"This is Twilight Sparkle. I'm ready to proceed with the final phase." Esteem held his chest to try and stop the sudden pounding, barely preventing his other hoof from tearing off the radio on his ear. "Intelligence officers, meet me at the main lobby of Cloudsdale Armories HQ in thirty minutes. We've already disabled the bomb in the loading bay. The techs will sweep the CEO's office with detection magic first. After that, we should find what we need there."
"Sir, did you —"
Esteem smacked the police charioteer upside the head. "Of course I heard it, buffoon! Hurry! If the bomb failed we need to get there now!"
The chariot dove and banked around the core, aiming directly for the headquarters. Esteem held onto the rail through the long sequence of turns, ready to fly himself as soon as he could. Artfeather, you old hag. You would go and get killed, making me clean things up.
"Sir, looks like there's an opening we can use if we come in behind that cloud up top. The MPs shouldn't see us."
"Do it." Esteem spread his wings out. "I'll go in, take care of things, and get out. You all take off right away or you'll get me spotted."
"Almost time. Hold very, very still until you get your opportunity, or this won't work." Twilight aimed her horn at Spike, readying the camouflage spell.
"I know, I know. I move, the spell breaks. Just hurry up, I'm getting anxious." Spike squirmed around in place while clutching his halberd. "You sure you want me to do this?"
"I can't think of anyone better. Now hold still." Twilight fired the spell, covering the corner in a thin, dark barrier that oozed into the natural darkness of the room. She could still see him, barely, but there was a way to draw a pony's eyes.
She hopped over to the smashed, broken desk and it's lone, equally smashed and unplugged lamp. First, she hid the cable under the wreckage. Then, she used one of Trixie's illusions. It was nothing like what the Illusionists could perform, though that wouldn't be necessary. Instead, she summoned a tiny ball of violet light, then color shifted it to a soft golden white and put it inside the lamp shade.
Her guards were in place, the distraction ready, and the ponies she needed elsewhere were either ready for action or already doing their jobs. "Show time!"
Twilight teleported to a corner and covered herself in the same camouflage spell, silently wishing she had figured out how the Night Guard did their hiding. The arrival of a pegasus, though, reordered her mental checklist in an instant.
Duke Esteem had landed alone, likely to avoid drawing too much attention, just as Twilight had planned.
Looks like they took the opening I gave them. Perfect. Twilight split her attention between following the Duke and keeping an eye on Spike, who was still ensconced in the far corner under the painting.
Esteem went for the safe first, then blurted out some obscenities not meant for polite company. His head snapped to the lit desk before diving for it. Drawer after drawer was pulled out and looked through, all the while Spike was sneaking up on him. The Duke pulled a hoof-full of ash out of the drawer, examining it in stunned silence.
Then Spike grabbed him by the neck and slammed his head into the wall. "Move and I torch you!"
Rainbow flew in from another corner and slapped a set of null-all shackles on his hind legs. "Duke Esteem, you are under arrest!"
"For what?! Where in Tartarus did you come from?!"
That's my cue. Twilight slipped out of her shadow, breaking the camouflage spell and stepping into the light. "Honestly, Duke, the list of charges is so long it might be faster to say what you aren't charged with. But, for starters, I'm going to go with insurance fraud, inciting riots, impeding a Crown investigation..."
Spike pulled the stallion up to his hooves. "Then there's the bombings, telling the cops to kill non-pegasi, corruption..."
Rainbow joined in and added another set of shackles. "Don't forget bribery, leaking classified government documents, hiring hit ponies to assassinate your wife..."
"Hey! I did not assassinate my wife!"
"I didn't say you did. I said you hired hit ponies to kill your wife, which is actually even worse when it comes to punishments."
"I did no such thing!" Esteem struggled against the chains. "I am a Duke, damn you! I'll have your hide for this-this slander! I did not hire hit ponies to assassinate my wife!"
"Well," Twilight smirked, pulling out a piece of paper Luna had sent her earlier and pretended to check something off. "We know for a fact that you hired a hit pony to kill that pegasus family so you could blame it on unicorns. As soon as we capture the pony that did it, we'll have all the proof we need when the coward rolls over on you like a puppy."
"'As soon as'? Ha!" Esteem laughed to himself. "That's your case? Find a pony willing to bad-mouth me?"
"Testify against, not badmouth." Rainbow gave him a noogie. "There's a really big difference there, Poindexter. Bad-mouthing is me calling you a douche canoe the size of Denmarek. Testifying is me saying, in court, that I saw you do it in the study with a fire poker. And I'm pretty sure your stooge is going to sing like a canary."
Esteem rolled his eyes. "Please. You have nothing! I didn't do it, you can't prove I did, and your only supposed witness doesn't even exist, and if they did, you don't even know where they are!"
"Yeah, about that." Twilight leaned back on the wall in her best impression of Rainbow's "cool loitering pose." "See, I know who you got to do your dirty work. Turns out, it's a small world. We even have a murder weapon! As for finding him to make him testify, well, I was thinking... Where would I go to hide out if I was a dirty, no-good tribalist flank wipe willing to kill to see pegasi supremacy come true in Cloudsdale? Really, there's only one answer to that."
Intelligentsia looked up at the sign over the plywood door to the bar. "No grounders allowed. This means yo— Well that's just rude." She motioned to the two Royal Guard officers behind her. "Go cover the back while I explain things to them."
One of the two pegasi chuckled to himself as they flew off, leaving her on her own against whatever was inside.
Intelligentsia regarded the pad lock with the same level of disgust as the food she had during basic training. "Really? They think this is going to keep anypony, much less a talented unicorn, out?" A half second of spell casting later, and the lock was in her pocket. She then tore the door right off its hinges and tossed it aside like obsolete paperwork.
"What in Tartarus are you doing?!" A badly beaten pegasus yelled at her. "Can't any of you stick brains read?!"
"Dad, calm down," another pegasus with a first aid kit said. "We'll get them, we just have to wait."
"I presume you're 'Wing Warrior.'" Intelligentsia adjusted her glasses at them. With contempt. "Utterly pretentious name, by the way. And I should know. Still, unless you do something stupid while I'm here, I honestly don't care how pretentious you are."
"Get! Out!" Wing through a glass in the vague direction of Intelligentsia's head, missing wildly. This was likely due to the two black eyes he had, and the bloody wads of tissue paper stuffed into his nostrils wasn't helping his slurred speech any. "Your kind isn't welcome here!"
"The Equal Welcome Clause of the Equestrian Compact says otherwise, Mr. Pretentious. Besides..." Intelligentsia pulled out a scroll and unfurled it before them. "By order of the Crown, I come with an intelligence warrant demanding the surrender of Seapony Dustmane for crimes against the diarchy! I have reason to suspect he is hiding here. Let it be known that failure to comply and assist forthwith with demands pertaining to these lawful orders will result in criminal charges for all present!
"Seapony Dustmane, show yourself and surrender by order of Her Most High Majesty, Eternal Ruler of Equestria, Princess Celestia!" Intelligentsia smiled. I love that part.
"Nopony here by that name, ya harlot!" Wing's hoof slipped on some blood on the bar, sending him down to bang his chin on the wood. Rubbing the new bruise, he continued, "Now get the buck out before I throw your ass off this cloud!"
"You're lying," Intelligentsia said. "That's a bad idea, in case you were wondering."
"He's telling the truth! There's nopony else here!" The son said, trying to wedge himself in between his father and her.
"Oh?" Intelligentsia counted to four in her head, and a door somewhere in the back slammed. "Then what's that? I'm guessing it's Dustmane finding out that all the exits are covered by Royal Guard pegasi. Did you two really think I came here alone?"
The door to the back room exploded open from a pegasus flying through it and making a beeline for the exit, going right through where Intelligentsia was standing. The dingy, dirty bar melted into streaks around her as she dodged to the side, then deployed and swung down her guan dao in one single motion. With his pinions cut, the pegasus lost power in an instant, crashing into the floor, rolling in a somersault, then smacking into the wall. His limbs splayed every which way, yet he still managed to keep his head pointing up.
Intelligentsia slammed the bar of her polearm into the pegasus' neck with her hooves, pressing him against the wall like he was a lump of dough. She then lit her horn, shining its light in his face. "Seapony Dustmane, I presume. Glad to meet you. RGIS wants to have a little talk. And by little, I mean one lasting the rest of your natural life lived out inside our accommodations. And by accommodations, I mean a spacious and clean jail cell. And by spacious and clean, I mean horribly cramped and even filthier than this bar."
"Go to Tartarus, bitch!" Dustmane hissed from clenched teeth. "No way you can hold me!"
"I already am, but when you say it like that, it sounds like you're asking yourself if Duke Esteem will come through for you somehow. He has his own problems at this point, so you'd best start thinking about your own hide. For example, you could start by asking a different question. Perhaps something like, 'If she's holding her weapon with her forehooves, why is her horn lit?'"
The syringe she had fished out of her pocket of tricks stabbed into his neck, delivering the potion directly into his body. Seconds later, the lump of dough was on the floor and in a pair of shackles.
"Well, that was fun." Intelligentsia put away her syringe and weapon. "Boys! We need a pickup!"
The two Royal Guard stallions walked into the bar, and one of them tossed the limp fugitive over his back to carry him to the chariot. The other stopped, eyeing the two behind the bar. "What about these losers?" He asked.
"They're under arrest, too."
"What?!" The son flailed his forelegs about. "You can't do that! We didn't do anything!"
"What part of 'Let it be known that failure to comply and assist forthwith with demands pertaining to these lawful orders will result in criminal charges for all present' did you not understand? You both lied to me. You're finished. Come on, wings at your sides, let the officer get the shackles on. Resist and my guan dao will make short work of you."
Part of Intelligentsia's mind thought they were going to try something, which would have ruined her plans, but thankfully they both complied and were led outside without a fuss. The Royal Guard pegasi loaded the unconscious one into the chariot, then prepared to get the other two in.
Intelligentsia held out a hoof to block them and put away her polearm. "These two are staying here with me. Your orders are to take Dustmane to Fort Hurricane as fast as you can, then return here to secure the scene. He's a much higher priority than these chuckleheads, who have their own transportation coming for them. I'll wait here with them. Go."
The guards saluted, then hitched themselves to the chariot and flew off. In the darkness of the cool evening, it didn't take them long to vanish from sight. Thus, Intelligentsia let out a sigh.
She undid her mane and let it flow over her shoulders, then reached into her pocket and pulled out a tiny flask. The fluid inside was sour and, frankly, disgusting as it went down her throat. But, it was what was necessary.
The two pegasi looked at her with shock. “You're drunk?” Wing asked.
“I never touch alcohol. This is an energy drink, actually.” Intelligentsia took another sip. “You idiots have had me running all over this city all day. It's only natural to need a jolt of sugar and caffeine at this point.”
She chuckled and eyed her two prisoners. “Fortunately for me, I got to be the one to find Dustmane. Makes the paperwork easier than if he showed up at one of the other bars.”
Wing Warrior about had a heart attack. He had gone as white as the dust on his coat would allow, and lurched like he’d been punched. “Other bars? You mean—”
Intelligentsia broke out into a laugh and managed to snort some of her drink up her nose. “Wow. Studies do show that tribalists have lower IQs than normal, but wow. You really didn't guess?”
Wing’s son was shaking, and the stallion himself was about to be sick.
“Yeah, it's true.” Intelligentsia screwed the lid back on and put away the flask. “Haven't you noticed how all your plots have been foiled, every single time? How your influence keeps contained? How every year or so, the police finally manage to shut one of you down, but no faster or slower than that?
“Haven't you thought it weird that Cloud Burner, who spent time in the presence of Her Highness, couldn't get this place shut down?” Intelligentsia raised her head and looked down at them under her glasses to twist the knife. “Every single tribalist bar in the city has been fully infiltrated by RGIS. Including your own. We know everything, and we're the only reason you've stayed out of jail — until now. You, and all those like you in this city, have officially outlived your usefulness.”
Wing retched onto the cloud, and his son just sat there, shaking.
Two chariots pulled up, one with RGIS livery, and other with the Army. Each was built to be fully enclosed, and had bars covering the window.
Intelligentsia snapped to attention and saluted the ponies arriving to pick up her prisoners. “Gentlecolts! The elder stallion here is to be taken to the facilities in Fort Hurricane for holding until he can be transferred to another city's jail. The younger is to be taken to Canterlot Castle's dungeon for further interrogation by RGIS.”
“Canterlot Castle?” Wing Warrior asked. “Why there?”
Intelligentsia scoffed. “Take a wild guess.”
His son put his ears down and turned his head.
Wing Warrior slumped to the cloud, only to be hauled up by the MPs. “Son? It was you? You were the informant?”
“I'm sorry.” The boy stepped into the chariot, silent and in tears.
Intelligentsia waited for the shellshocked Wing to be tossed in the other chariot, then closed the door on him herself. “This is where hatred leads.” She pulled out a business card with anonymized RGIS contact information and tossed it next to Wing. “If you decide to come to your senses and want to cooperate with us, show the officers at your interrogation this card. If you want to keep being a scumbag, throw it away and spend the rest of your life in jail. Either way, I'll get what I need.”
She pounded on the side of the chariot, and both of them took off. After another sip of her drink, she clicked on her radio. “Lieutenant Intelligentsia to Hurricane Relay. Primary Objective complete.”
“And your secondary objective?” The voice on the other end asked.
“That was done when I was in diapers. All that's left is to close in.”
Twilight's ear twitched at the report coming in over her new armour-integrated radio. "And, that's that. Dustmane is secured in an undisclosed location. Duke Esteem, I am formally placing you under arrest for the charges of murder for hire and inciting an insurrection."
Esteem flapped his wings futilely. "You're going to have to do better than that, Sparkle. I'm a Duke, and this is my Duchy. What I say, goes, and there's no way Dustmane will testify... one way or another. You have nothing."
"This guy really doesn't get it, does he?" Spike grabbed Esteem's ear and yelled, "You think we're just going to hold him in a normal jail where you can get to him? Dude, the princesses can teleport almost anywhere in the world. We're going to shove him in a hole nopony has ever even heard of. You aren't even going to be able to travel to this place in time to kill him, much less even find him. You are such toast."
"Yeah, right now it's not a question of whether or not he's going to get punished." Rainbow did her legitimate "cool loitering pose." "It's whether they'll even bother turning him into a statue, or just teleport him into a volcano and be done with it. Me, I vote the former. Funnier that way."
"Yeah, I think we're done here." Twilight yawned. "There's a lot more I want to look into, but it's all Artfeather's crap. Honestly, it's kind of impressive that she managed to keep so much from the crown for so long. I mean, what she did was horrible, with the smuggling, the fraud, the treason, etc. But you can't help but admire how she masterminded it. If nothing else, it took an incredible effort of organization, and I can certainly appreciate that."
"Please." Esteem scoffed. "She was a pretender. Born into wealth and squandered it with her arrogance. I only married her because she was rich. I'm surprised it took her this long to get killed. It was only a matter of time."
"So why didn't you do it sooner?" Spike asked.
"I didn't kill her!" Esteem stomped and kicked out, though the chains held firm. "I don't know who did, but they're going to get theirs, too! I swear it! You three can bluster all you like, but I'm above you! I'm above you all!"
"Pffft. Yeah right." Rainbow put on one of the stupidest looking faces in her goofball repertoire. "Look at me, I'm so important, but I got caught after a day and my wife ran conspiracies for years! I'm a smarty smart, dur-hur-hur."
Esteem tried to step up to Rainbow, but fell to the floor thanks to the shackles. Panting as he got up, he spat venom back at her. "I ran Cloudsdale Armories! You think that bitch did anything with the company other than waste its money? Billions went missing thanks to her!"
"Hey, douche canoe the size of Denmarek, up here." Spike snapped his fingers at him. "Is there some part of, 'you're arrested, we can use what you say against you' that you don't understand?"
"Spike has a point." Twilight stepped closer to him, and help up a hoof to calm her guards. She even gave Esteem a smile. "I am sorry about them. You don't have, well, you have plenty to be ashamed of, really. What you've done is just awful. But you should probably listen to Spike. I do intend to report on everything you say."
"Oh, come on, Twi!" Rainbow flapped her wings and laughed. "Let me at least get a few more licks in! Oh, I know! How about how he totally screwed up Artfeather's plan to get rioters to burn things down by managing to inspire counter protesters preaching love instead of manufactured hate? Or how he had to resort to cheap, poorly made bombs? Or how--"
"Enough!" Esteem practically drooled venom from his mouth as he tried to lunge at Rainbow, only to be stopped by Twilight stepping in between them.
Twilight wrinkled her nose at Esteem's bad breath panting in rage at them, yet stayed as a wall between the Duke and her friends, even with him so close she could count his eyebrow hairs.
"You listen to me, you gaudy low-born!" His lips sprayed little bits of saliva as he reached. "You think she was smart enough for any of that? It was me, all me. I planned the riots, the bombs, the Wavu, all of it! Artfeather just signed off. I needed her. She was convenient, and even though I wasn't the one that had her killed, I'd damn sure like to shake the hoof of the one who did. I'd buy them a castle with the money I'll extract out of your dirt poor family after all this is done. Once my lawyers get ahold of this I'll see you all digging ditches in Stalliongrad. You have nothing, nothing! You're the ones without a prayer, without intelligence!
"A thug wanting a plea bargain? That's just pathetic! It'll never hold up in the Empyreal Hall! The files here are ashes, so you're just reaching for any straw you can grasp! Well, guess what, it's my word against yours, and you're a nobody. Period! I hope you all rot in--"
Twilight silenced him with a pinch of magic on his lips, then pressed the headphone integrated into her armor to the side of her head. "Did you get all that?"
Esteem's confidence died in an instant; petrified, you might say.
"Copy that, Twilight," Cloud Burner said over the radio. "We heard it loud and clear. The evidence is recorded, heading out to deliver now."
Twilight gave Esteem another smile. "Sorry about that, radio built into the suit. I guess it was transmitting. To another pony. Who was with a reporter. Who had a motion camera. With a microphone. Wait, what was it Spike said, something about anything you say can and will be used against you? Well, I guess we'll find out later if that was important."
Esteem froze still, even with Twilight's magic releasing him. Time passed, and drops of drool threatened to fall from his mouth before he was able to speak again. "Bravo, Sparkle. Bravo."
Twilight raised her eyebrow at his smile. What's he up to?
Esteem started clapping his hooves, the chains of his shackles joining in with their light tink-tink-tink. "Bravo. Truly." He pressed a hoof to his chest and bowed. "Recording me via radio to a pony outside with a reporter? Just brilliant, remarkable, even. I bet he was right outside the building, getting ready to carry the tape somewhere. It would be a shame if something happened to it on the way there..."
Twilight yanked his hoof off his chest and knocked him to the ground. Her magic probed through his suit, pulling out a microphone and radio inside a hidden pocket, crushing it in the thaumic grip.
"Too late," Esteem said with a chuckle that mutated into a cackle. "You're not the only one that can hide a radio, it turns out.
"Well, now, we're at an interesting impasse. Shall we see who's outside stallion comes out alive?"
"Cloud Burner is a Day Guard Charioteer." Twilight stomped and ground the radio parts into plastic and metal dust. "My money's on him."
"Day Guard Charioteer? My, my. Not bad!" Esteem's smile only grew. "I am curious to see how he'll fare against a Wonderbolt. Tell me, Captain, how well do you think you trained him?"
Rainbow crashed into the snake and slammed him against the wall. "Who is it? Who's the traitor? Fleetfoot? Lightning? Who?!"
"Oh, I think you know him. He wanted revenge after you sucker punched him and threw him out a window."
"That flank wipe? Ha!" Rainbow let him go and have Esteem a whack in the head. "It's okay, guys. Cloud will eat that loser for breakfast."
Twilight and Spike relaxed, but Esteem didn't seem impressed.
"On the contrary, Captain. You see, I gave our friend a little... advantage. Cloudsdale Armories' latest toy. Boosted Armor."
Twilight flipped on her radio and pressed her hoof against her head. "Cloud! Could, can you hear me?! You have incoming!"
"Oh, it's much too late for that, I'm afraid." Esteem sat back and relaxed like he was on vacation. "They're certainly out of range by now. All that's left is to take me to my lawyer, and watch things unfold."
"The Crown thanks you for your service, guys." Cloud stuffed the film reel into his bag and spread his wings for takeoff.
"Thank you for the first crack at the story, Sir!" Verity Print took out another slip of paper and stuffed it in his bag along with the evidence, 'coincidently' leaning in close enough to peck his cheek. "My address. Give me a visit if you're ever free."
Cloud's cheek burned like the sun. "Urm, Um, yeah, sure, I could--"
"Get a room, you two!" Viewfinder yelled from behind his camera. "We have work to do!"
"Right, right." Cloud cleared his throat and tried to keep a professional appearance. He failed. "Taking off now." Whether or not his launch knocked the other two pegasi off the cloud, he didn't know. He couldn't bring himself to look backwards. A pretty mare hitting on me? That's new.
His magic slowed for a moment as it built up in his wings, then popped out to accelerate him to cruising speed in only a few more seconds. It was a trick they taught him in chariot school, but it worked even when he wasn't hauling a couple tons of wood, metal, and pony behind him.
Dissonance was one of the rules of flight, and it had full effect even in relatively crowded Cloudsdale. He was moving several times faster than anypony on hoof, even the fastest runners in the world, could ever hope to achieve. Yet, clouds were so big and so far away, they could only crawl to him like an infant. At least, that was the case until he got close.
A moonlit cloud structure the size of a small town approached him, then passed him in a blink of an eye. He could hold his breath and sail three miles before needing air. Longer, actually, since he wasn't hauling anything. Ugh, high altitude training. I remember that. Wow did that suck.
Small black dots appeared ahead of him, barely visible against some of the clouds. Each was getting bigger, and more were swarming the sky and he approached. The chariots trying to evade told him what they were for.
Dammit, more tribalists. Pegasus or not, they probably won't like me leaving, or 'abandoning the cause' or some such nonsense. What to do... I could go high, but if there's anypony there that can follow me I'll lose my speed advantage. Which means… Cloud showed his teeth in a grin. Time to take a dive.
Gravity was one harsh, clingy mistress, and would bring anything to the ground that she could. Occasionally, however, a pegasus knew how to tango with her, and Cloud Burner was at the top of her dance card tonight. He tipped his wings, flaring his magic out his pinions to give the mistress a hoof.
What was a blur before was now full-blown streaks of color and greys rushing passed as he fell. Speed was no longer just a number, it was an existence, and he was its body. Clouds and confused, startled pegasi whizzed by so quickly he could barely recognize their existence. Cloud Burner was also pretty sure there was a falcon crying tears of pride, but he didn't have time to think about that.
Even through his incredible dive, Equus was unimpressed. It simply loomed there, barely growing as he plummeted. It was something so huge, so massive and timeless, no mere pony could impress it enough to change its expression. That was fine. He didn't need to impress her. All he had to do was save the day.
Wave after wave of puffy, speed stealing cumulus went by, each trying to sell him on the idea of slowing down, and each getting a "quit trying to push me to buy something, I just want to visit the mall in peace" in reply. He turned and banked and jinked through the field, building up a resistance in the air that every high speed pegasus knew. Magic had a speed limit imposed on everything that flew, and this was its warning. Push it too far, and it would push you back, violently. The only beings in the world that could break this limit are ones powerful enough to spit in the eye of the mana in the air.
That club's membership list was a short one.
There was Rainbow Dash, famously. The Sisters as well, certainly. Rumour had it that some dragons are among those elite. However, today was not the day Cloud Burner would try to join those incredible few. He slowed his wings, bringing himself into a steady, if still brisk, equilibrium. After all, it would be foolish to risk his life or his precious cargo when it wasn't needed. All he had to do was get to safety, and he was getting there exceptionally fast.
But not as fast as the thing that boomed behind him.
Cloud Burner banked hard left as a blue steak of a pegasus cracked through the sound barrier, its shockwave obliterating any clouds to close to it and lighting up the sky like a dark blue sun. He turned as hard as he could, narrowly escaping the onslaught of speed but tumbling in its wake.
Dash?! What the hell, you crazy mare! I... No, Dash does a Rainboom. It has all the colours, not just one. This is somepony else. He turned back into his dive while the other pegasus came around for another pass, still way beyond the sound barrier even while travelling up. Harder he pushed into gravity's waiting arms to get her blessing of speed, but it wasn't enough. It would never be enough.
The other pegasus wasn't impressed. He passed by once more, again narrowly missing and sending Cloud tumbling hooves over head. Smoke bellowed in his wake, as did lightning.
Damn. Not going to win this with speed. Cloud Burner pushed back with his magic, slowing down and making a beeline for a cluster of medium altitude clouds. He turned hard passed the first one, weaving in, out, and through them at random. Needles were threaded, disasters were dodged, and every jink he could think of was thrown out.
The other pegasus roared by, taking out a fifth of the cloud field with nothing more than unbridled speed.
Cloud braced himself for the wake, braking even more and plowing into a large, puffy cumulus. He panted and swallowed, his throat dry even within the cloud. He poked only the minimum possible amount of his head out of the top of the cloud, watching the hostile arc around for another clearing pass as effortlessly as mowing a lawn.
"No time for finesse. Going loud!" Cloud popped out of his hiding hole and sent magic around his pinions, building up the static within his large wingspan. "Time to take out the trash."
One by one, each of the tips of his primaries glowed red. His name was a hint, a clue that few ever looked into that deeply. He was one of a very small group of pegasi with a nearly, but not completely, impossible thaumic profile. General Blaze was one of the others. So was Spitfire. It was a combination that, unlike nearly every other pegasus out there, had an additional attribute: fire.
His pinions burst into flame, pushing the static beyond anypony else without his pseudo secret was capable of. Red lightning danced around the feathers in a celebration of light and death. "Hey, Gryphon lunch! Put this in your pipe and smoke it!"
The blast shattered the sky, evaporating the cloud under him and subsumed his target with electricity and flame. A half a dozen of the clouds ahead of the bogey winked right out of existence. The shockwave was nearly equal to that of the sonic boom from before.
The hostile kept going without so much as a scratch, still glowing a dark blue and still laughing in the face of the speed of sound.
Welp. That didn’t work. While the other pegasus came around, Cloud Burner took off again, gathering speed and static for his next brilliant idea. He was fast, but against an opponent like this, it was just a matter of time before he was lined up for getting shot. In this case, that matter of time was about four seconds.
Cloud faced his attacker, and the two fired. Red and white lightning repulsed each other, spreading out into the sky, giving an unnatural daylight to the land below. Dozens of bolts from their wings sucker punched each other, though at the end, one was winning: the red.
Cloud pushed himself to the side, ready for the wake from the hyper-sonic pegasus as he passed. His eyes could only get a clear picture for an instant, but it was pristine enough to hang on a wall. That's a Wonderbolt! He thought as the wind sent the world spinning like a half dozen tops. I recognize the flight suit! And last I checked, none of them rocked armor, let alone bonded stuff. So that blue aura around him, that's probably a suit of cored armor. Which means it has a finite power supply.
He stopped in the air, braking in the open sky like it was solid ground. You know what they say. There's no kill like overkill. He recharged his wings while the too-fast pegasus had to fight to turn, still seconds away from another attack.
"Gotcha." Cloud fired his lightning, shooting it as fast as he could build the charge. Each arc shook the air and found its target, eliciting a blue counter glow that seemed to swallow them up. Aha, he's shielded, that's why. Well, it's gotta run out sometime. More shots rang out, filling the snow covered valley below with the sounds of a summer storm.
The bogey finished its turn, lining up for another shot.
Bring it, big boy. I can do this all day! Cloud kept the pressure on, burning a red path through the sky, until a blue path burned right back. No! He put up his forelegs, taking the brunt of the force on his knees. Pain, burning, and electricity shocked through his head as he fell, only collecting himself hallway to the ground.
The tide of pain fought him every inch of the way as he reached to check his bag, finding the reel intact. He corkscrewed down, bleeding altitude as fast as he gained speed. His forelegs were burned and singed, but still moved. He'd live, as long as he survived the fight.
Well, you're the one that complained how boring guard duty was, Cloud, so suck it up! Feed on the pain! He used his wings to kick against the turn, shooting backwards and flaring his pinions to bring him to a halt and launch in the other direction. His enemy was ahead, ready to fire again, which is just what he wanted.
Cloud turned on a dime, a near perfect ninety degree angle at the last possible second. Blue lightning arced passed his flank, missing narrowly. The enemy pegasus passed by a second later, and that was the cue Cloud had been waiting for.
He turned again, lining up another shot as he tailed his bogey. He racked up hit after hit, turning with his enemy even as the hostile tried to turn to face him. Speed was King in a dogfight, but kings could always fall to clever insurrections. Even with the armour boosting him to impossible speeds and creating a wake of magic, Cloud stayed with him. Each turn the other made just gave him another shortcut, letting him stay on the enemy's tail the entire time. At least, until the enemy did something heretofore unthinkable for an enemy with a nigh incomprehensible speed advantage: he slowed down.
The blue trail of light vanished, and the bogey went from in the lead to in the dust and lining up a shot.
Damn it! Cloud jumped back into gravity's embrace, dropping, turning, and firing his lightning first, or so he had hoped. Instead, the two bolts met like charging rams with dynamite strapped to their horns. They combined, mixed, and detonated, tossing them both back and hitting Cloud in the face like he'd been punched. Worse, the hostile was already turning around.
That does it! I've had it with this! You want me? Come and get me! He tore away from the bogey, leading him on another chase through the clouds. In seconds, he was being lined up again for another shot, which meant it was time.
Cloud hit his brakes once again, bleeding buckets of speed. The enemy caught up in a blink, well, before his lightning could recharge, and Cloud grabbed on. All four legs wrapped around the Wonderbolt and squeezed, the vice grip ignoring the pain and his wings flapping without restraint, aimed right for the ground.
"What in Tartarus are you doing?!" The Wonderbolt screamed, flailing about. His stock pony frame was built for speed, not the strength of a draft pony like Cloud. "Get off of me!"
"Typical Wonderbolt! What's wrong, big guy, couldn't take me without your little toy?" Cloud felt the stallion try to bend and aim for the sky, but he just squeezed harder and turned their bodies back towards Equus. "You're just like your whole bucking team. Well, guess what, chowderhead, you win. I can't take you on, but I can take you with me!"
"Are you out of your mind?! Let go or we'll both die!" He bucked and kicked, but gravity still touched them on the lips. Small houses and ponies were visible now, and each time the armour tried to boost, they just sank deeper into gravity's bosom. "Aren't you listening?! You'll kill us both!"
"That's the idea, fraidy cat! What, the big bad Wonderbolt scared to die? Yeah, you fools talk game when you demand somepony take out all the black jellybeans in the candy dish in your trailer, and sure you even fly like you give a damn, but when you’re faced with a sure loss you go all to pieces!
"Well, look at that ground, pussycat, we're both about to go all to pieces, literally! And I don't give a buck!"
"Yup! I'm just all cuckoo over here! All I need to do to win is get my evidence to the right ponies, and I don't need to live to do that! I'm betting the evidence outlives us both and that my side finds our bodies first! Whadaya say, let's go watch from the Summerlands together, you and me!"
"Help! Somepony get him offa me!" The Wonderbolt scratched at his armor's clasps, unhooking two of them. "Help!"
"All the damn same! Only Wonderbolt I ever met not scared to die is Spitfire. The rest of you are prissy little kitties looking for mama to feed them some milk and attention! But I'm a Day Guard! My life already belongs to Celestia! I live and die at her whim! If my passing means she wins, then my soul is hers to cash in!"
The stallion kicked hard, sending them spinning but still keeping them heading downwards. "Let... Me... Go!" He slapped open the last two clasps and slipped out of the armour as it opened, leaving Cloud to fall with an empty suit.
"Heh." Cloud ignored the fall and tossed the armour while charging his wings and lining up the shot. "Goodbye, puss."
Two large, separate, burning pieces of flesh fell out of the explosion, falling silently and solemnly through a growing snowstorm.
Cloud Burner rolled over, orientating himself with the ground. He could see the individual waves in the lake below, and gravity was ready to go all the way with him right then and there. He spread his wings, flapping and pushing as much of his wellspring out that he could. Nothing could stop his speed now, so he went with it, pulling up instead of back. Time slowed down enough he could count down the degrees under the horizon as he corrected himself. His hooves dug into the freezing water as he flew, swallowing him up to his fetlocks as he finally levelled out and took back to the sky.
"Yowza that's freaking cold! I hope my rendezvous has a blanket and hot cocoa. And maybe a burn kit. And really, really nice legs!"