by Dave Bryant


It was the arctic wall, Equestria’s northern frontier, a natural border stretching across most of the continent’s breadth. The Crystal Mountains marched in stark majesty, blue and gray and white, around the tiny silvery mote that labored eastward up a long narrow pass. Below ran a single railroad track, visible only where snowdrifts had blown away. To starboard reared the western extents of the southernmost range; to port stood the overlapping eastern end of the next rampart. High above a white sun shone in a hard cloudless sky. Somewhere ahead lay the destination of both the rail line and the airship following it.
“I’ve never been so c-c-cold in my life,” stuttered Sunset. She peered out and down from the warped and twisted waist position missing its gun, keeping a sharp watch, for Comet no longer soared high above the ground.
As the valley rose, the temperature fell, and the abused vessel was in decline figuratively and literally. She floated low enough a sufficiently tall tree—more likely a telegraph pole—or similar obstruction could pose a mortal danger. A heavy enough gust funneled down the V-shaped trough might toss her in any direction, including downward or toward one of the cliffsides. Even if the crew wanted to, and would survive the intense high-altitude chill, the ship no longer could climb enough to clear the surrounding peaks and ridges.
“It’s not so much how cold it is right now,” Cook got out through chattering teeth as he kept a weather eye aft. “It’s that we’ve been cold for . . . how long?” The pair of them, bundled from nose to tail, shivered in the slipstream as they stood on the buckled and torn deck. The trusses and cladding providing partial shelter had gone with the gun, leaving the small platform fully exposed to the elements. The coarse grid of a cargo net was strung across the opening and ropes tied their safety harnesses to exposed stanchions, but those jury-rigged measures did nothing to fend off the freezing wind.
“Don’t care,” Sunset returned. The fiery young mare had worked hard to regain the good graces of the surviving crew, volunteering for the worst duties, performing them precisely and without complaint; even now her outburst focused on the world outside rather than the post she stood. After all, she’d observed as philosophically as she could to Cook and Rose, it wasn’t like she hadn’t performed a penance before.
“Well,” Cook observed, failing to achieve a chipper, bracing tone, “we’re supposed to get there today, so we only have to put up with it a few more hours.”
Sunset vented a morose grunt, barely audible over the dull roar of the gasoline engines still running. One was missing; its mate on the envelope’s other side was shut down for symmetry of thrust. At half power, the ship seemed to crawl, wobbling as breezes and eddies it normally resisted played with the huge sail area of the envelope. Otherwise the world seemed utterly silent aside from the whistle of air across every surface it encountered.
“Huh,” she added after a few moments. “I see a building down there, but it doesn’t look like anypony’s home.” After another pause she went on uncertainly, “I don’t think it’s a guardpost, but there’s a cannon. Looks kinda strange. And it’s pointed up.”
“Let me see.” Cook turned around carefully and looked over her shoulder toward the log cabin standing not far from the right-of-way. In front of it there did seem to be a sizable mortar on a fixed mounting, squat barrel aimed at the sky. “Oh, I know what that is. It’s a—” His eyes grew comically large. He had time for a single curse before the gun’s purpose became abundantly clear.

The storm that nearly downed their airship had been only one among many, dumping rain, snow, and ice across the north. The snowpack that in part gave the Crystals their name, already generous, had built up considerably. Unobstructed summer sunlight had followed, warming and softening the frozen layers. Crews who normally monitored and dealt with that build-up, sending up weather ponies or lofting explosive charges with their mortars to bring it down while it was still small, had evacuated in the face of uncertainty and chaos. The overburden thus was left to accumulate until it reached the breaking point.
Early signs of an avalanche can be hard to notice, seemingly slow and quiet. It’s only as the sliding snow and ice accelerate and plumes kick up that the danger becomes obvious, but by then it’s too late. The wave front generally reaches speeds much faster than most skiers can outrun and often is far wider than quick-thinking skiers can evade. Even flyers—and flying machines—could be caught by snow and rocks, falling or flung, and clouds of displaced air and powder.
The envelope bore the brunt of it. Suddenly the whole ship vibrated and visibility whited out; the gondola rocked and bounced. Somewhere, over the rumble of the fall, a brief scream faded. Sunset and Cook lost their footing. Cook fell heavily to the deck. Sunset spun outward, striking the netting low and hard enough to pull several of the hurriedly placed staples completely out of the structures to which they’d been attached. Her safety line tautened, arresting her tumble, then gravity promptly took over. She fell right past the edge of the remaining platform to swing in open air.
It took Sunset a few seconds to recover enough breath to shriek and thrash all four limbs. Her alicorn lit instinctively, but only a very few unicorns were able to lift themselves, and Sunset was not among them. It took Cook a few seconds more to regain his feet and yell back, “Hang on!” His levitation aura enveloped her. With a groan of effort he pulled, but his was not the mightiest of magic. “Need some help here!” he called.
Fancy Pants and Fleur appeared after a minute that lasted an eternity and with Cook’s assistance managed to raise the younger unicorn enough to pull her back by the harness. She lay on the deck and hyperventilated amidst the commotion as the pair vanished into the gondola again to deal with whatever other emergencies awaited. When she stood again on shaky legs, she said, “What do we do now?”
Cook, who’d peered inward, replied, “I think it’s over. The best thing to do is keep watch again. We’re still moving, after all.”

“You two all right?” Galea stood in the gangway to the gun position.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” Sunset assured her. “What happened? Uh, Ma’am.”
The captain sighed. “Avalanche, but you knew that much. We were low and slow enough t’ catch some of it. Didn’t do a lot o’ damage, but it shook everything and everypony up, and we lost another. Blamed fool wasn’t wearing his harness—said it was too much bother, apparently—and he was hanging out over the rail, trying t’ get a look at something. The body’s under too many tons of snow and rocks about now.” The edge in her voice was subtle, but it wasn’t difficult for the other pair to realize how hard she took the losses under her command.
“It’s not your fault, Captain,” Sunset told her in a consoling tone.
The older unicorn stared at her. “Haven’t you learned anything, Missy? Everything that happens is the commanding officer’s fault, or at least her responsibility.” Abruptly she turned and left.
Sunset looked at Cook. “I’m not doing very well, am I?”
Cook sighed. “This is all new to you—well, and me too. It’s hard to get things right without any practice first. At least I’ve got my diplomatic training to fall back on.” After a meditative pause he went on, “Adventure is someone else having a bad time somewhere far away. It’s fun to listen to the stories, but usually it isn’t nearly as much fun to live through them. I’ll bet Ms. Brass would have a few things to say about that too.”
“You know,” Sunset said absently as she turned back to resume her watch, “I used to be desperate for adventure. I was so tempted to leave CHS and come back so I could find it. Now I’m wondering what I was thinking.”

When the eagerly awaited oasis of green warmth drew into sight, there was a general cheer. Only Galea didn’t share it, focused as she was on actually reaching the broad round valley nestled in the midst of rock and snow. Before long a platoon of cavalry approached cautiously to challenge the unfamiliar visitor; most of the guardsponies took station above the envelope, leaving only a sergeant in easy view.
To her megaphone-amplified query Fancy Pants replied in like fashion from the nearer waist position. “Experimental airship Comet out of Vanhoover. We wish to enter and land. We have news.”
It took several minutes, by relay, to propitiate the understandably edgy lieutenant enough to grant permission to cross the border, but eventually he fired a quick sequence of flares and via the sergeant assured Fancy Pants the way was clear. In return the older stallion offered profuse thanks, though he stayed where he was as the engines spooled up for the short final leg. With the cockpit nearly blind thanks to the damaged glazing, the doubled look-outs had become indispensible for guiding the ship’s movements.
At last the weary vessel drifted slowly down to the single mast, erected less than a year ago off the cobbled road running out to the train station. A growing—and rather scintillant—crowd watched at a respectful distance. The crystal ponies, for whom a millennium had passed in an eyeblink, still had not become entirely accustomed to the wonders of the new industrial age and took every opportunity to gawk at the technological marvels that came their way.
The cavalry unit was joined by a platoon of infantry who took on the role of ground crew. A lack of experience made the whole affair rather more exciting than anypony really preferred, and more than a few sighs of relief greeted the clamor of the ship’s bell announcing “done with engines”. A moment later the mechanical rumble died away, leaving the airscrews to wind down lazily, and the onlookers raised another, louder hurrah.
A hurried colloquy placed Fancy Pants in charge of the anchor watch. The pilot and engineer also selected radiated disappointment, but Galea assured them, “We’ll switch off as soon as we can, lads, never you fear.”
The rest of the crew, including Sunset, Cook, and Rose, queued up in the after gangway, waiting with barely restrained impatience as the captain edged past them to let down the ramp from the tail gun position. One by one they hopped from the ramp to the field, there to exhibit a variety of reactions to being on solid ground for the first time since setting out from Vanhoover. The unicorn colt unabashedly rolled on the grass, limbs waving in the air. The others were more restrained but no less fervent.
The pegasus lieutenant without a hint of crystal in his golden hide trotted up. “Who’s in charge, may I ask?”
Galea, of course, turned and nodded. “Dame Galea, Order of the Golden Sun. I’m the skipper of that bucket o’ bolts.”
The reply seemed to take him aback, but he rallied after a beat. “Lieutenant Flash Sentry. Will you need lodgings in town?”
Fleur stepped forward. “Captain, I can see to the crew’s needs. I believe you and our . . . guests should proceed to the palace without delay.”
A faint frown of concern clouded the young officer’s face. “The palace?”
“Yes indeed, Lieutenant.” Fleur drew herself up, the picture of elegant manners. “Where better to impart the important news we bring with us?”

A little more browbeating was required before the lieutenant acquiesced and led the quartet along the road into town—not that much guidance was needed, between the lack of other highways and the towering beacon of the palace.
“It’s . . . showy,” Rose muttered to Sunset and Cook. “What is it about tower houses as palaces here?”
Having no good answer, the other two shrugged. Galea shot her a quelling look but remained silent as well. If the lieutenant heard, he gave no sign.
After a few more steps Cook spoke up. “Lieutenant. Can you tell us what arrangements are in place during Her Serene Highness’s absence?”
“No Sir.” The words were entirely emotionless and the blue-maned head didn’t turn. “It’s not my place to comment on such matters.”
Cook let out a breath and nodded. Sidelong he murmured, “I’m not surprised, but it was worth a try.”
The rest of the journey passed in silence. The town’s streets bustled reassuringly, though an air of disquiet lurked just below the surface. Isolated as the pocket principality was, its inhabitants had to realize something was terribly wrong, even if they didn’t know exactly what. Still, passersby were cordial, nodding to or greeting the newcomers with at least a pretense of cheer.
When the small party arrived under the architectural oddity at the center of the valley, Rose paused with a sharp intake of breath. “What in—?”
“Ah.” Cook sounded amused. “That, Ms. Brass, is the Crystal Heart. It is the proximate reason the principality can exist. Beautiful, isn’t it?”
“I guess.” The larger pegasus plainly didn’t share in the amusement. “This place . . .” She shook her head and trailed off, leaving the thought unfinished. Instead she glanced around uneasily at the other ponies passing through, treating the paved plaza under the royal residence, and surrounding a strategic asset, as if it were just another crossroad.
“It’s the largest known enchanted artifact in the modern world,” Sunset added with a tinge of academic pride. “And one of the most powerful.” She rattled on like a tourguide until they reached the grand double-leaf doors in one of the tower’s four legs, then faltered and fell silent as the paired door guards in ceremonial armor braced; the senior of them challenged the party in formal phrases.
Their guide halted and responded, “Visitors to the palace, Sergeant. They claim to bring news.”
The remainder of the challenge and response went quickly, and the unicorn sergeant opened the doors. Led by Lieutenant Sentry, the five of them filed into the cool dimness of the palace, and the leaves closed with a rush of displaced air and a quietly massive thump.