"So, how exactly does this contraption work?" Twilight asked, marveling at the sight of the Clydecyan royal hovercraft. She, along with Lyra and Fluttershy, had descended the stairs in the ruined castle, and were now in a side building that Twilight had overlooked before. The hovercraft before them had enough room in it to seat five ponies comfortably. There was one seat to the front, one to the back, and three in the middle.
"It's simple. One pony sits in the back, and regulates the engine; meanwhile, another pony sits in the front, steering the hovercraft," Lyra explained, pointing at the back and front seats respectively. "The reason both aren't done by one pony is because it's run on magic. Unicorns – or, I suppose any pony with magic – have to charge their magic through the respective magic circuits for the engine and the steering. And not too many ponies can divide their attention between two rather different tasks."
Twilight nodded. "I see. That's rather ingenious! So, were your parents unicorns, too?"
"Yeah," Lyra said, mood dropping a bit. "My father actually designed the hovercraft. Mom thought it was impractical, until I came down with desert fever. Dad took Mom to the antlion's den with this baby, and was back here to cure me in the hour. She never said another word against it."
"I can imagine," Fluttershy whispered. "But, does this hovercraft actually drain magic from unicorns? Or, whoever's piloting it?"
"Huh? Oh, no no no!" Lyra shook her head. "It's actually got a magical crystal generator inside it. The amount of magic needed to regulate the engine or steer the hovercraft is miniscule. Even I barely felt it when I first tried my hoof at it, and I was just a filly at the time. Granted, Dad wasn't happy when I nearly steered us off a cliff, but then again, I didn't know what I was doing at the time."
Twilight chuckled a little. "Sounds like you've lived an interesting life, Lyra."
"I guess," the green unicorn replied. "So, Twilight, you want to handle the engine? I know where the antlion's den is, so I'll steer."
Twilight nodded, clambering into the back seat. Lyra hopped into the front, while Fluttershy sat in the center of the three middle seats.
"Now, to run the engine, Twilight, all you need to do is channel your magic through that arcane crest on the engine behind you," Lyra instructed.
"Like this?" Twilight asked, her horn lighting up as she directed her magic into the crest. The hovercraft's engine sprang to life, the propeller beginning to spin. "Whoa!"
"Yeah, it's a little intense the first time you do it, isn't it?" Lyra said with a chuckle. "Now, see that radial in the center of the crest? That's the throttle. The more you turn it to the right, the more power the engine takes from the generator, and the faster the hovercraft will go. Take it easy at first. This thing doesn't like abrupt changes in speed."
Nodding, Twilight carefully turned the radial to the right. The hovercraft began to move, inching forward out of the garage. Turning it a little more, Twilight smiled as the hovercraft began to increase in speed. "This is amazing," she said. "Your father must have been a genius inventor, Lyra!"
"Yeah, he was brilliant," Lyra agreed, as the hovercraft left the garage. Channeling her own magic, she began to steer to the east. "Mom sometimes joked that he loved his inventions more than he loved his family. Of course, it was never serious. He always made time for me or Mom whenever we needed him."
"I have to admit, I'm kind of envious," Twilight said. "I never knew my parents. I was raised by the king of Colton."
"Well, things weren't all fun and games. Mom took her duties as Queen very seriously. Sometimes, those duties would interfere with plans she'd made with me and Dad." Lyra sighed. "I know she loved me, but sometimes it didn't feel that way."
"Well, my mother dedicated a lot of her time to me," Fluttershy said, a wistful expression on her face. "She taught me the basics of summoning, and gave me a respect for all living things. I remember the first time I summoned a chocobo in front of her. She was so proud." She bit her lip, a few tears building up in her eyes. "I miss her."
Lyra nodded, her own expression thoughtful. "I miss Mom, too. But, I can't let things get me down. I have a duty to Clydecyan."
Twilight remained silent. She, unlike her companions, had never suffered any sort of loss. She felt like a third wheel, or an intruder on a private moment.
Perhaps sensing her discomfort, Lyra changed the subject. "Hey, Fluttershy, look up ahead."
Fluttershy looked, and gasped. "The ocean! We're… not going to crash into it, are we?"
Lyra chuckled. "No, not really. It's hard to tell, but there are some shallow shoals that connect this continent to the next. That's where the antlion's den is."
"Oh, I see," the pegasus replied.
Twilight decided to chip in. "I've never heard of an antlion before. What exactly is it?"
"Well…" Lyra paused, considering how to answer. "Basically, think of a giant, hairy ant with four legs instead of six. It has a giant, tooth filled mouth with two large pincers, one on either side."
Twilight shuddered. "That sounds… rather vicious," she managed to say.
"Oh, don't worry. Antlions are perfectly harmless. They look fierce, but that's mostly for intimidation," Lyra assured the other unicorn.
At this point, the hovercraft was gliding over the shoals that Lyra had mentioned. She was steering the craft carefully, having been on this route before. Thanks to the modest speed that Twilight had set the craft on, steering came easily. Soon, they were cruising over a beach, heading for a group of mountains.
"Okay, Twilight, time to turn down the throttle a little!" Lyra called. "We're getting close to the antlion's den!"
Twilight nodded, slowly turning the throttle back to the left. The hovercraft slowed, now cruising along at a speed barely faster than a full gallop. Lyra steered the vehicle expertly, heading for a cave entrance in the base of the mountains.
When they were close enough, Lyra called out, "Full stop, please!"
"Roger!" Twilight replied, turning the throttle all the way back down. The hovercraft slowed, and finally stopped just outside the cave entrance.
"Well, you're showing a lot of talent with hovercraft operating," Lyra said with a smile.
Twilight blushed. "All I did was what you told me to do. That's all."
Fluttershy giggled at the interaction between the two, before she looked at the cave. "So, this is where the antlions live?"
Lyra looked up, and nodded. "That's right. There's only one adult antlion at a time, though. Sand pearls are created from the fluid that they secrete while laying their eggs."
Twilight blinked. "But, uh, how do the eggs get fertilized, if there's only one adult antlion?"
Lyra gave her a level look. "Do you really want to know the answer to that question?"
Twilight paused, and grimaced. "On second thought, nevermind. I'm sure I can just read about it somewhere."
Lyra smirked. "That's what I thought."
The trio entered the cavern. It couldn't have been more different from the waterfall cavern if it tried. Where that cave was partially flooded, this cave was full of sand. And not the fine grains of the beach, either. This was desert sand, harsh and grainy.
"How does a partial desert survive underground?" Twilight wondered.
"You're rather curious, aren't you?" asked Lyra in response. Seeing Twilight's blush, she laughed. "I'm teasing, I'm teasing. To tell the truth, no one's really sure. I personally chalk it up to the influence of the antlion. Their dens are built around sand pits, and I wouldn't put it past them to know how to create those lairs."
They continued through the cavern, avoiding monsters when they could, and dispatching them when they could not. Lyra, as it turned out, was capable of playing a melody that could put monsters into a trance, leaving them open to attack from Twilight. When Twilight complimented her on her skills, Lyra demurred, indicating the harp.
"It's all in the strings, really," she said. "All I do is play them."
A little ways into the cavern, they stumbled across a chest that was half-buried in sand. Twilight and Lyra pooled their magic, and managed to pull it free. Opening it, Lyra gasped. "A Lamia's harp! I've wanted to see one of these for so long, and now I finally have one!" She pulled the purple harp out of the chest, setting it in the saddlebag not currently occupied by her old harp.
"Uh, so what's the difference between the two?" Twilight asked.
"Well, my old Dream harp is enchanted to put creatures in a trance, as you've seen. A Lamia's harp…" Lyra trailed off as a pair of Adamantoise lumbered forward to attack the trio. "Well, watch this." She used her magic to play the purple harp, using the same melody that she had used before.
To Twlight's astonishment, one of the Adamantoise paused in its approach, before turning on its brother and attacking. Startled, the second one retaliated, biting the first's leg. The two giant tortoises continued their struggle, moving away from the trio.
Twilight stared. "How… that… HUH?!" she said intelligently.
"That's what a Lamia's harp does," Lyra explained. "It confuses those who hear its melody."
"But, wait. I heard that melody, and I feel just fine," Twilight retorted.
Lyra blinked. "And you're complaining?"
Twilight opened her mouth, but then closed it. "Actually, no. I'm just a little puzzled, I guess." She shook her head. "All of these minor questions I don't have answers to…"
Fluttershy giggled. "Sometimes, Twilight, you just have to accept things as they are. Don't question them."
Twilight blinked repeatedly. "I… guess you're right, Fluttershy." She smiled at Lyra. "Sorry for spazzing out on you."
Lyra chuckled, and led the other two deeper into the cave. Along the way, she picked up another chest item. "Ah-hah! This will be useful!" she said, holding up the small device.
"An Emergency Exit!" Twilight exclaimed. "Those are really rare! It'll save us a trip out of here, at least."
"Um, what does it do?" asked Fluttershy, looking over the small, nondescript cube.
"It basically functions the same as the white magic spell Teleport," Twilight explained. "It will transport you to the surface of the world, no matter how far underground you are."
"Oh, I see," Fluttershy said with a nod.
They continued onward, eventually reaching a part of the cave that descended into a sand pit. Scattered throughout the area were what appeared to be egg sacs. "Um, is this the actual nest of the antlion?" Twilight asked nervously.
Lyra chuckled. "Yep. The antlion lays its eggs here, as you can see. The sand pearl's at the bottom of the pit." She trotted down the slope, followed by Fluttershy and Twilight.
As they neared the bottom, there was a rumble, and out of the sand burst a great creature. Twilight and Fluttershy yelped. It looked just like Lyra had described, but seeing it in person was far more terrifying.
Lyra laughed. "Oh, come on, you silly fillies. I told you, antlions are docile. Watch, I'm just going to get a sand pearl, like so." She trotted confidently toward the antlion, aiming for a glimmering pile behind it.
Twilight, focusing more on the antlion itself, saw it rear its head back, and open its gaping maw. "LOOK OUT!" she yelled, grabbing Lyra in her magic and yanking her backwards. It was just in time, too, as the antlion bit down where the princess had been moments before.
Lyra was shocked. "But, but they've never attacked ponies before! What's going on?!"
Fluttershy, who had been glancing around, suddenly noticed something. "I think I know," she said, flying up to the antlion.
"Wait, Fluttershy!" Twilight yelped, preparing to yank the filly back as she had with Lyra.
"It's okay," Fluttershy said, "we're not going to hurt you." The two unicorns blinked as they realized the pegasus was actually talking to the antlion. "You had some mean visitors lately, didn't you?"
The antlion, which had been ready to bite into this young morsel, blinked its huge eyes, then nodded.
"Whoever it was, they destroyed your eggs. That's why you attacked us, right?" Fluttershy asked.
Looking around, Twilight gasped. The egg sacs, which had looked fine from the entrance, were clearly not fine from this angle. Scorch marks and cuts adorned the eggs, and there wasn't a one that was intact. "She's right," Twilight whispered. "The antlion's just mad about the loss of its children."
Lyra had recovered her equilibrium by this point. "But who would do such a thing?" she asked. "Aside from the sand pearl, there's no reason to come here."
Fluttershy continued talking to the antlion, ignoring the unicorns. "I'm terribly sorry for your suffering, but we're not like your last visitor. You see, a friend of ours is sick, and we need one of those sand pearls behind you. We just came here to help somepony. Please, won't you help us?"
The antlion considered this, then growled a little. It then began burrowing back into the sand pit.
Fluttershy, seeing this, flew over and grabbed one of the shining pearls in her hooves, before flying back over to the unicorns. "Well, that's that," she said. "But I think she wants us to bring the killer of her children to justice."
Lyra stared in astonishment. "You could understand her? Not even my mother could do that, and she visited here every time somepony came down with desert fever!"
Fluttershy blinked. "I guess I could," she said. She tucked the sand pearl into Twilight's saddlebag. "I've always had a way with animals, but this is the first time I've had to comfort one like this."
Twilight shook her head, grinning in bemusement. "That's incredible, Fluttershy," she said honestly. "You're very kind-hearted, to treat even something hostile so well."
"What can I say?" Fluttershy replied with a light blush. "Sometimes, all that's needed to help someone is a little kindness."
Twilight nodded, and then blinked. Looking closer, she smiled. "And I think that's going to be your job, Fluttershy," she said, pointing with a hoof.
Blinking, the young filly looked at her flank, and gasped. A trio of pink butterflies had appeared there. "My cutie mark!" she exclaimed, her voice rising past its normal soft tone. "I finally got my cutie mark!"
"Wow," Lyra said, looking at it herself. "What does it mean?"
"If I had to guess, I'd say Fluttershy has an understanding with nature that most ponies don't," Twilight explained. "She talked down an Octomammoth once before, and now she's tamed a hostile antlion with just a few words. And you said that you had a way with animals before this, Fluttershy?"
The pegasus nodded, grinning from ear to ear. "Sometimes, the animals would gather around me in Mist," she said fondly. "I enjoyed the time I spent with them very much. I'd play games with them, and help them out when they were sick. But I never thought that caring for animals would be my special talent!"
Twilight smiled. "Well, fate works in mysterious ways." She then sobered up. "But enough about that. We've got the sand pearl, so let's head to Kaipony!"
Nodding, Lyra pulled out the Emergency Exit, and cast it to the ground. An arcane circle appeared, and energy swirled around the trio, whipping their manes around. Soon, their surroundings were completely obscured, the maelstrom of energy blocking everything out. A few moments later, it began to disappate. As it faded, they found themselves outside the cave, next to the hovercraft.
"Wow… So that's how Teleport works?" Fluttershy asked.
"Yep," Twilight said. "Though, skilled white magic users can actually teleport to a specific destination rather than just to the surface."
Lyra climbed into the front seat, looking at the other two. "Come on, time's a-wasting!"
Twilight nodded, jumping into the back seat, while Fluttershy settled down into the center. Twilight channeled her magic, bringing the engine to life with a roar. Lyra steered the craft away from the cave, heading back west.
"Will we need to go through the waterfall cavern?" asked Fluttershy.
"No, there's more shoals to the west of the castle. They lead straight into the desert, and Kaipony's just a hop, skip, and jump away," Lyra explained, as Twilight turned the throttle up.
The trip was made in silence, aside from the roar of the engine. Twilight kept the throttle at a higher setting than she had on the way to the antlion's den, and Lyra steered the craft expertly oveer the first set of shoals and past Clydecyan Castle. Fluttershy, sensing the mood, remained quiet as well.
About an hour later, having glided over the second set of shoals and over the desert, Lyra saw the walls of Kaipony ahead. "Twilight, time to ease up on the throttle."
"Roger," Twilight said, beginning to slow the engine. The hovercraft pulled to a stop just outside of the gate, and Twilight cut the magic flow and leapt out, running into the town. Lyra and Fluttershy were quick to follow.
In an odd moment of deja vu, the townsponies of Kaipony found themselves scrambling out of the way of a heavily armored mare barreling through town. Twilight threw the door to the old doctor's home open with her magic, once again startling the earth pony mare.
"Don't you know how to knock?" she griped, as Twilight rushed past her.
Lyra and Fluttershy zipped in after Twilight, following her to the back room. Inside, they could see that Rarity's condition had worsened. She was now sweating profusely, and thrashing constantly in her sleep.
Twilight quickly pulled out the sand pearl. "Please work, please work, please work!" she prayed, as she held the pearl over the white unicorn. It caught the light in the room, and bathed Rarity in an amber glow.
After a few moments, the glow faded, and Rarity's thrashing calmed. Then she slowly opened her eyes. "Oh, my," she groaned. "I feel postively awful."
Twilight smiled. "Well, if it helps any, you still look better when you're messy than I do."
Rarity snapped her eyes over, and gasped. "Twilight!" She tried to sit up, only to be forced back down by the doctor.
"Easy, there," he said. "You're just getting over a case of desert fever. You're lucky your friend here was able to find a sand pearl in time."
"Desert fever," murmured Rarity. "That's right, I did stumble through the desert trying to find you, Twilight."
"But why? Why did you come after me?" asked Twilight. Lyra and Fluttershy stood off to the side, unwilling to interrupt the reunion.
"Because nopony else wanted to check if you were still alive!" Rarity declared. "When Rainbow Dash came back from Mist, the poor dear was all sorts of hurt. She just told the king that the mission was a 'success', before she collapsed from exhaustion. I spent hours fixing her up. And while I was doing that, King Colton declared you dead!"
Twilight wasn't sure how she felt about that. On the one hoof, it meant fewer ponies would come after her for being a renegade. On the other, it meant that showing her face in Colton again wouldn't be feasible for a while. "So you came after me, just to prove him wrong?"
"Oh, I knew he was wrong, dear," Rarity said with a scoff. "But I also knew that you were out here alone, possibly hurt, and you would need somepony to help you." She paused, and giggled a little. "I guess I worry too much about you. You look fine."
Twilight chuckled. "Yeah, I'm peachy." Her lips turned downward, however, as she asked her next question. "Rarity, who exactly is Nightmare Moon?"
Rarity blinked. "Heard of her already, have you?" The white mare sighed. "She came to Colton only recently, the day after Rainbow Dash returned. Within an hour of meeting the King, she was given command of the Red Wings." She looked at Twilight. "Suspicious, isn't it? Some new pony no one has seen before waltzes into Castle Colton, and is leading their most prestigious military arm not even an hour later?"
Twilight narrowed her eyes. "I'm thinking Nightmare Moon might be manipulating the king."
"My thoughts exactly. I believe Nightmare Moon has been influencing the king for some time, and that it's by her will that you were ordered to Maresidia," Rarity explained. "I also believe that the Water Crystal won't be enough for her. She must desire the other three crystals: Clydecyan's Fire Crystal, Stabul's Wind Crystal, and Trotta's Earth Crystal."
At this point, Lyra spoke up, stepping forward. "You're a bit behind the times. The Fire Crystal is already in Nightmare Moon's hooves."
As Rarity blinked at the unfamiliar unicorn, Twilight coughed, waving Fluttershy forward. "Let me introduce them. Lyra here is the princess of Clydecyan, and the only known survivor of the Red Wings' attack on the castle. Fluttershy is a summoner from Mist, who's adapted white and black magic to be used by her, despite being a pegasus."
"Nice to meet you, Rarity," Fluttershy said, ducking her head slightly.
Rarity smiled at the young pegasus. "The pleasure's all mine, Fluttershy," she answered. Looking back at Lyra, she bowed her head. "And I'm terribly sorry for your loss, Princess Lyra."
Lyra waved a hoof. "Just Lyra, please. And I'll be fine. The world hasn't stopped spinning, despite my castle being in ruins."
Rarity nodded, and looked back at Twilight. "If she has the Fire Crystal, the Wind Crystal's sure to be her next target. We need to warn Stabul!"
Lyra sighed. "That could be problematic. The only land route to Stabul from here is over Mt. Hoof, east of Clydecyan. And the path at the base of the mountain is blocked by thick ice."
Rarity looked at Fluttershy. "Fluttershy, you can use black magic, correct? Could you possibly melt the ice with a simple Fire spell?"
Fluttershy seized up. "I… don't think so," she whispered.
"It's an elementary spell, dear, so – " Rarity broke off into a cough.
Twilight frowned. "Rarity, I know what you're implying, and the answer is no. You haven't fully recovered from the desert fever, you're in no condition to hike over a mountain!"
Rarity glared at her. "Darling, I'm feeling better already. Besides, I'm not entirely helpless. I'm a fair shot with a bow. And with a skilled white mage handy, Fluttershy here can conserve her own magic reserves."
As Twilight looked uncertain Lyra spoke up. "Twilight, Rarity just wants to be there for you. You shouldn't push her away."
Twilight looked between the two mares and one filly that were looking at her expectantly. Finally, she sighed. "Alright. We'll set off in the morning for Mt. Hoof, and then to Stabul!"
The other three nodded, as the doctor began pulling out some futons. "You all are welcome to spend the night. Goodness knows, I haven't had so many pretty mares over in a long time!" he chuckled. The earth pony mare, who had walked in with a tray of food, leveled a deadly glare at him. "Er, but you're all I need, dear Redheart," he added quickly.
She smiled in response, setting the tray on the bed in front of Rarity. "Eat up, dear, you've been out of it for a few days. You need to recover your strength."
As Rarity began digging into the meal (while maintaining her dignified poise), Lyra, Twilight, and Fluttershy began to settle down for the night. Twilight's thoughts were troubled. If this Nightmare Moon is manipulating the king, then could she also be behind other things? The Octomammoth, the antlion's eggs… it's hard to swallow, but could one mare cause so many problems for the world? She yawned as she stripped her armor, curling up on one of the futons. Worries for another time, Twilight. Focus on getting to Stabul tomorrow. For now, get some rest. Goodness knows, you've earned it.
With that thought in mind, Twilight drifted off, followed by Lyra, Fluttershy, and Rarity in short order, all four hoping the next day would be better.