Rites of Ascension

by CvBrony

Flower in the Sand

As Twilight floated along over the sands of fire, kicking her cloud's rear with pegasus wind to push herself along, she hummed to herself to keep her mind focused. The flame magic a couple hundred meters below was hotter on her coat than the sun, even when she wasn't shading herself with a handy-dandy piece of wood.
That same fire magic, combined with the side of the crate and Sender's Shower, meant that Twilight could replenish her little cloud as much as she needed. Her altitude was high enough to avoid most of the blowing sand, and it even tempered the heat from the sands below her. A train chugged along in the far distance, belching smoke as it burned crude solidified magic.
I'm surprised, Twilight,” Aurora chimed in. ”I thought you would be more worried about Rainbow than this.
“I am worried, but I’m trying to keep the fear moderated,” Twilight replied. “But I have faith in her; Rainbow should be fine. It didn't appear as though Farriér knew about her, and she’s well hidden anyway, which means she's free to infiltrate their base. Once she does, all she needs is a straight shot into the sky and they won't have a prayer in catching her. Only Celestia and Luna can outrace a pony capable of a Rainboom.”
Aurora appeared next to her, albeit faintly and not in the real world. It was merely an illusion that only Twilight could see, and no less adorable for it. She was snuggled down into the cloud and looked off into the distance. “Still, I worry. Especially after what he did to that other mare.”
A stabbing shock cut through Twilight's heart and out her soul, manifesting itself as another ghostly figure. This one, though, was of the mare that was killed before her eyes. Her mouth was moving, and even though there was no voice, Twilight knew what the newest ghost to follow her was saying.
“Save my baby.”
Twilight held her breath against the tears and anger, beating it back with her will until she was blue in the face. “Don't worry. We'll save them. Not only that, we'll stop him from hurting anypony else.”
Aurora nodded and turned into a wisp, then swirled her way into the torc’s gem. “Where do we start?”
“There.” Twilight pointed to a town coming down from the horizon. It was small, and barely worth a dot on a map, but it had something far more important than size. The buzz of telegraph wires below her were the key, and they led straight into town. “I need to get a message to Celestia. From there, we find a way to Sierra Maredre and get help from Duke Badlands.”
“And if he won't help?”
“Then he gets moved up on the ‘problems to deal with’ checklist.” Twilight pulled her armor in, undeploying it back into a torc. She unclipped her saddlebag and unfurled one of the few supplies they had received that weren't either destroyed or stolen by the pirates. The black, heavy-threaded poncho draped over her shoulders and snapped securely at her neck. Next was the hat, which was equally black and had rims every bit as wide, if not wider, than that of Phantasm, the mare who led her to the faulty orphanage in Ponyville. Her ears poked through the holes, letting it rest squarely on her head.
Both shimmered in the light for just an instant, which revealed the subtle lines of silvery enchantments woven into the threads. An icy breeze melted over her back from the magic as it fought the incredible desert heat. The cold only increased when Twilight jumped off the cloud with the piece of wood in her grip.
Her hooves barely made any sound as they touched down on the dense red dirt of the desert. Pegasus magic blasted sand out from her and swept the ground under her as she gathered herself. She tipped her hat down as the magic faded. The town was only a five minutes’ trot away, as was the beginning of the end for Farriér.
“San Palomino. Even one hundred years after being recognized as a Duchy, it's still called The Lawless Frontier. Perhaps it's time for that to change. Aurora, you ready?”
“Structural integrity is nominal. Defensive profiles are being optimized for fire and lightning as we speak. Ready to deploy with as little as one-third of a second's notice.”
Twilight eyed the town, running through her mental to-do checklist. “Then let's do this!”

Desert Rose’s head slammed into the bar. Unlike the “incident” a couple weeks ago, this was her normal dive into a sturdy piece of wood.
“Another long night, huh Rose? Too bad nightmares can't take the place of coffee, huh?”
“Nyug.” Rose eyed the bartender, not even dignifying that idea with a response. Nothing could replace coffee, and if Whiskey Nap didn't shut his face and stop shoving ice picks in her ears with his words, she'd feed him his prostate. “Coffee. Coffee now.”
Whiskey sighed as she poured out a cup of black joe. “One of these days, Rose, you're going to have to go to a doctor about this. Nightmares every night t’ain’t normal.”
“I told you, I am seeing a doctor.” Rose pulled out the little bottle and tapped out a few of the little, white, oblong pills it contained. “Gave me the medicine, even.”
Yes, medicine! Take medicine, weakling foa–” Rose slammed her eyes shut, screaming at her internal, infernal subconscious that didn't even have the decency to leave her alone when she was awake.
“Yeah, but it's been how many years now? Three? Still done ya no good at all. Yer wastin’ yer money.”
“Pfft. So I should go clear to Sierra Maredre and spend ten times as much for the same advice and medicine? No thanks. Can't afford it. Not even after my next bust.”
“Oh?” Whiskey put a fresh pot of Cayenne Sparkle on. “Sounds like you got something big lined up!”
“Damn straight I do!” Rose gobbled her medicine and washed it down with her still-scalding, jet-black ambrosia. “Ah…”
“Heh. Tell us another one, Rose!” Ol’ Duster spat one of his sunflower seed shells into a disgusting flower pot already filled with them while carefully holding his cards at his chest. The old earth pony was never without his seeds and a salt lick. How he hadn't died of dehydration was anypony’s guess. “Just like that time you were gonna catch Captain Farriér?”
“I had bad intel that time. And I was a teenaged moron. This time will be different. It's going to make my reputation as a bounty hunter! I'm going to haul in the Dagger gang!” Rose stuffed her muzzle into her coffee cup and prayed with her clenched teeth that they wouldn't notice it was already empty. Damnit, Damnit, Damnit! Rose, why did you go and say that! Now one of them could warn the gang and blow the whole op!
“Ha! That'll be the day!” Duster scooped up the hand's winnings like the pro he was—after spitting another seed, of course. “Maybe we should tell the undertaker now, just so he's ready.”
“Hmph. You'll see.” She downed her second cup and tossed some bits on the table. “Can't stay too late today. Got work to d—”
The cracks of cored cannons ripping through wood pounded through the saloon, and everypony dove for cover under the tables, chairs, and any other ineffectual thing they could find. If a bolt headed their way, they were dead all the same, but the splinters were raining down on them, so the guns were being aimed high up. Hitting the deck was the right call.
“Sweet Celestia on water skis, what in tarnation is going on?!” Even through the blasts, Duster kept eating his seeds. “I have half a mind ta—”
Rose held up a hoof to silence the old coot, then peeked out the shattered window across the street of the small town. Green bolts were flying every which way out of the bank. The same bank the Dagger gang was supposed to hit tomorrow. “They're ahead of schedule. Stay here, everypony. I'll take care of this.”
She stomped her huge forehoof on the floor, and the mini cored cannons hidden in her saddle sprung out, one gun on each side. Her wings flared out and flapped, lifting her draft frame up and out the door.

Twilight marched through the blowing dust and heat, one hoof in front of the other past rocks and dead plants that just couldn't handle the fire magic of the desert. The air bent and waved in the sun that hammered down on the land as if it was the mighty hoof of Celestia herself. With each step, her cloak, mane, and tail all waved in time with her trot, and her hat brim was tilted against the slight, but dry and abrasive wind. Ponies milled about in their daily lives, watching her as she strolled into town.
The town was small, with maybe a dozen small shops and a few dozen homes off the main drag. The wood of the older buildings had scorch marks where it met the ground. Wires buzzed between them in a setup that could have been called substandard in only the most generous of manners. A lone water tower was probably the only reliable source of water for miles on end; Sender's Shower was too complex for most ponies to master, let alone cast repeatedly.
The first building on her right had heavy windows and buzzed with wards engraved into the frame. Her first instinct told her that it was a bank, which was what she was looking for. The sign overhead, though, read “Bounty Depot.”
“Bounty?” She shook her head and switched to her thaumic sight, and sure enough, wards were all over the building. On top of that, the ground pulsed red like a swollen wound. Only one other building had such security, and unlike the others, it was made of solid brick. An expensive air conditioning system hummed on top of it, and the windows had glass far thicker than what was normal. The sign overhead confirmed it; that was the bank she was looking for.
She stepped inside and let the glorious, nearly sinful joy of cold, crisp air dance and flow over her sweaty back. A hint of the refrigerant fought in an arena against the smell of bulk-purchase coffee left out too long. The ceiling fans were silent in the face of the superior cooling system, and the green paint and blue carpet sucked her away from the reality of where she was.
“Good evening, Miss! How may we help you today?”
Twilight snapped herself out of it and took off her hat before approaching the mare behind the counter. “I need to make a withdrawal. A significant one.”
“Certainly. May I ask you your account number?”
“Yes, one second.” Twilight fished out her notebook and ran through the decryption in her head, then scribbled out the account number, her name, and the pass code to use it. She also added the amount she wanted to withdrawal.
“Oh my.” The mare blinked. “Twenty thousand? It'll take a few minutes to get that together for you. Let me just check the account details first.”
She turned behind her and went to the dozens of large, wooden filing cabinets and pulled a drawer open. After a moment, she took out a page and started reading.
This is the first time I've used this account in the field. I wonder how much Celestia actually put in there.
The mare fell to her haunches.
I'm guessing it's a lot.
“Well, this… This looks to be in order, ma’am.” The clerk came back to the counter with her ears down. “Please have a seat, and we'll bring your funds to you. Would you prefer large or small denominations?”
“A mix, if you would. Also, you wouldn't happen to know where I could commission a pegasus to transport me to Sierra Maredre, would you?”
“There's no such business I know of here, but if you go to the bar, you might find a pony willing to take the job. Maybe even the Bounty Depot would have a bounty hunter willing to make some ‘easy’ bits.”
“Easy bits?” A stallion chewing on an unlit cigar laughed as he stepped in ahead of a few more ponies. His cutie mark was a twisted dagger, and his back was heavy with a Cloudsdale cored cannon. “Speak of Cerberus. That's exactly what we're after!”
“Wow.” Aurora laughed while she deployed. “These stallions have really awful timing, don't they?”
Yup. Twilight locked her gaze on the leader and charged her horn. Let's give them a lecture on the topic.

“Damnit, I should have known not to take that flank-wipe at his word!” Rose’s wings thumped the air and rocketed her down the main drag. Her bee-line came to an abrupt end at the reinforced glass door, which she promptly kicked inwards. “Alright, Dagger, drop the gun and sur–”
Rose’s jaw dropped.
Dagger was down for the count. She'd never seen him roughed up like that before, and what's more, he was covered in some kind of hard light spell that was trapping him on the floor in a chain made of glowing panes of glass. His crew was in just as bad a way. Several teeth were scattered about the floor, and bruises were already growing on them. One of the pegasi on his crew was knocked out cold and draped over a ceiling fan blade.
In the middle of it all was a short, but extremely well-armoured unicorn mare that looked like she belonged more on a battlefield than a desert town in the middle of nowhere. Wait, that's not right. It's only her armor…
For all the enchanted steel she was under, what little Rose could see was anything but soldier-like. Her dark mane was long, flat, and flowing, with a pink stripe running down the center. It tickled the floor as it brushed the carpet, and her tail did the same. Her poise and stance was anything but military. The movements of her legs were closer to that of a dancer, or at least a Canterlot noble.
Most confounding of all, though, were her eyes. Soldiers had a stare that they did when looking off into the past, and it was distant and horrible. They had another when they were in battle mode, and it was absorbed in the present while their training guided every action.
Hers was neither. It was present, but calculating. She was thinking, analyzing, and if she was doing that while fighting Dagger, she could think as fast as a pegasus could fly.
It was only then that Rose realized that the mare was analyzing her.
“Judging by your outburst and your cutie mark, I'm guessing you are some form of law enforcement authority, or what passes for one in San Palomino. Right?”
“Uhhhh…” Rose blinked and poked one of the unconscious gang members with a hoof. “Yeah? I'm a bounty hunter.” She sighed and slumped to the floor, covering her head to protect against the bomb of bad news. “And it looks like I'm out ten thousand bits…”
The mare finished casting some kind of spell, which sealed another of the gang in that strange light. “I'm not after a bounty. These idiots just tried to rob the bank while I was here. If you have the shackles, I'm willing to turn them over to you. I've got more important things to get done while I'm here.”
Rose's jaw dropped again. “Seriously? Even after knowing how much they're worth?”
“Honestly, I don't care at all how much the bounty is. I'm not here for bits. Well, not to earn additional bits, at least.” Her armor glowed white and purple, then peeled off her body, retracting into a slender purple torc not unlike what the princesses wore.
“Not here for...” Whatever convoluted, tortured expression her face had contorted to, it probably wasn't going to change anytime soon. “Who comes to San Palomino for anything but bits? That's kind of the whole shtick here.”
“A Grand Mage doesn't really worry about getting more bits.”
Lightning cracked through Rose's soul, crystallizing her thoughts like sand. The Grand Mage Twilight Sparkle… She looked her over again. The Canterlot properness and poise, the lethality against thugs that don't even rate against threats faced in the past, the mercy shown in letting them live, and even forgoing a bounty all added up. This is the most powerful pony short of the princesses. I… I don't even know what to do now…
She too strong! Take medicine! Run!” Rose swallowed the voice away, bracing herself against it.
Twilight picked up some of the furniture in her magic, putting things back the way they were. “That being said, we do sometimes need to make withdrawals, same as anypony. Miss, are my funds ready?”
The bank clerk poked her head out from the office door, shaken and frazzled. “Is-Is it safe to come out now?”
“Yes, it's safe. I'll give you some time to collect yourself and get things ready, but I'm afraid I can't wait to long. I have a few other things I need to do, and I need money to do them. Don't worry about the thugs, I'm sure my new acquaintance here can take care of things, right Miss…?” The mare looked to her, waiting with a smile for a blank to be filled.
Rose’s mind ran around in circles for a moment to catch up to what was just in front of her. When it stopped chasing its brainstem, her mouth had already started. “Myuagre… Huh? Oh! Right, Rose. Desert Rose.”
“Ah, right. A rose inside a shield, over a pair of shackles. I suppose I should have guessed from the cutie mark. I'll help you get them restrained for transport. Since you're a heavy pegasus, I assume you can carry them down the road easily enough?”
Lightning struck inside her again, this time jolting her up on her hooves. “H-how did you know I'm part earth pony? I know I'm odd, being a draft mare, but that doesn't mean I'm a hybrid!”
Twilight shrugged. “Again, Grand Mage. I have an extremely fine sense of magic, and you practically radiate a hybrid’s viridian magic. Given you have wings, too, there's only one possibility: heavy pegasus.”
Rose sighed. “Is there anything you can't do?”
“Be two places at once. Come on, let's get to work. I'll help you offload these guys, but after that, I have to get to the telegraph office.”

Twilight hopped on the office chair and slid to the transmitter, then slapped on the headset and opened her notebook.
“Miss, you're not supposed to be back here…”
Twilight flicked one of her new five-hundred-bit pieces at him.
“... But I think we can make an exception. You obviously have important business.”
The door closed, and she was alone in the dusty room to do her work. She pushed herself up and put her hooves on the slightly-too-tall desk and grabbed hold of the lever with her magic. The message had to be encrypted; telegraph lines were easy to tap. What's more, all her instructions in her book were also encrypted. She'd have to solve them, make her message, and re-encrypt them without giving the ponies in the other room a prayer to figure out what she was sending out.
Piece of cake.
The notebook flipped through its pages to the instructions, and the symbols began their serenade in her mind. Piece after piece that wasn't already firmly lodged in memory found its place among the others. Before long, they changed places.
The result was a string of gobbledygook to anypony that didn't know what to look for. The ponies that did were on the military base at the other end of the line. While the message wouldn't be crackable to anypony else other than its intended recipient within any reasonable time frame, that didn't diminish its weight.
“Done!” Twilight packed up her notebook and left without a trace left in the room, not even a single thing written down. She swung the door open and walked right by the nervous, gossiping ponies manning the telegraph station. Outside, the bright day made her put her hat and cloak back on.
Money acquired, message sent. Next objective, stock up on water and secure transit to Sierra Maredre. Best bet is the bar, and just in case… Magic curled around her horn and drew itself down into her stomach, ready to convert vast quantities of alcohol into harmless water and sugar at a moment's notice. Let's do this.
She pushed open the almost joyously stereotypical doors to the saloon and strolled in, finding a bartender cleaning and a dozen or so ponies passing the time drinking and playing poker. There was even a stage, though its coating of dust said it hadn't been used in ages. Like the outside, the floor wood was charred over time from the desert’s magic, though the rest was normal wood, even if it wasn't the best-maintained place she'd ever been in. For the town she was in, it was, in a word, adequate.
“Well now, lookie here!” A geezer spat a sunflower seed into a flower pot already filled with them. “Not bad. Why don't you come here and have a seat next to Ol’ Duster. We can--”
“No accosting other customers, Duster, or I'll make you pay your tab today. Use it to fix the cannon holes.”
“I'm sorry about that, Miss.” The bartender flopped his rag over his shoulder. “What can I get for you?”
Twilight smiled and hopped up on one of the stools, which, despite her recent growth, was still awkwardly tall for her. “I'm looking to buy some permafrost water bottles. Filled, of course. Do you happen to have any?”
“We do! They're seventy-five each.”
Twilight raised an eyebrow at that. “MSRP is thirty. What's with the upcharge?”
Duster almost fell out of his seat laughing. “Oh, we got a newbie here! Hehe!”
The bartender grumbled and waggled a piece of paper Twilight could only assume was Duster’s tab, since he shut up fast. “Water is the most precious thing in the desert, Miss, and our water tower hasn't been resupplied in quite a while. It's imported jugs and bottles for water, beer or soda if’n you aren't picky about what you drink, or going thirsty around here. Frankly, there's not even enough of those to go around. Ponies are leaving. Low supply, high demand.”
Twilight pulled out a thousand bit piece and flopped it in the table. “I'll take five. Keep the change if you want, but if you do, sell the next several at MSRP. If I hear that you didn't, I'll have a crown agent investigate resource price gouging, which is a crime against the Crown, i.e., a felony.”
The bartender returned her raised eyebrow. “That's some powerful talk, Miss, but if you'll excuse me, I've heard that kind of threat before. Granted, it didn't have money like that attached to it, but I'm not one to back down over words from a mare too big for her britches. Nopony here is.”
Twilight got off the stool and turned to her side to display her cutie mark. “That bag of Cayenne Sparkle you have over there? That's from Bon Bon’s Café. She made that blend just for me, and it became popular enough that I gave her permission to use a variant of my cutie mark for marketing.”
All card playing in the room stopped.
“Ha!” Rose snickered and chuckled while strolling into the bar. “I heard that hush from out there. What, did Whiskey try to price gouge her or something?”
The silence marched on while Whiskey refused to meet either mare's gaze.
“Holy. Crap. You did. You tried to rip off the Grand Mage. Whiskey, you bucking idiot. I told you that you'd run into the wrong pony with that crap someday.”
“He doesn't have too much to worry about.” Twilight slid the bit closer to Whiskey. “So long as he straightens out. There are much bigger crooks out here that are a lot higher on my list. But, I do need my water. Do we have a deal, Whiskey?”
Whiskey sighed. “Yes, ma'am.” He went to the back room, and brought out five liter-sized bottles, each snow white and covered in frost. Most of the other ponies in the room were licking their lips.
“Those will do nicely.” Twilight pocketed them in her now thoroughly stuffed bag. “But, I do need one more thing.” She turned to face the room of ponies, and took in a deep breath to address them all. “I'm looking for a pegasus who has a cart or chariot and is willing to fly me to Sierra Maredre. I know it's a long flight, but I'm willing to compensate handsomely.”
She floated out a thousand bit piece and slammed it on an empty table. “I wouldn't normally do this, but the matter is urgent. Is there anypony here willing to help me?”
Everypony put their head down, hid their eyes behind hats or cards, or otherwise gave her a big, loud, non-verbal “No.”
“Huh.” Twilight scratched her head. “I would've expected a warmer response than that. Especially for a thousand bits.”
“Hmph.” Duster spat a seed. “Even if I had wings, ya'd have ta pay me more than that ta fly ta that little slice of Tartarus.”
“Seriously?” Twilight peeked at the rest of the money in her bag. “Hmmm…”
“I'll do it.”
Twilight looked up at a smiling Rose. “You will?”
“Sure. You already saved me a ton of work. Sierra Maredre sucks, but I feel like I owe you. And I pay my debts.”
Whiskey twitched his nose and accompanying moustache. “Then when are you going to pay your tab?”
Rose slammed some bits on the table. “Now’s as good a time as any. And besides, a thousand more bits for a day of flying?” She shook and shuddered, pawing at her ear like something was biting it. “Not a bad price. You got yourself a deal.”
“Excellent! Get your cart or chariot ready. I just have one stop left here in town.” Twilight strode back out through the doors, and this time, the heat didn't seem to burn quite as bad. Rose was flying overhead, with her large, outstretched wings. A draft mare. That's not something you see every day. And her wings are rare, too. They're in the same kind of class as Cadence's; not a huge amount of manoeuvrability, but I bet she could glide steady and strong through the heart of a storm.
Onwards she marched through the main street, and by now, the dozens of ponies around her were keenly aware that she wasn't just from out of town. They knew who she was, and they'd all come to get a look. Part of being an alicorn, I suppose. Definitely not my favorite part. This time, her target wasn't a building per se, but was a structure. A short walk down the road, she stopped in front of the town's water tower.
As expected, it was much larger than Ponyville's old model. It was next to the rail lines for easy filling from the tracks, but the bartender said it had been dry for some time.
Hmmm. I bet I know who's responsible for stealing their water.”
“Farriér.” Twilight sneered. “I can't fix this outright. Not permanently. But I can give them a little relief.” She sparked herself up to a ledge on the tower, then grabbed hold of the top with her magic.
“Hey!” Rose called out from the air with a simple cart in tow. “What're you doing to our water?!”
“That’s just it! There's no water in here! I'm going to fix that!” Twilight clenched her teeth and strained her neck and she pulled on the top of the tower with her magic. Her horn nearly twisted as her force lifted on the roof like a crowbar. The wood creaked and groaned while nails popped from their resting places. One final push, and it came off.
Twilight set it down like a delicate glass weighing a literal ton, then sparked up to the narrow ledge. A black, waterproof seal surrounded the inside of the tower, but it was dry and dusty. Not even a trace amount of moisture was left on the bottom. It had to have been dry for some time.
“Okay, one fill-up, on the house!” She aimed her spell at an interior side of the tower and carved a magic circle into it. Inside that, she wrote the formula for Sender's Shower, and the circle changed colour from purple, to blue. She pushed power into the outside ring; far more than she'd used to pull off the top. Last, she added a simple timing loop, then let the spell go.
Jets of water roared and splashed around the tower, washing the dust down with a small torrent. Seconds later, the spell stopped. At least, it stopped until the magic circle fired again, filling up another portion. It cycled over and over, and would keep doing it for while.
“Holy… She filled the water tower! Everypony, come quick! Get yer water! The tower is full!”
Twilight wasn't sure which stallion it was that sounded the call for the swarm of ponies below her, but her focus was on getting the top back on securely. By the time it was fixed and she had teleported down, half the town was there with buckets.
“I thought I'd seen everything in the desert.” The stallion with a white mane, moustache, and stetson said. “But I've never seen anypony rip off the top of a water tower like a soda bottle before, let alone refill it from nothing.” He took a deep bow. “We're in your debt, Lady Sparkle. Now we can stop paying for those shipments that never come.”
Twilight shook her head. “It's not a permanent solution. The spell will keep firing for thirty minutes or so. Fill up while you can.”
The stallion staggered from the verbal slash to the back. “But… We need water! The town is dying!”
And this is another thing about being an alicorn… “I don't have perfect solutions to everything. I can't wave my horn and fix everything, Grand Mage or not. I gave you a small reprieve because it was something that I could do to help. I'm just one pony in a nation of billions.
“But this at least gives you time. Come together, work together. You'd be surprised what a little organization and grassroots action can do. You might just discover that with some hard work, you're even more powerful than I am.”
The stallion sighed and took off his hat to rub his head. “Things have been so bad for so long. We've written so many letters to the Duke…”
“Based on what I've heard, I wouldn't rely on him. I'm actually headed to the capital now, but political solutions usually take a geological age. This town will be long dead before any solution from this Duchy's government comes around if you don't take action yourselves immediately.”
“What…” The stallion looked up at her with the eyes of a foal. “What would you have us do?”
“Talk to other towns in the same situation, scout the desert for oasis, get in contact with other water companies… You know this land, this Duchy better than I do. I know it looks hard, but you're not as weak as you think. Like I said, come together. Harmony and friendship is more than a match for just about anything.”
With a spark and a pop, she was gone, or at least a hundred or so meters in the air. One more, and she was sitting in the back of Rose's cart.
“Gah!” Rose jerked and lunged forward like she wasn't securely connected to the cart. “Anypony ever tell you to warn them when you're about to do that?”
“Only all the time. I’m afraid you're going to have to get used to that if you're going to travel with me. It's kind of my signature spell.”
“... You and your friends, the Elements. You're all a bunch of crazy weirdos, aren't you.”
Twilight couldn't help but channel Rainbow. “Of course not. We're even cooler than that!”
Rose facehooved. “Me and my big mouth.”
“Hush. Less talking, more flying!” Twilight put one forehoof on the edge of the cart and used the other to dip the edge of her hat. “Next stop, Sierra Maredre!”

Spitfire landed on the deck of the Bellerophon and faced her Wonderbolts. They were the only ones allowed in the bay at the moment, as it was an official briefing, and the cargo bay was the only place big enough on the ship to hold so many pegasi.
“Listen up! We have our orders, and these come from Princess Celestia herself. One of our own has been captured! Captain Dash, currently of the Evening Guard, is assumed captured by criminal pirate forces in San Palomino!”
“Pfft. Figures. If she got captured, it was her own--”
Spitfire opened a wing and sent fire to lick the deck under the stallion.
“We do not know the full extent of the situation, only that she is assumed captured! She may be dead, she may be doing something else entirely. That doesn't matter. The only thing that matters is that we are going to show the world what happens when you mess with a Wonderbolt! We are going to save our comrade, find these pirates, and then redefine the phrase ‘death from above’ by writing it on the desert floor with their charred, crusty blood!”
She didn't get the “Oo-rah” she wanted.
“Gotta go out and save her butt then, huh?” Another stallion sorted, clearly not getting her searing warning to the other one. “Ancestors, she always did suck.”
“The only thing sucking around here, Cirrus, is your mother, and I didn't even have to put any drinks in her!” Spitfire waited for the customary chuckles to die down. “Rainbow has her problems, but she's the second-best flyer in the history of the Wonderbolts, and her loyalty is second to none. For all we know, she went down fighting the airship single-hoofed.”
Her flyers shut up in an instant at the mention of what they were up against.
“That's right, pansies. While you diss her and whine that the hotel doesn't have your favourite chocolate, she was fighting a San Palomino pirate airship with only the Grand Mage as backup. And now, we're going to go looking for that same trouble - and there's no guarantee that you'll be in range of the Bellerophon’s support when you run into said trouble.
“Our search grid is huge. The desert is vast. Intel suspects our target has some kind of stealth capability based on how hard they've been to track down. You may be beset by fire with no warning. But we are Wonderbolts, and we will get the job done!”
Weak, but at least they did it this time. Spitfire took off her sunglasses and stared them all in the eye. “I've been reviewing our performance reports. Our shows are as good as ever, but for combat readiness? Guys, the Yellowjackets are cleaning our clocks. This isn't going to continue.
“There are going to be some changes around here. Changes that are long overdue. Our show schedules are being cut in half. Larger venues, fewer performances. Moreover, very few of you are going to continue to have parts in them.”
Spitfire braced against the onslaught of whining, which was solid enough she could probably have physically leaned against it like a wall. “The rest of you are going to train for service like nothing else. I am going to run you all into the ground if you don't shape up - and two pegasi from the Day Guard are going to help me do it. Only the best of the best in combat are going to be in the shows, and those of you that don't perform in combat?” She dragged a line in the air across her throat. “No more slacking, anywhere or at all, or you're gone.”
“Is that why Lieutenant Barrel Roll isn't here anymore? Was he discharged?”
Spitfire sucked in a breath and put her glasses back on. “What I'm about to say doesn't leave this room. Barrel Roll is dead. He turned traitor for a chance at petty revenge on Rainbow Dash during the Cloudsdale Uprising. A former member of the Day Guard, working with the Grand Mage, engaged him in combat and killed him.”
She paused to let her pegasi marinate in that knowledge. “This is a stain our unit will never be able to remove. Ever. There's already talk of disbanding us completely. It is only by Rainbow's plea to Celestia that it hasn't already happened. She believes in us. She is loyal to us, even though we haven't been to her.
“That changes now. From here on out, we are not show ponies, we are soldiers, and soldiers stick by their own. Anypony that disagrees can fly home; I'll file your dishonourable discharge papers later. Anypony that doesn't work like they’re the elite they're supposed to be will find those same papers jammed up their backside as they’re punted out the door.
“Rainbow Dash saved our unit. It's time we returned the favour by saving her. We are Wonderbolts, and we are loyal to our own! Loyal as the sky is blue! And we are going to protect our own!
Spitfire smiled. Better. Looks like they get it.