Chapter 3: The Mulligan
Sweet Apple Acres.
Four months after The Hole.
Far Travel once again lamented the irony of her name as she climbed the 1,237th stair up the tree. Sure, she'd traveled around the world multiple times, and couldn't really imagine a life stuck in one place, but her name also seemed to result in her getting picked for the less exciting types of travel as well. When the team in Saddle Arabia had been asked to send a representative to report their findings, all heads had immediately turned to Far Travel. She didn't want to go. Unraveling the mysteries of the obelisk was much more exciting than a week-long journey back to Equestria just to answer some royal questions. "But traveling is your special talent!" the others had argued, even though they wouldn't doubt that she contributed just as much research acumen to the team as any other pony on it. Officially, of course, it came down to seniority, but she really doubted she'd be huffing her way up this impossibly tall tree if she'd been named "Mystery Solved" or "Relic Hunter."
And why was she being sent out here anyway? Originally, she'd returned and gone directly to Canterlot. She'd met with the Queen and Princess Luna the next morning and, as she'd wrapped up her report, assumed she'd be headed to port for the next boat back to Saddle Arabia and the dig site. Instead, the Queen had ordered her to take her findings and report to the Cutie Mark Crusaders, charging them as her personal agents in all matters related to the obelisk. Far Travel knew, of course, that the three young ponies had been the ones to discover the obelisk in the first place, and she'd heard of some of their more public exploits—as had anypony that read a paper in the past decade. Still though, she didn't understand how stumbling into a trap qualified them in any way to interpret and judge her expedition's research. The Queen had been insistent, if a bit cryptic. "You may find yourself quite surprised once you discover just what those three young mares are capable of."
Finally reaching the top of the staircase, Far Travel took a brief moment to compose herself, pushing a loose strand of long red hair out of her face before knocking. She heard the sound of hooves behind the door before it swung open, revealing a yellow-coated mare with a similar red mane held back by a small bow. "Howdy!"
"Umm, yes. Hello. My name is Far Travel, and Queen Celestia has asked me—"
She was cut off as the pony before her turned and yelled over her shoulder. "Hey ya'll! It's that unicorn from the dig Celestia said was comin'!"
"Well, let her in," a softer voice said from somewhere inside.
"Oh, right. Mah bad." The pony opened the door wide and motioned for her to step inside. "Mah name's Apple Bloom, and these are my friends Sweetie Belle and Scootaloo," she said, pointing in turn to a white unicorn and orange pegasus.
"Nice to meet you," Sweetie Belle said, followed by a clipped "Hi," from Scootaloo.
"Please, have a seat," Sweetie added, motioning to an empty cushion beside the large table in the center of the room.
Taking her seat, Far Travel surveyed the room. It was well built, but very spartan. It felt like a cross between a ranger station and children's club house. The table in front of her was covered in a seemingly random assortment of maps, charts, and innumerable papers. Glancing closer at one of the papers near her seat, she realized it was actually one of the reports her team had sent to the Queen. Perhaps these three really were involved in some way.
"So," Sweetie Belle began, taking the lead. "As you can see, we've been keeping up with your team's reports, but Celestia said you've found some more definitive answers recently?"
Far Travel craned her neck to rummage through her saddle bags, pulling several large stacks of papers out with her magic and putting them on the table. "That's the bulk of the research and theories involved so far."
Scootaloo leafed through the edge of one stack, giving a soft whistle. "That's a lot of reading."
"Yes, well," Far Travel said, still uncertain why she was answering to three young mares. "The executive summary is that we've determined that it should be possible to send coherent spells through the artifact, as Princess Twilight originally suggested."
"Actually," Scootaloo said. "That was Sweetie's idea. Twilight was about to destroy the thing and Sweetie stopped her."
"Really? The paper I was sent as part of the original instigation of the team was from the Princess herself."
"Don't worry about it," Sweetie said. "I really just had a vague idea about using them as a conduit at first. Twilight's the one that helped me refine it before we took it to Celestia and asked for investigation."
Far Travel nodded politely, trying to remember the details of that paper. There had been other attributions on it, but she'd forgotten them quickly after the curiosity about the main concept had taken her.
"So," Sweetie continued. "That's great then! If we can actually maintain coherency, then we've got a real shot at this."
Scootaloo raised a hoof. "Sorry, question from a non-unicorn here. Remind me why 'coherent' is important? I thought the plan was just to blast magic through the thing to hit the Hole from the inside."
Smiling, Sweetie Belle answered. "Right now, the obelisk just sucks in all magic, right?" Scootaloo nodded. "Well, it's not exactly elegant about it. It basically mixes it up a lot in the process. Think turbulence in an airflow. When it comes out the other end, it's just raw energy, not an actual spell."
Scootaloo's eyes widened as the analogy connected. "Oh, gotcha. But if you can get an intact, coherent spell through it, then it can actually do something on the other end. Attack or hurt Nemesis in some way, right?"
"Unfortunately, it's not that simple," Far Travel amended. "The distance to the Hole means the magic starts to decohere naturally anyway. Additionally, interference from other channeling artifacts seems to effectively wash out the signal as well. Again, like Princess Twilight suspected."
"So?" Apple Bloom said. "We guessed that already. We just gotta get a bunch of 'em together, set 'em up in proper phase with each other, and boost the signal that way."
Far Travel smiled. Perhaps these three young mares really did understand the problem. She continued, "That's where I have some good news and some bad news. We—or rather, other teams that the Crown sent to search—may have located another two artifacts. That's the good news."
"Dare I ask about the bad?" Sweetie said.
"Of course the bad news is multi-part," Scootaloo said, rolling her eyes.
"First," Far Travel continued, shooting an annoyed glare at the pegasus. "The scrying teams believe one may be buried beneath a remote glacier, roughly a few hundred miles north of the Crystal Empire."
"That's in the old Northern Kingdoms, isn't it?" Sweetie Belle asked.
"Almost exactly in the center of it, which makes us think—"
"That it can't possibly be a coincidence," Sweetie finished the thought.
Scootaloo's hoof was in the air again, causing both her friends to look at her with expressions that effectively asked, "Really?"
"What?" Scootaloo said. "History is boring."
"Yeah, until it tries to kill ya." Apple Bloom muttered, flexing her hooves against the dull aches that still lingered from the injuries she'd inflicted on herself to escape.
"Come on, Scoots," Sweetie said. "I know you remember this. The old war between the griffin and caribou? The vanished capital? The disputed territory? Celestia establishing the Crystal Empire as a buffer between the two?"
"Oh, those Northern Kingdoms," Scootaloo said, faking understanding. "Why's that bad again?"
Sweetie Belle sighed, but resisted the urge to actually bang her head on the table. Scootaloo's "selective intelligence" was always a bit trying, but she soldiered on anyway. "The caribou and griffins fought for something like a thousand years over what, to all outside observers, seemed to be just an empty region of lifeless ice and rock, until Celestia stepped in and built the Crystal Empire to force the two apart. Now we're discovering there's an ancient evil artifact right in the middle of that 'empty' region. See how that might be bad?"
"Okay, okay, I get it now."
"You said they found two?" Apple Bloom said, turning back to Far Travel.
"Yes," Far Travel continued. "The other was pinpointed to within a few miles of a jungle river south of the Zebralands."
"But that's good, ain't it?" Apple Bloom asked. "We're close allies with the Zebras."
"The bad news is the past tense. When the team finally got to the location, they found an ancient temple, that, despite cultural and architectural differences, was very similar to the one in Saddle Arabia. But where the obelisk should've been was an empty hole. All around it were signs of recent excavation."
"Somepony stole it?" Scootaloo said, astonished.
"It looks that way. The team's next attempts at locating it indicated it likely went down river, but no vessel large enough ever turned up at the coastal port where the river ends. All attempts to pinpoint the artifact since have failed."
All the ponies around the table were silent a moment while the full implications set in. It wasn't just going to be traps and ancient spells fighting for Nemesis. Somepony or group out there was actively working against them it seemed.
"As you can imagine," Far Travel continued. "We're now rather concerned about the security of the known obelisk. Ideally, we'd like to bring it back to Equestria, both for protection, and so it can be more easily studied. Additionally, if and when we recover more artifacts, we'll need to move them to some central location anyway, in order to try using them in a phased array."
"Sounds like a good idea," Apple Bloom concurred. "I take it there's some kinda problem though?"
Far Travel nodded. "The sand around the artifact is extremely unstable. Normally that wouldn't be an issue; a few trained unicorns could easily hold the sand back while the object was lifted. Of course, magic use anywhere near this particular object is impossible though."
"Don't have to remind us of that," Scootaloo said, unconsciously flexing her recently healed wing.
"Sorry," Far Travel said. "I forget that must've been a rather horrible experience for you all."
Apple Bloom's mind went back to the dull pain in her forehooves. They'd taken the brunt of the damage on her climb out. The Hole's influence meant she'd been unable to heal herself rapidly like she would have before. She never regretted—even for a second—her painful choice of escape method, but the lingering pains were a constant reminder of just how close they'd come to death yet again. This unicorn didn't know the half of it. "We lived, that's what counts."
Far Travel continued, "We brought in several earth ponies experienced with mining and similar professions, but none had dealt with loose sand like that before. Every attempt to excavate and remove it with purely mundane efforts has failed so far. The sand just fills back in or collapses before we can free it. At this point, we're out of ideas. The Queen seemed to think you might be able to help with that."
"Hmm..." Sweetie Belle pondered the problem. "So you need to move a lot of sand rapidly, before it can slough back in, and do it without any use of magic?"
"Oh!" Scootaloo raised her hoof out of habit. "What if you just blow it up? Plant a bomb down there, it'd blast a ton of sand out almost instantly!"
"I fear explosives may damage the artifact."
"Oh, right. Gotta keep it intact. Hmm..." The pegasus tapped a hoof on the table for a moment before jumping again. "The Tea Kettles!"
"What?" Far Travel asked.
"Get a couple of the mark three Kettles around the edge and just start blasting."
"Ya know..." Apple Bloom lifted her head in thought. "That might work, but again, I think ya might end up damagin' the artifact with all that sand blasting around inside the well."
"Yeah, you're right," Scootaloo agreed, sitting back down. "Even the mark one was eating through the backstop in those early tests, and that was without anything more than ambient dust."
Far Travel now found herself completely out of the loop, and getting frustrated. She was about to ask what a tea kettle had to do with excavation when Apple Bloom spoke up again.
"I know who can help. Sky Chaser!"
"I was just thinking the same thing," Sweetie Belle said. "I'm sure he can find a few students that wouldn't mind a field trip to Saddle Arabia."
"Oh yeah," Scootaloo said. "That's probably a much safer option."
Far Travel looked around, now more confused than ever. "Who's Sky Chaser?"
Apple Bloom smiled. "An old friend of mine. He's been livin' up in Cloudsdale for the past few years, though..." She remembered that Cloudsdale had been evacuated, and what remained of the pegasi city was now disintegrating in a field outside the capital. "Well, I guess he's in Canterlot for the time bein'. That's where you're stayin', right?"
"Umm, yes." Far Travel said, uncertain where this was going. "The Queen was gracious enough to provide accommodations at the castle."
"Perfect! That's where I usually crash in Canterlot. I got a sneaky feelin' Sky Chaser's gonna be in the castle somewhere too, if I know him."
"You 'usually crash' at the castle?" Far Travel wasn't sure what to think of these ponies who apparently treated the capital of the entire Equestrian nation as their personal hosteling arrangements.
"Well," Apple Bloom said. "I mean ah sleep there. Not like, actually crash, crash."
"Yeah," Scootaloo laughed. "We leave that to Rainbow Dash and Applejack."
Apple Bloom chuckled at the joke before moving to glance out a window. "I figure we got plenty of light left, so no reason we can't head out now. 'Less ya had somethin' else to do in Ponyville first?"
"Well, no. My only business here was with you," Far Travel said, still confused.
Apple Bloom turned to her friends. "And I'm guessin' you two ain't feelin' an overnighter in Canterlot?"
"I'd actually like to go over these field notes Far Travel brought," Sweetie Belle said, turning through the papers on the table.
"I'm coaching the Crusader flight camp in the morning," Scootaloo said. "So unless you really need to me to come, I'd rather not have to wake up that early to fly back."
"No worries," Apple Bloom said. "Ya don't mind me takin' the Walrus, do ya Sweetie?"
"No, that's fine. I thought I might hang out with Rarity tonight, but I don't mind the walk to town."
"Cool." Apple Bloom darted to a side room, and returned a moment later with a pair of saddle bags. "Ready to go?" she asked Far Travel, as she walked toward the back porch.
"Aren't the stairs that way?" Far Travel asked, pointing toward the front door.
"Yeah, but the Lumbering Walrus is moored off the back deck."
Far Travel looked through the doors as Apple Bloom opened them, and her jaw dropped. "You have your own airship?"
"Eeyup," Apple Bloom said, as she dropped her bags on the longboat-sized deck of the ship. "It ain't purty, and it ain't that fast, but sure beats hoofin' it all the way to Canterlot."
Far Travel came to a stop on the porch and stared up in awe. The balloon portion appeared to be a natural canvas color, slightly yellowed from sun and age. It was a pointed cylinder, maybe sixty feet long, and fifteen in diameter. On it were painted crudely stenciled versions of the three Crusader's cutie marks. Slung beneath it with ropes was a wooden deck, about fifteen feet long and six or so wide, that wouldn't look out of place on a nautical boat, though there was only a foot or two of hull beneath it, presumably to save weight. At the rear was a propeller attached to some sort of metal engine, which Apple Bloom was currently filling with a hose connected to a barrel mounted on the railing of the porch.
"Don't worry," Apple Bloom said. "It's just water for the steam. Ain't flammable or nothin'." When the tank was full, she hung up the hose, and began untying the ropes that held the gondola to the porch. The deck of the craft slipped free and rose a few inches up against the loosened ropes. "Nope, still a tad light. Gimme a minute."
Far Travel watched as the young mare moved to the front of the craft and began filling some apparently below-deck tank with what looked like more water.
"Okay, that looks about right," Apple Bloom said, noting the relative slack in the mooring ropes as the deck sunk back level with the porch. She untied the ropes, then pushed the ship gently away from the porch with a hoof. The airship drifted easily outward from the tree as Apple Bloom went to the engine and twisted a small valve-like wheel.
"It'll take a minute to heat up," Apple Bloom said. "But the breeze is goin' the right way, so might as well drift while we wait."
Far Travel just looked around in shock. This morning, she'd been rather perturbed that Queen Celestia had ordered her to take her findings to three young mares she'd though of as just newspaper novelties. But these Cutie Mark Crusaders apparently had the resources to maintain a castle-like headquarters at the top of thousand foot tree, free reign of the castle—at least enough to presume upon it for lodgings—and their own airship.
"Where did you get an airship?" Far Travel finally asked.
"Ah built it," Apple Bloom said. "Well, technically all three of us did. But it was mostly my project. The Walrus is slow, but it's all that's left. Scoots crashed the last of the big aeroplanes during the attacks, and the really fast stuff... well, it don't hold up so well without magic."
Far Travel shook her head and rubbed her eyes, overwhelmed with all the jargon that'd been soaring just over her head since she arrived at the infernal tree. "I give up," she said. "The Queen told me I'd be surprised at you three, but I'm not just surprised, I'm lost."
Apple Bloom was silent for a moment, unsure how to respond. "I'm sorry," she finally said. "We weren't tryin' to be difficult, I promise. What's confusin' ya?"
"Hold that thought," Apple Bloom said, noting the steam starting to pour from the vent on the engine. "Just one second, promise."
That was it, Far Travel thought. This was just ridiculous. She was supposed to deliver academic reports on an ancient magic artifact, and somehow she'd been shanghaied onto an airship, and wasn't quite sure how.
Apple Bloom closed the vent, and adjusted another valve, before leaning out and giving the propeller a good, swift spin. It caught, and the engine began to putter along, with small puffs of steam emitting from some lower exhaust on the engine. She twisted the throttle, and the propeller picked up speed and started pushing the ship forward.
"Okay," Apple Bloom said. "Sorry about that. We're on our way now though, so what was it ya were sayin'?"
"I was just saying that I have absolutely no idea what's been going on for the past ten minutes. One moment, we're talking about excavating and locating the artifacts, next thing I know, you're all talking about tea kettles! What does a tea kettle possibly have to do with excavation?"
"Well, it's not actually a—"
"And how in the world is this pegasus friend of yours going to help dig it out?"
"Well, Sky Chaser's not actually a—"
"And how in the unholy depths of tartarus does some young mare like you, barely out of schooling in some hickville town, have her own airship, get away with calling the Queen by her given name, and presume to simply 'crash' at Canterlot castle without so much as a letter of notice?"
Apple Bloom was caught completely off guard by the outburst of vitriol. She clenched her jaw as her nostrils flared. The rest of her body was unmoving, the only sign of change two spots of now-decaying wood growing in size beneath her forehooves. She fixed Far Travel with a stare that needed no translation. It quite clearly said, "You have three point seven seconds to make this okay, or something very interesting is going to happen."
To her credit, Far Travel's forehooves both clamped over her muzzle almost instantly, her own mind astonished at her outburst. "I'm so sorry! I didn't mean that, I swear!"
Apple Bloom continued to stare, though the decay stopped growing.
"I... I'm sorry," Far Travel continued. "I've been awake for three days I think, and I just can't take any more surprises. Please, forgive me?"
Closing her eyes, Apple Bloom took a couple of deep breathes, then sighed. She'd been there herself, plenty of times. Sometimes there were just days where you snapped. "It's okay," she finally said. "Everypony gets one mulligan. But don't talk of presumption. You don't know me, or Celestia for that matter."
"I'm sorry," Far Travel said, her eyes still wide with fear and guilt. "I just... I..."
"Ya think 'cause I talk all country-like, that I'm some bumpkin from 'hickville' and shouldn't be included when dealing with important stuff like the artifacts."
"Well, I didn't say—"
"Miss Far Travel," Apple Bloom said, shifting her accent to the erudite Manehatten that she'd picked up over the years, both from Rarity and visiting her cousin Babs. "I am perfectly capable of conversing in a tone you might consider refined and dignified. The fact that I do not normally do so is because I am not, as a rule, embarrassed about where I come from, or the ponies I associate with. I am, at heart, an earth pony from the country, and I speak as I am most comfortable. It is your fault, and no other, if you allow such a simple thing as dialect to influence your opinion of a pony's intelligence or worth."
"I really didn't mean to—"
"I'm not finished," Apple Bloom said, stamping a hoof with a firm, but not obnoxious, gesture. "You asked how I presume to call Celestia by her given name? That one is simple. She has asked me to do so. Queen Celestia is one of the wisest, kindest, and most loving ponies I have ever met. I am honored and humbled beyond measure to have her consider me a friend, and in turn, I would not deny that friendship for the world. I call her 'Celestia' because I sincerely believe that she wishes me to do so—that she wishes me to behave as her friend, not her subject, because she has so many of the latter, and so few of the former. But do not think for a second that lessens my devotion or loyalty. I would gladly die for Queen Celestia. Not because she is Queen, but because she is my friend, and because I believe with all my heart that whatever path she has committed herself, her life, or the entire nation to, is absolutely worth the sacrifice."
Far Travel opened her mouth to speak, but closed it when Apple Bloom held up a hoof for silence.
"Lastly," Apple Bloom continued. "You asked how I come to be in possession of my own airship. As I said, I built it myself, with help from my friends. Perhaps that is insufficient though. If so, you should know I didn't just build it; I designed it. I don't mean just the paint, or some minor tweaks, but from the ground up. The integrated water ballast tanks? My design. The two-axis rudder? My design. The damn engine itself, too. Mine. It runs on Equium. Perhaps you've heard of that? It was discovered by Sweetie Belle, who you just met. Pretty much every train and other steam engine in Equestria runs on it these days. I built the first one though, when I was still in that 'hickville' school."
Far Travel didn't know what to think, much less say. The claims were, generally speaking, outrageous. Yet the tone of this young mare left little-to-no room for doubt. And hadn't the Queen herself sent her here? She'd made a horrible mistake in her assumptions, and she knew it. There was nothing left but to apologize, both often and profusely. "I'm sorry! I really am!"
"I know," Apple Bloom said. "You didn't really know who you were talking to, or what the real situation was before. You were thrown out of your comfort zone and you reacted instinctually, rather than logically. That's why you get the mulligan."
"Thank you," Far Travel said.
"But know that the lecture you just got is why you don't get a second. You no longer have any excuse for ignorance, or for acting like an ass."
Nodding, Far Travel said only, "Understood."
"What do you say we start over then?"
"Umm, yes please?"
"Howdy!" Apple Bloom said, smiling and extending a hoof as she switched back to her normal accent. "Mah name's Apple Bloom!"
"Pleased to meet you?" Far Travel said, somewhat timid after the sudden change in both accent and attitude.
"You too, miss. Now, I think ya were wonderin' just what Sky Chaser could offer, and what in the world Tea Kettles had to do with excavatin' in the sand. Curiously enough, the history of the two are pretty well tangled."
"I can't say I'm surprised," Far Travel said, putting on a smile.
Apple Bloom smiled in return, as she leaned into the tiller a bit to compensate for a slight crosswind. "I reckon we've got a bit o' time until we reach Canterlot, so the first thing ya should know, the Kettles we were talkin' about ain't the normal kitchen implements yer probably thinkin' of. They're actually a larger version of a device my friend Scootaloo originally called the 'Tea Pot'...