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The room exploded into chaos. The thick wooden door, the only way in or out of the Governor's study, slammed shut behind them, Darkfang roared crimson flames onto the assembled guards, Gadgets lobbed a make-shift grenade at Gripeye's desk, and Minion conjured a glowing wall of energy around her friends.
Griffons screamed as they were cooked alive inside their super-heated armor, Governor Gripeye squawked as the powerful explosive blew his desk to splinters, and Grayshaw impaled two soldiers on their own spears, stealing their swords as he did. Twisting around, Darkfang blasted the door with more fire, scattering droplets of melted gold and charred splinters all over the outer hall.
"Move!" He shouted, grabbing a startled guard in either claw and hurling them out the door into a crowd of panicking nobles.
Gadgets slid out the doorway quick as a whistle, hooves clicking against stone as he scampered towards the exit, "To the ship!" he cried, "We need more firepower!"
Bluebutt followed next, taking flight to avoid the confused, milling nobles; Grayshaw burst through the doorway after him, a spinning wheel of death with his dual swords. Darkfang went next, blasting the study one last time with his fiery breath, Minion bringing up the rear; as she left she conjured a wall of lethal energy in the door frame. Anypony stupid enough to touch it was in for a nasty surprise; that should help cut off pursuit.
"Seize the interlopers; they mustn't escape!" Gripeye called after them, completely unharmed by the explosion even with his desk in splinters and what was left of the surrounding guards silent on the floor, dead.
As impossible and fascinating as it was, Minion did not have time to ponder how he had survived as she burst into the main hall. Her barrier would last for only a few minutes, and reinforcements were pouring from every doorway, window, and other conceivable opening. The time had come to leave Beakisburg.
The mare peered ahead, following closely on the tails of her friends, though they had far outstripped her in their haste to escape. Bluebutt and Grayshaw soared through the air, the high ceiling providing more than adequate room for flight, the princess using his Suk'ruk Gui to nimbly evade pursuit, the captain merely smashing anypony foolish enough to get close to him out of the air. Darkfang bowled through the crowds like a juggernaught, knocking aside nobles, servants, and soldiers like bowling pins as he charged towards the entrance.
Gadgets was far ahead of them all, nimbly weaving through the crowd with practiced ease, completely unnoticed by the crowd as he made shameless use of their blind spots to hide himself. Minion smirked and decided to use her own special talent, mounting the wall without breaking stride, galloping along the vertical surface as if it were a flat road, climbing steadily until she was running upside down along the ceiling. Griffons and ponies alike stared at her in shocked amazement, completely dumbfounded at this amazing display of acrobatics.
A few brave souls attempted to catch her by taking flight, but a few well-timed lightning bolts, conjured from her horn, sent them plummeting back to earth with bone-breaking force. Nopony could stop them, anypony who tried was killed or crippled, but the vast difference in numbers was beginning to take its toll; if they did not reach shelter soon, they would die there, their dream unfulfilled. There seemed to be no end to the griffon guards; dozens littered the ground, dead, unconscious, or too injured to move, but more continued to pour into the main hall.
Minion circled around the circumference of the wall back to horizontal ground as the exit approached rapidly closer, a nervous barrier of soldiers blocking their way. The foolishness of their endeavor pressed upon the crowd as a combination of dragon fire, unicorn lightning, and another of Gadgets' make-shift explosives tore their line to bloody pieces, the adventurers bursting out into open air more or less unimpeded.
"Quickly, to the docks!" Gadgets shouted, rocketing off down the central thoroughfare, stunned civilians knocked aside as he pushed through, the others following closely on his hooves. When they were several blocks from the Governor's palace a gleaming, and strangely familiar, talon shot out from an alleyway, grabbing the pony by his coat and pulling him in with a startled yelp.
"Gadgets!" Darkfang and Grayshaw shouted simultaneously, rushing to their friend's aid, Minion and Bluebutt close on their heels. What they found there made all of them stop dead in their tracks. Gadgets back was to them, but the griffon who had grabbed him was facing them dead-on; his face was partially obscured as it was pressed right up against the side of the pony's head yet unmistakable all the same.
Bluebeak was whispering frantically in Gadgets ear, and the little pony seemed to be listening intently to whatever the griffon was saying, nodding every now and then.
"Alright," he said, "let's go. Come along, everypony, Mr. Sneaky here is going to help us."
Without another word, the two dashed down the alley, Bluebeak sparing them only a glance and a beckoning gesture. Not having much choice, the rest of the group followed suit, down twisting, spiraling alleys filled with garbage and old crates. Minion took this opportunity to get a closer look at the noble, noting how remarkably fit he was now that she could see his body.
Gone were the copious amounts of jewelry he had worn when they'd first met an eternity ago, as well as the swirling purple robes and elaborate magical inscriptions. From the smell she could also tell he was not wearing any of the expensive perfumes nobility used to disguise the inherit rankness of their personalities. Indeed, had she not recognized his sleek black feathers and unconscious, natural poise, she would never have recognized him for the arrogant, condescending noble she'd hated at first glance.
The griffon sorcerer was dressed in a form-fitting black tunic trimmed in gold, a generously enchanted claymore strapped to his back, and a number of braided anklets made from the hair of some animal she could not identify, holding polished moonstones and rubies. Despite technically being considered jewelry, Minion was quite certain these pieces were heavily magicked for any number of nasty purposes that coupled with the huge weapon sheathed across the griffon's shoulders could mean only one thing. The master sorcerer was dressed for war.
Bluebeak led them along for another hour, down more dirty alleyways, across rooftops mostly hidden from street view, and back and forth across the river several times, always checking for more pursuing guards every time they turned a corner. Finally, they seemed to arrive at what he had been looking for, a blank stretch of wall down a filthy gutter, completely identical to the thousand others they had already passed.
The griffon priest looked quickly over his shoulder at the group, making sure they were all still there, before drawing a stone dagger from within his tunic, slashing it quickly across his palm to draw blood, and pressing the bloody talon against the rock. Glowing purple light appeared beneath his claws, spider-webbing out across the blank stone until it formed what appeared to be a doorway.
The rock shuddered and began to disappear, eventually opening up enough space for Darkfang to just barely squeeze through. Bluebeak nodded at the door he'd made, apparently satisfied.
"Quickly," he told them, his voice sharp and commanding, holding none of its old silky smoothness and disdain, "inside before the guards see."
Gadgets ducked through the hole immediately, followed a moment later by Minion and the rest, though none of them without reluctance. They had no idea what they were getting into, after all, and no way of knowing if the noble was leading them into a trap. The griffon in question quickly sheathed his knife and stepped in after them, resealing the doorway with another press of his bloodied palm to the rock.
"I realize you do not trust me, and I am fully aware of the reason being my fault." His voice came from somewhere behind and to the left of the mare, unable to tell the exact location as the place they'd entered was utterly dark. "Please, make yourselves comfortable."
There was a distinct cracking sound and the room flared with light. Minion blinked at the sudden change, her eyes quickly adjusting as she scanned the place to which their "savior" had led them, and she felt her mouth drop open in astonishment. The room was utterly gorgeous!
Whatever else Bluebeak may be, he certainly had good taste in decor. The furniture, of which there was plenty, was gilded in expensive gold leaf, the couches and chairs upholstered in royal purple fabric decorated with golden constellations, and numerous pots, vases, and other aesthetically pleasing pieces were scattered about in a strangely relaxing manner.
"Nice safe house, prissy," Darkfang muttered, taking a seat on one of the couches, which promptly broke under his weight and crashed to the floor, the dragon leaping up with a curse. Their host gave him a long look before taking a seat of his own, waving at the others to do the same.
"Now, you're all probably wondering why I'm helping you," he said once everypony had taken a seat.
"Not really," Minion murmured darkly, "we all just figured you were waiting for the right moment to stab us in the back. You certainly made no secret of how we disgusted you the last time we met."
Bluebeak eyed her up and down, his look appraising, though it was not the same as the one he had given her the last time. That time he had been judging her value as a commodity, now he seemed to be reassessing her value as a pony.
"Yes, I am well aware of how my actions have affected your attitude towards me," he continued when he'd finished. "Let me start things off with apologizing for my earlier behavior. My outer persona sometimes gets the best of me."
"'Outer persona'?" Darkfang cut back in.
Bluebeak nodded, "In my line of work it is often necessary to wear many faces. It's alot like a game really; though sometimes one character will inadvertently burn a bridge another must rely on in the future."
"Why don't you start from the beginning? I think we're all interested in who the character we're dealing with right now is."
"Fair enough," the griffon said, rising from his seat and moving towards a corner cupboard, "but I think some refreshments are in order first. Escaping the pride of the Empire is no easy feat, even for individuals of your particular talents."
He removed from the cupboard a number of boxes, decanters, and water jugs, which he laid out on the tables closest to the group. The boxes were filled with an assortment of sweet meats, preserved fruit slices, and bread fresh from the markets, the decanters filled with an assortment of wines, brandies, and various other liquors enjoyed by the social elite.
After a quick spell to be sure of the integrity of the food, Minion dug in with a will, mumbling a mostly-sincere thanks through a mouth full of fruit and bread, the others following suit. Bluebeak gave her a nervous smile, carefully averting his eyes from the less-than-perfect table manners of his guests; for all that the griffon might be more than he seemed, the incessant tidiness of the highborn was still present.
"Yes, well, now that that's out of the way," he continued, re-taking his seat, "I suppose I may as well reintroduce myself. I am Agent Bluebeak, Imperial Intelligence, Master Sorcerer of the 4th Glorious Griffon Empire, nephew to the illustrious Gripeye, and Right Wing of the Emperor.
I am here in Beakisburg undercover, investigating certain claims that the governor here has been abusing his power. Among other, petty examples of fraud, larceny, and general disregard for regulations, I've discovered he's been using his influence and connections to perform illegal searches of various ruins, particularly those around the Forbidden Mountain."
"This is the first I've heard of this," Grayshaw interrupted, "and I've been a part of the Governor's inner circle ever since you," he gave the noble a very direct look, "got me sent here in the first place."
Bluebeak nodded, "I'm not surprised you knew, Captain, my uncle is well aware of where your loyalties lie, and he is not so foolish as to even try and sway them. I'm afraid your reputation for valor and commitment to duty are what have kept you from being able to be of more use to the Empire in this regard.
Had you been any less than what you are you would have been the perfect candidate for this task, alas because you are you the duty of finding out Gripeye's plans fell to me, his nephew."
"Well that sounded vaguely insulting," Grayshaw snorted, "are you sure the spoiled noble is just a character you play?"
The younger griffon grinned wryly, "Well there does seem to be that rumor going around that I'm an ass, now isn't there?"
"Wait, wait, wait," Darkfang shook his hands emphatically, causing the wine goblet he was holding to splash its contents everywhere, effectively ruining thousands of bits worth of furniture. "I know Gripeye; I've known him since we were kids, there's no way he'd be a traitor."
"You are half-right, Mr. Dragon," Bluebeak told him, sipping from his own goblet, pointedly ignoring the damage being done to his possessions. "But I'm afraid that the Gripeye you speak of was a child, and though it may not seem so to you, to us mortals fifty years is a great deal of time. The cub you knew grew to adulthood and the changes that come with it, as we all must do; in the end he was not the same griffon you knew. But you are right in that my uncle would never betray the Empire, his sense of duty and love for our people was far too strong for that."
"You said 'in the end'?"
"Indeed I did, and that brings me to the most important bit of news I have to tell you all," the griffon closed his eyes and took another sip of wine, completely in his element as he allowed the suspense to build. Minion glared at him, changing view of his personality or not, he was still a prick where it counted.
"My esteemed uncle, Governor Gripeye the Wise, has been dead for over seven years. The creature sitting inside the palace and passing out orders is an impostor."
Stunned silence filled the room following this announcement, nopony daring to speak as the implications of what that could mean sank in.
"What," Grayshaw spoke up after several minutes, "makes you so sure about that?"
Bluebeak cracked open one eye to look directly at him, "My uncle has an injury on his right paw; the corpse of a griffon with similar injury was found sealed in unnatural ice one year ago, in the Cold Mines."
"The 'impostor' has the same injury."
"Indeed he does; the evidence lies in that the impostor's injury is three millimeters shorter than the medical reports of my uncle's state it to be, and it has grown point-three more millimeters since I arrived here, three months past."
Everypony was silent once more. Though the evidence sounded thin, they were all aware of one crucial fact: limbs didn't grow back, no matter how the rest of the body changed with time.
"Could," Minion murmured into the stillness, hardly daring to hope, "could it be magic?"
Bluebeak did not answer her directly, instead he turned to address the only griffon present who had not yet spoken, "Princess Bluebutt," he said, "you are a master sorcerer, as am I, and the greatest healer the Empire has seen in generations. Does a magic exist to allow the regeneration of body parts and do the griffon priests possess knowledge of such magic?"
Every eye was on the shy little princess as he shook his head, eyes filled with fear for the fate of his father.
"There you have your answer," the agent said, his voice flat, "Governor Gripeye can only be a pretender. A pretender whose motivations and purpose I can only begin to guess at."
"Well, that's a start, isn't it?" Gadgets piped up, speaking for the first time since they had entered the safe-house.
"It is at that," Bluebeak agreed, "but my investigation has been ongoing for over three months, and I'm still just grasping at straws."
"Just give us your best guess."
The griffon shrugged and began to tell them everything he'd managed to gather. "Since our best estimate of the time of the assassination and subsequent placement of the impostor in Gripeye's place, there have been twelve unexplained deaths in the Imperial Court alone, sixteen attempts on the Crown Prince's life, resulting in the deaths of thirty-one royal guards and a half-dozen concubines, and three on the Emperor's.
Since my arrival here, assassins in the dark have attempted to destroy me on thirteen different occasions, the culprits having escaped after each failure. Five attempts have been made on the princess's," Bluebutt gasped, "all of which I have managed to stop before they could get very far.
This latest attempt with the jackals, however, put him beyond my reach for the first time in months and I feared that this one had finally succeeded. Your safe return has settled those fears to rest and for that, you have my sincere thanks."
"I thought you didn't like Bluey."
"My personal feelings in this matter are unimportant; the loss of such a powerful healer would have been devastating to the city and the Empire as a whole."
"That's an answer, I guess."
"Answering a question without really answering it is a talent of spies like me."
Bluebeak smiled slightly, "Quite. Assassinations aside, the Governor has been moving around alot of different shipments meant for various border outposts, redirecting a great deal of resources to excavating the ruins I mentioned earlier. I'm ashamed to say I've discovered diddly squat on that front, other than that these particular ruins are said to be tied in some way to the Event and the Forbidden Mountain. What those two have to deal with the impostor's plan, I have no idea."
"The Forgotten would probably know something about that."
Gadgets quickly filled him in on what had happened to the group after they left the city on their mission to rescue the princess. Bluebeak was silent throughout the tale, listening intently to the tale as Gadgets recited every detail perfectly from memory. Minion shuddered as she was reminded of how helpless they had been before such terrible power, and of how the egg still lay on the junk, safe and comfortable in a box full of rags.
"So," the noble said hours later, when Gadgets had finally finished, "you struck a deal with a confessed monster in order to save your own lives and fulfill your mission."
"Yeah that pretty much sums it up. Neat, huh?"
"I won't pretend to agree with your choices, but I understand why you made them, and I must confess I almost certainly would have done the same in that situation. It also may be for the best that it was you who was chosen to care for this...let's call it a child, rather than some opportunistic slime that would raise it to do his bidding and use its power to threaten the Empire."
"Yep, I don't need an alicorn baby to destroy the world."
Bluebeak stared at the earth pony, whose eyes were swirling in a cyclone of clashing colors, "That thought terrifies me in ways I cannot describe, but you are correct."
Everypony was silent for a moment, faces smiling but inside their hearts were cold with dread. None but Minion had ever seen what the little pony was truly capable of, but everypony there could sense the truth of his words.
Grayshaw was the first to resume the conversation, "So, now that everypony's up to speed, what are we going to do about that imposter? Normal weapons don't work on him; I saw that bastard take an explosion to the face and his feathers weren't even singed."
"We aren't going to do anything," Bluebeak told him, his voice once again assuming a tone of unquestioned authority, "You, all of you, are going to get to your ship and get the hell out of this city and as far away as you can before the imposter can get his claws on you."
"Not bloody likely," Darkfang rumbled, slamming a scaly fist down on the table, shattering it, "you expect me to take the murder of my friend lying down? I'm going to rip that imposter's head off his shoulders and eat it."
"Listen to me," Bluebeak snapped, leaning forward, "you believe my evidence, but Gripeye is an incredibly respected individual, whereas Bluebeak the noble is hated and despised by most of the Empire, and Bluebeak the Imperial spook is not bloody likely to hold much more sway. There is no way in hell any reasonable court would convict the imposter of treason, and at worst we'd all be executed for slander!
No, all of you need to get out of the city as soon as possible, particularly after the fiasco in the palace; every guard is going to be aiming for your head. Nopony yet knows I've helped you so I'll be able to join in on the hunt and resume my duties more or less unsuspected. Meanwhile, the five of you will be safely away from the imposter and whatever he's planning and I can get on with my life without worry."
"I will not abandon an ally, my honor will not allow it," Grayshaw stated, his tone leaving no room for doubt. Heads nodded around the room in agreement; they may still not particularly like Bluebeak, but they'd stick with him until the end if they had to, he'd earned that much.
The noble sighed, reached inside his tunic and pulled out a stack of leaflets, "I was hoping not to use this, but take a look."
He tossed the stack at Grayshaw, who snagged it nimbly out of the air and began to flip through the pages, curious. After a few moments his eyes began to sharpen, eventually culminating into icy rage.
"These are KIA reports," he hissed darkly, "where did you get these?"
"KI-whats-it-now?" Gadgets asked, scratching his head in puzzlement.
"'Killed In Action'," Bluebeak sighed, "Governor Gripeye issued them a week ago; according to them the five of you perished in the cave-in which sealed the Dark Pass. A ceremony was held, in which you were buried with honors befitting a hero of the realm, for your heroic mission in avenging the princess. The service was lovely."
Five sets of eyes stared at him in shock; the griffon shrugged and waved a talon at the papers, "As far as the government is concerned, all of you are dead and your rights forfeit. Gripeye is completely within his authority to do whatever he wants with you should he catch you. Yet another reason for you to leave immediately."
Grayshaw swallowed and stared at the papers, "I guess we have no choice," he said after a moment. "How soon should we head to the docks?"
"We'll wait until midnight, tonight's a new moon so the only light will be the city's and the docks, and those can be avoided, if you know the way."
They had spent so many hours talking that night seemed to come in an instant, or so Minion thought as the group crept along dark alleys, holding their breath until the frequent patrols of griffon guards flew by overhead or passed along on the streets. There was no doubt who they were searching for, and even less about their orders regarding the 'deceased' fugitives.
Bluebeak led them with practiced ease, avoiding populated areas and guiding them from shadow to shadow. The city was beautiful at night, lit by countless torches that cast dancing shadows along the streets, giving them a festival feel even in the humdrum of normal life. Huge braziers lit the base of every bridge and the middle of every plaza, though Minion caught only the barest glances of these as she was hurried along.
Their trip to the docks was uneventful, the majority of the city's residents having retired to their rest long ago, only the beggars, the vagabonds, and the miscellaneous still prowling the streets. The trip had taken hours, and hours more every time they were forced to stop until a group of rowdy drunks or grim soldiers stood between them and the next patch of darkness. But at last, they reached their wharf where the junk still sat, bobbing in the waves.
Minion wondered how it had remained untouched by the guard; surely Gripeye, or whatever his name actually was, wanted the technology aboard? But no sooner had this thought entered her mind than she noticed the deep gouges in the cobblestones and the scorch marks decorating surrounding buildings. Somepony had obviously tried to board the ship and just as obviously been repulsed by its crew.
"Alright," Bluebeak whispered to the party, "now come's the most dangerous part. We've got to cross the last bit of open space to your ship, and we'll have to go all together."
"Why all together?" Grayshaw whispered, "Shouldn't we go one at a time to avoid suspicion?"
Bluebeak shook his head, a dark blur in the shadows; his black feathers rendering him nearly invisible when he was still, "No. One at a time would just make it more obvious we were up to something and besides, it'll be dawn soon."
To prove his point he pointed a talon beyond the city walls, where the sky was growing noticeably brighter. They had no time to waste.
The party nodded their heads as one; they were ready for what was to come, having equipped themselves from a secret armory within the spy's safe-house. Everypony carried a sword and a spear, and wore light armor made of thick, dark cloth; chainmail would have been too noisy and conspicuous for sneaking and so they had been forced to forgo heavier protection.
"Alright, let's move." Blubeak motioned forward with his talon and the party stole silently across open ground for the first time that night, praying to their respective gods they went unnoticed. Their prayers went unanswered.
Alarm horns shattered the stillness of pre-dawn just as the group reached their salvation; a dozen bonfires roared to life, their light reflected by a dozen massive mirrors directly into their eyes, and armored griffon soldiers sprung up from a thousand hiding places, completely encircling the dock. A hundred more thundered through the air behind them, blocking off any escape through air or sea.
Before anypony had time to do more than gawk at the stupidity with which they'd allowed themselves to fall into such an obvious trap, the sound of a hundred crossbows being fired simultaneously shook the air. Minion erected a barrier as quickly as she could, stopping a dozen, Bluebeak snarled something and swept his claymore before him, shattering a dozen more, Darkfang hissed as his scales rebounded the attack, bruised but unharmed, Gadgets chuckled as missiles swept past him, and Grayshaw grunted in pain as six heavy bolts slammed into his chest.
The old veteran had interspersed himself between Princess Bluebutt and the lethal bolts, instinct taking over as his charge's life was threatened. Grayshaw fell backwards to the ground, blood pooling under him as his life drained out onto the uncaring stone.
Darkfang screamed, a sound of pure rage, golden flames spewing from his maw to cover his body in unbridled fury, "Fools! Treacherous, rotting fools! How dare you harm that which is mine!" his voice cracked stone with its force, the shockwave unbalancing the flying soldiers, sending them crashing into one another and opening a path to The Inconceivable and safety.
"I will break, tear, rip, gut every one of you! My fury will set the skies aflame and cover the world in ashes! Behold. My. Power! Unleash the --!"
The flames disappeared and the dragon stumbled as a heavy wooden cudgel wrapped him smartly upside the head. Bluebeak tucked the weapon away inside his tunic, its strange blue light disappearing as he did.
"Are you calm now?" he asked nonchalantly, as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
Darkfang rubbed his head, wincing slightly as his claws came into contact with the lump forming there, "Yeah, actually," he said after a moment, his voice back to its normal, rough, gentle tone. "I feel fine."
"Good, good," Bluebeak nodded sagely. "Now that's over with. GET YOUR ASS IN THE BOAT!" The dragon winced slightly at the noise, "Your friend can still be saved but only if you get him out of here now!" Darkfang continued to stare at him, "Do it!"
Still wincing, the dragon moved quickly to aid Bluebutt in carefully lifting the dying soldier's body up into the junk, where Gadgets was already preparing the ship for take-off, barking orders at the crew with uncharacteristic venom. It was at that moment the soldiers on the docks began to regain their composure, their commanders bellowing orders to reform ranks and prepare to charge.
"It's time for you to go, too," Minion started at the sudden address, staring blankly at Bluebeak as Darkfang had done. The griffon glared at her, though there was kindness and affection in his eyes that she had never noticed before, "Death is not your destiny today."
Minion blinked away tears she did not know she was shedding, "But what about you?" she asked, though she already knew the answer, "Aren't you coming with us?"
The noble spy shook his head, "My duty is here." he told her, "I cannot leave until my mission is complete, and it would seem that mission now is to rid this place of its corruption."
"If you survive, you'll be executed."
"If you don't they'll record you as a traitor; your name will be hated for all time."
"That is my duty."
"So what will you do?"
Bluebeak stared out at the massing soldiers, his eyes sad yet filled with unwavering resolve, "I will face my destiny."
Minion hugged him then, an action that surprised them both; she hugged him with all the love in her heart. Bluebeak tensed at first, and then he wrapped an arm around her, hugging her back with surprising strength.
"Go to Icehoof, look for a pony named Wellread, he'll tell you everything you need to know about the Event, and about the Rainbow Bridge."
"How do you know about that?" she asked him, genuinely confused, pulling away to look into his eyes.
The griffon winked at her, he looked oddly roguish in the firelight, "I can read minds, it's my special talent. Now go."
With reluctance she did not think she would ever have thought she'd feel, the mare let go of her friend and stepped away.
"Fight with honor;" she told him, before leaping into the junk, just as it started to take off. Bluebeak nodded at her, his eyes shiny with tears.
"What's going on?" Darkfang asked, leaving Grayshaw's side to join her at the railing, watching as their newest friend prepared for the end. The griffon reached once more inside his tunic, and drew out a talon-full of glittering purple sand, which he scattered to either side. A dozen other Bluebeaks rose from the pavement, and took their stances beside the original, ready to face the incoming charge as the griffon commanders finally got their troops ready.
"He's staying behind," Minion told him. "He's giving his life to buy us time to get away."
"Damn prissy bastard," the dragon muttered, though the mare could hear the grief in his voice. "He's always got to be better than us."
The tiny junk shook as the crew fired upon any griffon foolish enough to pursue them, down below the sounds of battle filling the air as a thousand soldiers met their match against the might of a master sorcerer.
Minutes later they were half-landing, half-crashing into the mineshaft as quickly, and gently, as Gadgets' expert piloting could do. Said pony immediately leaped off the ship, screaming orders at the Chief to get the airship moving, the tiny automaton saluted smartly and dashed off.
Gadgets looked back over his shoulder at his friends, "Bluey, Darkfang, get the captain and follow me! Minion, prep the Eclipse Engine!"
"What?!" Minion shouted, "You're really going to use that?! Even you said the chances of it working were only fifty-fifty!"
"We don't have time for that now; Grayshaw's dying and we're going to save him!"
Minion thought for a moment, weighing the fate of the entire world against the life of one friend. The choice was obvious.
Twelve hours later, dawn had risen and The Inconceivable was a hundred miles from Beakisburg, gliding over the rolling sands of Dragon's Breath, completely isolated from the world. The crew had spent seven hours assisting Gadgets in his operation, trying desperately to keep the captain alive until the Eclipse Engine was fully charged. It had been harrowing, and everypony was exhausted, but they had done it; even now the wonders of science were repairing their friend to his former glory and then some!
Gadgets alone had elected to remain below, monitoring his creation to make sure everything went smoothly, while the rest of them had retired to the top deck, to relax in the cooling breeze and catch some much needed sleep. Minion lay at the top of the stairs to the command deck, as was her want, having used the last of her strength to drag her body up them so she could watch the world pass by below.
Darkfang was sprawled on deck, his tail twitching fretfully in his dreams; he had been more worried than any and had often proved more nuisance than help as he hovered over Grayshaw's unconscious form. Much like a mother hen over her hatchlings, Minion mused.
Bluebutt, having used a dangerous amount of blood magic during the operation, was recuperating under an awning constructed by the fascinated crew, who were wholly enamored with his beautiful blue feathers, being spoon fed special restoratives. Minion had watched with tired amusement as the tiny little machines scuffled frantically over who would have the honor of feeding the beautiful blue griffon.
It had been five hours since their rest had begun, and for five hours they'd each lain with their own thoughts, lost within their minds as they waited for good news. As they had ever since she'd come out on deck, Minion's thoughts drifted to Bluebeak, and how he'd sacrificed himself for them, ponies who had hated him until mere hours before. She wondered how things would have turned out if they had been able to know each other longer, if he had come with them aboard The Inconceivable, and of what he had meant about the Rainbow Bridge.
But mostly she thought of the regret she'd seen in his eyes, of the tiny beginnings of bitter, hopeless love for somepony he could never have, and she wondered. If she had not met Gadgets, could she have loved him back? But these thoughts were pointless, as so many things concerning love were. She had Gadgets, and he was all she wanted and besides, Bluebeak was dead or good as. There was no point in maintaining a fantasy of a romance that would never be. But still, the question was there. Could she have loved him?
The click-click of metal on metal jarred her from her thoughts as Gadgets swaggered out on deck, looking extremely pleased with himself.
"Attention, everypony!" he called. Darkfang sat up immediately, staring at the stallion intently, his eyes puffy and bloodshot from lack of sleep; to his credit, Bluebutt managed to raise his head ever so slightly, drained as he was. For her part, Minion simply continued to watch him from her perch, hardly daring to hope about what he might say.
"It gives me great pleasure to announce the newest member of our little crew," he paused for infuriating dramatic effect, "Feathers!" he pointed a hoof at Bluebutt, who blinked.
The grinning stallion rounded on the griffon, "Yeah, let's face it, your name is terrible and since you're going to be with us from now on, you need a new one! Whatta ya think?"
The newly named Feathers blinked again, more slowly this time, then gave a small smile and a nod of his head.
"Now is really not a good time for jokes, Gadgets," Darkfang spat, "what happened to Grayshaw?!"
"Oh, he's dead," Gadgets said matter-of-factly. The dragon imitated Feathers and blinked slowly as the pony continued, "Yeah, side effect of the Eclipse Engine. I totally burnt out all his Moon energy so I had to supplement it with an excess of Sun." He waved a showpony's hoof at the entrance to the ship, "So, ponies, dragons, griffons, machines of intelligent nature, I'd like you to meet: Crimson."
A beautiful red griffon stepped forth from the shadows, its feathers a deep, powerful shade of red, its fur bright and glowing, brushed to a gleaming shine, its talons immaculate and gold as the sun, and obviously female.
"It's embarrassing," 'Crimson' said, "but I guess since 'Grayshaw' is technically dead, in just about every sense of the word, 'Crimson' is as good a griffon to be as any." She looked directly at Darkfang, who was staring dumbfounded at her, his jaw threatening to touch the floor. "I hope," she started, blushing slightly and looking away, "that this doesn't change the way you see me. I realized that when we were together you --" she trailed off and hid her head in her wing much like Feathers did.
"H-How --" Darkfang began, unable to form a coherent sentence, enraptured as he was by the formerly male griffon's beauty.
"'How in the bloody hell did this happen?'" Gadgets finished for him, popping up beside the dragon, who nodded mutely, still unable to speak. The pony tapped a hoof against his chin thoughtfully,
"I actually have no idea. While the Eclipse Engine was repairing Grayshaw's body it drained what little remained of his Moon energy to power the healing process, now naturally since Moon energy comes from Cosmis its the dominant form of life-force in males.
Well, since Galaxia is female Sun energy is naturally the dominant life-force in females and since females and males only differentiate by one gene, I figured, why can't I just replace the lost Moon energy with Sun? So I did and the results. Were. Amazing!"
He gestured once more at the red griffon, who was back to staring into Darkfang's eyes, "Crimson is totally female, right down to her DNA, yet she is also totally the same pony we all knew; all that's changed is her body, the soul of Captain Grayshaw is still right where it belongs. Oh, and she can have babies! Totally boring, non-mutaty-eat-your-face-off babies!"
Darkfang did not appear to be hearing a word of this as he continued to stare, open-mouthed, at his friend. Finally, he swallowed and crossed the distance between them, taking her into his arms, and leaning in so they were eye-to-eye.
"To answer your question," he told her gently, "it doesn't change anything."
And they kissed, a perfect kiss that finally answered the question Minion had been pondering all those weeks ago, back when they had first set off on that fateful journey across the sands. How could a dragon and a griffon kiss? Perfectly.