“I don’t get why we’re running away.”
Twilight tore her gaze away from the window, looking back to where Rainbow was flying an agitated back-and-forth across the repurposed cargo hold. “Didn’t you run away?”
Rainbow came to a sudden stop, glaring at Twilight. Her tail flicked like a whip, making an audible crack that echoed across the bare room. “That was different, Twilight!” she snapped. “That chump just took me by surprise, and I thought it was more important to warn my friends than to show some griffon who’s boss!”
Twilight sighed, looking back to the cloudy sky in the window. She’d known that the words would get a rise out of the cocksure pegasus, and still she said it. What had gotten into her? It wasn’t even a good argument. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said that.”
In the window, Twilight saw Rainbow’s reflection cock her head, a confused frown flashing across her face at the easy admission of fault. There were a few seconds where the only sound was the constant ticking of the Argo.
The sound of Rainbow’s hooves against the metal floor grew gradually closer as she came up to Twilight’s side. “Well… I still think we should’ve just stayed at the estate.”
Twilight shook her head, scanning the cloud-ridden horizon once more. “It isn’t safe there. You heard what Sea Sabre said.” There had been a storm gathering for the past few hours now, and there had been a creeping paranoia stalking her mind ever since. How close could a ship get to them in this weather before it was seen? Two miles? One? Was there a ship full of bloodthirsty mercenaries above them even now, sharpening their blades in preparation for the killing blow?
“Pfft. Whatever.” Rainbow lapsed into a sulky silence, her wings twitching. A light gust of wind toyed with Twilight’s mane as Rainbow flapped her wings, flying a lazy loop back to land on the sleeping bag and crates they had cobbled into a makeshift couch.
It must have been the dozenth time that the two had revisited the subject, and it ended just like every other before it. Twilight knew that Rainbow kept up her stubborn insistence more out of a desire to act than anything else, but the decision had been made long ago. It was safer to run. Gava was too dangerous. Sea Sabre said so.
Everything had happened so fast. Twilight and Applejack had been discussing their next move with Sea Sabre. They had all been worried about Rainbow’s running off, but they knew that they’d never find her if she didn’t want them to, and had accepted that she would return once she was ready. What they hadn’t expected was for her to burst into the room covered in shallow scratches and trailing bundles of knotted rope, shouting about being assaulted by a griffon.
Sea Sabre had been quick to ask for her assailant’s name. Twilight still had to suppress a shiver when she thought of the sudden alarm that had flashed across Sabre’s normally stern face when Rainbow gave her answer. Gava. A relentless bounty hunter and a fearsome killer, according to Sabre. Somehow she had heard of them, found them, and—for whatever reason—made them her target.
“Now why would she do that?” Applejack had asked. “We ain’t done a thing to nopony since we got here.”
“Because you’re valuable,” Sea Sabre had said. “Even if the world at large doesn’t know about you yet, there’s plenty of power players that would pay top bit for ponies like you. You’re the most powerful Gifted in recorded history by a far margin. I don’t know if Gava has a private contract or if she’s just moving in advance, but it doesn’t matter either way. If she knows where you are, then you aren’t safe.”
“She’s not that tough!” Rainbow had said, puffing out her chest. “I beat her all on my own.”
“You escaped,” Sabre corrected. “She still caught you, but she didn’t expect you to be such a strong flier. She’ll be back, and I can’t know for sure what she’ll try. She might sneak inside with her crew and abduct you all in your sleep, or she might pull favors and bust down the front door with a few dozen mercenaries. Heighton isn’t safe anymore.”
“Can’t we just alert the guards or somethin’?” Applejack had asked.
“She’ll bribe them,” Sabre had said. “Or kill them, it doesn’t matter. They won’t be willing to die for you, and she’ll take you away to another island, outside of Heighton’s reach. Trust me. We need to move. Now.”
That had been just over two days ago. They hadn’t seen any sign of another ship since leaving Heighton, and still Twilight looked out every window she passed searching for the telltale sign of the bounty hunter’s ship gaining on them. It was a nerve-wracking experience, made all the worse by the nightmares of rending flesh and bloodied teeth that plagued her sleep.
“I’m going to go check on our flight,” Twilight said, turning away from the window.
“Again?” Rainbow asked. She’d resumed her airborne pacing. “Nothing will have changed in an hour, y’know.”
“I just want to quintuple-check the course I plotted,” Twilight said. She ignored Rainbow’s exaggerated eye roll, crossing the breadth of the hold and stopping before the door.
Steam hissed above her as the heavy metal slid out of the way, and she stepped into the hall. Once the immediate threat of being shackled and sold had been dealt with, Twilight and her friends had discussed their next move. In practice, it was mostly Rainbow Dash supporting every perceived step forwards suggested while Applejack admitted that she didn’t know enough to make a good decision and Fluttershy stood in a corner quietly whimpering. It hadn’t taken more than half an hour for them to agree with Twilight. From what Crazy Rich had told them before they left, Gava had known that Rarity and Pinkie were leaving, but didn’t know their destination. They didn’t want to risk leading Gava straight to their friends; following them wasn’t an option for now, but a letter could be sent later on. Meanwhile, their only lead on the corruption was Princess Luna’s expedition into the Everfree that the research group’s notes had mentioned. There was nothing to do but follow it. They would decide what to do then based on what they found.
They would dive into the Everfree.
“Rarity! Wakey-wakey, sleepyhead!”
Rarity’s ears flicked as her door shook. She raised her head blearily and rubbed a hoof at her eyes. “Do you need something, darling?” A massive yawn escaped her as she squinted at the source of the pounding.
“It’s morning, silly filly!” Pinkie’s squeaky voice was thankfully muffled by the thick wood of the door. “Time to get up!”
“Morning?” Rarity mumbled. That couldn’t be right. A weak glow came off her horn as she turned to the window and pulled the heavy curtain aside. Pale dawn sunlight streamed into the room, coloring the jumbled scribblings and sketches scattered about in the cold light of morning. “Hrm. So it is…”
“Can I come in?” There were a few more heavy thumps that Rarity took to be Pinkie banging her head against the door. “Do you need to make yourself proper?”
Rarity had a vague feeling that she was being mocked, but couldn’t muster the energy for any kind of counter. “I’m fine, dear. Come in.”
The seamstress suppressed another yawn as Pinkie pushed through the door. “Wowee!” she said, eyes widening. “What happened here? Did you have some kind of crazerterrific party and not invite me?”
“Well…” Rarity took a hesitant survey of her room, her lips stretching into a pained grimace. Strips of fabric and discarded sheets of crumpled paper littered every corner like toys in a foal’s playroom. A pair of half-dressed ponequins were tangled up next to the window, and the bed had been stripped bare, its sheets arranged into a makeshift tent. The one relatively clear space was the very center of her desk, where several crisp design sheets were stacked next to a pair of empty inkwells and a broken quill.
She let out a content sigh as she flipped through the papers. “It was a busy night.”
“Oh! Oh! Did you draw something? What is it?” Pinkie asked, leaning over Rarity’s shoulder. “Let me guess! Seapony! Balloon animal! Dance rout—”
Rarity slapped a hoof over the other mare’s muzzle. “Patterns, darling. For the tents.”
“Oh. That makes more sense.” Pinkie giggled, stepping back. “Ready for breakfast? I baked it myself!”
Baked? Rarity grimaced, suppressing a groan. “Certainly, dear. I’ll just—” She yawned, sorting the finished designs into a folder with her magic. “I’ll be right there.”
“Okey dokey lokey! Don’t take too super long or there won’t be any cupcakes left!” Pinkie zipped out of the room in a pink blur, the assorted clutter of the room briefly twisting in her wake.
Another yawn. Rarity just barely remembered the triumph of finally finishing her work last night. How long had she been sleeping there? She stole a quick glance to the open door before surreptitiously wiping up a sizable puddle of drool. A lady does not drool.
Closing the door with her magic, she picked herself up and walked to the attached restroom. She let out a little whimper as she looked in the mirror, taking in the frazzled hair and baggy eyes. Not wanting to tarry too long, she allowed herself only thirty minutes to fix her coiffure and apply some choice makeup. Another ten were spent browsing the swiftly growing collection of clothes she had been assembling ever since acquiring the needed tools and fabrics from Mr. Rich. She picked out a relatively simple, short-hemmed white dress with blue highlights that matched her eyes. It wasn’t too fancy, but it was fit for a Lady of her stature.
Finished, Rarity pouted at her reflection. Her exhaustion was still readily apparent despite her efforts. “Mm, it will have to do.”
Slipping her night’s work into a satchel and slinging it over her neck, she made for yacht’s dining room.
The Sip of Ambrosia was a sleek ship, with a two-story hull twice the length of the Argo suspended between a pair of propellers. Unlike the loud, steam-ridden halls of the salvage ship, the interior of the Ambrosia was designed with a much cleaner presentation in mind. Thick carpets and simple paintings took the place of open vents and gauges, the doors opened with no burst of steam or other such fuss, and a quiet orchestral piece could always be heard in public spaces, carried on a network of polished brass.
Rarity looked out a long window lining the hall as she walked, taking in the view of Fellis Island below. It was larger than the Heighton mainland—although completely lacking in any of the smaller trailing islands that made up much of the other city—and far less developed in comparison. Whereas just about every inch of Heighton was paved over and built upon, Fellis had a far rougher terrain that had made it difficult for the same type of all-consuming architecture to develop. The northern edge of the island had little worse than a few rolling hills, but as one went further south the hills grew gradually steeper and rockier, and the southernmost part of the island rightfully deserved to be called a mountain. The land there leaned out over the base of the island like a teetering drunk, the bottom surface plagued with sharp outcroppings and hanging stalactites as if it was just half of a mountain ripped away from the earth, leaving its twin drowning somewhere beneath the ocean waves.
The Ambrosia was moored to a small tower near the central part of the island. The buildings there mostly squatted on hilltops, with series of rickety wooden hoofbridges and wide stone archways connecting neighboring peaks. Narrow rivers ran from south to north in the leftover valleys, converging into a trio of waterfalls that trailed from the island’s northern edge.
Rarity couldn’t help but grimace as her eyes traced the shores of said rivers. According to Whitehorn, they were normally left largely uninhabited. A recent set of unprecedented natural disasters, however, had displaced entire islands worth of ponies. As of yet it was only small islands or sparsely populated baronlands that had been effected, but the surplus of land on Fellis had made it the ultimate destination for most of the refugees. A veritable city of tents had sprouted up its rocky valleys during the past decade, creating an equinitarian disaster that had gone almost entirely unnoticed by Equestria at large.
But that, of course, was why Whitehorn had planned the trip, and why Rarity had elected to come along.
She resisted the sudden urge of yet another yawn as she arrived in the dining room. The long table was by that time mostly clean of ponies and dishes alike, with only Whitehorn and Pinkie Pie remaining. The unicorn was busily reading over a trio of broadsheets spread out on the table before him, while Pinkie was obliviously chatting away besides him.
“—and then I screamed ‘boarding party, woohoo!’ and everypony else screamed too, but I think they might have misunderstood me because they all started to run away when I reached for my party cannon, except for those big guys that ran towards me, but they didn’t look very nice at all and—”
Whitehorn looked up as Rarity entered, the pensive expression on his face splitting into a broad smile. “Aha, Lady Rarity! I was wondering when you would join us. And looking divine as ever, no less!”
Rarity waved the comment away with a hoof. “Please, darling. There’s no need for any of that anymore.”
“Nonsense!” Whitehorn said, leaning back. “I’ve always believed in speaking what thoughts wander into my mind, whether anypony around likes the sound or not.”
Rarity could feel her cheeks warming. She made herself busy looking over the few plates left on the table. Cupcakes, french toast, cinnamon rolls, and muffins. Hrm. “Have you two been waiting for me all this time?” She levitated a muffin onto her plate, walking to take a seat besides Pinkie. “I do hope I haven’t been holding you up.”
“I don’t think you could if you tried, my Lady,” Whitehorn said. “Your and Miss Pie’s contributions outweigh what a hundred stallions might do together. If all it costs me is a few extra minutes lingering after breakfast then—well, I’d be glad to pay that price.”
Rarity couldn’t help but break out into a sunny smile as she sat down. “It’s good to know that we’re appreciated.” She took a bite of her muffin. Mmm, pancake flavor!
“Did you know that they’ve started calling you Auntie Rarity?” Whitehorn said, looking back down to his broadsheets. “The refugees, I mean.”
Rarity nearly choked, her eyes bulging in a brief struggle to swallow. “I’m sorry? Wherever did they get that idea?”
“Me! Me!” Pinkie said, waving a hoof in the air. “They call me Auntie Pinkie, too!”
“Ah. Of course.” I suppose that should have been obvious. “Whitehorn, dear, what are the broadsheets saying today?”
“Nothing good,” the other unicorn said. He pushed them across the table in a neat stack. “We’ll be hit by another surge soon.”
Rarity frowned around her muffin, levitating the papers up to her eyes. The bold, brash title of the center article grabbed her eye with all the tact of a mugger in an alley: THOUSANDS DEAD AS CALAMITY STRIKES MAREWICK.
She took a deep breath before reading on. An urgent S.O.S. from the island of Marewick was received just after noon yesterday at the thaumagram station operated by Fellis Island’s own Mister Lay Drifts. Rarity failed to suppress a disdainful curl of her lip at the name. Mister Drifts held communication with the island for roughly two hours as the Marewick operator described their island suddenly falling from the sky and into the ocean. An unknown number of airships escaped the island with survivors, but the remaining population of the island—which was home to over five thousand ponies—is believed to have perished completely with the sudden attack of ocean-dwelling monsters…
The article went on to describe an interview with Lay Drifts, but Rarity felt no need to read on. A hard lump had lodged itself in her throat by the time she looked up from the broadsheet. “That’s terrible.”
Whitehorn nodded, face grim. “They’re speeding up, did you know? The falls, I mean.”
Pinkie Pie—who had sat down and started poking at a cupcake while Rarity was reading—shot up out of her chair. “I’m gonna... take care of the dishes,” she said, scooping up the remaining plates with a few quick sweeps and balancing them on her back. Her mane seemed to have lost some of its lustre. “I’ll, uh—be back soon,” she said, and disappeared through the kitchen door.
Rarity gave a slow shake of her head, looking out the dining room’s gold-trim window at the swamp of refugees clogging Fellis’s streams. “It’s hard to believe. I never even heard of these catastrophes all while I was in Heighton.”
Whitehorn let out a noise somewhere between a derisive snort and a dark chuckle. “That’s just the thing, Lady Rarity. Hard to believe. You might be surprised at just how much a pony will ignore to preserve the illusion of safety. It started out as just tiny little islands on the edge of the map falling with a decade between them, you know. Queer little oddities—to be wondered at over the dinner table by those in the know and forgotten by the morning. Things have changed now, but Equestria is slow to follow.”
He gestured a hoof at the window. “Coltver fell eight months ago, and still the waterways here overflow with aimless bodies. Now Marewick has fallen. That’s two populated islands less than a year apart—sunk to the ocean floor! Thousands drowned with them, and no doubt even now there’s at least another hundred ponies coming to join the refugee camps here! And yet nothing is done!” He had stood up while he spoke, rising alongside his voice, and stepped over to the window.
“That’s not entirely true,” Rarity said. “We’re here, aren’t we? These ponies aren’t entirely on their own.”
Whitehorn heaved a sigh, nodding. “Yes, Lady Rarity. We’re here. You and Pinkie and dozens of volunteers and donors have helped with those struck by these calamities, but to what end? The islands still fall, and it seems nopony has a care to discover why.” He turned his head, looking at her with one tired eye. “Sometimes I fear Equestria won’t wake up until ten thousand ponies are falling into the sea every week, and by then it will be too late.”
“Isn’t that why you came here, darling?” Rarity asked, standing to walk to his side. She put a gentle hoof on his shoulder, smiling. “You’re a writer, after all, and one with the connections to get the word out. There’s no sense in fretting over what issues we can’t solve, but we can all still do our part. Just keep your mind on your writing, and I’m certain Equestria will come around.”
Whitehorn met her eyes, his frown curling up into a small smile. “I suppose you’re right. I don’t know what I’m doing preaching to you when it’s the rest of the world that needs it.” He lifted a hoof to take hers, giving it a small squeeze. “Thank you, my Lady. Or shall I start calling you Auntie?”
“Oh, heavens no!” Rarity feigned disgust, tossing her mane and looking away to disguise her blush. “I might be a few hundred years old, but I should hope it isn’t starting to show so plainly already!”
The two of them shared a laugh, his deeper voice harmonizing with her higher-pitched giggle. They spent a few minutes in silence simply looking out onto the island below.
Whitehorn was the first to speak. “Well, I believe breakfast can be considered officially over. We had a busy day ahead of us as is, and the Marewick survivors will be here in a few days. We should get to work.”
Rarity dipped her head in agreement. “I couldn’t agree more, Whitehorn. Did I tell you what I did last night? I roughed out a tent design that saves a third of the fabric, and is even a little warmer at the same time! I think my fellow seamstresses will be quite grateful when they see it…”
Twilight took some small solace in the relaxing ticks and hums of the ship as she and Fluttershy paced through the halls. Surprisingly enough, knowledge of the Everfree Forest seemed to have lapsed altogether since their own time. Sea Sabre had listened carefully to the description she and her friends gave of the dark forest, and then declared that they weren’t ready for any dive at all, let alone one into the most dangerous land in Old Equestria. Stocks still needed replenishing, the submarine’s interior still needed a few repairs, and then there was the issue of the lack of dive suits. They had made orders for custom suits to be delivered to the Rich Estate, but those wouldn’t be due for another two weeks at least, and Twilight was unwilling to make random flights around the sky to evade their new hunter while they waited.
With Heighton no longer safe, Sea Sabre and Sunfeather had put their heads together and presented Twilight with a brief detour. The city of Leviathan Wakes was passing nearby on its way to the Highfrog Islands, and would serve more than capable of preparing the ship and crew for a dangerous dive. Twilight had asked what exactly was meant about a city “passing by,” only for Star Trails to butt in and exclaim—with an infuriating smirk—that it was a surprise. Irritably enough, the rest of the crew seemed to have agreed with her, and so Twilight was left hanging on the matter. She could only assume that, as flying islands, the cities of the new Equestria were capable of some limited movement. She hadn’t seen any such indication so far with Heighton, but maybe she just hadn’t been paying attention.
They had to be nearly there now. Twilight had taken an opportunity to join Star Trails in reviewing the ship’s charts, and they were certain to arrive before sunset with at least an hour to spare. She’d kept her eyes on the horizon all day—whether she was searching for floating islands or griffon airships, she wasn’t sure—but it had remained empty. It was just passing midday now, though, so it couldn’t be long.
A sudden metallic clang startled her out of her thoughts. She looked around to find herself standing next to one of the hatches that led out to the submarine harness, with Fluttershy pushed up against her side and shaking like a leaf. A few smaller bangs rang out in quick succession as the hatch’s wheel spun unlocked, and it swung open to admit a giddy Rainbow Dash.
“Twilight! Fluttershy! Guess what?” She had to shout to be heard over the sound of the wind rushing past the door. “I just saw Leviathan Wakes! You guys are gonna flip when you see it, trust me. It’s way radical-er than Heighton!”
A brief battle played out in Twilight’s mind, and grammatical accuracy won out over adventurous curiosity. “That’s not a word!” she shouted back. Her horn lit up as she shut the hatch and spun the lock.
“Yeah, whatever.” Rainbow Dash waved a hoof like she was swatting an irritating, grammatically correct fly out of the air. “Hey, do either of you—Woah, Twilight. You alright?”
Twilight flicked her tail, looking up at Rainbow defiantly. She hadn’t gotten much sleep last night, and had been hoping nopony would notice. “I’m fine. Were you going to ask me something?”
Rainbow cocked her head, watching Twilight with narrowed eyes for a few seconds. “Well, if you say so… do either of you two know where AJ is?”
Fluttershy glanced up from the floor for a brief instant. Twilight raised a hoof to tap at her chin a few moments. “She should be with Dusty Tome. He wanted to know about life in the old Equestria and, well—y’know how she can be with her stories.”
Rainbow snickered into a hoof. “Sure as hay I do! I’m gonna go get her and give her the good news. Meet us at the bridge!”
She zipped off with a flap of her wings, tossing the other mares’ manes with the ensuing gust of wind. Twilight watched her go, and only as the pegasus turned the corner did she realize that she still had no idea what Leviathan Wakes looked like. “Hey, wait! Rainbow!” She groaned, slapping herself in the head. “Stupid, stupid. Get your head in gear, Twilight.”
With a sigh, she forced a smile and looked over to where Fluttershy had taken cover from her outburst behind a nearby bulkhead. “Shall we head to the bridge, then?”
Fluttershy let out a shrill little squeal that could have just as easily been a mouse’s distress call as it could words.
Twilight’s smile grew hollow, and she faced ahead to hide her tired eyes. “Right, let’s go!” she said with all the optimism she could muster.
She led the way down the hall, confident that Fluttershy would follow. The quiet mare had stuck to her friends like a duckling to its mother ever since leaving the Rich Estate, communicating entirely in mumbles, squeaks, and shakes of the head. Twilight was starting to wonder if maybe there was something wrong with her besides just her usual shyness. Had she been plagued by the same nightmares as Twilight before the hibernation spell was broken? She had seemed so peaceful, and yet—Then again, it’s not an entirely unusual reaction for her after waking up centuries past the end of the world.
Twilight gave herself a mental shake as they climbed the stairs to the ship’s higher level. Come on, Twilight. Where’s your scientific wonder? Rainbow seemed excited about the city. Let’s see what the big surprise is.
By the time the two mares had reached the closed door to the bridge, Twilight had successfully mustered her excitement in anticipation. She stepped through the steamy haze of the opening door without flinching, and nearly walked right into Flintlock.
The big stallion raised a brow as he looked down at them. “Well, that was quicker’n I expected. Yer wanted on the bridge, little mares.”
“Thank you,” Twilight said. She slipped past him—Fluttershy following close behind—and looked eagerly to the viewing glass. “I heard we were almost there?”
Star Trails looked up from where she was sitting next to her charts. “What? Where’d you hear that?”
“I told her!” Rainbow said, briefly folding her wings to fit through the cluttered doorway. “I was flying ahead and saw it!”
Flint yelped in alarm at the sudden rainbow blur, ducking down. His nostrils flared as Applejack trotted up the hall. “Why did I even bother goin’ t’get ye lot?” he growled.
“Howdy there, Flint,” Applejack said. She chuckled. “Y’all mind if I get through?”
Flint rolled his eyes, stepping out of the way. “Be my guest, cowfilly.”
Twilight had by then pushed past the traffic jam and was already standing up on the tips of her hooves next to Sunfeather’s control dais. “Where is it? I don’t see it anywhere.”
Trails groaned in frustration, leering at the hovering Rainbow Dash. “Why’d you have to go and get her? I had the timing down perfect, and you screwed it up. Minutes of planning—down the drain!”
Rainbow snorted. “Keep your horn on, Trails. I didn’t spoil the surprise or anything.”
The room settled into a comfortable buzz as the newly arrived ponies spread out along the back to wait for their destination’s appearance. Twilight ignored the quiet conversation, keeping her eyes trained ahead.
After a few minutes, she risked a glance towards Sunfeather. “How much longer?”
Sunfeather didn’t bother to look away from her controls. “We’re just about ten miles away.” After another minute she added, “I think you’ll like this city.”
“Really?” Twilight cocked her head, surprised to hear the surly pilot make conversation for the first time. “Why?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
“Oh. Uh… okay.” Twilight returned her gaze forwards, feeling somewhat like an awkward filly pestering her sitter with questions. If it’s just ten miles away, shouldn’t we be able to see it by now? She knew the horizon kept ponies from seeing much more than seven miles, but tall objects like mountains or—say—floating islands were visible from further away.
At last the first buildings came into view, their faces darkened by the afternoon sun behind them. Gradually they drifted closer, rising up until their bases were visible, and then further up as the island—
Twilight frowned. The buildings had stopped rising as they approached. They were getting closer, but remained at sea level.
Her eyes widened. They’re boats.
She stole a glance towards Sunfeather, and saw that the old mare was actually wearing a satisfied little smirk. With a shake of her head Twilight returned her gaze to the oceanborne city burgeoning before them.
Leviathan Wakes was the very definition of urban sprawl. Hundreds of seafaring vessels were clustered together, bobbing softly on the waves with only rope, chain, and bridge to keep any piece from drifting away. And no doubt any that did break off would be gone forever, Twilight noted, as most of them seemed to lack any means of propulsion at all. The city was more raft than boat—even the larger, sturdier parts resembled squat buildings that had been ripped from the land and dropped into the water, the waves lapping at their long-stained ‘ground’ floors.
At the leading edge of it all was a single huge wooden construct, its star-shaped walls guarded by stern-faced carvings and engraved with flowing gold-and-silver filigree. The extravagant decoration set it apart from its neighbors just as much as its sheer size. Long flagpoles spurred out from each of the star’s six points, each sporting a different emblem, and the roof of each limb was painted with colors matching the emblem of its flag.
There were only a few other buildings of such size and solidity; the great majority of the city was little more than a complex patchwork of platforms, floating shanties, and occasionally the bare hull of a ship. Still, Twilight didn’t see any means by which the city might move. Was the whole city at the mercy of the ocean currents? And isn’t the ocean home to monsters that eat ponies? How could so many live there in such a ramshackle place? There didn’t seem to be any sort of defenses set up that might drive back such an attack.
She looked away with the question in her eyes, first to Sunfeather—who was keeping her gaze firmly forwards—and then to the grinning Star Trails.
“Go on,” Trails said. “I know you want to ask.”
Twilight narrowed her eyes, her ears flicking back ever so slightly. She didn’t like being led on like this. It reminded her of secondary school. How many needless hoops had she willingly jumped through in her life, all to feed her thirst for knowledge? Her nostrils flared, and in her mind’s eye she saw herself grabbing Trails by the horn and smashing that cheeky grin into the floor until it—
Twilight blinked, her mind going blank. What?
Applejack was watching her, lips quirked with concern. “Y’alright, sugar cube?”
“And are you gonna ask the question?” Trails added.
Sea Sabre stomped a hoof from where she’d been watching in silence, the harsh ring drawing attention to her. “That’s enough, Trails. She’s not some rabbit you can dangle a carrot over.” She turned to speak to Twilight. “The city is pulled by a pair of ancient leviathans. They are guided by carefully placed nets filled with fish, and the ocean’s monsters refuse to get anywhere near to them. Any other questions?”
“Uh—no. Thank you.” Twilight looked away quickly, keeping her eyes on the city and the short docking tower growing larger in the viewport. She did have more questions, of course, but the violent daydream was still lingering in her thoughts like dark clouds receding past the horizon. Peering into the waters below, Twilight’s eyes picked out the vague, lumbering shadows of the leviathans. Leviathan Wakes, huh? They were huge—majestic—and yet Twilight felt no stirring wonder in her heart. All she felt was tired. Hollow. And Applejack’s curious gaze boring into the back of her head.
Twilight always felt better when her mind had something to occupy it, and their whirlwind layover at Leviathan Wakes was just the mercy she needed. There was much to be done, and the threat of Gava following them gave little opportunity to relax. The three days they stayed were spent being fitted for dive suits, purchasing supplies, and working on the submarine in a rented workshop. At night Twilight drew up plans, scoured history books for hints at the Everfree’s current nature, and plotted potential courses with Rainbow Dash and Star Trails.
She snatched sleep in short bursts no more than two hours long, wary of exposing herself to her nightmare again, but she was left blissfully dreamless. Through it all she avoided any lengthy conversation with Applejack, always keeping an excuse on hoof if she needed a quick getaway. She knew that her friend was worried for her, but what could the cowpony do? Magic had always been her domain. Twilight had a task before her, and losing herself in it was a great comfort to her straining mind.
After the blur that was Leviathan Wakes, they spent two days flying southwest. Twilight hadn’t found any explicit references to an “Everfree Forest” during her research, but it had become apparent after just a few cross-references that the forest hadn’t moved anywhere. Journals, charts, and almanacs all warned of a “Serpent’s Eye,” a patch of sky where airships went in and rarely came out unmolested. There were stories of ships drifting just outside of it with no sign of anypony ever being aboard, of bold salvage teams that launched expeditions into the waters beneath and never resurfaced, and wayward crews that returned to port babbling and mad. The hazy borders of the Eye were right where both Twilight and Rainbow believed the Everfree Forest once grew, and even Sea Sabre had mentioned it once she realized where the charted course would take them.
There wasn’t any clear demarcation of where the Eye started. Even as they neared the end of their course, Twilight wasn’t sure when exactly they passed into it. The skies were just as clear, the waves just as calm, and yet there came a moment when she realized that her hooves had become restless, bearing her back and forth across the ship as she searched for imaginary hunters behind every cloud.
Twilight nearly jumped out of her fur when the steady rhythm of the Argo’s ticking stumbled into a ragged staccato clanking that reminded her of an old smoker drawing breath. She knew only the barest principles that the ship’s complex interior relied on, but it was clear even to her that something was wrong. The ship gave a janky lurch, and then began to slowly lose altitude. A second passed, and a low alarm began to ring through the halls.
It wasn’t a crash or a dive, but it was definitely not the same pace that the ship normally used when descending. It took Twilight less than a minute to run down the hall, taking the stairs up two at a time, and burst into the flight room.
“What’s going on?” she asked. “I felt something.” Every pony aboard the ship was already there, making the large room feel notably cramped.
“Envelope pressure is dropping,” Flint said. He frowned at her as he leaned against the doorframe, one of his guns cradled in his hooves like a favorite child. “Seems that curse makes quick work.”
“There’s no such thing as curses,” Twilight said, stepping further into the room. It had practically become reflex to her after the Poison Joke fiasco. “Enchantments, maledictions, illusions, even geas, yes. But curses, hexes, and bewitchments are all just myths.”
Sunfeather spoke up from her control dias. “Well your myth just busted my pipes.” She grunted as she pumped both front hooves down onto a heavy pedal before her with a steady rhythm.
“And what exactly is that gonna mean?” Applejack asked. She took her hat off and held it to her chest. “We ain’t gonna lose the ship, are we?”
“We’ll be fine,” Sabre said. The confidence in her voice was a reassuring relief from the loud bangs and scrapes coming from the hull. “The Argo was made to float if needed, whether to save energy or make repairs. Once we touch down and stabilize the engine, we can get started on replacing the pipe.”
“How long is that gonna take?” Rainbow Dash asked. She was hovering above the control dais, giving the approaching ocean nervous glances every few seconds.
“Probably about a day,” Trails said. She shrugged. “We’ve had a problem with that pipe once before—it’s a real cow to get to and there’s no room for more than a couple ponies to work on it at a time.”
“Well we aren’t going to wait around braiding our manes for a whole day, are we?” Rainbow asked. “That Gava chick could still be tailing us, and we’re already close enough to use the sub, right?”
Sunfeather cleared her throat. “Brace yourselves,” she said as if she was telling the time of day.
Everypony rushed to grab onto something, and Twilight was quick to follow suit. The ship gave another shuddering heave just before the wide viewport before them smashed into the water. For a moment Twilight feared that the ship would sink, the water sliding almost high enough to completely submerge the flight room, but then the ship’s buoyancy took over. Twilight’s stomach lurched as the flight room burst out of the water, and she held tight until the ship—engine now silent—settled into the steady rocking of the waves.
Sabre was the first to speak. “Status report.”
“Not showing any indications of further damage,” Sunfeather said as she scanned the walls of gauges. She flicked her tail. “Scratch that. Another pipe cracked.”
Trails groaned. “Fantastic.”
“Any of ye lot good with oil on yer hooves?” Flint asked, standing up. “Dusty’s about as useful with repairs as… well, as a historian. I’d hate t’leave Sunfeather t’do the work all on her own.”
Dusty Tome looked up from where he was clinging to a railing. “H-hey! I help!”
Applejack raised a hoof. “I ain’t seen too much of how y’all work things these days, but I reckon I was a handy hoof back in our time. I can lend a hoof if y’all will take me.”
“You aren’t gonna come down with us?” Rainbow asked, frowning. “We should stick together.”
Applejack smiled as she stuck her hat back on her head. “Don’t you worry ‘bout me none, gals. Y’all just go ‘n do your part, and we’ll have the ship up and runnin’ smoother ‘n a summer festival. I’ll be sure to give anythin’ that tries us a good buckin’ before it knows what’s hit it.”
“It’s settled then,” Sabre said, cutting off Rainbow’s protests. “Sunfeather, Dusty, and Applejack will stay to work on the ship. As for the rest of us, let’s prepare to dive.”
“Yes, darling?” Rarity looked up from the fabric she was cutting. Pinkie Pie was standing in the opening of her work tent, trays of banana bread stacked up high on her back.
“Have you seen my special envelopes?” Pinkie asked. She stepped further into her tent, casting her gaze around the organized mayhem of textiles.
Rarity frowned. Her horn shimmered as she levitated her working glasses off, folded them, and gently set them down. “Your… special envelopes? Be a dear and remind me what those are?”
“The ones that Twilight made for me. Duh!” Pinkie lifted a pile of fabulous folded blankets with a single hoof, her nose wrinkling as she sniffed at the thin grass underneath. Her tail twitched a staccato rhythm behind her “I had her weatherproof a set before we left. In case of extreme invitation emergencies!”
Rarity had just been about to remark about bothering Twilight with such trivialities when the poor mare always seemed so busy of late when she caught sight of the poofy pink tail bobbing up and down. She stole a glance up towards the top of the tent. “Pinkie, dear? Have you noticed your tail?”
"Huh?” Pinkie looked back at her tail. Her eyes shot wide open, almost as if she had forgotten it was there. “Oh! Rarity, what do you think it means if my tail twitches backwards?”
Rarity frowned. She could not remember Pinkie ever being uncertain on the meaning of a twitching tail. Everypony knew what a twitching tail meant, after all. “I’m not sure, dear. I didn’t think it was precisely possible for something to twitch backwards.”
“Neither did I,” Pinkie said. Her lips quirked to the side as she scratched at the ground. “It’s been happening for half an hour and nothing has fallen! This has never happened before.”
“Well I’m sure if you give it some time you’ll figure out what it means,” Rarity said, returning her gaze to her work. After a few seconds she hesitated, peering back up. “It’s not—it isn’t a doozy, is it?”
But Pinkie had already left. Rarity listened to her light-hearted humming drift into the distance, and then dismissed the matter from her mind.
Twilight stood atop the gently rocking deck of the submarine as the Argo bobbed around her. The ship was slumped over at a strange angle without its engine to hold it right, casting her into the thick shadow of its hull.
Rainbow Dash’s voice crackled into her helmet. “Uh, Twilight? You coming in or were you hoping to swim along?”
A tired little smile cracked Twilight’s lips. “I’m heading down now,” she said. It was more awkward than she liked climbing down the ladder wearing the new dive suit, but it was necessary. Even with the modifications made to the sub for extra space, it would be a tight-fitting journey with her two friends and Sabre’s team. There was no room to stow the suits until they were needed. That said, the one she wore now wasn’t nearly as clumsy as the spare she had worn before. She had even had it painted with purple highlights and outfitted with violet lights. And it’s easier to hide my exhaustion behind this helmet.
She closed the hatch behind her before squeezing into the congested control room. Everyone but Flint was waiting there; Sabre and Trails were needed to pilot the sub, and Rainbow just couldn’t stand being anywhere but at the front of anything. Fluttershy was probably just there to be close to Rainbow.
Twilight had been surprised when Fluttershy had shown up outfitted in her dive suit, quietly trailing Rainbow Dash and somehow still seeming small and frail within the bulky armor. At first she had wondered as to why the yellow pegasus would ever want to dive headfirst into the apocalypse, but it had become apparent once Dusty Tome had followed her asking for an interview.
Sea Sabre looked back as Twilight’s heavy armored hooves clanked against the floor. “Everypony in?”
A chorus of affirmatives sounded off in her helmet, ranging from Flint’s baritone grunt to Fluttershy’s quiet little squeak. Twilight was the last to answer. “We’re ready.”
“Roger that. Taking us down.”
Twilight watched as the water slowly lapped higher and higher on the sub’s viewport until they were completely submerged. As the depths of the ocean swallowed them in its darkness, she clicked her radio transmitter off. She didn’t want her friends to hear how fast she was breathing.
Rarity could feel her diplomatic smile straining as she followed Whitehorn through the Fellis Island thaumagram station. It was a garish affair, with an excess of expensive finery and stained glass placed in a way that—in her professional opinion—was just passing atrocious. It wasn’t the building which had her on edge, however.
No, her quarrel was with its owner, operator, and resident. Mister Lay Drifts.
Whitehorn looked back at her, a knowing smirk on his face. “Careful, Lady Rarity. Your ire is showing.”
She scoffed, eyeing the passing tapestries with a derisive gaze. “I hardly think my attitude towards Mister Drifts is any great secret, Whitehorn.”
“Perhaps not, but there’s no sense in antagonizing him.”
Rarity sighed. She ran a hoof through her mane, straightening the most rebellious curls. “I’m sorry, but the stress of having even more ponies to care for in a couple days might just be getting to me. If that buffoon is incapable of keeping himself in check then I cannot be blamed for biting back.”
Whitehorn chuckled. “Very well then, my Lady. Let’s see how it turns out.”
He opened the door leading to the room where the thaumagrams themselves were transmitted, stepping aside to allow Rarity through. She dipped her head in thanks, screwing her nose up as she walked into the hazy cloud of cigar smoke that seemed to breed and multiply between every visit. The room was dominated by a smoke-stained steel terminal set in the far wall, its surface home to at least two dozen bouncing needles and gauges that gave off a constant droning hum. Heavy drapes covered the floor-to-ceiling window on the left wall, and so the only source of light was the three-tiered chandelier hanging from above. Its light filtered through the smoke to illuminate a pair of ponies—a mare and a stallion. The pegasus mare was clearly frazzled and overworked, her eyes darting back and forth as she scanned the stacks of paper scattered about her desk, scribbling urgently on a worn notepad. The orange-coated stallion was much more relaxed, seated in front of the terminal with his magic wrapped around the pale white control orb set before him.
The mare flinched at the sound of the door opening, looking up to greet the newcomers with a lopsided smile. “Hello welcome to the thaumagram station how can we help!”
Whitehorn dipped his head, reaching into his saddlebags to pull out a trio of thick letters. “We were wondering if Mister Drifts would be able to send some correspondence to Heighton for us.”
The mare’s face paled at the size of the stack. She took a deep breath to speak, only to be cut off by Lay Drifts turning around.
“Ah, Whitehorn! And Lady Rarity.” He said the latter with a thin covering of undisguised irritation. “Of course I can take care of you, if you’ve got the bits. Heighton, you say? How many words are we talking?”
“Just a few thousand, if you would,” Whitehorn said. “They’re drafts for my article.”
Rarity cleared her throat, pulling a single letter out of her purse. “And a couple hundred from myself, please.”
Mister Drifts grunted, turning back to his terminal. “Eighty-five bits, and I’ll have your message out by tomorrow morning.”
“Excellent,” Whitehorn said. The stack of papers fell on the pale mare’s table with an audible thunk, drawing a small whimper from her. Rarity’s letter floated down a second later, resting daintily on top.
“And here is the fee, madam,” Rarity said, levitating the proper amount of bits out of her bag and onto the table.
The instant the bits left her magical grasp, they were wrapped up in the pale yellow glow of Mister Drift’s magic. They floated to his side, spinning in a rapid circle as he counted. “Eighty-five it is. It’s always nice when customers don’t try to gyp you.”
Rarity’s smile twisted into a grimace. She held herself back for a full second before the words broke free. “Is that a problem you have often, Mister Drift?”
Lay Drifts chuckled, the cigar floating out of his mouth to let him speak clearly. “More than you know, Lady Rarity. I know you’re new to these parts, but as one Gifted to another let me clue you in: those damnable refugees will try just about anything to cheat a pony.”
Rarity grit her teeth. It was bait, and she knew it. A lady does not rise to— “From what I’ve heard you’re the one that’s been trying to cheat them.”
“Is that so?” He turned around, magic still glowing around the terminal as it hummed away. “I think you’ve been spending too much time around those bastards, Lady Rarity, if you don’t mind my saying. I don’t know what lies they fill your ears with, but used to be a dozen of ‘em coming up here every day offering me just about everything under the sun but bits.”
“Those ponies are only trying to speak to their families!” Rarity snapped. “They offer you jewelry and food and favors because they didn’t have time to grab a bag of bits when their home fell out of the sky, and you deny them any contact with the outside world. It’s heartless!”
“Do I look like a charity to you, my Lady?” Lay Drift asked. His eyes widened as he leaned over, letting out a series of ragged coughs before straightening. “Ugh, whatever. You bring bits, I do my job. That’s how it works. Now unless you’ve got anymore work for me, I’m busy.”
He turned around, sticking the cigar back into his mouth and giving it a few furious chews. Rarity glared at the back of his head for a few seconds, jaw still clenched, but she knew there was no point to it. She had already shamed herself enough by losing control. There were ponies just outside that needed her, and she wouldn’t be any help to them standing around and arguing with a Gifted oaf.
She spun to face the open door, seeing Whitehorn leaning patiently on the frame. With a righteous “Hmph!” she marched out into the hall, not even looking back to see if he followed.
“Bravo, Lady Rarity,” Whitehorn’s voice said behind her.
“That Lay Drifts doesn’t deserve the mark on his flank,” Rarity said. “He could make such a difference for those poor ponies, and instead he near single-hoofedly cuts them off from the world!”
“There are still messengers and mailships that deliver for the refugees,” Whitehorn said. “He might be an obstacle, but at least they can go around.”
Rarity came to a stop before the door leading outside, brow furrowed. “What right does he have to be this way? It’s as if he thinks that cutie mark is a divine right to treat the world as his own worthless oyster! And you tell me that all Gifted are like that?”
Whitehorn shrugged, coming up besides her. “Most of them, at least. They aren’t usually familiar with the struggles of their fellow pony.”
“It isn’t proper!” Rarity opened the door a little too roughly, sending it swinging back into the wall. “The Gifted could do so much good if only they tried!”
She turned to step outside, and nearly stepped right into Pinkie Pie.
“Hi Rarity!” she said. “I have a problem!”
“Oh! Uh—” Rarity cocked her head, her anger slipping away. “What is it, darling?”
Pinkie turned, pointing a hoof at her backwards-twitching tail. “Twitchy tail! It’s getting worse!”
Rarity took a reflexive step back into the confines of the station, stealing a nervous glance up. “Well that’s quite alarming, dear, but I don’t think that’s really a big—”
“No, you don’t understand!” Pinkie grabbed her, dragging her out into the noontime sunlight. She leaned in close to Rarity’s ear, whispering loud enough for anypony around to hear. “I think it might be a doozy!”
Rarity frowned, pulling away. “Well do you know what kind, Pinkie?” She looked to the mare’s tail and saw that yes, it was twitching. Violently, at that—and in a pattern she had never seen it make before.
Whitehorn cleared his throat, following the two outside. “I’m sorry, what’s happening? Her tail is twitching and that means… what, exactly?”
Rarity turned to answer him, only for the words to die in her throat as she felt a peculiar sensation pass through her horn. It wasn’t something she had exactly felt before, but it reminded her almost of the feel of stepping outside a warm house in the middle of a clear winter morning, or of biting into a meal only to find it cold in the middle. She was suddenly aware that there had been some magic existing in the background, so faint that she hadn’t even noticed it until it just now was peeled away.
She frowned. Her heartbeat had sped up. There was a sudden urge to flee, and yet she knew not where to or what from. “Did you feel that, dears?”
A chorus of screams echoed up from the nearest river. Rarity’s heart skipped a beat as she galloped to the closest railing, looking down into the valley below to see the refugee camp had been thrown into a sudden panic. Ponies were running everywhere, stumbling desperately up the neighboring hillsides where Fellis citizens were watching curiously. Through it all, one particular shriek came clearly to her ears.
“No! Celestia, no! Not again!”
Rarity took a few slow steps, turning to her friends behind her. “Do you think we should head for—”
A deep rumble shook up Rarity’s hooves, and she was struck with the inexplicable sensation of falling.