit anything important. Applejack has plenty of... huh. What’re they doing here?” The last hole she’d opened revealed a familiar purple pair trudging along the road in from the Everfree Forest just below, snatches of their conversation drifting up to the cloud layer. Rainbow Dash settled in to listen.
“Please, Twilight? We’ve been walking for hours and I’m hungry and my legs are killing me! You always let me have a ride,” complained a pint-sized dragon.
“I said no, Spike. I know looking for these leyleaf stalks took longer than we thought it would, but I’m tired too, so you’ll just have to manage. Besides, you’re covered in dirt and mud, and I don’t have time to go home and take a bath if I’m going to get these to Rarity on schedule,” replied the unicorn Spike knew as his companion, sister, and at times like these when her demands felt particularly stifling, master.
“Zecora could’ve given us some better directions, at least,” Spike groused. “‘You’ll find the leyleaf’s home to be the garden of Castle Everfree’? Maybe that worked a thousand years ago, but the whole place is completely overgrown these days! I still don’t see what you need some magic robe for, anyway. You’re already practically the most powerful pony in Equestria. Er, besides the Princesses, of course,” he added, casually glancing around the area just in case one of the royal sisters happened to be nearby. It was a useful habit to adopt in Canterlot, and given how frequently Celestia tended to stop by Ponyville without warning, he hadn’t given it up quite yet.
“It isn’t supposed to make me more powerful, Spike. According to Ninety Nine More Practical Uses For Hazardous Magical Herbs,” (Formerly One Hundred, prior to the removal of the poison joke-based ink formula used to print the first edition, which was quite rare on account of most of the print run having flown out of the publisher’s warehouse overnight. The lost copies were ultimately found in Manehatten, where they were seen roosting on the eaves and bullying the local pigeons.) “wearing garments woven from the fibers of stalks like these help a unicorn use magic more efficiently and give her more control over how she casts spells—eek!” A sudden burst of thunder accompanied a flash of light from behind her, giving Twilight just enough time to watch fragments of stone bounce past before being drenched by the following deluge.
“Hahahah! That was perfect!” Rainbow Dash glided down in a lazy spiral, coming to a stop in front of the dripping wet librarian in an upside-down hover. “I figured there was still some rain left in that part of the bank, but lightning too? Do I know how to pick ‘em or what?”
Twilight glared up at the prankster, thunder ringing in her ears, and resisted the urge to magically grab the pegasus and throw her into the mud. Or to grab the mud and throw it at the pegasus. “I’m glad you find tormenting your friends so amusing, but you almost hit me! Didn’t they teach you what a bolt of lightning can do to a pony back in Cloudsdale?”
“Relax, will you? It ‘almost’ hit you, but it didn’t, so there’s no harm done, right? Heheh, except for your mane, anyway.” Dash reached down to run a hoof through the disheveled hair. “Maybe you can use Spike’s tail for a hairbrush.”
“Huh?” Spike wandered over to the two ponies, noisily munching away at the contents of one cupped hand. “Nah, she tried that once back in Canterlot when she fell asleep in the library overnight and almost overslept her appointment with the Princess the next day. She ended up missing it anyway on account of having to get three stitches from the royal nurse. I’m not named Spike for nothin’, you know.” His empty hand pointed back at the spines in question, and an audible gulp punctuated the anecdote.
Twilight raised an eyebrow. “What in the world are you eating?”
“Bits and pieces of that boulder Dash just fried. Nice job, by the way. It’s solid granite, and the lightning scars give it a real zing you don’t naturally get in igneous rock like this!” He held the last piece out as an example, then flipped it into the air and snagged it with his tongue on the way down. “Plus, I usually only get to see stuff explode like that in Twilight’s lab. Think you could do it more often?” he asked, bending over to scoop up another handful.
Rainbow Dash rolled over in midair and smirked. “Glad to see somepony—uh, dragon, appreciates what I do around here.”
Twilight’s glare narrowed. Somepony needed to have her ego taken down a few notches. But not today. It had been too long already, and just the thought of getting her friend to stop gloating brought on the twinge of a headache. “Let’s go, Spike. If we hurry, we might still be able to catch Rarity before she goes to meet Fluttershy, and if we’re lucky the leyleaf hasn’t been completely ruined by getting soaked thanks to a certain pony with too much time on her hooves!” With one final huff, she turned around and started back down the road to Ponyville, almost-but-not-quite angry enough to miss seeing the magenta mare stomping past her. “Cheerilee?”
“Rainbow Dash!—and hello, Twilight—you hold it right there!” Cheerilee stomped towards her target with all the sense of purpose of a Royal Guard.
“Geez, Rainbow, you’re just getting on everyone’s bad side today, aren’t you? Except for me. We’re cool.” An errant belch abruptly sent Spike’s handful of rock candy trailing away in a cloud of green smoke. (Or what a dragon considered to be rock candy, anyway. The species as a whole was similarly confused about what exactly constituted stone soup, marble cake, and rocky road ice cream. Spike had tried explaining the semantic differences from the dragon’s point of view once, but it had only led to Pinkie Pie briefly experimenting with candied rocks, which the mayor put a stop to after having to bring in a dentist from Fillydelphia.)
“Twilight’s always grumpy like that. I dunno what Cheerilee’s ticked off about though, honestly,” said Rainbow Dash, landing on the road. “At least not today. How’d you find me all the way out here anyway?”
“On a day like this?” Cheerilee looked up at the sky and waved a hoof in its general direction. “One just has to follow the trail of half-closed holes in the clouds and you’ll be at the other end eventually.” She fixed Rainbow Dash with a stern look of disapproval, feared among her students. “No, you know exactly what it is you’ve been up to, you scoundrel! And don’t try and say clearing the weather. You’ve clearly been taking a break. For a while,” she added.
“Hah hah,” deadpanned Dash, who had long since stopped directly acknowledging any comments about the timeliness of her work to avoid fueling further complaints. “But really, I haven’t pranked anypony but Twilight at all this aftern—wait, is this about the bell?” She froze. “This is about the bell, isn’t it? Aw, I told Pinkie somepony would notice—”
“The bell? What happened to the bell? Do you mean the schoolhouse or the clock tower?” asked Cheerilee.
“...and I swear that crack was there before. Er. I mean, uh, in Twilight’s bell. In the library. Where she lives. Eheh.” Rainbow Dash took a step back, spreading her wings.
“What are you talking about? The library doesn’t have a bell.”
“I know, and I’m very sorry about that and I’ll replace it any day now but you know I really should be getting back to wor—oof!” Her attempt at flight came to an abrupt halt. A quick look back identified the source of the problem as Cheerilee’s hoof firmly planted on her tail. “You’re faster than you look, you know that?”
Cheerilee kept her weight on the captive hair. “I imagine I’ll regret not asking about it later, but no, I’m not here about any bell. I’m here because you’ve been telling one of my students some of the most preposterous nonsense I’ve ever heard in a classroom and passing it off as, as some sort of grand adventures you’ve been on!” Her free leg gesticulated wildly as the rant warmed up. “Really, just where do you get off intentionally misleading a naive young filly like that? She really looks up to you, you know? More than anypony else! And then you go and take advantage of her trust just to make yourself feel better! It’s uncalled for, and insincere, and, and...” She paused for just a moment, searching for the right word. “And downright shameful!” She brought her free leg down hard, breathing heavily. The fire driving her outburst finished burning itself out, and she broke eye contact. “I-I’m sorry, I got a little carried away there. But it’s still not right to deceive her like that!”
“Nonsense?” asked Rainbow Dash. She gave the offending limb holding her prisoner the same glare usually reserved for Applejack’s teeth. Light tugs at her tail were proving to be futile, which did nothing to dissuade her from trying stronger ones. “What—eeergh—are you talking—eeeeeerg—abou— whoa!” Cheerilee relinquished her hold, and the sudden lack of resistance sent Dash somersaulting across the ground. She managed to come up on all four legs after a couple of revolutions, a feat which earned applause from Spike, who had settled in to enjoy the show. “Oh, you mean Scoots! Sure, I’ve been tellin’ her all kinds of stuff. All of which is one hundred percent true, thank you very much.” Free once more, she gave her wings a celebratory flap and held a hoof to her chest with a grin.
“I find that highly unlikely,” Cheerilee replied. “There’s no such thing as sky pirates in the first place! Or... colonel spiders, or whatever it was.”
“Oh? You doubt?” The grin grew wider. “Then take a seat and listen, ‘cuz what you’re about to hear will blow. You. Away,” said Dash, punctuating each word by jabbing a foreleg in Cheerliee’s direction.
“Aw, come on Twilight! We’re already late, Rarity’s probably closed up by now anyway, and this is just getting good!” complained Spike as he scrounged for more granite fragments among the tall grass.
“Listen to the little guy, Twilight. I guarantee it’ll be way more interesting than whatever it was you had planned with Her Grand High Fanciness,” Rainbow Dash boasted.
“But the leyleaves, and the appointment...” Three pairs of eyes stared back at her. “Ugh. Fine.” The unicorn dropped to one of the remaining dry patches of ground, too tired to resist. “At least if I stay here, I’ll only have to deal with one pony complaining at me later. But I’m telling Rarity it’s all your fault. And you owe me a new bell. Apparently.” A thoughtful look replaced the longstanding mask of annoyance. “Come to think of it, there was some spell I wanted to try that used a bell, a book, and a candle.”
“Yeah, yeah, whatever. So there I was, fresh off of winning the Best Young Flier competition...”
And I felt great. I mean, really. Best. Day. EVER. Who managed to pull off a trick so difficult that no living pony had ever seen it? Me. Who used that very trick to save four ponies’ lives at the same time in front of everypony in Cloudsdale? That’s right, me. Who got a crown from the Princess herself to prove to all of Equestria who the hottest thing to ever hit the skies really is? Here’s a hint: It’s me. And that’s before I got to finally blow off a bunch of jerks from my flight school days and fly away with two of the Wonderbolts as my personal escort.
Best. Day. EVER.
“This!” exclaimed Cheerilee, springing to her hooves. “This is exactly what I’m talking about! It’s preposterous!”
“Actually... that’s all true,” said Twilight.
Cheerilee blinked. “It is? So she really...”
“And she saved...”
Twilight nodded. “Uh-huh. It all happened three weeks ago. There’s probably a whole story there in and of itself.”
“Are you guys done yet?” asked Dash, tapping a hoof on the ground.
“If Twilight vouches for you, I suppose so,” said Cheerilee, sitting back down. “Was all of that really relevant, though?”
“Yes. Now be quiet and listen, will ya?”
As I was saying, the competition was winding down and I finally got to claim my real prize. I mean, the title and crown were nice and all, but they just made what everypony already knew official.
Getting to hang out with the Wonderbolts for the rest of the day? I’ll take that over some silly jewelry every time. Especially these days.
See, the Wonderbolts usually maintain a full roster of twelve members split up into four three-pony teams. But an older married couple on the team, Feather Flap and Shimmer Span, decided to retire together shortly after last year’s Summer Sun Celebration, so they’ve been down to eleven for a while now. And yeah Cheerilee, I mean eleven. I’m not that bad at math. One of the spots was filled in less than a week by the team captain’s younger brother. That sounds kinda suspicious, but he’d been winning flight competitions all over the place for a few years and everypony figured he was a shoo-in anyway. That took care of one of the positions, but the other one still hasn’t been filled. Completely coincidentally, the Wonderbolts have been doing a bunch of extra shows lately compared to their usual schedule.
Hah! Whatever. They’re out to track down somepony with enough skills to make the cut, and everypony knows it. The whole “celebrity judges” thing? Totally just an excuse to be there to scout out the best. Cloudsdale’s been trying to get them to sponsor the Best Young Flier contest for years, but until now all they’d ever agree to was a simple flyover at the very beginning to kick it off. Some story about not wanting to draw attention away from the contestants. Makes them sound good, yeah, but I think the real reason is that they’ve always had better things to do than sit around watching a bunch of lame pegasi prance around like their wings are for looking pretty.
I think it speaks for itself that I was the only one who went in there with pure speed up her feathers and came out on top. Just sayin’.
So there I was, flying away from the Cloudiseum feeling like a million bits with two of the Wonderbolts as my wingponies. As fun as it would’ve been to let my adoring fans fawn over me some more, if I was gonna get anything important done, we had to get out of the city.
“Think you guys can keep up?” I asked.
“Ordinarily, I’d say yes, but after a display like that I’m not so sure.” That was Red Sky. He’s not just a team captain, he’s the team captain for all of the Wonderbolts. And he was grinning! At me! I thought I’d pulled myself together after the competition, but that was when it stopped feeling like a dream. The Wonderbolts never talked to me in my dreams. It was sort of like going to sleep on a cloud and waking up to find that the ground’s getting a lot closer really fast. I guess you guys wouldn’t know what that’s like.
The first thing you do is panic. Yeah, even me. It just happens.
I threw a grin back at him and took off as fast as I could and hoped that I didn’t look as nervous as I felt. I’d had that afternoon planned out for weeks, but having him be right there for real and talking to me for real shook me up a little. Not too much, but this was the big important part I couldn’t screw up if I wanted to be a Wonderbolt.
The second thing you do is either get a grip and start flying or... well, if you’re lucky enough that somepony saw it happen, you get caught. There’s always some cocky colts and fillies every year who think they can deal with going out on their own before they’re ready, though. Once in a while they don’t all come back. Once the news gets around, the rest of the kids usually start taking the lessons about flight safety seriously.
I know, “Rainbow Dash talking about flight safety, ha ha, that’s funny,” but I could recite the rules in my sleep. They just get kinda flexible if you’re good enough.
I’d blasted off at a few hundred miles per hour, and while it’s not like I can’t keep going at those kinds of speeds as long as I want, I decided to slow down a bit after a few minutes. Y’know, to see how far behind the Wonderbolts were. I got turned around just in time for them to both blow past my position, trailing smoke. They’re good. Not so good that I couldn’t tell they were a little winded by the time they swung back around my way, though. It was the first time I’d ever seen them have to actually work at flying.
The other guy with Red spoke up first. “Good show, miss! I always say, there’s nothing like a race to... limber up and really... get the... hm.” He stopped and turned to look at something on his suit. Or maybe at the smoke still pouring out of it. “That’s peculiar.”
“Is that supposed to happen?” I asked.
“No, it isn’t,” said Red, who turned and flapped over to his partner. “Autumn, I thought we agreed you weren’t bringing anything experimental to the competition.”
“The modifications functioned perfectly well in testing, and as soon as I can find the off switch... aha!” His face lit up.
And then he exploded.
Okay, maybe he didn’t, but whatever he was fiddling with did. I heard a big, muffled bang, and suddenly there was a huge, dark cloud getting bigger by the second! I was far enough away to avoid it, but they were both stuck inside!
“Blast! The contrail creator’s containment capsule cracked!”
“Then stop it before we suffo— suffocate—” Red broke into a coughing fit before he could finish.
“No good! The interior’s exposed, it’ll keep vaporizing until it deple— whoa!”
“Hang tight!” I came barreling out the other side of the boiling cloud dragging the poor guy behind me, his suit still spewing smoke. A couple seconds later he got it together and pushed off.
“I need to keep flying until the fuel’s completely expended, but I’ll be alright! Go back and do something for Red!” he said, and then sped away.
I turned and looked around, but the only other things in the sky were the usual clouds and the big gray smoky death ball. On a windier day it would’ve already started blowing away, but the head weather guys back at Cloudsdale had engineered the whole area to be calm so no sudden gusts would interfere with the competition. It was up to me to save the day again!
“Couldn’t the captain have just flown out of it?” asked Twilight. “Simple smoke clouds aren’t all that dangerous.”
Rainbow Dash looked a little confused. “Maybe it doesn’t sound too bad, but that’s probably only because you’ve never been caught in one,” she replied.
“Hah!” Spike tossed another shard into his mouth before continuing. “You should hang around the lab sometime when Twilight’s experimenting with mixing new potions. There’s a reason why there’s a ventilation shaft in the ground outside the library these days, y’know.” His face twisted in thought. “That might explain why the birds in the branches have started growing beards. Fluttershy’s been trying to shave them, but the magpies keep stealing her razors.”
“Oh, is that all? I was starting to wonder what the poor dear was doing, buying so many blades,” said Cheerilee.
“Spike, remember that talk we had about not volunteering information no one asked for?” Twilight leaned closer and dropped her volume slightly. “Especially about the lab?”
Rainbow Dash pushed her way between the two. “Well if it’s that bad, then you should know how much the stuff can mess you up.”
“‘Get low, find an exit, and crawl out.’ Or fly out, in this case,” she amended, looking at Dash’s wings in front of her. “It’s all there in the Interior chapter of Fleeing Fires For Fillies.”
Spike pulled Rainbow’s ear down to his level. “I spent a whole day last week painting arrows on the basement floor pointing to the stairs,” he whispered, not quite soft enough to avoid being heard by the other two ponies.
“Spike!” The full force of Twilight’s protest was lost on him, having been absorbed by Rainbow’s other ear, which went flat.
Rainbow Dash stepped back before anything else could happen. “Eh, it’s different for pegasi, though. When there’s smoke it usually means the air currents are all hot and messed up, and beating our wings just stirs it up and sends it all over the place.” An attempt to kick up dust for a demonstration only resulted in her hooves getting muddy, which she casually flicked in Cheerilee’s direction. “If you’re in the middle of it you can’t see out, and you get dizzy pretty fast breathing it, so you can’t tell which way is up any more. Plus smoke and clouds and stuff like that is just...” She hesitated, flapping her wings once to fill the silence. “...Thicker, for us. They tell this story back in Cloudsdale about the time a lot of ponies got trapped at the weather factory one day and nearly died ‘cause the rainbows caught fire.”
Dash’s audience stared.
I’d gotten lucky diving through the cloud the first time, but looking at it again, I had no idea where Red Sky was trapped and I didn’t have time to waste. Good thing I’ve got plenty of moves. There were a few ways I could think of to get him out, of course, but sometimes keepin’ it simple is best. I took a deep breath and started up my classic high-speed spin right next to all the smoke to suck it up, and in five seconds flat I’d turned the whole thing into a black, swirling vortex under my control. I sent it spiraling down to the ground and turned back to check up on Red. He looked kinda groggy, swaying back and forth and still coughing away, but he’d be okay.
Our flight path earlier had taken us over the Crysta Mountains, and we settled down on a nearby outcropping on one of the high slopes. I took a look up to see if I could pick out Autumn anywhere just in time to see him finish tracing out a huge black version of the Wonderbolts’ winged lightning logo in the sky.
“Heh, that showoff. Ugh, my throat feels like sandpaper.” He sounded like it too, even after spitting a loogie over the edge. “Now, where can a pony get himself a drink around here—oh, where are my manners? That’s twice today you’ve saved me from disaster and I haven’t even formally introduced myself yet.” He held out a hoof for me to shake, which I took. “Red Sky, fifty-sixth captain of the Wonderbolts. Er, the fifty-sixth lead captain over the course of the team’s history, that is, not that there are currently fifty-six captains, that’d, heh, just be ridiculous.” He started shaking faster. “After all, the team’s never even had over twenty members at once and even those were special circumstances—”
“Rainbow Dash. It’s great to meet you!” I let go of his hoof and smiled. Poor guy seemed as nervous as me, now that I had a chance to get a good look. Probably just the stress of the day getting to him. Probably. The goggles made it hard to tell.
I also had to stop myself from totally flipping out again. I mean, he’s basically the best flier that’s ever lived, okay? Besides me. Maybe. He even looks awesome between the suit, the cool turquoise coat, and the rockin’ blue-black mane. And I shook his hoof! At twenty-six he’s the youngest lead captain the Wonderbolts have ever had, and he got the position after being part of the team for less than five years. And when he joined they didn’t bother with all the tricky scouting business they’re doing now, they just went straight to him with the recruitment papers. In a few months he’d turned their old routine, which was classic but kinda stale, into the hottest show in all of Equestria.
He used to live in Cloudsdale. When I was still a filly and hadn’t even gotten my cutie mark yet, I’d head outside the city and track him down so I could watch him practice. He never said anything, and I never bothered him. I’m not sure if he ever even noticed me, down in the trees. It was enough to see him cut through the air like it was nothing, twisting and whirling and bending the clouds around him. He didn’t always get it right, but when he finally did, it was always the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. I’d never imagined anypony could move like that.
He’s my hero.
And don’t tell AJ I said that. She’d never let me live it down if she found out I can be this sappy.
In fact, just forget I said anything.
“Hold on a moment,” interjected Cheerilee. “He’s a turquoise and blue stallion named Red Sky?”
Rainbow Dash took to a low hover while she elaborated. “His folks are Morning Sky and Blue Sky, and they run this popular restaurant back in Cloudsdale named Sky’s Pies. The rumor is that they picked out his name before he was born, ‘cause they were hoping he’d get his mom’s colors.” She pointed to her own red and orange streaks as an example. “And they figured he’d grow up to be a cook like them and take over the business. Instead he looked like his dad and wanted to be a stunt flier.” A quick loop-de-loop drove the point home. “They never really did get along, apparently, which is why he spent so much time away from the city. His kid brother Soarin’ Sky was a couple years ahead of me in flight school. We never met, but I saw enough of him around and he seemed pretty laid back by comparison, so I guess they figured out the whole parenting thing eventually. The two of them look a lot alike, though,” she finished, landing with a shrug.
A sad sigh escaped Cheerilee as she brought a hoof to her face. “How terrible! Didn’t they realize what sort of harm you can do to little ones by pushing them to be something they aren’t?”
“Weren’t you the one who gave the Cutie Mark Crusaders that comedy award?” asked Twilight.
“Their act was hysterical! Really took me back, too.” Her look of concern melted away as she stared into the distance and smiled.
“Did you know they’re working on a stand-up routine now?”
“How delightful! Hopefully they’ll enter it in next year’s talent show.”
Spike stuck his tongue out and wrinkled his nose. “Were you planning on a Best Dramatic Horror category?”
“So you guys don’t actually burn up the air behind you after all, huh? I’d always wondered about that. All I could ever figure out was rainbows, and I have to soak my tail first to do it.”
“Eheh. No, that’s a little Wonderbolts trade secret,” said Red. I probably shouldn’t be telling you any of this, come to think of it. You didn’t hear it from me. “You can do a lot of great tricks by manipulating the air properly, but mixing in some clockwork and chemistry spices up the show in ways that we normally can’t.” He pulled a little tube from somewhere behind his wings. “Like this single-shot firework launcher, for instance.” It slipped back into his suit, but I couldn’t tell how. “Autumn spends a lot of time building little gadgets like that with a unicorn buddy of his back in Canterlot. Great crowd-pleasers, but sometimes they’re a tad finicky.” We took a glance back at his partner, who looked like he’d finally run out of steam halfway through some big equation.
“Exploding is just ‘a tad finicky’?” I tried to make heads or tails of the sky writing, but it was the weird egghead kind of math that doesn’t use numbers.
He pawed at the ground a couple of times, and wouldn’t look right at me. “They don’t usually backfire this hard. The idea for this one came from another little catastrophe, as a matter of fact, with a simple little thing that was supposed to shoot off streamers. Unfortunately it worked a little too well and shot the streamers off so fast that they ignited, and one of them clipped Spitfire’s tail.” That finally got him to smile a little, and he faced me again. “She bolted for the nearest pond and made it out alright, but suffice it to say there were a lot of impolite words afterward and Autumn spent a week with a black eye.” He mimed a pony getting decked right in the face. The goggles probably would leave a pretty nasty bruise. “The smoke she left behind en route inspired him to make the contrail creators, though, and they’ve been a Wonderbolt staple ever since! ‘Make the best of a bad situation’ could practically be the team motto, in all honesty.”
“Those come up often?” I asked.
He froze and went stiff. Just when he was starting to relax, too. “What? Oh, never. Well, hardly ever. Did I say motto?”
I didn’t have time to press him further, since Autumn finally flew over and started patting him on the back. “Not to worry, old chum, I have an idea as to what went wrong. Canterlot’s steel is likely too brittle to hold up under the pressure exerted by my new long-duration formula, but a stronger grade of metal from Stalliongrad should serve to produce a sufficiently sturdy chassis.” He walked over to me and grabbed my left foreleg. “As for you, my dear, I find myself honored to be among the Wonderbolts in your debt today. Celestia herself could not do more justice to the crown upon your head.” Then he kissed my hoof.
What their promotional posters don’t tell you is that the Wonderbolts are all kinda weird.
Twilight’s eyes lit up. “Wait, I think I know who you’re talking about. Does his full name happen to be Autumn Westwind?” she asked. “Gray coat, big fluffy blue mane that’s always styled like he’s about to go to a dinner party?”
“...yeah. How the hay do you know him? You don’t pay any attention to the Wonderbolts!” accused Rainbow Dash.
“Because he’s still a pony when he’s not in uniform,” explained Twilight, though she looked disinterested in the subject. “Mr. Westwind is one of the richest ponies in Canterlot, and certainly the city’s biggest philanthropist.” One of Spike’s rocks levitated over to her and began spinning around in her telekinetic grip while she talked. “I used to see him at the palace occasionally when he’d come around to see what new requests for charity Princess Celestia had received.” The rock split into pieces, reformed, and teleported over various short distances. “The ones that aren’t officially sponsored by the throne get passed on to interested private donors, and he picks up quite a number of them. She introduced us once.” She concentrated for a moment, her horn’s glow increasing slightly. “I thought he was rather charming.” The rock flashed into a rose, drawing an appreciative sound from Cheerilee. “Said something about how it was his pleasure to meet one of the bright hopes for the future. I didn’t realize he was part of the Wonderbolts, though.”
“I... you’ve met... he’s rich? Why doesn’t anypony ever tell me these things?” The irritated pegasus fluttered over to Twilight and began pacing.
“Don’t you know everything about the team?” She opened her mouth to nibble on the flower, but thought better of it at the last second. Transmogrified objects had an unfortunate tendency to revert to their original forms over time. (This was the main reason why magic couldn’t effectively make food from dirt. However, Twilight had long since discovered that it was an effective way to make the cabbage the palace kitchen was fond of serving into a much more palatable bed of tulips, without losing any of its nutritional value.)
“All the important stuff. I had to practically work my wings off to meet them and you just walked in and said hi and didn’t even know who you were talking to? So not fair.” Dash’s tail twitched at irregular intervals.
“Sure. As the Princess’s private pupil, I’ve gotten to meet all sorts of fascinating people. Everypony who’s anypony comes through the palace eventually.” Lacking any further ideas, Twilight sniffed the rose and stripped its thorns before tucking it behind one ear. “I’ve got a bookmark signed by the last captain of the Wonderbolts sitting around somewhere. What was his name, Ridge Slider, or Ridge Diver? Something like that.”
“D-Does anyone else hear that growling?” asked Spike, who was looking around with the healthy paranoia of someone sitting just outside the Everfree Forest.
“I had a light lunch. It’s probably just my stomach,” replied Rainbow Dash through gritted teeth.
“Oh. Want a rock?”
For the next few moments, the growling gave way to the sound of a pegasus beating her head against a nearby tree.
Ow. Hang on a sec, I think I got some bark in my eye.
There we go, that’s better. Stupid tree. Stupid Twilight. Where was I? Right, that screwball.
I pulled my hoof away before he could do anything else to it. “Well. That’s, uh, flattering,” I said while backing up slowly. Of all the things I’d expected to do with the Wonderbolts that day, getting sorta-kinda hit on wasn’t one of them. I mean, it’s not that I’m against the idea, but the guy’s forty or something like that. He can make somepony else happy. “The name’s Rainbow Dash.”
“An apt moniker for one of such talent and loveliness.” Still weird. Thankfully Red took the chance to step in.
“Don’t mind Autumn too much. He greets every mare he meets that way.” I couldn’t see through his goggles, but I’m pretty sure he was glaring at his partner out of the corners of his eyes.
“Only those who deserve it.”
Red tilted his head. “You think everypony deserves it, Autumn.”
“Because, young Sky, inside of each and everypony is a spark of light that may yet grow to illuminate the dark corners of the world.” He reminded me a little of the Princess when she’s going on about the magic of friendship.
“Is he always like this?” I asked.
“Always,” Red said with a sigh. “You get used to it, in time. Nimbus should catch up to us shortly. She’s the sub-captain of his team, and can tell you all sorts of stories about what he gets up to.” Autumn put on a look that said he had no idea what Red was talking about. “Anyhow, since I doubt you went to all the trouble of winning that competition just to jaw around with us, what did you have in mind for today? It’s your call. Everything is on the table.” He went stiff again. “Well, almost everything. Most things, within reason. Nothing questionable, that is, not that I’d expect a hard worker such as yourself to make that sort of request, but you wouldn’t believe some of the fan mail we get, it’d make you blush for a week—”
“No, no, I get it!” If I hadn’t interrupted I think he would’ve kept rambling on all day. Even then, he kept fidgeting and wouldn’t look at me for more than a few seconds. Something really had him on edge. “All I really wanted was to see what you guys thought of some of my other tricks, maybe get some tips on how to pull a few of yours off, that sort of thing. Like a special flight training session.” I flapped my wings a couple of times to make it clear.
“Your dedication to your craft is most admirable—”
“Yes, we’d be happy to see what else you can do!” Red’s twitching let up. I guess talking about flying helped take his mind off whatever else he was thinking of.
“Sweet! Okay, I call this one the Fantastic Filly Flash! Here I go!” I shouted, and took off. The Filly Flash is this great move where I fly as high in the sky as I can, then free fall in a corkscrew spiral until the last second when I pull up and buzz the crowd. It really shows off the “Rainbow” and the “Dash”.
The catch is that if you aren’t right-side up again at just the right moment, the crowd’s gonna be watching a pony-shaped crater instead. It’s the sort of trick you practice over open water.
“So that’s why you’re such a great swimmer Dashie!”
“Ye—I mean, no! That has nothing to do with this, Pinkie Pie!” Rainbow Dash took a second to think over what she’d just said. “Wait, when did you get here? And what’re you doing here? And where’d Cheerilee go?”
“Rarity sent me to find these two! Hi Twilight! Hi Spike!”
Spike waved. “Hey Pinkie! Want a rock?”
Pinkie bounced over to the small hoard of rubble. “Is it the tasty bakeable kind like last time? They made the best hard candy! Even if the mayor didn’t like it. Is it is it is it?”
“Naw, those were all shale. This is some great lightning-roasted granite, though! Dash made it,” he finished, pointing towards the pegasus.
“Rainbow Dash, you never told me you could cook!” protested Pinkie Pie, grabbing a shard from the pile.
“Cheerilee left a little bit ago, Rainbow, while you were busy abusing the local flora with your skull,” replied Twilight, pointedly ignoring the ongoing conversation. “She said something to the effect that she didn’t have time for a long story and it was already getting silly anyway.”
“What?” Dash’s wings sprung out in sheer indignation. “She gives me all that grief and calls me a liar and then bails? I oughta... Pinkie! You, me, at the schoolhouse this evening! Bring your best pranking gear!”
“Aw, but that’s the same thing we’ve done every night this week!” Pinkie pouted. “Ooh, tingly teeth! I wonder what that means?”
“That you shouldn’t take a dragon’s advice when it comes to snack food,” quipped Twilight. “Dash, what exactly is going on between you and Cheerilee? Or rather, how in the world did you get on the bad side of one of the friendliest ponies in Ponyville? Besides talking to her students.”
“We had a tiny little disagreement,” said Dash, folding her wings back down.
“Whose fault it was that the schoolhouse was surrounded by flank-high mud last week. These stupid spring showers take forever to get rid of!” she said, gesturing at the gray clouds above. “Just because the school was the last place I got around to clearing out didn’t mean she had to take it personally. And then she didn’t appreciate the rain cloud I emptied on her head to clean her off, either! Or how I covered the school grounds with fog the next day to try and soak up the extra water making it so muddy.”
Twilight raised a hoof to her temple. “Yep, definitely a headache.”
“Most well done, Miss Dash.”
I went through most of my routine, and they applauded and cheered me on the whole way! The more I did, the more they encouraged me to keep going, and the more relaxed I finally was. Being tense and nervous all day hurts. “Aw, thanks guys. You’re just being nice though, your stuff is way cooler.” And it is. Not that I’m not proud of my own tricks or anything, but none of it is really anything they haven’t done at some point. Hundreds of years of history is hard to beat. Hard’s not the same as impossible, though. There’s the Sonic Rainboom, of course, but... well, I think it takes some special conditions to pull off. For now. But I still had one big showstopper trick left besides that, a trick so risky that I’d been banned from trying to do it back at flight school and even at Junior Speedsters Flight Camp. But what did they know? It’s like the flight safety rules, you’re only in trouble if you’re not good enough.
Red Sky took a step towards me. “Don’t sell yourself so short, Rainbow. Those weren’t the maneuvers of a filly who just stepped off a cloud for the first time. A pony with that sort of natural talent and hard-earned skill can go far.” Hah! “Go far,” he says. Might as well have just given me the invitation right there. The only place to “go far” to in stunt flying is the Wonderbolts themselves. Every other team in Equestria is full of ponies who tried to hang with the best and failed.
“Well, if you thought all that kids’ stuff was cool, lemme show you a real trick! Feast your eyes on the Buccaneer Blaze!” I said, and took off for the sky one last time.
And then they weren’t even paying attention! By the time I got high enough up and turned to make sure they were watching, another one of the Wonderbolts had shown up. Red and Autumn were too busy talking to her. It wasn’t worth the effort to pull off a Blaze when my audience couldn’t appreciate it, so I swooped back down to see what the deal was.
She was pacing back and forth in front of the other two when I got there, a tiny little cream colored thing with two-toned light blue hair about as big as she was. “Do you guys have any idea how far off you actually flew? I thought I’d find you something like two miles from Cloudsdale, not twenty! And I’d still be flying around if I hadn’t noticed Autumn’s signal, and then what would we have done—oh hi there, hehe!” Pacing one second, right in my face waving her legs around the next. The laugh sounded squeaky and forced, too. “I’m Nimbus! You took off in such a rush that I never got to thank you for saving my flank earlier! Hehe, everyone in Cloudsdale’s talking about it, you know? You should write a book! ‘Dashing: The heroic story of the mare who saved the Wonderbolts from certain doom, straight from the horse’s mouth!’ It’d be a hit, hehe! You could be rich! Famous!”
“Thanks, I guess.” I had to back up a couple steps to get her hooves off my shoulders. “But all I really want to be famous for is being a Wonderbolt.” Yeah, I did not mean to throw that out there. Even if they liked me, the last thing I wanted to do was look too eager.
Unfortunately Nimbus jumped on my slip before I could play it cool. “Oooh, hehe. Aiming to be one of us? Now that’d be another story! Hehe, maybe you’re already writing it, though?”
That was already enough of that. I could deal with Red being all nervous and Autumn just... being, but it’d been too long of a day for that particular kind of crazy. “Okay, look, I already have a friend who’s kind of a giggling nut, and I’m pretty sure you’re just faking it. I don’t know why, but could you please cut it out?”
She pouted. “Aw, you’re no fun. All business, just like Red. He doesn’t have any fun either.”
“Hey, I have plenty of fun!”
“Hey, I have plenty of fun!” We’d spoken at the same time, and the two of us both stopped and glanced at each other. Awkward.
The little mare burst out laughing for real. “Just alike, just like I said! But alright, since you’re so observant, I’ll play along and drop the act.” I might’ve believed her if she hadn’t winked. At least I think she did. It was hard to tell through those goggles, and I had the feeling she knew it. For the first time, I found myself getting annoyed at a Wonderbolt. “Not that it matters much. As I was just telling the boys, I’m afraid something very big has come up that requires our attention, so this little get together is going to have to end early. Head on home, would you?” One hoof waved me away, like she was trying to shoo an animal. “I’m sure your friends are waiting with a party.”
“Whoa, wait a second, you guys are bailing on me?”
“What a shame, huh?” She smiled, but it was as fake as her giggling. “You’re a big girl, I’m sure you can get over disappointment. You’re still this year’s best young flier, if that’s any consolation.”
Scratch that. I was getting really ticked off at a Wonderbolt. “The prize was supposed to be an entire day with the Wonderbolts. It’s barely been an hour!”
“I’m sorry, Rainbow,” said Red, “but she’s right, this is important. We can’t pass up the opportunity.”
I couldn’t believe it! After all that, they were really trying to ditch me! I stomped my way over to Red. “What do you mean, ‘opportunity’? You’re a trick flight team! You guys get to make your own schedule!”
He frowned a bit at that. “Not as much as you’d think. And in this case we’ve only got this one chance and a limited amount of time before it passes by for good. And that would be bad.”
“One chance to do what? What the hay is so secret and important that it can’t wait? Does the Princess need you or something? I know her, I could talk to her!” I kept getting closer, just a couple hooves short of being muzzle to muzzle. Red held his ground.
“It’s official Wonderbolts business. I can’t say any more.”
“But you’re the captain!” He tried to look away, but I moved in front of him again.
“I know I am, and I’m sorry, but I just can’t explain!”
“Why not?” I was screaming at that point, my heart racing and my wings flared. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen! We weren’t done! The biggest day of my whole life was about to slip right through my hooves! “You can’t just leave me! I earned this! I busted my flank for months to win that competition! I saved your life! Twice! I—ow!” Something hit me on the back of the head, hard. The next thing I knew I was on the ground, but I didn’t remember falling. “Owwww... wh... wh‘hd y’ do... ?” My mouth wouldn’t move right.
“Fun fact: Did you know there’s a spot juuuust below a pony’s ears that you can hit in a certain way to scramble her nerves and leave her completely helpless for a while? It’s true!” Nimbus. She sounded distant, but the blue blur that walked in front of me was too small to be one of the guys. My head wouldn’t stop swimming. I tried to get up, but my legs and wings just twitched. I couldn’t feel them at all. I couldn’t do anything. “Ah ah, you won’t be going anywhere just yet. Here’s a lesson for you. You were seeing Red and seeing red. One of them is easy on the eyes, but the other just leaves you wide open and distracted. Don’t forget that.” She walked out of sight, and soon I heard two pairs of wings flapping away.
“Farewell, Miss Dash. I do wish we could have parted on more pleasant terms. May our paths cross again in happier times.”
“You’re too sentimental, Autumn. She’ll be fine. And if she’s smarter than us, she’ll stay...” I couldn’t make out the rest.
The only noise left was the soft sound of hooves on stone. Red.
“Rainbow Dash, I’m sorry it had to be this way, please believe that. We aren’t making sense and we’ve ruined your day a couple times over, and you have every right to be angry. I’ll see if I can make it up to you. Not now, but... someday. Somehow.
And then he left me too.
“’m ba... come back... jerks...”
“Hellllooooo, Equestria to Rainbow Dash, anyone there?” asked Spike.
“You zoned out there for a moment,” Twilight said softly. “Are you okay? You didn’t tell us about any of this stuff at the party that evening, and it’s starting to sound like you should have.”
“No, no, it’s fine— I’m fine. That part— I just— you know, I’ve been talking for a while, I’m a little hoarse. Gimme a minute to go squeeze out some rainwater, will ya?” Without waiting for a reply, Dash flew up beyond the cloud layer and out of sight.
“You’re a pony, silly, of course you’re a little horse!” Pinkie called out after her. When Rainbow didn’t reply, she put a hoof to her chin in thought. “Or maybe it’s that a horse is just a big pony? And if that’s the case, does Big Macintosh have to take a lot of cough drops?”
Twilight’s headache throbbed a little harder. “Pinkie, I promise you, one day I’m going to find out what makes your mind tick.” (Twilight had refused to call it a futile endeavor and gave it a place on her long term to-do list, just after learning how to read books which have not yet been written and figuring out the speed of dark.)
“It doesn’t tick, Twilight. It hums! And sometimes it sings harmony. Oh yeah! I was wondering, who do you think was the giggly friend Dashie was talking about? At first I thought of Applejack but she usually just chuckles which isn’t really the same as giggling so then I figured she must have meant Rarity because she does this great ‘Wa ha ha ha!’ laugh but calling her a nut seems kinda mean ‘cause she just really loves her job and gets carried away sometimes and then I remembered Spike—”
“I meant you, Pinkie!” chimed in an exasperated voice from above.
“Oh, that’s right! I guess I am, huh?” said Pinkie, who promptly dissolved into a fit of snorts and laughter.
Whatever you might think, I didn’t just lay there and cry. It’s hard to be angry or feel sorry for yourself when you’re busy trying to remember how to breathe. I’m used to thin air, but right then I didn’t feel like I could get enough of it.
The good thing about being stunned like that is that it only takes a little time to recover from compared to something like a broken wing. After a few minutes my legs weren’t completely numb any more and my head was pounding with the sort of pain that hurts too much for you to be as dead as you thought you were. So I pulled my hooves beneath me and gave standing up a try. I fell back over a second later, but it helped me realize what I needed to do.
“Alright, Rainbow Dash, here’s the plan. Step one: Get off this stupid mountain. Step two: Find the Wonderbolts. And the big one, step three: Get back at Nimbus for ruining everything.”
Now that I had a goal, I tried standing up again. Shaky, but I could do it. After a few practice stretches, I figured my wings could hold me again too. The problem was that I couldn’t see the Wonderbolts when they flew off, so I had no idea which direction to go to track them down. Nothing left in the sky but clouds and lingering smoke. Whatever that stuff was made of, it wasn’t going away as quickly as it did during their shows.
And the funny thing was, one of the trails looked new. One of them must’ve accidentally turned on their gizmo thingy when they took off. Suckers.
It led south along the mountains, right up to the point where the Crysta range runs into the Everfree Forest. Things start getting weird around there, big surprise. Most of the unnatural clouds that form over the forest don’t go anywhere and just keep building up until they explode into the roughest, toughest storms you’ll find anywhere in Equestria. Those are strong enough to mess with the area’s wind patterns a bit, but aren’t really a big deal unless you’re crazy enough to get caught out in one. Or unless you’re Zecora. I have no idea how she survives out there. That dinky little hut should’ve been washed away before it finished being built. Anyway, some of the other clouds end up drifting towards Ponyville, and I have to spend a lot of time pushing them back before they get too close and ruin the weather schedule or burn down Sweet Apple Acres with their freaky magic lightning or something like that. Not that AJ ever thanks me for saving her place all the time.
The rest of the clouds go the other way, towards the mountains, and then they get stuck. They don’t bunch up and rain out like they normally do over the forest either, they just start falling down the slopes until they eventually slide back into the Everfree. So that part of the Crysta range is always covered in clouds and fog and we weather ponies aren’t sure why that happens, so we call them the Mistery Mountains. Get it? Mist-ery? Heh heh. Eh.
The point is, the smoke trail I was following disappeared into that mess. But if the Wonderbolts could deal with creepy magic mist, then so could I. And they couldn’t have gone far, anyway. I know I’m faster than them, and they had maybe ten, fifteen minutes on me, tops.
It wasn’t easy going, though. I slipped into the fog to start looking, but it was so thick that flying felt more like swimming, and I couldn’t see more than about twenty hooves ahead. “Hey! Anypony out there?” Up the slopes. “Red?” Back down the other side. “Autumn?” I flew over to the next mountain. “Hellloooooooo!” Nothing. Not even an echo.
You know how hard it is to find three ponies in the middle of nowhere when you’re basically blind? It’s really freakin’ hard. And after all the other stuff I’d been through already, working through that fog was wearing me out faster than I liked. The next two peaks were just as Wonderbolt-free, so I settled down to take a break for a moment and figure out what to do next. Looking one mountain at a time wasn’t getting me anywhere. I didn’t know for sure that the Wonderbolts were even there. I couldn’t imagine why they’d bother going into the mist if they were just going straight through it, but if they had, they could’ve been halfway back to Cloudsdale already. Or maybe they did it just to throw off any followers, like me. If that was the case, then it was over. My big day was done. I kicked a stray rock down the slope and watched it vanish into the fog. “Guess that’s it, Rainbow. Did a few tricks, got decked by your heroes, and couldn’t make your only lead count for anything. Totally worth all the trouble.”
And my head ached like crazy. I went to rub it with a hoof, but there was something caught in my mane. Somehow, even after all the action of the last couple hours, my crown had stayed on the whole time. I’d forgotten it was even there. And yeah, I didn’t really care about it when I got the thing and I still don’t, but seeing it then reminded me that the day hadn’t been all bad. “At least I got to spend some time with the Wonderbolts. And everypony saw me do a Sonic Rainboom and save their lives, so that’s pretty cool. Plus Rarity owes me, like, forever.” I wish. She offered to help me save my fashion life instead of waiting on me wing and hoof for a week. You call that gratitude? ‘Cause I don’t. “And besides, the Gala’s coming up soon, so I can track them down there and find out what their deal is where they can’t sucker punch me and bail. I’ll have them trapped! They’ll have to explain!” I got back on my hooves. “You hear that? I’m not giving up!”
“What? Who’s out there? Is that you, Sylvia?” A voice! Kind of old and scratchy sounding, and definitely not one of the ones I was looking for, but I was happy just to find anypony. Or anygriffon, as it turned out. I could just barely make out a shape with wings in the distance, and I’d spent enough time with griffons to know one when I saw one. But what the hay was he doing hanging around a place like that?
I pushed my way through the mist towards him. “Uh, no, my name’s Rainbow Dash. Who are you? Actually, have you seen any other ponies around? Pegasi wearing blue? I’m trying to find them.”
“Ponies! Here? Ponies in blue?!” That might’ve been the wrong thing to mention. “Aw no, no, no, no, no, you’re a Wonderbolt! The Wonderbolts are here!” he yelled, and vanished back into the mist. “Captaaiiiiiiin! We’ve been found! Red alert, red a—” Whoops.
I wasn’t the only one interested in the griffon, though, ‘cause another figure darted out from behind the other side of the mountain and took off after the guy. A small pegasus. Maybe she wanted the griffon, but I wanted her, and I definitely wasn’t too tired for a chase. I took off, hot on her tail.
“Hey, Nimbus! We need to talk!”
She looked back and stuck her tongue out at me. “Nice going, featherbrain! Have you ever heard of covert operations, or being subtle?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, but I can’t hear you over the sound of this headache I happen to have. Maybe you know something about it?”
“You don’t know how to take a hint, do you? We’ve got more important things to do than catering to the daydreams of a wide-eyed filly who isn’t as great as she thinks she is!” She tried to wave me away again, but it hadn’t worked before and it wasn’t going to work then. “Go home! Take a hike! You don’t belong here!” I was closing the gap, one flap at a time. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do when I caught up, but that sort of problem usually solves itself pretty quickly. One last burst of speed sent me cutting through the fog, getting closer... closer... and... got her! Or at least one of her back legs.
What I wasn’t expecting was how fast she could stop, spin, and buck me right off. I went flying head over hooves and just missed clipping a peak before catching myself. She didn’t move, so I charged straight at her again. In return I got a pair of legs around my neck and a quick trip straight down. Another charge, another toss. It didn’t matter how fast I dove through the mist, I couldn’t touch her! Coming in slow and trying to catch her off guard didn’t work either. Maybe I should’ve listened to the guys at the dojo when they said I wasn’t actually a black belt yet.
She wasn’t chasing after the griffon any more, though, so I figured that was a win too. “Honestly,” she said with a frown, “tough enough to get up sooner than most ponies I have to put down and stubborn enough to chase us all the way here. I’d be impressed if you weren’t also thick enough to pick fights you can’t win.” One hoof rapped against her skull while she said that, and her wings beat faster. “And thanks to your hard head and your loud mouth, the element of surprise we needed is completely gone. Nice job. And you think you can be a Wonderbolt?” She finished by crossing her legs and sneering at me. I liked her better when she was pretending to be nice.
“If they let little fillies like you in, yeah, I bet I can make it.” There was no way she could still be on guard in that position. I drifted a little closer to try and get the jump on her again, and then the next thing I knew she’d sorta kinda put me in a headlock. “Hey! Lemme go!” It was a really good headlock, the kind AJ uses on... her, uh, pigs. Yeah. They get feisty sometimes.
“And what does it tell you that you can’t seem to beat this ‘little filly’, Rainbow?” She squeezed harder. “I can tell you right now, a pony who can’t learn from her mistakes could never join us.”
“Okay, fine, just get off!” She did, and I figured that it wouldn’t hurt to stay out of reach for a bit. We started flying around each other in a circle, each of us sizing the other up. “What’s your problem? The guys kept talking like they couldn’t wait to make me a Wonderbolt, and all I get out of you is one insult after another. What’d I ever do to you?”
“Nothing, at least not personally. I just like seeing how you react. It’s very... informative.” She got a smug grin on her face that I hated immediately.
“I’m not some toy for you to play around with! And remember,” I said, pointing at her, “you owe me! All of you!”
Her ears perked up. “Oh, do we? And Red was so worried you’d figure it out. I told him you probably weren’t a clever pony. After all, you’ve got your dear friend the Princess’s protégé to be clever for you.” I didn’t know which part of that to be mad about first, but I was done trying to get her when she was looking. “And you aren’t charging at me again even though you really want to. Maybe you can learn. Try not to be such an open book, though.” Snotty little know-it-all. I couldn’t figure out how the rest of the team could stand her.
Maybe she’d answer a different question. “If you’re done making fun of me, why don’t you tell me how you know who my friends are?”
“Why, weren’t they cheering you on at the competition?” she said, tilting her head to the side. “And anypony who’s spent any time in the palace knows who Twilight Sparkle is. It’s not every century the Princess takes on an apprentice, after all. I just put two and two together. You make it sound like I’m some sort of spy.” Her smile was trying way too hard to look innocent, like the one the Crusaders put on when they’re up to something.
“Between all the secrets and how you were going after that guy? Yeah, maybe you are.” The last thing I was going to do was admit that she had a fair point. “What’s Equestria’s best flight team doing chasing griffons in the middle of nowhere anyway? I know... I used to know a griffon. They aren’t that exciting.”
Nimbus flew closer. “Did you forget that you aren’t supposed to know?” she said, tapping me on the nose for emphasis. “There was a theft. That’s all.”
I pushed her away. “But why the Wonderbolts? That sounds more like a Royal Guard thing.”
I guess that struck a nerve, ‘cause she stopped smiling. About time. “Hm. Good question. If you find a good answer, let me know.”
Yeah, that was enough of that. I didn’t come all the way out there to play Twenty Questions With A Chip On The Other Guy’s Shoulder. It’s this special version where you can ask as much as you want, but all you get back are insults and cryptic crap. “How about you just tell me where the guys are, and I’ll go see them instead.”
She shook her head. “As much as I’d love to leave you to your own devices, I don’t know exactly where they are right now. Red’s supposed to send up a signal when it’s time to regroup. Plus, Autumn would never let me hear the end of it if I abandoned you in an awful place like this.”
Great. “Whatever happened to ‘Through any storm or any weather, Wonderbolts will fly together’?”
“You know the anthem, that’s cute.” She stopped floating around and stared off into the fog. “Not in this weather. There was too much ground to cover and not enough visibility to search it efficiently without splitting up.” Suddenly a loud whistling noise filled the air, and off in the distance we could see a burning firework rocketing skywards. “Ah, good timing! I told you there’d be a signal.” A second later it exploded, shining bright even through the mist. “...uh oh. Red.”
“What? Is that him?”
“Huh? Oh. Maybe. I meant the color, though. A red signal like that means there’s trouble. Come on!” First thing she’d said all day that made sense.
Nimbus took off like lightning and I followed right behind her. We blew past one mountain after another, each one as big and gray and boring as the last. Nothing lived up here, not even the really nasty stuff from the forest. One mountain stood out from the rest though, which had to be the place the Wonderbolts were looking for. The enormous cave in the side was impossible to miss, and the pegasus at the mouth of it looked like he was about to get eaten. It made me wonder if maybe the mountains were what lived up here and they just waited for something to be dumb enough to wander in. You never can tell with the Everfree. I couldn’t see any further inside on account of the stream of mist flowing in, which wasn’t helping me shake the feeling that I was about to become something’s lunch.
It turned out I was right, and the pegasus standing there was Red Sky after all. “Nimbus! You made it! And Rainbow! You made it?” He didn’t have to look so surprised.
“Better believe it. Your buddy here hits like a girl and you left me a map. Gotta try harder than that to ditch the Dash,” I crowed, head held high.
“I’ve been keeping an eye on her, boss,” said Nimbus.
“We got here as fast as we could.” She walked on past, ignoring me. “What’s going on? Didn’t you see a scout come by? I thought we were going to scrap the whole thing as soon as they got tipped off.” She stopped yapping and looked around. “And where’s Autumn?”
He pointed a hoof towards the back of the cave. “He’s in there, as far as I can tell. Saw him get chased in by one of their guards. When he didn’t come back out, I figured I’d better call you in case you were still free.”
She lowered her wings and her voice. “I’m only one pony, boss. Not really much in the way of backup.”
“Two ponies,” I added. Nimbus ignored me again.
“I know. I should’ve brought more,” said Red. “I didn’t want to risk anypony I didn’t need to. Or I shouldn’t have had us split up. Or... something, I don’t know.” He slammed a hoof into the ground at the end of that. It wasn’t really cold out, but I couldn’t help shivering a little. Wonderbolts weren’t supposed to be so uncertain, or look so frustrated.
I didn’t have time to think about it for long, though. Five figures were coming out of the cave, through the mist. “Hey, guys? I think we’ve got company.” Four of them looked like griffons. The one in the center was a pony, and when the griffons stopped, she kept walking forward.
“Oh good,” she snarled. “The Wonderfoals. Again. And here I’d hoped the idiot back there was the only one and Gregor was just scared of his own shadow.”
“I toldja, captain! I toldja there was more!” called one of the griffons from behind her, the same voice from earlier. Maybe I should’ve chased him down instead after all.
“Yes, shut up. The real question is just how many reinforcements he had. Eight? Eleven?” She stopped a few paces in front of us and turned around, stomping one hoof twice. “Stop pedaling, you twits! I can’t see anything out here!” Somepony repeated the call further back in the cave, and the wind blowing the mist inside finally stopped. At least there was actually something back there causing it and I could stop worrying the mountain was going to suddenly bite down.
Have I mentioned I hate caves? Give me open sky above my head instead of stone any day.
The air cleared quickly. She was a dark purple earth pony wearing a pair of earrings and a bracelet that matched her angry orange eyes. One of those big black hats with three corners kept a curly black mane from falling into her face, which said that she hated us all and had better things to be doing. I think her cutie mark was a parachute, but I couldn’t see it clearly through a saddlebag. “Only three? I do believe I’m insulted. And one of you doesn’t even count,” she said, glaring at me. “Is Celestia so tired of your incompetence that she has you babysitting now?” Her gaze drifted up. “Or does that gaudy trinket mean you’re their new mascot, here to cheer them on as they fail to stop me yet again?”
Great. The only pony around who didn’t talk in riddles was the Wonderbolts’ enemy. I didn’t even know they had enemies. “Guess again. It’s from today’s Best Young Flier competition. Which means I’m the best thing in the skies right now.” Nimbus muttered something under her breath behind me.
“Oh, that. Well, it’s good to know that the pegasi’s proud tradition of unbridled arrogance has carried on to the next generation,” said the mare, slowly strolling forward. “Though I must say it’s a pity that Cloudsdale’s standards have fallen so far.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?” She was an earth pony, what did she know about good flying?
She stepped closer again, almost close enough to reach, and leaned forward, eyes narrowed. “That if a scrawny little foal like you is the best they can come up with, well, the future of flight in Equestria is looking pretty dim.”
“Oh, that’s it!” I’d taken enough abuse already, and I wasn’t gonna stand for any more trash talk from complete strangers! I spread my wings and pounced, and just before I had her she stepped back and suddenly the four griffons I’d forgotten to keep an eye on were there instead. They didn’t lay into me, but being pinned to the ground by eight claws doesn’t feel much better. It was the third fight I’d lost that day, if I counted getting decked, the second time I’d eaten dirt, and I swore it’d be the last time I let myself get beaten like that.
“Get off her!”
“Get off me!”
“I told you to stop picking fights, dummy!” Me and Red, again. And Nimbus.
The mare walked back towards me, her purple hooves all I could see from the ground. It felt too familiar. “Pfeh. ‘Best Young Flier.’ Foals giving awards to foals.” She leaned over, and while I didn’t feel the crown’s weight when it was on, I could tell when it was gone. I craned my head up a little further just in time to see it slip into her saddlebag. “Nothing compared to our real haul, but it’d be a shame to let such fine gold go to waste.” One leg motioned forward and the griffons tossed me back at the Wonderbolts. Red caught me on his back and put me down gently. A couple hours earlier, I would’ve freaked out at being that close, but right then it was just nice to hit something besides solid stone again.
“Alright, Dunderdolts and guest, here’s how it is.” Her stance shifted just enough to tell that she meant business. “You’re annoying and ineffectual, but I honestly don't want your blood on my hooves in addition to high theft if I can help it. So you’re going to come inside with me and my crew, watch us sail out of here, and then stay put for three hours.” The scowl stuck on her face got worse. “If I see you before then, I may forget to cut the ropes binding the twit we have tied up in the brig before throwing him overboard. Would you believe he broke in there himself, thinking we’d already captured the rest of you? His loss. And yours. Do we have an understanding?” It was the sort of question that dared us to challenge it.
“Very well,” said Red. “As long as you don’t hurt—“
“No, we don’t have an understanding!” I yelled. I don’t back down from dares. “We’re just gonna let them get away?”
He raised an eyebrow, even from behind the goggles. “You have a better idea?”
“You’re the team captain, don’t you?” I had to think of something or the only people around who were even bigger jerks than Nimbus were going to win. No matter what my problems with the Wonderbolts were right then, I couldn’t let that happen. “Wait, we’re in the middle of the mountains,” I said, shaking my head. “They can’t sail away when we’re a mile above sea level!” I really should’ve known it wasn’t that simple. Nothing else had been, that day.
The mare smiled for the first time, but it didn’t reach her eyes. “You really are clueless. Reminds me of why I don’t have any other ponies in the crew. Come along, then, and allow me to shatter the sheltered little world you live in.” She motioned back, into the cave. “You first.” The griffons parted to the sides, leaving the way open. The Wonderbolts looked at each other, then went on in. I stared her down for a moment, but then the griffons started pushing me forward and I didn’t really feel like trying five on one odds.
The tunnel went straight back and opened into a cavern a couple hundred hooves high. It reminded me of that dragon’s hoard we went to. Probably was one in the past. The walls were lined with a series of dim, flickering lights which were just bright enough to light up the place. For a secret hideout, it was pretty boring. Some crates, a couple tables, a big patch of moss on the wall, nothing cool. Except for it.
“To bring you up to speed, I am the illustrious Captain Stirrup, prized quarry of those lackeys of the throne in front of you, and this is my pride and joy, the finest vessel ever to sail the skies, the Saucy Mare!” She’d reared back and stretched both front legs out to draw our attention like a showpony, but it wasn’t like we could miss seeing it.
In front of us was an entire ship like the ones they have way out on the coast, but it wasn’t like any ship you’ve ever seen. A bunch of cables ran up from the deck, and above it was the biggest balloon in the world, shaped like an egg, or maybe a really fat fish—
“Wait, wait, wait, hold it!”
Come on, Twilight, I can’t stop here!
“And I can’t keep quiet any longer! This is ridiculous!” Twilight was on her hooves and pacing back and forth. “I was with you up to the point where the Wonderbolts almost knocked you out, and I can maybe believe that, but they are not some secret royal police force! It’s one of the oldest conspiracy theories there is! You might as well believe in the Unicorns in Black, or the Twelve Majestic Mares!”
“I dunno if I’d call them police, ‘cause I don’t think they officially arrest anypony. But they’re definitely tied to the throne, believe it or not,” said Rainbow Dash, who’d started hovering upright with her front legs crossed in response to Twilight’s pacing.
“And I don’t! I lived in the palace for years, and the Wonderbolts only ever showed up for special royal celebrations.”
“Apparently there were enough ‘royal celebrations’ that they recognized you,” Dash countered.
Twilight stopped to draw a circle in the mud. “Well... they could’ve just seen my picture in the papers.”
“And by papers, she means tabloids,” said Spike, keeping an eye on the rose nestled in her mane in case it changed back.
“It’s a long story,” she added quickly, before Rainbow could ask the question etched on her face.
“And you’re gonna tell it to me later, but okay.” Dash dropped back to the ground. Getting a juicy bit of information like that was worth a little arguing. “Did you ever wonder why they show up for royal parties all the time if they aren’t on the palace’s payroll?”
“Because they’re great performers, and popular, and—”
Dash waved her concerns aside. “Big Top and Center Ring’s circus is popular too, and you don’t see them at the palace.”
“Actually, they swing by every few months to visit the Princess’s menagerie.” Dash buried her face in her hooves. “It’s just that they’re the only ones qualified to give checkups to the more exotic animals in her collection,” Twilight clarified. “And she likes the dancing bears,” she added after some thought.
“You should see them tango!” said Spike, without turning from his target. The discarded thorns had just flashed into pebbles. It was only a matter of time.
Rainbow Dash picked herself back up. “Let’s try a different angle. You said it yourself, the Princess meets Autumn Westwind on a regular basis, right?”
“For the sake of philanthropy!” said Twilight.
“Yeah, sure. Here’s another thing I dug up that an egghead like you might know.” Twilight rolled her eyes, but Dash went on. “The first captain of the Wonderbolts, you know who he was a week before the team got started?”
“A weather pon—”
“That’s right, the captain of the Royal Guard!” Rainbow sprung to her hooves, incapable of sitting still and gloating at the same time. “One day he retires out of the blue, and the next thing you know he’s leading this mysterious new team of ace fliers. Just try and tell me that’s not suspicious.”
“I think she’s got you there, Twilight,” said Spike, wagging a finger. “And besides, everybody knows the Unicorns in Black are real, so what’s one more secret group?” His arms froze mid-gesture. “Wait, what if the Princess sends out the UIB to draw attention away from the secret operations of the Wonderbolts? And maybe the Wonderbolts are just there to distract us from her secret ninja squad!” He looked around frantically before diving behind Twilight’s tail, venturing only to poke his snout and eyes through the hair. “They could be watching us right now!”
(There was no ninja squad, but Spike was otherwise closer to the truth than he realized. The original rumors about the UIB’s existence had been started by Princess Celestia herself several centuries ago to give the burgeoning news industry something to temporarily latch onto besides royal gossip. To her surprise, the story took on a life of its own and entered the folklore of the common pony. In response, she began occasionally sending out small groups of the darker-furred members of the Royal Guard to wander the high-rent districts of Canterlot. Just for show. They’d drawn less attention than usual as of late, however, as the ponies who usually followed them with interest were enthralled by an exciting new branch of conspiracy tentatively known as the Luna Landing Hoax.)
“You read too many comics, Spike,” said Twilight.
Pinkie did her best to hide behind the dragon, not wanting to miss an opportunity to get into the spirit of things. “Ooh, are we playing hide-and- go-seek? I love hide-and-go-seek! I’ll count! One... two... three... four...”
“Pinkie, they’re ninjas!” protested Spike. “You can’t find a ninja!”
“That’s what they think! Five... six... seven...”
“I still say you can’t prove it, but okay, maybe I can’t prove that the Wonderbolts really are just a flight team either,” said Twilight. “But you can’t be serious about a bunch of pirates having a zeppelin!”
“A what?” replied Dash.
Twilight was met with a blank stare.
“...the big balloon ship thingy.”
Recognition dawned. “Oooh, that. What’s the problem with that?”
“They don’t exist!” Twilight resumed pacing in circles around Rainbow, prompting Spike to bolt for the safety of the nearest tree. Pinkie stayed put. “It’s incredibly difficult to build a stable balloon of the size you’d need for large scale transport, let alone one capable of carrying an entire ship like you’re talking about. Never mind the problems with steering and propulsion.” She closed her eyes momentarily to run the numbers in her head, and shuddered. “With so many pegasus shipping services around, nopony in Equestria has ever bothered developing one past the theoretical stages.”
“Well, somepony figured it out.”
“Hmm.” The two opposed ponies stared at each other, unwilling to give up.
Rainbow Dash cracked first, as Twilight rounded her flank again. “What’d you want me to do, ask the nice band of pirates for the name of the used cart dealer they got it from?”
“I’m just curious how a band of criminals got their hooves on a piece of high technology that we aren’t able to actually produce.”
“They stole it, I dunno.” Dash shrugged. “Are you done complaining about stuff I saw yet?”
Twilight stopped and sighed, the look on her face briefly betraying an internal struggle. Resignation won out. “We’re all ears, keep going.”
“Thirty-seven... thirty-eight... but if I were all ears then I wouldn’t have a mouth and then I couldn’t eat cookies and ice cream and peanut brittle and that’d be really sad, Twilight! Eighty-three... Eighty-four...”
“There! Ninja! Wait, no, that’s just a turtle. Can turtles be ninjas?”
“Continue, please,” said Twilight.
Like I was saying, the zaplint or whatever was huge. A bunch of dog guys like the ones that ponynapped Rarity last week were hauling the last of the crates onboard, and a dozen or so little rat-looking guys scrambled on after them and went inside somewhere. The rest of the cavern looked empty except for the torches and junk scattered around. Either they hadn’t been here long, or they were packing up and leaving for good.
Captain Stirrup and the griffons went past us and headed on up. “Beautiful ship, isn’t she? Flight for everyone, not just the lucky few with wings. Take a good look, because I don’t plan on ever coming back to this rotten country.” She stuck her head below deck for a moment. “Start pedaling, you lazy rats!” The propellers on the sides started spinning up, causing the wind I felt earlier to blow in again. Mystery solved. “You won’t miss me and I won’t miss you and we’ll all be happier. Ripping you chumps off for enough gold to make a dragon jealous, that makes me happy too. Weigh anchor!” Slowly, the ship started moving forward, hoof by hoof. If they were in a hurry, they weren’t going anywhere fast. No wonder she wanted three hours. She leaned on the railing one last time and shook a hoof at us. “Remember, no pursuit or your friend gets it!”
So we waited. The pirates sailed on out of sight, and eventually out of hearing, too. And then we waited some more. “That’s it? We’re really letting the bad guys get away? No chase, no rescue?” I asked Red. “I mean, this whole thing isn’t what I expected out of you guys, but I know you aren’t quitters. What happened to ‘make the best of a bad situation’?”
“This is bad. Very bad.” The nervous energy and frustration he’d had before had drained away. All that was left was a pony who couldn’t do anything but sigh and stare down at his hooves. It made my feathers itch. “Maybe too bad. I... I don’t know how to make the best of this one. We’re in way over our heads here. Large, organized gangs aren’t what we’re used to dealing with, but a certain somepony in charge thinks we can and I’m stuck figuring out how.” He let out a bitter laugh at that. “Not that I’ve been much good at it. Stirrup and her crew have been plundering trade caravans and small towns for months.” Quiet anger crept into his voice. “We’ve never been able to catch them off guard, and even with the whole team we’re outnumbered by too much to risk an assault. We finally managed to trail them back to this region, and I’d hoped we could sneak in and sabotage the balloon while they were busy, but...” The anger fizzled. “It’s all gone wrong now. If Autumn hadn’t gotten captured we might’ve still pulled if off. But after the mess I’ve made of the job? I’m not sure there’ll still be a Wonderbolts by this time tomorrow.”
I couldn’t believe it. The day I finally meet my hero, the captain of the Wonderbolts himself, he starts talking about the team breaking up? No. No. Not on my watch. “What happened to you?” He wouldn’t look at me, but I stuck a hoof under his chin and pulled his head up. I was going to get an answer this time. “You used to be able to get back up from anything. Even that time you slammed into a tree and sprained an ankle trying to do that rolling hairpin turn, you didn’t go home, you kept trying until you got it right. And you’re gonna stop now?”
He looked at me funny. “That was years ago. And I never told anypony how it happened.” Guess he never noticed me after all.
Now I was the one who couldn’t make eye contact. “I, uh, I used to watch you practice, back in Cloudsdale. That’s basically why I’m even here today.” His jaw dropped a little. I kept talking before he could say anything to make things even more awkward. “That’s why I wanted to figure out the Sonic Rainboom, right? Because I figured if I could do something even cooler than you could, the Wonderbolts would have to take me. I spent hundreds of hours trying it over and over, and I’ve got the scrapes and bruises to prove it.” I rubbed one of them on my neck that’d been aching all day. Nopony ever said stunt flying was for wimps. “All the way up until the competition I still couldn’t pull it off. But what I did know is that I couldn’t give up, because that’s what being a Wonderbolt’s all about, right?” That sounded right. I could finally stand to go face to face with him again. “Picking yourself up and dusting yourself off until you catch your dream? That’s the kind of pony I thought you were.” I didn’t know exactly what point I was trying to make, but Red looked like he was figuring something out.
“Well said, Miss Dash! My estimation of you improves more and more with each passing moment we spend together.”
I was not startled and did not scream like a little filly just because somepony snuck up on me.
“Don’t encourage her. Hey boss, are you two done gabbing yet? We’ve been had.” I hadn’t noticed Nimbus going anywhere, but she came flying up behind Autumn, who looked a lot less tied up on a ship a mile away from here than I’d expected.
Whatever train of thought Red had been on was completely derailed. “I... wha... Autumn! Where’ve you been? What are you doing here?”
“I had the peculiar misfortune to seek refuge from my pursuer in the very cavern we were looking for, it seems,” he said. “With no readily apparent avenue of escape, I took the opportunity to make a quick tour of the vessel’s interior. Marvelous work, incidentally.” No wonder you liked him, Twilight. He’s the only other pony I know who could get distracted by science in the middle of a life-threatening situation. “The crew caught up with me rather quicker than I would have liked, however.”
“Yeah, turns out they had him bound and gagged and stuffed in a sack on the floor this whole time,” said Nimbus. “Couldn’t see him because of the ship in the way before, and the lighting’s bad enough that I almost tripped over him when I went for a look around.”
“But if he’s here,” Red sputtered, “then what was she planning—”
“Drop it!” We only had a second to figure out where the yell came from before a super-loud clang sound almost made us deaf. A giant gate of metal bars had dropped from the shadows above, sealing the cavern off from the outer cave. A second later a couple of the little rat guys from earlier came sliding down the chains attached to it and dove through the gaps between the bars, carrying something shiny in their paws.
Being in a cave is bad enough, but being locked in a cave? Oh no. Not happening. I was up to it like lightning, kicking and pulling, but it wouldn’t budge. Trying to squeeze through the bars didn’t work any better. They were spaced just a little too close together for a pony to get through.
It turns out that the first rule of dealing with pirates is to never trust them about anything, even their own escapes. “Tsk tsk.” Captain Stirrup came floating up to the other side of the gate riding one of the griffons, who had the two rats in her claws. “I didn’t imagine you would take so long to find him. Should’ve expected that you lot would obey an order to sit still like a trained puppy, I suppose. No matter. Basalt!” She clapped her hooves together twice. “Time to pull your weight!”
I turned around to try and figure out what she was yelling at. The place was still basically empty. Empty crates, empty tables, and mostly empty walls, except for the torches and the big patch of moss. The big moving patch of moss. “Uh, guys?”
“Madame Stirrup, it’s still not too late to turn from your misspent life of crime!” called Autumn.
No, it wasn’t the moss that was moving, it was the wall the moss was growing on. Of course, walls don’t usually do something that looks a lot like standing up. “Guys, you might want to turn—”
“Oh, but I already have,” said Stirrup. “I’ve stolen so much already that I don’t need any more. So farewell, Blunderbolts! I don’t expect we’ll meet again.” I didn’t see them fly off. It was hard to tear myself away from watching the wall grow arms and legs.
“It’s Wonderbolts! Wonder! Bolts!” yelled Nimbus. “Crazy mare.”
“I don’t believe she quite grasped my point,” Autumn muttered.
Red was the only one paying any attention to me. “Rainbow Dash,” he said while turning to follow my gaze, “what are you staring... at?” He looked up. And up. The “wall” turned around too. It was at least as tall as three ponies, maybe four, had glowing ruby eyes, and teeth like diamonds. “Oh.” Autumn and Nimbus glanced back and bolted halfway across the room, landing in a fighting stance with their wings flared. Red just stared the monster down for a moment. And then he relaxed. “You know, I think she was lying about not wanting to kill us.”
“You think?” called Nimbus.
“Seems like an awful lot of trouble to go to, though,” he replied, flapping right up to the thing’s ugly face. “Basalt, was it?”
“Yup.” It could talk!
“You wouldn’t happen to be the same troll we kicked out of Equestria about five months ago, would you? I think I recognize the shade of ruby, and the distinctive way you have bits of sheep stuck in your molars.” He pointed to the part he meant, and there really was a scrap of wool there.
“One and der same.” Imagine a talking avalanche and you’re most of the way to knowing what it sounded like. And don’t ask me if it was a guy or a girl, ‘cause I never did figure that out. I’m just gonna call it a he.
“No hard feelings?”
“Dey were der worst months of my life.” He stood up straight, stretched, and scratched a spot on his back. Those arms were long.
“Yeah, dat’s dragon ter... tera... terraror...” I guess being a living rock didn’t make him a smart rock.
“Territory?” suggested Red.
“Land, dat’s it. Not organized or nuttin, but dere’s enuffa dem ta make a troll nervous.” Somehow he managed to crack his knuckles. I don’t know how something made of stone even does that.
“Right, I think I’d heard something about that before, now that you mention it. Poor vacation spot, then?” Red sounded awfully chipper for a guy hovering within arm’s reach of a giant monster.
“Dragons, see, dey love us trolls.” Red opened his mouth to say something. “Real tasty onna count of our gem-like min’rel structure.” And then he closed it again. The troll started acting out his story with big, sweeping gestures that Red had to avoid. “So der cap’n, she find me hidin’ and say ‘what big strong troll like you doin’ inna place like dis,’ and I say ‘you is either brave or stupid pony ta talk ta troll like me,’ but not too loud ‘cause a dragon mighta heard and den she said ‘I not on der menu but iffn you come with me you get reg’lar meals and no dragon worries’ and I tink dat a pretty good deal. Anyhow, now I is on guard here and get a whole sheep or goat or sometimes a pig ev’ry day. Der good life.” Red drifted back into place. The arms were pretty slow, but getting hit still would’ve hurt.
He looked over his shoulder, back at us. “Hey, Nimbus? Remind me to close the case about all the missing livestock complaints when we get home.”
“Sure thing, boss.”
“Perhaps we should inform the papers that the culprit was not, in fact, some mysterious form of extraequestrian intelligence,” said Autumn.
“What, and spoil their fun?” replied Red. “I don’t think trolls are native to Equestria anyway, so they still count. I’m less sure about the intelligence part.” He turned back around, but the troll hadn’t reacted to the jab. “In any case, Basalt, we’re in something of a hurry here so if you don’t mind we’ll just figure out how to get through this gate and get out of your mane. Moss. Out of your moss. Alright?”
“Nope. Cap’n said ‘crush dem inta glue’ and I’m tinkin’ I’d like ta do dat. Hold still.” Wham! One second the walking wall was standing still, and then just like that he’d smashed his hands together right where Red was hovering. Way faster than he let on. He pulled his hands apart and looked at them all confused, like he was surprised not to see pony paste there.
Red had stopped flying just in time and hit the ground standing. “How about I give you a rain check and we’ll come back in the evening to finish this?”
“Checked earlier. Wasn’t rainin’.” One massive leg swung up for just a moment before slamming down into the ground—bam!—with enough force to leave a small crater, scattering shards of rock everywhere. A couple bits nicked me, followed by Red’s flying body that’d gone sailing from the force of the near hit. We both went tumbling backwards in tangle of hooves and wings. Getting thrown into each other really wasn’t how I’d meant to spend time together.
One of the lessons I learned that day is that you don’t have to be smart when you’re thirty hooves tall, made of rock, and run and hit like a train.
“Move move move!” I got bucked hard in one direction, then Autumn blasted down and pulled Red out of the way just before a double-handed overhead hit crashed down and took another chunk out of the floor. If this went on too long, there wasn’t going to be any stable ground left to stand on.
Good thing we were all pegasi. The air was definitely the safest place right then, and we grouped up at the top of the cavern out of reach. “Alright,” said Red, “here’s the plan. Autumn, Nimbus, get that gate open. There has to be some sort of control mechanism on one side or the other. Crawl through the bars if you have to, Nimbus.” I let out a snort and she glared at me, but I didn’t care. It was just good to see Red finally looking how I remembered him, like nearly being flattened three times in a row was the best thing that’d happened to him all day. “I’ll keep Basalt busy. Rainbow Dash, keep out of the way and don’t get yourself hurt.”
Or maybe he was just crazy. “You can’t take that thing alone!”
He shook his head. “Maybe, maybe not. But right now you’re under my watch and I am not letting this year’s best young flier go home crippled or worse because she got wrapped up in a Wonderbolt mistake. There’s more to this than just flying.”
“And there’s no way I’m letting you get squashed by a monster when I can help!”
“I’ll be fine!” he protested.
“Me too! Look, I kicked a dragon in the face once and I’m still here, and this thing can’t even breathe fire. I can take it!”
“A dragon?” asked Nimbus. “When?”
“Sometime last fall. Big red guy, big smoke problem, blah blah blah. It was easy.” She didn’t need to know who actually got rid of it.
“That was you?”
“Oh, you know about tha—” A table crashed into the ceiling nearby, showering us with splinters. Down below, the troll was already busy ripping up a chunk of the floor like he was pulling weeds.
“Argue about it later,” Red cut in. “You’ve got your orders, go!” The Wonderbolts all shot off in different directions and the next boulder came screaming in right behind them. We were gonna have to be careful even in the air if the big lug’s aim got any better.
Staying out of the fight wasn’t gonna happen. Sure, I like the Wonderbolts, but they don’t get to order me around until I’m on the team. So I caught up with Red, who’d started flying a wide circle around the edge of the cavern. He didn’t seem happy to see me, but that was his problem. “What’s the plan? How’d you guys beat him before?”
“We didn’t!” he called back.
“What? How’d you kick him out of Equestria a few months ago if you didn’t beat him?” A pair of rocks smashed into the wall behind us.
“We tied him to a hot air balloon while he was asleep and dragged him across the border. You’d have to be nuts to attack head on!”
“Oh yeah? Then let’s get nuts!” A little ways in front of us, a spike of what used to be the floor hit the wall and stuck there. Red dove under. I hit it hooves first and pushed off towards the troll. I think a couple of the Wonderbolts yelled at me to stop, but if they were gonna be wimps about it, what did I care? Flight school taught me that there aren’t a lot of problems you can’t solve with a good kick to the other guy’s face.
I let out a “Hiiiyaaaaaaaaa!” and covered the gap in a flash. Basalt wasn’t expecting one of us to actually come straight at him and just stood there, the perfect target. I could see the future already: Rainbow Dash one, dumb troll none, thanks for saving the day, and here’s your invitation to the Wonderbolts for being way more awesome than us. I broke into a wide grin just thinking about it. And at the last second, the troll did too. Hoof met stone with a loud crack and a few smaller crunching noises. The crack was one of Basalt’s teeth coming loose, which he casually spat back out over my shoulder. The crunching noises were every joint in my front legs smashing together at the same time because the stupid thing didn’t move an inch.
Part of why I left flight school was because they had this thing about how you can’t solve all your problems by kicking jerks in the face. It sounded silly at the time, but they might’ve actually had something there.
“Der cap’n is either brave or stupid. You, I tink, is just stupid.” Fortunately I’ve had enough experience with cra— er, hard landings that they don’t faze me much any more. By the time Basalt made a grab for me, I was already gone and back at Red’s side.
“Are you okay?” He didn’t yell at me because I failed, or because I didn’t listen. Not even a snarky comment. That was nice.
“Y-Yeah, I’m fine.” As long as I didn’t have to walk anywhere for a while, anyway. “Hit a wall, big deal. Did you think of anything yet?”
“After watching you almost break a leg?” He shook his head. “Nope. Autumn, how’s it going?”
Autumn came down to join us while Nimbus started flying tight circles around the troll to keep him distracted. Better her than me. “Nothing but bad news, old chum. We found the mechanism to raise the gate bolted to the ceiling. It’s quite a simple setup, really, nothing but elementary machinery.”
“How’s that bad news?”
“All that’s left of it are the bolts and chains. There’re obvious spots for a crank and gears,” he said, swirling one hoof in a circle, “but I’m fairly certain the kobolds that escaped dismantled it and took the parts with them.”
“So the gate isn’t coming back up, then. Great.” A crash and a yelp from the center distracted us, but Nimbus got back up and started flying even faster. “Any other way out?”
“None that we’ve noticed. I could have blasted away the supports holding it in place with a little black powder.” He didn’t say “hint, hint,” but you could hear it anyway.
“Autumn, you’re the last pony I’d let carry an explosive in the lining of his suit.”
“Well, if you hadn’t vetoed the Wonderbelt, I wouldn’t have to keep it near the corrosive acid.”
“The belt caused too much drag,” Red replied, keeping an eye on Nimbus. She’d gotten a little tornado of gravel going, which kept the three of us out of sight. Then what Autumn had actually said finally got through and he did a double take. “Wait, what acid?”
“Oh, did I forget to tell you about it? It’s a wonderful new mixture I cooked up to help refine my other metallurgical creations. Eats away half an inch of most known metals in under half an hour! I keep a vial on my person now for just such an occasion.” His suit looked skintight to me, but I figured I’d better not poke it in case he might burst into flame or something. Never did figure out where they actually kept all that junk.
Red sighed and nodded. “Longer than I’d like to spend tangling with a troll, but okay, do it. And you’re going to give me a rundown of everything you’re carrying around this evening.”
“If I could use it now, I would, believe me.” Red gave him one of those looks that said he only had a few seconds to explain. “The whole vial was already put to use earlier, you see.”
Autumn tilted one hoof back and forth. “A little trick here, a little sabotage there. Their brig isn’t as secure as it used to be, thanks to my little tour. Not what I’d call the pressing issue of the moment though, hm? Buy me some more time and I’ll see what else I can do.”
“Alright.” Red gave him a slight nod, and Autumn sped off. He started tapping his chin with a hoof. “So that’s how he did it. I thought that explanation sounded bogus. Canterlot doesn’t have a foundry.”
“How he did what?” I asked. Being left out of the loop still sucked.
But no, apparently we were back to playing Don’t Tell Rainbow Dash Anything. “Nimbus, fall back! Rainbow, stick close and help me keep it distracted.” Not too hard at the moment. Nimbus’s gravel whirlwind collapsed, revealing a dizzy and disoriented troll stumbling around and taking swipes at ponies who weren’t there. Red came to a stop in the air right in front of his face again, just out of arm’s reach this time. “What’s the matter, big guy? Did the mean little ponies confuse you?”
“Dere you are!” The troll swung an arm out, but Red was already back down on the floor, hopping from hoof to hoof.
“Too slow!” He dove between Basalt’s legs just as he raised one up for another stomp and looped around from above, twisting in the air to look at him face to face and upside-down. “Wrong again!” For a split second he landed on the outstretched leg, then bolted away just in time for the thing’s big fat fist to take a chip out of his own knee. So cool.
“Grraaaaaggh!” Troll, meet floor.
“Hah! How do you like the ground, pal?” I asked. Finally, someone besides me ate dirt that day. Things were looking up. So was Basalt, who was already getting back on his feet with another chunk of rock in hand. “C’mon, take your best shot.” If Red was quick enough to stay one step ahead after all, so was I. The rock came flying through the air in a slow and lazy arc that I didn’t even have to try to avoid. “You throw like a filly—whoa!” A much bigger, much faster rock came sailing in high right behind the first and brushed my mane as it went over. I couldn’t help turning to watch it crash into the gate behind me, like I had to make sure it was really dead or something. “That’s—okay, that’s better.”
Apparently Nimbus really was small enough to slip through the bars, ‘cause she was on the other side watching us fight. “Keep moving! Now!”
“Huh?” I did a quick pivot. “Ohcrapohcrapohcrap!” Behind that boulder came the biggest, fastest one of all, and by that I mean I had an entire troll flying right at me. It’s just not fair for something that large to be that agile. Of course, it’s not fair for me to be so much faster and cooler than everypony else either, so I guess some of us are just born awesome like that. A slower pony wouldn’t have been able to twist out of the way at the last second, for instance. Big ugly went on past and slammed into the gate, which turned out to be the only thing around he couldn’t pulverize on contact. The bars bent in a little, though. The impact left him dazed enough that he staggered around and ran into a nearby torch on the wall.
Nimbus slipped back through to our side, keeping an eye on the groggy troll below. “Nice dodge. Keep on not dying, I have an idea.” She started flying up to Autumn, then stopped. “Try to make him mad. You should remember why.”
If she thought she could sucker punch this guy, she had another thing coming. He was just glaring up at me for the time being. One hand was clamped down on his head, and thin trails of smoke seeped between the fingers. The torch must’ve lit up his hair.
Red came over to me this time. “We’re learning his moves, but he’s learning ours,” he said. “And I bet he can keep going longer than we can.”
“Nimbus wants us to tick him off some more,” I replied. I kept my eyes on the troll, and he kept his eyes on us. “You know, I didn’t think moss could burn.”
“Beats me. We don’t exactly get a lot of it in Canterlot. But if it can... hm.” He didn’t finish the thought, but he started looking around the cavern. The lights lining the wall still blazed away. “That’ll work. Be right back!” These weren’t pony torches either. They were the short, stubby kind made by people who don’t have to worry about holding an open flame less than a hoof away from their face using their teeth. That was when I knew for sure that Red Sky was seriously a crazy pony, ‘cause he flew over and wrenched one right off the wall like it was part of a Wonderbolts routine. Maybe it’s something new they’re working on. One way or the other, he darted over to Basalt and rammed the burning end of the torch into the moss carpeting the troll’s back.
“Hey! What you doing? Leave dat alone!” He twisted around to shake Red off, but the damage was already done, and a full-blown fire erupted in a spot his arms couldn’t reach. Red dropped the stub on the troll’s head for good measure and took off, one side of his suit’s mask scorched black. Basalt erupted into a towering column of flame behind him, finally bringing some real light to the dim cavern. “No! No! Make it stop!”
“Okay Nimbus, he’s mad and on fire,” I called up. “I hope your brilliant idea is about ready!” She and Autumn were doing something up on the ceiling, but for all I knew they were making bets on which one of us bit it first.
“You... you burned it! Dat took monts ta grow!” I guess the moss was some sort of troll fashion statement. Who knew?
“Nimbus!” All I could hear over the enraged troll was some angry mumbling from above and Red’s heavy breathing. He never did get that drink earlier, and he definitely wasn’t looking good after a stunt like that.
“Stupid ponies burned it all! Stupid... stupid... gaaaaaaarrgh!” If being pounced by a troll over and over was bad before, now it was ten times worse. He gave up on making actual words and charged at us like a living meteor, anger burning in his ruby eyes hotter than the actual fire. I grabbed Red and dragged him up out of arm’s reach. Dealing with flying rocks seemed safer than hanging around the bottom all of a sudden.
“Guys? Hello? Little help?” The troll must not’ve seen us fly away, because he went completely berserk, howling with rage and punching the floor at random. If any of us did land, we’d probably break something trying to run across all the gravel and craters.
“Got it!” There was a loud cracking noise, and one of the big chains attached to the gate fell from the ceiling and crashed into the floor. “Miss Dash, take that and secure the target! Hurry!” Tie up the incredibly dangerous flaming troll with the incredibly heavy hunk of metal. Great.
But if Rainbow Dash can’t do it, it can’t be done, right? I dove for the loose end. Heavy doesn’t begin to describe it. Okay, I carried four ponies at once earlier that day, but it turns out that a pony is a lot lighter than a pony’s size in steel. It took everything I had just to get the chain off the ground, and my legs were screaming from the beating they took earlier. And then Basalt saw me. He charged.
I’ve never been so happy to see another pair of hooves, even when they did turn out to belong to Nimbus. She’s small, but she was enough to pick up the slack and get us both out of the way before we got flattened. The troll slammed into the outstretched chain, swinging the two of us at the end in a wide arc around it. We used the momentum to start flying a loop around his chest, wrapping him up link by link. He pulled at the chain, but didn’t think to just grab us. Autumn and Red came down with the other one soon after and wound around him going the other way. I’d like to see AJ top that with her little rope.
Not that it stopped the big guy from trying to break out. Being on fire and weighed down by a ton of metal still wasn’t enough to bring him down. If he’d just walked over to the gate, there probably would’ve been enough slack for the loops to fall right off. Instead, he thrashed and roared and kept pulling against them. Red floated in front of his face again, opposite the exit cave. “Well, so much... so much for your boss’s... deathtrap... eh?” The poor guy was completely out of breath.
“Rrrragh!” Basalt flung himself forward as hard as he could. Something groaned, and Autumn motioned for us to back away from the gate.
“Yeah, I... I don’t feel like talking either. We’ll be back later. I don’t know where we’re going to find a balloon to fly you across the border around here, though.”
“GRRRAAAAAAHHH!” The chains snapped taut one last time, and then I learned what a horrible sound tearing metal makes. It’s like hearing a thousand cats clawing a chalkboard. The gate itself held together, but whoever built it didn’t put as much effort into the supports holding it in place, ‘cause they ripped right apart. The whole thing went flying through the air and clobbered Basalt from behind, sending him crashing to the ground for good in a flaming heap. Freedom at last!
“Everypony, let’s go!” Red tore out of there like a light and vanished into the mist, myself and the other Wonderbolts right behind him. None of us looked back.
Seriously, I’m never following anypony into a cave again.
“Alright, what’s the problem now?”
“Who, me?” said Twilight.
“Yes, you!” Rainbow Dash pointed at her with the unmistakable precision of a lawyer making accusations in court. “You’ve got that look on your face that says you’ve got some more complaining to do.”
“And I wasn’t going to say anything this time. I thought you’d be happy that I didn’t interrupt again,” she replied.
“Well, sorta, but it’s hard to concentrate on storytelling when you’re sitting there looking like such a know-it-all.”
“It’s nothing. Really.” Her mildly amused smile suggested otherwise.
Rainbow Dash took to flying a slow, tight circle around the sole attentive member of her audience. “C’mon, Twi. If you’re thinking then you aren’t listening, and if you aren’t listening then there’s no point to me telling the story. I would’ve stopped sooner, but I didn’t wanna break up the big fight scene.”
“Funny you should mention that, actually.”
“What? That was a thing! That happened!” She came to a halt hovering in front of Twilight. “It’s because we lit the troll on fire, isn’t it? You don’t believe we actually lit a troll on fire.”
Twilight rested her chin on one hoof. “That’s not exactly plausible, but... I mean, I can buy a foreign pirate crew being staffed by griffons and gnolls and kobolds—”
“Wait, what’re those last two?”
Twilight’s ears perked up at the chance to give a lecture. “You already mentioned them earlier. The kobolds are your ‘rat-looking guys’. Historically, they’ve been subservient to one species or another most of the time, usually to do menial labor. Especially mining.” Under the call of her magic, a small collection of rocks and leaves quickly formed themselves into a crude diorama of digging figures. “We think they were probably the ones to invent the candle.” The leaf on one figure’s head caught fire. “And to discover that taking an open flame into a coal mine is a bad idea.” The magic holding the scene’s ceiling together faded, crushing the rest back into a pile of rubble. “And to pioneer a lot of cave-in recovery techniques.”
Dash backed up until she was comfortably away from the scene of carnage. “You know what you don’t have to worry about collapsing on your head? Clouds.”
Twilight continued, forming a vaguely canine shape from the remains. “Similarly, gnolls are your ‘dog guys’. They’re usually the ones controlling the kobolds.”
“I thought Rarity called them Diamond Dogs.” The stone golem waved, and she cautiously waved back.
“That’s what they called themselves!” piped up Spike from behind Twilight, startling her enough that her magical grip was lost and the effigy crumbled back into its component parts.
“Hey there, short stuff,” said Rainbow Dash. “Where’d Pinkie go? You guys missed all the cool parts. I mean, not all of them ‘cause I’m in the whole thing, but one of the big life-and-death bits.”
“Aw, really? Nuts.” One hand snapped in frustration. “Pinkie’s busy climbing up and down all the trees looking for someone to find. I tried to tell her no one’s actually hiding, but she seems pretty convinced. And I was still hungry,” he finished, resuming his perch on top of the remaining pile of gourmet granite.
“Diamond Dog isn’t actually the name of their species,” Twilight continued, reforming the figurine. “At least not according to my books. There used to be a huge gnoll empire a long time ago, but my guess is that when the kingdom broke down they split into a bunch of different factions.” On command, it split into four smaller versions of itself. “So the ones Rarity ran into are Diamond Dogs, but there are probably other groups. Like the Ruby Rovers, or, uh... gemstone-dog, gemstone-dog... Hessonite Hounds? Something like that.”
“If you say so. Was that it?” asked Dash.
“Oh no, those two and the griffons I’m okay with. But the troll—”
“What about the troll? He was big, he was ugly, and we kicked his flank!” Rainbow Dash crushed one of the small figures under her hoof, sending the other three running in terror. “End of story. I mean, not actually the end, but you get the idea.”
“I’m not saying they don’t exist. Just that they don’t exist any more.” The sorceress frowned at the callous destruction of her work, but cancelled the come-to-life spell driving the rest before they could escape into the wild. The Everfree already had enough oddities living in it.
“Twilight, why don’t you ever make any sense?”
“You said it yourself, dragons hunt and eat trolls. The whole species went extinct a few centuries ago.”
(As with most of the rest of ponykind’s written history of the world outside Equestria, this was only half true. While dragons did indeed feast on trolls at every opportunity and had wiped them out more than once, they never really went extinct. The trolls took a grim satisfaction in knowing that at any given point in time there were decent odds that somewhere, someplace, a dragon was unwittingly donating its magic to spawning the next generation of trolls by taking a hundred-year nap inside a hungry mountain.)
“Well your books are wrong, ‘cause there’s at least one still running arou—gah!” Pinkie Pie plummeted onto Dash’s back from above and turned on the local dragon with a disappointed glare.
“Spike! You eat people? How could you?”
“What? No!” The little dragon gestured wildly with a shard of granite. “I—just because I like gemstones and rocks and stuff doesn’t mean they used to be something!” All three ponies gazed at the pile he sat on. “It was only a boulder!”
“It was hard to tell that Basalt was a thing before he started moving,” said Rainbow Dash. “Even after he started moving, if you looked at him from the right angle.” A casual lean to the side sent Pinkie rolling off.
Spike cast an uncertain look at the shard in hand before flipping it over his shoulder with a sigh and plodding over to Twilight. “I’m gonna be the first dragon in history to talk to his food before he eats it, and it’s gonna be all your fault.”
“Hey Dashie,” chirped Pinkie, “did you know there’s a tree over there with little bits of hair of all sorts of different colors just like your mane stuck in it? Isn’t that the weirdest thing? A rainbow tree!”
“Er. Sure, Pinkie, that’s weird alright. Can’t imagine what that’s about.” She quietly resolved to check her mane for missing clumps later. “Oh hey, Twilight, that reminds me! Another weird thing I wanted to ask you about anyway. One of the griffon pirates was half-pony or something instead of half-lion. Y’know, hooves and a hairy tail and all that,” she said, waving her own around. “Green feathers too. Is that normal? I’ve never heard of a griffon like that before, but Gilda never wanted to talk much about them in the first place.”
“Wha—Rainbow Dash, that’s a hippogriff!” Twilight sprang to her hooves, sending Spike tumbling away from what had nearly been a comfortable napping spot at her side.
“Lemme guess, they’re all supposed to be dead too. Or are they mythical this time?”
“They’re real, just incredibly rare. There haven’t been any confirmed sightings in over a hundred years.”
Dash lit up and pumped a hoof. “So I rediscovered two lost races and a legendary move in the same day? Sweet!”
“Hippogriffs aren’t really a distinct race, so to speak. Oh, how do I put this...” Twilight glanced over at Spike’s prone form out of the corner of her eyes. “Well, uh, they’re half griffon and half pony, right?”
“Yeah, the front half looked like an eagle and the rear looked like a pony.”
Twilight grimaced slightly, shaking her head. “No, I mean they’re really half griffon and half pony.”
“That’s what I said!”
“It’s... that is... a hippogriff is what you get when you take a griffon and you take a mare and then they... you know. Together. They’re like mules. You know where mules come from, right?”
Dash cocked her head. “Mommy mules and daddy mules?”
“That’s a no, then.” Her ears flattened against her head.
“You’re sure you know what you’re talking about?”
“Yes! Sort of. Maybe? I’ve only read about it.”
“I always figured those were more Rarity’s kind of books, Twi.” Rainbow Dash widened her eyes and clapped a hoof to the side of her face. “Just when you think you know a pony, she goes and surprises you.”
“Huh? Those kinds—oh!” A violent blush immediately consumed Twilight’s face. “No, the hippogriffs! It was a bestiary!” Her panicked eyes locked with Dash’s. They held each other’s gaze just long enough for Dash’s composure to break down into a series of snorts. “You’re putting me on, aren’t you.”
“You make it too easy, Twilight,” the pegasus said with a smile.
“Remember how I didn’t want to say anything?” One ear twitched in annoyance, dislodging the rock caught in her mane.
“Alright, alright,” said Rainbow, settling into a comfortable position. “Just hang tight and listen, I’m getting close to the end.”
The four of us spent a few minutes putting as much distance as we could between us and the pirate hideout. Nopony said a word. I was too busy enjoying little things like the sky to bother talking, personally, and I didn’t know what to bring up anyway. The Wonderbolts all looked beat, now that the adrenaline had worn off. The early evening chill wasn’t helping any either. So when we ran across a river flowing through a valley between the mountains, nopony needed to ask if we wanted to stop and rest for a moment. Red staggered up to the water and dunked his head in, only surfacing for a second here and there to breathe.
Nimbus broke the silence first, staring down at the dirt. “Well, hasn’t this been an exciting day? I think it’s been very exciting. Judging a contest, chasing pirates, nearly getting killed fighting a monster in a horrible trap, one thrill after another! The adventure of a lifetime.” Her voice got smaller. “So what do you say we go home while we’re ahead, before this insanity ends up being the only adventure of our lifetimes?” By the end, she sounded as shaky as she looked. “Please, Red?” For the first time, I didn’t get the feeling that she was putting up a front.
He came up just long enough to reply. “We can’t.”
“Look at yourself!” One hoof pointed at the black patch on his reflection in the water. “You need medical attention!”
“I’ve had worse. It can wai—ow, ow!”
She had his goggles off and his mask peeled away before he could react. The hair underneath wasn’t quite as charred as the cloth above it, but it didn’t look good either. When she brushed some of it aside, the skin beneath was an angry pink. “What were you thinking, boss?” She pulled her own goggles up and they stayed like that for a little while, her tracing the burn on his cheek with a gentle touch and a gentle look, while Red gazed back at her and dripped. Pink eyes looking into deep blue. It almost looked like they were... nah. Couldn’t be.
“They’re not involved, no,” said a voice behind me. I recognized it as Autumn a second after I instinctively bucked the thin air. “Wonderfully quick reflexes.”
“Don’t do that!” I hissed. “I’ve already had enough ponies sneak up on me today.”
“Of course, Miss Dash, my apologies.” At least he had the decency to look a little embarrassed about it. “We’re all on edge these days ourselves. The Wonderbolts are a tightly knit group, but recent events have left us more tightly wound than anything. Tense, and ready to snap at any time.” His eyes settled on the other two.
“Yeah, he said something like that earlier, about how this was all pretty big for you guys. Not exactly what you’re known for.”
“Quite so. I’d always taken a more hooves-off approach to improving Equestria, but this has turned out to be quite a rewarding occupation in its own way.” He let out a deep breath before going on. “Not everypony on the team feels the same, as you may have guessed.”
“That’s why Feather Flap and Shimmer Span left, right? I’d heard they felt like they were just getting too old to keep performing, and I never could figure out why. They still did great at your shows.” The Wonderbolts are amazing, don’t get me wrong, but those two in particular always flew like they were one pony in two bodies. They had something special together, even if they weren’t young superstars like Red. It was sweet, in more ways than one.
“Indeed they did,” he said, nodding. “Even now those two could still fly rings around any pegasus in Cloudsdale at a moment’s notice. No, they decided that they didn’t care to risk not seeing their grandfoals grow up. Nimbus nearly walked out with them, but the younger Sky brother came along shortly after and they’ve been difficult to pull apart ever since.” There’s something you won’t hear about in the official magazine.
Nimbus overheard that last bit. “Knock off the gossip, Autumn.”
I couldn’t let her get off that easy. “What, can’t let the word get out that you’re actually not a complete jerk to everypony you meet?”
That really got her attention. She turned my way, leaving the goggles up so she could glare at me better. “Look, hotshot, maybe you and your team can just magically whisk away dragons and fairy tales. The rest of us normal ponies get to risk our lives cleaning up everything else the hard way. So don’t tell me I don’t care,” she snarled. “Not when you’re the one who ruined the Wonderbolts.”
We both took a step forward. “My team? I did what? You take a rock to the head back there?”
“You! All of you! The Elements!” She waved one leg in a wide arc and started pacing. “One day we’re doing just fine putting on shows and occasionally doing little odd jobs for the Princess. Border reconnaissance, helping track down fleeing criminals, that sort of thing. The sort of work you’d expect a trained team of fliers to be good at. Safe work.” A lock of hair fell across her face, and she went crosseyed looking at it before blowing it to the side. “The next thing we know, some ancient ghost story comes true and you six are the biggest heroes of the last thousand years. The Princess decides that the Royal Guard can do our little jobs just fine and passes us off to her crazy battleaxe of a sister who’s got us watching the land at all hours of the night and fighting monsters like it’s still the dawn of Equestrian civilization!” She could get loud for being such a small mare.
“To be fair, it turned out that she really did found the Wonderbolts as a clandestine group of nighttime... problem solvers, way back when,” added Autumn. “‘The defenders who stand atop the sky’ was how she described them.” He smiled. Nimbus just rolled her eyes. “Rather poetic, I thought. The whole flying side of things evolved out of their training regimen.”
“And us chumps in the here and now who didn’t have the sense to quit are throwing our lives away for a worthless catchphrase and a princess who doesn’t know the meaning of the word volume,” Nimbus complained. “So yeah, thanks a lot. I think I would’ve preferred the eternal night.”
“Well... sorry?” What do you say to that? “I mean, I feel bad that I caused you guys problems, but it’s not like I had a choice either. And even if I did, I couldn’t just leave Equestria hangin’ when everypony needed me!”
Our eyes burned into each other, neither one of us willing to back down. She reminded me a little of Fluttershy when she was younger and didn’t feel like she could do anything, just with a lot more pent-up anger. “...No, you couldn’t.” She broke eye contact first and started pawing at the ground. Victory: Rainbow Dash. “It’s just so frustrating. How would you feel if you finally accomplished your dream of joining the Wonderbolts and a year later got told that if you weren’t comfortable facing down anything that might wander out of the Everfree, you should leave?”
“That’s basically what me and my friends do once in a while already, so I guess it wouldn’t really faze me.” That earned me another sour look. “Hey, Ponyville’s a pretty wild place.”
“Fine. Be a hero, then.” Nimbus turned away and flicked her tail at me. “Right now, I can’t say I’m too broken up that it’s too late to go chasing after a gang of pirates.”
“But it’s not too late,” said Red.
She stopped cold. “What.”
“Did you see how slowly their vessel was moving?” asked Autumn. “Our backup plan seems to have worked just as intended.”
“Would somepony please fill me in?” I asked. “I already know who you guys really are and what you do now, so do you think you could tell me what the hay you’re talking about for once?”
Autumn looked over to Red, who hesitated a moment before nodding. “Certainly! There are two important factors in play. The first is that they’ve abandoned their hideout, meaning that every single golden bit they’ve stolen is now onboard, and our best estimates are that they’ve amassed a very substantial pile. The second is that they took the bait we left out for them this morning.”
“Sabotage, eh? I like it!” I rubbed my hooves together for a moment, and then stopped when I realized I probably looked like one of those goofy, mustache-twirling stage villains. “What’d you get them to take, a bomb?”
“We thought about that, but if they didn’t go for the trap it would’ve resulted in an explosion in the middle of a crowded town square,” said Red.
Red went on. “The short version is that Hoofington was selected to host next year’s Summer Sun Celebration, the first time they’ve had it in decades, and the whole town’s busy with a big beautification project to get ready.” I’d wondered what all the new decorations were for. The place used to be kind of a dump. “Stirrup’s had her griffons flying by every day for a while now to see if anything attractive went up. Since they were so interested, a certain anonymous donor financed the construction of a statue of Princess Celestia. It was unveiled early today.”
“And the pirates wanted it?”
“Given that it’s four times life size and made of solid gold, I should think so. There’s nothing else like it, even in Canterlot.” He kept glancing at Autumn too, I can’t believe I didn’t get the hint. If I was that super-rich, I’d just run my own shows all about me. Might start out a little slow without the Wonderbolts’ name, but I bet I could pack out the Cloudiseum within a week.
Something didn’t add up, though. “And your idea of a trap was to let them walk away with the biggest treasure in Equestria.”
“Precisely!” exclaimed Autumn.
“You wanna run that by me again?”
“Elementary physics, my dear.” I could feel myself falling asleep already. “No criminal mind could resist such a prize, both for the sheer monetary worth of the statue and the symbolic value of stealing the Princess herself.” He hesitated briefly. “Though I’m told they rather regrettably had to behead her to move it onboard. But Stirrup’s vessel has its limits, even being the marvelous, magnificent feat of engineering that it is, and her greed appears to far outweigh her ship’s ability to move it.”
“You could’ve just said she has too much gold in the hold.” Eggheads, honestly. Nimbus got caught somewhere between a sarcastic snort and a snicker and broke into a coughing fit.
“We were hoping to stop them in their hideout, but if that failed, we didn’t want them to get far,” said Red. “Just a matter of figuring out which direction they went. As long as they aren’t holed up somewhere else here in the Mistery range.”
I shook my head. “Nah. The rest of the Wonderbolts would be all over this place if you never came back, and maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think we were supposed to get away from being locked in back there.”
“Unlikely, true,” he said, tapping the side of his chin that wasn’t all crispy. “And they couldn’t possibly hide in the Peanut Plains on the other side. If they stayed out in the open for that long, a single unicorn throwing rocks could wear them down.”
“Which just leaves the Everfree,” I said, looking in its direction. “They’d risk getting blasted by lightning or attacked by... anything, but so would anypony crazy enough to go in after them.” Flying above the Everfree Forest isn’t quite as bad as walking through it, but you still never know what you’ll run into. Like a pack of gargoyles that anypony at all could’ve accidentally led back to Cloudsdale. I mean, could. Could lead back. Hypothetically.
“Well, it’s a good thing that—”
“Red, if you say it’s a good thing we’re crazy enough to go in, I swear I’m going to quit,” said Nimbus, who’d managed to get a hold of herself again.
“But we’ve still got a chance! We have to try,” he protested. That was the attitude I wanted to hear.
Nimbus didn’t look impressed. “Yeah, no. It’s not worth it. And according to regulations,” she said, wagging a hoof, “if you don’t have at least three members along, you can’t go in either, so I can at least save the two of you from yourselves.”
Red went quiet, looking like he couldn’t decide what to say. I caught his eye for a moment, though, and he came to a decision. “To be honest, you’re not the only one on the team who’s having second thoughts, and it’s my responsibility to go talk to the Princess about it if you’re not happy. I will, if you want me to.”
“Hmph. She’d probably just fire you,” Nimbus replied, “or banish you for treason. I hear the sun’s warm this time of year.”
“Maybe, maybe not,” he said, shrugging. “If you leave, that’ll probably tip most of the others over the edge too.” He started strolling over to her. “But I also think that if you and everypony else hated this so much, you would’ve all left with Feather and Shimmer back when they quit. Started your own team together. You’d be just as famous in no time at all, with that kind of lineup.” Nimbus’s jaw dropped open, like she couldn’t believe he’d suggested the idea. I couldn’t either, but I have to admit it’d be kinda cool for them to have a real rival team to compete against. The Hotwings just don’t cut it. “But instead, you’ve stuck with us this long, and I don’t believe you would have if you didn’t enjoy it on some level.”
She raised an eyebrow and leaned towards him. “I enjoy flying. I enjoy doing tricks, and seeing fans, and making ponies happy. Maybe you didn’t notice, but we just escaped an actual deathtrap. I do not enjoy deathtraps.” With her wings flared and her big, poofy mane, she could actually look bigger than she really was, like a cornered cat.
“I don’t either. But we did escape, right? The worst any of us got out of it is this burn,” he said, pointing to it, “and I did that to myself. After all that, we can’t give up now. It’s still dangerous, sure, but...” She didn’t look convinced. “Think of it like a performance. How many times have we said no to trying a move just because it was too risky?”
“Never, at least that I can think of,” Nimbus scoffed. “We wouldn’t be the Wonderbolts if we didn’t do... the risky moves...” If there’s anything that ties every stunt flier together, it’s that we’re all proud of our moves. And nopony has more to be proud of than a Wonderbolt.
“Do you get it yet?” he continued. “We fly tricks every day that would leave most pegasi who dared to try as a crater. Even before all this happened, we flirted with danger just because we could. Because we wanted to. That’s just the sort of ponies we are.”
“It’s not the same thing, though!” She didn’t sound so confident any more. “We don’t get any second chances doing this.”
Red started shifting his weight from hoof to hoof. “Well, when we’re flying tricks, we either get it right, screw up and try again, or we screw up really spectacularly, and at least then we went out trying. And I can count the number of really spectacular Wonderbolts screwups in history on my hooves, so I think the odds are in our favor.” He couldn’t use that line if another one ever happened.
Nimbus narrowed her eyes. “So... what, you’re saying that we shouldn’t worry about the consequences because we’re too good to fail? Is that it?”
He ran her answer through his head a couple times before responding. “Basically.”
“Beats getting sick and tired of wondering whether or not I should believe in myself,” Red said with a shrug. “I spent most of the last year doing that, and today I realized that that’s not the kind of pony I want to be. If I start giving up just because I get scared, or don’t see an easy answer, I might as well quit the team too.”
“I don’t think I am, but then I throw myself at the ground several times a day for a living, so what do I know?” He broke into what I think was supposed to be one of those suave, disarming grins, but he was trying too hard and looked like he was posing for a family picture instead.
I guess that was enough for Nimbus, though. Her face ran through a few different looks before she finally snorted and settled on a smile. “Alright, boss, knock it off.” He didn’t, but he did relax a little and stopped looking like such a dork. “You aren’t any better at that than Soarin’ is. I’ll tell him you tried, he’ll get a kick out of it.” I never did get used to seeing the Wonderbolts acting like normal ponies.
“And besides, if you didn’t come along I’d just deputize Rainbow Dash here to bring us back up to three.”
“Not while I’m still breathing, you won’t.”
“Hey!” Nimbus was still smiling, though, and I couldn’t stay mad. The Wonderbolts are all kinda weird, but I guess they’re my kinda weird. I’d had enough drama for one day, in any case. “Soooo, since everypony’s getting along again, how about that gang of pirates that’s getting away?” I couldn’t speak for the Wonderbolts, but I wanted some payback. And my crown back. It might’ve been a shiny piece of junk, but it was my shiny piece of junk.
“What’s the plan, boss?” asked Nimbus.
“Well, we’ve got to stop the ship, and the best way I can think of doing that is still to damage the balloon. It’ll be tough, though,” said Red.
“I can do that! They won’t know what hit ‘em!” Some of my tricks are good for more than just looking awesome.
“Would this be the Buccaneer Blaze maneuver you meant to show us earlier, by chance?” asked Autumn. “Quite apropos if so.”
“Yeah, I guess it is a pretty pro move.” Nimbus facehoofed for some reason. What do you mean you’re on her side, Twilight?
“I was more worried about the guards, but if you can take out the balloon yourself...” He trailed off, looking around at the three of us. “Yeah, that’ll work. We charge in and assault the deck, and Rainbow, you come in while they’re distracted and do your thing.”
“The three of us against all of them in the worst flying conditions in all of Equestria,” deadpanned Nimbus. “There’d better be some trick to this, or I’m going to reconsider quitting.”
“Sort of. Stirrup said she didn’t want our blood on her hooves, and I think she meant that more or less literally. She must have some sort of problem with her or her crew doing any killing personally, or it would’ve been Autumn’s body in that bag instead.” Autumn winced, like he didn’t want to consider the possibility. “Or she could’ve actually taken him along, like she said. Anything but leaving him bound and gagged with us. I’m betting they rough us up and toss us in the brig for now, and I’m told it’s none too secure at the moment. The guard won’t expect us to come right back through the door.” He clapped his hooves together to get the point across. “Then we’ll have time to escape, or sabotage it from the inside if we need to.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t,” I said.
He just smiled. “I’ll hold you to that, then. If everypony’s ready, let’s get going. Rainbow Dash, hang back a ways and do what you can to stay out of sight until the griffons are busy. After that, stop the ship for good. I don’t care how.” And just like that, we were off to take down Equestria’s most wanted criminal.
I was glad to get out of the Mistery Mountains, but the Everfree Forest isn’t exactly a step up. Nothing but dark clouds as far as I could see, not to mention the wind, which would’ve ripped me right out of the sky if I didn’t know exactly what I was doing out there. You didn’t have to be a weather pony to tell that this was shaping up to be one wild storm, even by Everfree standards. I could already hear branches being torn off the trees just below where the Wonderbolts were flying. They were having another conversation, but all I could catch were bits and pieces.
“—rush in first and yell—”
“—took those acting lessons—”
“—can she really—”
“—more dramatic than we’d expected—”
“—why she was here in the first place, right—”
Sounded like they were talking about one of those big stage shows where they sing everything in Fancy. I guess when you live in Canterlot, that’s the sort of thing you do in your spare time. I never got the appeal.
I went and pushed through to the top side of the clouds just to make sure the pirates weren’t trying to sail above the storm, but I didn’t see anything, so I slipped back down. Maybe the ship was too heavy to fly that high. Then the lightning started up. Real lightning, not the wimpy little sparks you get when a pegasus kicks a cloud, and not even the kind we make in a controlled thunderstorm. These were completely wild thunderbolts, the kind that split the air in two and light up the world like it’s daytime. The thunder itself sounded like a roaring monster, angry that anypony had dared enter its home. The only good news was that the bolts were so powerful, I could feel them coming. I had to wonder if the pirates were good enough to avoid getting blasted out of the sky. And if they were, well, that’s where I came in.
It turned out that I was right, again. Most of the forest was to the south, and we’d been flying that way for a while when one of the big flashes of lightning revealed the ship not too far above the trees, inching along.
The Wonderbolts took off straight for the ship, two of them trailing smoke and all three yelling their heads off. The griffons hovering around the ship moved into position to intercept them, leaving the top side wide open. Perfect. I started dolphin diving through the clouds to keep out of sight as much as I could without losing track of everypony. Flying through them tingled. The top of the balloon was still empty when I got there, and it sounded like the fight had just broken out below.
“Attack! We’re under attack!”
“All paws and claws on deck right now or I’ll beat you silly myself!”
The ship stopped moving, but the Wonderbolts couldn’t last forever. They were risking themselves so I could get this done, and no way was I going to let them down now. If they wanted me to stop a whole ship by myself, then that was exactly what they were gonna get.
The three of them hit the deck before the griffons could catch up. “You killed her! She didn’t have anything to do with us and your stupid troll killed her!” Never thought I’d hear Nimbus get into a brawl over my own death, but stranger things had already happened.
“You should be glad it was just her! I delivered the four of you to that worthless rock on a platter!” Captain Stirrup sounded mad. Good. The longer she stayed distracted, the more time I had.
The reason no weather pony likes dealing with Everfree clouds is that they go down fighting. Flying through them isn’t too bad, but destroying them is something else. You kick a regular cloud, it disappears. You kick an Everfree cloud, it kicks back with some kind of magic sting that lingers for while even after the cloud’s gone. And to pull off my trick, I needed to break off a piece of the completely solid cloud layer. But what the hay, my head still hurt and my front legs were still sore, might as well let my back legs join in the fun too. As long as I had my wings, I could take on anything.
“Okay Rainbow, you can do this. Just gotta kick open a ring around one section and grab it before the hole seals up. In the worst conditions anywhere in Equestria. Piece of cake.” Another thunderbolt crashed down right as I finished, like the storm was daring me to bring it on. I don’t back down from dares, even from wild, magic weather. I figured four kicks would weaken the middle enough for me to rip off the part I needed.
First kick. “Ow!” That stuff was all bark and all bite.
Second kick. I had to grit my teeth to keep from yelling again, but I knew what to expect then.
Third kick. “Give it up, boy blue! You can’t win on your own.” Uh-oh. That didn’t take long.
Fourth kick. “The name’s Red, actually. Common mistake.” He just had to stall a little longer...
I grabbed the central section I was after and pulled, but the dumb thing wouldn’t come off! I drifted back to see what was wrong, and the first hole was already closing. Not good. The lightning taunted me again, a little closer than before.
Fifth kick, this one to the spot between the first and second holes. I could hear somepony getting punched down below. It should’ve been easy to pull away the center by then, but I was definitely feeling less than awesome after getting zapped that much. The three tethers left were still too much to tear apart.
The sixth kick wasn’t even strong enough for the cloud to strike back, never mind break up. “Good work. Take them away. And get those stupid suits off, I’m tired of looking at them.” It sounded like Red was right about the captain after all. I guess even evil ponies have some standards. But now the Wonderbolts were down and I hadn’t even started my trick yet! Time for Plan B. There was one other lesson I’d learned in flight school, and that seemed like the time to try it out. I went back topside, going high enough that my little ring of holes looked tiny compared to the rest of the storm. A deep breath in, a deep breath out—and then I stopped flying.
That was the only time I ever meant to do it, but I like to think I’ve gotten really good at slamming into things over the years. Trees, doors, walls, ground, water, other ponies, market stalls that Applejack can’t prove were all my fault—you name it, I’ve hit it. A wimpy little cloud like that didn’t stand a chance. The magic backlash from hitting it spread eagle almost knocked me out, sure, but I think that’s kind of like snake venom or being around Pinkie, you start going immune to it after a while. The important thing was that I’d finally gotten a big ball of cloud I could use. That was the hard part over with, as long as the ship kept staying still.
“Get moving before we’re blown out of the sky, you idiots!”
Okay, all I had to do was pull off a high risk trick over a moving target in rough winds with lightning bolts crashing down closer by the minute. Not a problem. I don’t have to do the Blaze perfectly to make it work, it’s just more likely to go off before I’m ready if I don’t. And it sorta involves making a cloud explode. See, what you have to do is take a ball of cloud that’s full of lightning and start flying rings around it in every possible direction as fast as you can, staying close enough to drag a wingtip through the outer edge the whole time. That agitates all the lightning in the cloud, but because you’re mixing it up evenly it doesn’t have anywhere to escape. Once that’s done you give it a good swift kick, and then you’ve got about a second to hightail it before the whole thing goes off like some sort of bomb. Mix it too slowly or too unevenly and all that lightning goes out through you. And if you don’t fly away fast enough, you get added to a list of names that’s supposed to discourage pegasi from trying stuff like that, since that’s all that’s left to remember you by.
There might’ve been an easier way to stop the ship, but I wanted to do it right.
I gave the ball a good shove in the direction the pirates were headed and went to work. Sky turned into ground, and then the whole world became a blur. It takes a lot of concentration to keep flying in tight circles like that for very long, and I had to dig my wing in a little deeper now and then to keep the wind from blowing it off course. Luckily, all I got was the tingly feeling from flying through an Everfree cloud instead of a hard bite that would’ve sent me spiraling to the ground. And yeah, there were some strong gusts that almost knocked me away, but I’m not this year’s best young flier for nothing.
It took about about half a minute of the most careful flying I’d ever done in my life to catch up with the ship. Kind of a shame nopony was around to see it, ‘cause it would’ve been a great trick even without the big finish. If there was going to be one at all. I should’ve been able to feel the charge bursting at the seams, waiting to be released, but it didn’t seem any different from when I’d started. Lousy thing couldn’t even explode right after all the trouble I went to. I kept flying, just in case it decided to get with the program, but things weren’t looking good.
Everything had gone pretty quiet down below, except for Captain Stirrup talking to herself. “I knew they were clueless, but I didn’t think they were honestly foalish enough to attack us.” I was starting to wonder about that myself. Two bolts of lightning came down in a row, one after the other, like the storm was laughing at how helpless I was. “What did they possibly expect to accomplish?” I’d tried to show off and be fancy instead of doing it the easy way. That was my mistake, and I’d ruined everything because of it. I’d failed the Wonderbolts. “It was hopeless!” You said it, sister.
...no. No, what was I thinking? It was never hopeless, or everything else I’d said and done that day was a lie. If this way didn’t wanna work, I’d just have to make something else work. “I don’t like it. Get back on guard!” Uh oh. Okay, so the gig was almost up. I could already hear the griffons’ wingbeats over my own. Time to think fast.
“What’s that?” one of them asked.
“It’s a pony!” Busted.
“Captain, there’s a pony! And she’s doing... something!”
“I knew it! Stop her, now!”
I finally stopped flying, and realized a little too late that I was gonna need a moment to tell which way was up again. For some reason the cloud was still swirling around all on its own, even though it should’ve started breaking down almost as soon as it didn’t have me to keep its shape together. Weird, but useless. At least they’d stopped the ship again, too.
The griffons were flying in, but they were being cautious. Maybe I could use that. “I’m only gonna tell you guys once, you don’t wanna be anywhere near here in a few seconds.”
One of them kept coming forward and sneered. “Oh yeah? What are you gonna do, throw your little cloud at me?”
“Nope. I’m just gonna keep flying right here, and then I’m gonna do this.” I craned my head upwards, or at least what felt like up, and paused just long enough to convince myself that I wasn’t completely crazy. If the Everfree was the kind of place I thought it was, this would work. I hoped. “Hey! Stupid storm! Yeah, I’m talkin’ to you! Got a problem with that?”
The griffons all busted out laughing. Well, fine. I was a crazy pony yelling at the clouds. Let ‘em laugh.
“Bet you didn’t like having a piece of you torn out, huh?”
“She’s—she’s completely bonkers! Nuttiest thing I’ve ever seen!”
“So what’s the matter, can’t hit a single little pegasus?”
The laughter died off. “Alright, c’mon, miss, that’s enough of that.”
“Yeah, that’s right! I’m not scared of you!” I was, however, starting to feel more than a little silly.
“I said come on, you barmy mare!”
“Gimme your best shot! Right here! Right now!”
One of the griffons got his claws on me and started dragging me away. I only had one last chance. I blew a raspberry at the sky. “That’s what I think of you, you stupid raincloud!”
The wind stopped.
“W—What was that?” They definitely weren’t laughing now. I couldn’t help grinning.
“Oh, now you’re listening! Is that all you’ve got? I’ve seen tougher spring showers!”
Thunder roared across the forest without any lightning.
“Shut up! Make her shut up!” I bucked the griffon holding me off before he actually could.
“Hah! So much for the big, bad Everfree Forest! I can make tougher storms than you!”
Every single hair I had stood on end. Time to go. The griffons were too spooked to stop me. “She’s some kind of weather witch!”
Hey, can’t say I didn’t warn them. I got out of there before I got deep-fried and turned back to watch the fireworks. The ship was either gonna explode, catch on fire, or at least break in half, and I didn’t wanna miss it. There was a blinding bright flash, and I could feel the air being pushed out of the way by the bolt. Everything was perfect.
Except the stupid ball of Everfree cloud ate the lightning.
And then nothing happened.
“Hah! Your spell didn’t work, witch!” yelled one of the griffons. Gee, thanks, I hadn’t noticed.
“What was that supposed to be, Rainbow?”
I’ll admit, that time I screamed. Three pegasi I’d never seen before had gotten behind me, and somehow they knew my name. There was a turquoise stallion, a gray stallion, and a cream mare.
I will never, ever get used to seeing the Wonderbolts out of costume. “You guys made it!”
“Just barely. Apparently Autumn’s acid didn’t to squat to the cell door,” said Red, who looked like he’d picked up a black eye to match his black cheek. “So we had to buck our way straight through a weak spot in the hull instead. We didn’t have the chance to do anything inside, unfortunately.”
Autumn hung his head. “I’m terribly ashamed that I failed to notice it was a nickel-iron alloy. Such an amateur’s mistake, that.” Still weird.
Nimbus turned on me next, her pink eyes narrowed to slits. “You had one job, Rainbow, just one.”
“I... I know. I’ve been trying, I swear, but everything keeps going wrong!” I hated having to explain myself to her, but she was right.
She didn’t get the chance to make me feel any worse. “Captain, the Wonderbolts got free!” I’d actually managed to forget about the pirates for a moment. Even if it was the four of us against just the four griffons, I didn’t know if we had the strength left to take them on.
“Then bring them back in!” They didn’t need to be told twice. The hippogriff lingered by the ball for a little longer, though. She finally shrugged and gave it a little kick for good measure before she turned to go.
It started glowing.
The light was pure white at first, but it was getting darker by the second without losing any of its brightness. And as it got darker, thunder began rumbling louder and louder.
“What’s going on up there? Why is everything purple?” yelled Stirrup.
“I—I, well, there’s this ball, and it’s, uh—”
“Magic! Big magic!”
“WHAT?” The griffons all ran for it. I couldn’t tell which they were more scared of, the ball or Stirrup.
All we could do was hang in the air and watch. A bunch of the crew had come up on deck to find out what all the light was. The captain was yelling something, probably for them to get the ship out of there, but no one was listening. Some of the really scared ones were already jumping off the side to the trees below.
“Rainbow?” asked Red, keeping his eyes on the light.
“What did you do?” The ball went past purple and straight on to some eerie, vivid black light.
“I was trying to blow up a cloud to blow up the balloon. And when that didn’t work, I tricked the storm into attacking me. And then that happened,” I said, pointing a hoof at the light like they hadn’t noticed it yet. “Also, it turns out you shouldn’t do tricks with Everfree clouds. Like, ever.” If it even was still a cloud, which I couldn’t be sure about.
“Couldn’t you have just grabbed a good sharp stick to poke a hole with?” asked Nimbus. She had to yell to be heard over the rumbling thunder.
“Not my style!” Not when I could maybe cause the end of the world instead, anyway.
I don’t know how to describe what it turned into next, except that it was some sort of magical un-light that made me feel like I was at the bottom of the ocean and under the noon sun at the same time, and that I never want to feel like that again. I was getting the prickly feeling of incoming lightning, too. That was it. I’d done everything I could, and whatever was going to happen next was out of my hooves. I tried to yell at Red, but I guess he couldn’t hear me, so tapped him on the shoulder instead and pointed away. He got the hint, and together the four of us sped off.
What happened next is kind of fuzzy, but I remember there was one last flash of lightning somewhere behind us, and then the feeling of being sucked backwards for a second. I looked back just long enough to see the clouds start vaporizing around the ship in a world without color, and then the shockwave hit us and we all went flying, completely out of control.
My vision was all blurry when I woke up, but I felt like I was in a tree. From the sounds of things, I didn’t want to be flying right then anyway. Off in the distance I could hear wood snapping, thunder rolling, and lots of voices screaming in terror. Yeah, hanging out in a tree for a while was fine.
When I stopped seeing spots, I noticed that the sky was completely clear, like there had never been a storm at all. Red was still recovering in a tree of his own nearby, staring at the rising moon. He looked exhausted, but... satisfied. Autumn was picking through the pile of gold and wood that used to be the ship. It didn’t look like there was as much wreckage as there should have been. A lot of the trees in the area were cut off smoothly halfway up the trunk, too. That was definitely not how the Blaze was supposed to go, but I couldn’t argue with results.
Nimbus was in the air, watching the last few straggling pirates run off, and I flew up to her just to have somepony to talk to. “Okay, not half bad,” she said. “A little more exciting than I would’ve liked, but I think it’s safe to say we’ve seen the last of them.”
“And you wanted to quit.”
“Yeah, well, I guess if I can survive a catastrophe like this, maybe Red had a point. I’ll be glad to get back to something peaceful and quiet though, like wrestling manticores.” She was smiling, whether she realized it or not.
“Heh. So, when do I get my invitation to the Wonderbolts?”
“Don’t push your luck. If today was a test, you wouldn’t exactly pass with flying colors. Even in spite of your hair.” I got tired of that joke in the first month of flight school.
“Oh, come on.”
She held out a hoof. “I wasn’t done yet. You screwed up some, but we made plenty of our own mistakes. Some of them you saw, and some of them you didn’t. And...” She looked down for a moment, but turned back to me in the end. “I’m sorry I hit you, if that helps.”
She looked sincere without the mask and the goggles, even if she was still being a mysterious pain in the flank. “It does. Thanks.” Compared to everything else that ached, my head didn’t even feel that bad any more.
“And who knows? We’ve still got an open spot, and we could do worse than a talented mare with some ego and impulsiveness issues to work out.”
“By the way,” she went on, scanning the woods, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen Stirrup crawling away down there, have you? We can call this a success as is, but it’d be even better if we could bring her in. We’ve got a show tomorrow, and I’ve got a feeling we’ll be stuck spending all our free time after it searching the countryside if she doesn’t turn up.”
I flew a quick loop around the crash site. Autumn was busy ranting about what a terrible loss to the knowledge of Equestrian aviation the wreck was, and how he’d have to build one of his own. Red was sorting through the treasure, and apparently he’d found my crown stuck underneath Princess Celestia’s head. It was a little bent out of shape, but still in one piece. No other ponies, though. If Stirrup hadn’t been vaporized in the blast, she was long gone.
In the end, all we turned up was a black, three-cornered hat.
“And then the Wonderbolts said their goodbyes and I went to the party you guys threw for me. The end.”
Silence reigned momentarily, save for Spike’s snoring.
“And you told all that to the fillies,” said Twilight, more statement than question.
“Yep. Well, sorta,” Dash amended. “They got the short version. Y’know, me saving the Wonderbolts from the deadly smoke cloud, me beating up the troll, me blowing up an entire pirate ship by myself, the stuff they’d actually listen to. I figured you’d want to hear everything.”
“Great story, Rainbow Dash!” exclaimed Pinkie. “But you know what you need? A camera!”
“So I could take pictures of all the awesome things I did?”
Pinkie bounced in place. “No, silly, so you could show me the giant balloon! Oh, and all your new Wonderbolt friends! Promise me we’ll get to meet them sometime?”
Dash chuckled. “Sure thing, Pinkie. They’re kinda busy, though. I haven’t heard from them yet.” Having satisfied Pinkie with the promise, she turned to her other friend. “You’ve got that look again, Twi.”
Twilight would’ve raised an eyebrow, had they not both been up already. “Do I? I can’t imagine why. After all, it makes perfect sense that you can blow up a cloud, or taunt a thunderstorm, or discover some sort of light beyond light. What would I possibly have to complain about?”
“Hah!” Rainbow Dash leapt to her hooves. “You can doubt me all you want, but the Wonderbolts let me keep the hat. Don’t go anywhere, I’ll go get it!” Without waiting for a response, she left.
“Yeah, I don’t think so. If it’s that big of a deal, she can show it to us later.” The unicorn stood up, momentarily displacing the figure at her side. “Spike? Spiiiike?” The dragon she knew as her companion, assistant, and at times like these, little brother, remained asleep. “Huh. I guess I’ll leave him alone,” she said with a fond smile, magically lifting him to her back. “You wanna come with me to Rarity’s place, Pinkie Pie?”
Together, the trio went home.
“...and I like her stories, and just yesterday she promised to help me with my flying. That’s why Rainbow Dash is my hero. The end.” The decidedly unenthusiastic pegasus filly began walking back to her seat.
“That’s much better, Scootaloo!” cheered Cheerilee. “And I’m glad to hear she’s channeling your time together into more productive activities.”
“Yeah, it’s gonna be great!” exclaimed Scootaloo, briefly energized. Her grin quickly fizzled back into a frown, however, as she recalled exactly why she’d had to rewrite the paper in the first place. “Did you go talk to her?”
“Yes, enough to tell that she’s as full of hot air as ever.”
Scootaloo’s face fell further. “I... yeah. I asked if I could see the hat again, and she said she couldn’t find it. Or her competition crown.”
“Fancy that. Well then, everypony pull out your math textbooks...”
Three fillies walked down a road. Two held their heads high, but one hung low.
“So Rainbow Dash was just spinnin’ a yarn after all, huh Scootaloo?” asked Apple Bloom.
Scootaloo’s pace lagged behind that of her friends, a slow, rock-kicking gait compared to their trot. “Apparently. I sure thought it was real, but I guess even she doesn’t get to be that cool.”
“I still liked it, even if it was just a story,” squeaked Sweetie Belle.
“I know. It’s just not the same.” The pegasus let out a long sigh, one that was a bit too old for her age.
They continued on in uncharacteristic silence, uncertain of what to say.
The three friends were just rounding the library tree when a set of powerful wingbeats broke the tension. “Apple Bloom! There you are, I’ve been lookin’ all over for you!” Scootaloo’s head jerked up.
“Uh, yeah? I’ve sorta been in school all day, Rainbow.”
“Oh, right. Anyway, where’s your sister? I’ve been all over Sweet Apple Acres, but I can’t find her anywhere! It’s kind of important.”
“She an’ Big Macintosh hit the road this mornin’ to take a big cartload ‘a apples over to Hoofington. What’s the rush?”
“Well... can you girls keep a secret?” Three heads nodded vigorously, and she leaned closer. “I know a couple of guys in this group who might be looking for an expert on apples, because somepony might have stolen Princess Celestia’s one and only golden apple tree.” As one, the girls gasped.
“Really? You mean it?” asked Scootaloo.
“As far as I’m supposed to tell you? No.” A wink and a grin betrayed the truth. “Thanks, gotta go, see ya!” There was the rush of wings, and then she was gone.
As they stared at the rainbow streak in the distance, a broad smile steadily grew across one filly’s face. “I take it back.
“Rainbow Dash is awesome.”