• Published 26th Jun 2013
  • 3,807 Views, 60 Comments

Sky Pirates of Equestria: Phoenix Flight - Aquaman



In a world where magical airship travel has directed and defined life in Equestria for centuries, the RES Corona is the most dangerous ship in the Equestrian Navy. A cocksure band of six unlikely pirates begs to differ. AU, technically post-S3.

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Part 1

Captain Salt O’Thearth of the Royal Equestrian Aeronautical Navy was, by his own declaration, not a pony to be trifled with. Despite the ignoble curse of having been born an earth pony, he had always longed to travel the Seven Streams like the sky sailors of yore, braving the dangers of airship flight and proudly carrying the Princesses’ flag to any place they might direct him. In his adulthood, that dream translated into a fierce sense of loyalty in his duties towards the Equestrian monarchy and his vessel, the RES Corona, as well as an intense loathing for anything or anypony that might seek to threaten either.

And he had dealt with many such things over the span of his illustrious career in the Navy: dragon attacks, rogue phoenixes, griffon raiders, and more than a few nasty tribes of cloud gremlins. Among all his adversaries, though, there was one that never failed to set his blood boiling, that he always swore to do everything in his power to eradicate, that even now forced his teeth to clench and his eyes to narrow as the syllables of their despicable name slithered across his mind:

Pirates.

The scourge of the skies, the stain on Equestria’s noble flag, the thorn in the side of every captain to ever lift a spyglass to his eye and see the perverse design of the skull and crosswings waving in the distance. They were, without exception, a vicious and contemptible lot: unsightly, uncouth, and dispossessed of even the slightest sense of honor, common morality, or personal hygiene. They were bloodthirsty brutes that would seek to pollute the skies with their presence as far as their ragtag floating tubs could take them, and he had sworn an oath to the Princesses that he would hunt down, capture, or kill—not necessarily in that order—any and all of them he could find.

So even as the prow of his schooner skirted the tops of twilit clouds and the orange crescent of the setting sun slipped behind the port bow, he still stood watch on the Corona’s fo’c’sle by the base of her bowsprit, idly watching his pocketwatch and waiting for nightfall to stretch the shadows under the mainsail all the way over the top deck. When the moon was out, the pirates were about, and he would fall from the heavens with his ship and all his crew before he let the likes of them take it from him.

The second hand ticked forward to cover the tiny golden “12” at the top of his watch, and the delicate patter of horseshoes on wood behind him broke his concentration. Salt turned his head slightly and watched as Diamond, his chief steward and newfound confidant, made her way to his side, her violet mane tied up in a neat bun behind her head with only a single stray strand hanging past her snow-white horn and over her eyes. Neither of them acknowledged the other’s presence beyond a simple nod and half a smile on his part, but her mere proximity was enough to make the captain feel at ease. Diamond seemed to have that effect on most of the colts in the crew. It was one of the reasons she’d fit in so well even after only two weeks on deck.

“Still on guard, Captain Salt?” she said, following his gaze with her own and smiling to herself as if the question were her own private joke.

“Never off, Miss Diamond,” Salt replied. “A skyship captain never sleeps.”

“And a watched sun never sets, darling,” Diamond gently reminded him. “We haven’t seen tip nor tail of another ship since we left Moneighco. Do come inside, it’s getting awfully chilly.”

Salt snuck a glance over at his companion and smirked. He’d probably be cold too, if he were wearing a silky midnight-blue dinner gown instead of his captain’s vest and jacket. Though he had to admit, the dress did fit her slender form in quite a ravishing way.

“Don’t worry about me,” he said. In response, Diamond cocked her eyebrow and walked around Salt’s front, brushing her tail under his chin before heading back in the direction she came.

“Who said I was worried about you?” she called back just before descending the stairs to the top deck. Salt made no attempt to hide his smile this time, and with only a small bit of reluctance, he turned on his heel and followed the lady’s lead.

The top deck of the Corona wasn’t very crowded at this time of night. In fact, aside from the pegasus in the crow’s nest and the cabin colt swabbing the deck beneath it, it was completely empty. That suited Salt just fine. He’d been meaning to manufacture just such an opportunity to spend some time alone with Lady Diamond, and he couldn’t have asked for a better night for it. There was a steady breeze from the east, a full moon on the rise just barely visible behind the captain’s quarters on the stern, and a few pinpricks of light blooming overhead in a sky stained creamy shades of pink and gold. It was perfect. She was perfect. And tonight, he intended to make it known to her how perfect she made him feel.

“May I suppose you put on that dress to impress me?” he said as they passed by the midsail mast. The corner of Diamond’s mouth twitched up, and Salt could’ve sworn he saw a little extra swing in her hips over the next few steps.

“If it pleases you,” she answered, giving a polite nod to the cabin colt as they passed him by. Salt thought he felt the deckhand’s eyes dart towards him under the shadowy brim of his hood, but as soon as he glanced back, the colt’s attention was on his work again.

“Would it please you to know that it worked?” he asked once they reached the door to his quarters. Diamond paused, her hoof half-raised to the knob, and gave him a look that said far more than any of her words that followed.

“It may,” she said. She raised her hoof the rest of the way to open the door, and suddenly Salt couldn’t take any more. With the confidence befitting of a sky captain and gentlestallion, he lifted his own forehoof and wrapped it around Diamond’s, gently pulling it away from the door and towards the breast pocket of his jacket.

“Miss Diamond, I don’t wish to be obtuse about this matter, so instead I'll be blunt,” he said, watching her face closely for any sign that she wasn’t catching on to his intent. So far, so good.

“You... inspire me,” he went on. “You represent everything I strive to protect in my service to Equestria: honor, dignity, elegance... beauty.”

“Oh, stop it, Salt,” she replied, though with a playful air that filled him with even more conviction.

“No, you are beautiful,” he said, “and I won’t stand for another day of pretending otherwise.”

Diamond’s eyes were watering; she didn’t know what to think or how to feel. He hadn’t felt this alive in years. “Lady Diamond...” Salt said. He could feel his heartbeat now, hammering against his ribs in complete opposition to his outward composure. “May I ask... that is, would you do me the honor of... of...”

“Vessel ahoy! Incoming schooner off the starboard bow!”

The echoing call from up above the deck settled heavy in the pit of Salt’s stomach, in precisely the way that happy little bubbles of affection and good cheer don’t. With his mood soured and the moment already swept away, all he could hope was that Diamond wouldn’t think less of him for the rude interruption from the pegasus in the crow’s nest, who he was sure would be extremely good at peeling potatoes before they sailed back into port in Canterlot. Thankfully, she seemed to be more amused than put out.

“To be continued?” she asked as the various other members of Salt’s crew began to poke their heads out from belowdecks.

“To be continued,” he grumbled, motioning for his confused soldiers to hurry up and get on deck already before he strangled the lot of them. “I don’t suppose you’ve seen my...”

Before he could finish it, his question was answered: seemingly from nowhere, Diamond produced his captain’s tricorne and placed it atop his head, the aura of her magic tickling against his scalp for a moment before she released her hold on it.

“Did you steal this from my quarters?” he asked, his voice high and breathy as if he were on the verge of laughter. In response, Diamond smirked again.

“Among other things,” she answered with a wink. Before he could tease her back about what that was supposed to mean, she placed a hoof on his shoulders and turned him towards the starboard side of the ship, where most of his crew had already gathered. After allowing himself one more moment to let out a sigh and mope, Salt straightened himself up and strode towards them, the crowd parting for him as he made his way forward.

By the time he reached the railing, the telltale flap of wings above him had announced the arrival of the lookout. Wordlessly, she handed him her spyglass and pointed towards a misshapen brown mass on the horizon, about half a mile away and maybe two hundred yards lower in the sky. Balancing the glass between his hooves and bracing his waist on the railing, he lifted himself up on his hind legs and sighted down their target.

“One of ours, sir?” the soldier to his left asked.

“Moving too slow,” the lookout said with a shake of her head. Her head and most of her face was covered with a dark gray hood meant to keep out the cold, but enough of her eyes were visible to make it clear that she was concerned. “And she’s not flyin’ our colors either.”

A familiar flame lit in Salt’s heart, and as he tilted the glass up towards the top of the other ship’s main mast, it only grew larger. Maybe tonight wouldn’t be a complete loss after all. A few tense, electrifying seconds passed as he tried to get a good view of the symbol patterned onto the vessel’s solid black flag, and soon enough he finally got it. A gust of wind stretched the banner out for a splitting moment, but by the time it flattened again Salt had seen all he needed to see: the bone-white design of an equine skull, imprinted over two skeletal pegasus wings crossed into a V.

“No,” Salt said, snapping the glass closed as a smile spread across his face. “No, she is not.”

He slapped the glass back into the lookout’s chest and turned to his first mate. “Kill thrust and put us on an intercept course,” he said. “We’ll broadside the scoundrels before they even realize we’re coming.”

The first mate, taken off-guard by the sudden order, fluttered his wings and cleared his throat. “Cap’n, uh... you sure that’s a good idea?” he said. “We got a lotta valuable cargo on board, and... well, chasin’ after pirates don’t seem like a good way’a protectin’ it.”

Salt rolled his eyes and gestured back towards the pirate ship. “There’s no movement on deck and no forward lights. They’re sitting ducks.”

“Or they’re layin’ a trap.”

“A trap that another of the Princesses’ vessels may not be as prepared for,” Diamond commented, her eyes darting around the ship as the crewmembers who hadn’t spoken up sheepishly avoided her gaze. As far as Salt was concerned, he might as well have had Celestia herself tell him to go forth and conquer, and with an extra hint of pride in his voice, he repeated his order to the first mate. After glancing back and forth between Salt and Diamond, he let out a sigh and nodded to the lookout, who took wing up to the quarterdeck and landed by the thick-bearded unicorn manning the rudder.

A few whispers and an incredulous look later, the navigator confirmed the order with a shrug and yanked back the biggest of many levers planted in the floor next to the wheel. Immediately, the magical force field propelling the ship—a constant hum outside the ship’s hull that every member of the crew had grown accustomed to filtering out—sputtered and shut off, leaving the whole ship swathed in unnatural, unnerving silence. The residual levitation enchantments would keep them afloat long enough to sneak up on the pirate vessel, and the massive cloth sails overheard that funneled energy from the sun into the propulsion spells would function well enough to steer them in close enough for an attack. It was a classic pirate tactic, and now Salt had a perfect opportunity to use it against them. The irony, he thought to himself with a chuckle, could not be overlooked.

“Bring us to port,” he muttered to the first mate, trusting him implicitly to spread the order around to the crew. Sure enough, it wasn’t but a few moments before the sails swiveled and the deck slanted slightly down and to the left, each colt on deck manning a rope in the rigging in order to swing the Corona in a gentle descending arc around their target’s stern. The pirate vessel made no change in its plodding course, and showed no signs of life on deck; in fact, if you’d asked Salt about it, he’d had given you long odds that the ship would even stay afloat long enough to be attacked. Greasy black burns and pockmarks from cannon fire marred the rotting hull, and whatever parts of the sails weren’t full of holes looked to have been darned out of ratty blankets and old socks. They might as well just ram the beast, cleave it clean in two, and be done with it.

Still, though, there were standards to aeronautical warfare, and even an encounter with a lowly pirate ship demanded that Salt stick to them. “Level out and maintain speed,” he ordered as they pulled up alongside the plodding vessel, their hulls faintly crackling as the outer fringes of their propulsion magic began to mix together. “Man starboard guns, load to disable and wait for my command.”

Like clockwork, six ponies tied down their lines and peeled off from the rigging, spreading apart so that each one could operate one of the sleek iron cannons slotted into gaps in the starboard railing. A few adjustments and impromptu calculations later, all six cannons were primed and aimed at the pirate ship’s main deck, where they’d tear through the masts and shatter the contact shield around the hull, leaving the vessel dead in the sky. Another round after that, and there’d be nothing but sawdust left to bury.

A feminine sigh drew Salt’s attention away from the pirate ship and towards the mare by his side, who was gazing at the scene around her with girlish excitement sparkling in her eyes. “Is this really how you deal with pirates, Captain Salt?” she asked in a low, enraptured whisper. Salt cocked his brow and straightened out his stance.

“You’re about to find out, Miss Diamond,” he said. He turned back the other way towards his first mate and met the stallion’s eyes, then faced himself forward again and nodded.

“Fire.”

In perfect royal form, the six starboard cannons fired as one harmonious mass, the barrage of sound rolling over the deck like a peal of thunder from a vengeful god. The pirate ship’s masts splintered like matchsticks and tumbled towards the sea three thousand feet below, and the deck keeled hard over to starboard from the force of the buckshot peppering the vessel’s hull. To its credit, though, the miserable craft never quite gave up the ghost altogether; by the time the echo of cannonfire had faded away and the metallic scent of gunpowder hung heavy in the air, the pirate ship was still afloat, though not by much more than a few dregs of magic and pure dumb luck.

“Reload, heavy ordnance,” Salt ordered. “Finish them off.”

As the crew did as he commanded, Salt felt Diamond brushing her hoof against his sleeve again, though this time her eyes had a bit less of a gleam to them. “N-now, darling,” she said, “there’s really no need for that, is there? I mean, they’re completely helpless in that state, and what’s more I’m sure the Princesses would pay quite handsomely for a captured pirate crew.”

Salt laughed, and brought Diamond in closer with a comforting hoof around her shoulder. As dauntless as she was in port and at sail, he was hardly surprised to find a mare of her disposition shaking over a matter such as this. “They would, milady,” he said. “And they’d pay just as well for a dead one.”

His hoof dropped back to the deck, and his eyes narrowed. “And I don’t intend to give these rats a single hole they can slip away to safety through. Fire when ready, gentlecolts. Strike hard and true, and let the skies be rid of this menace once and for—”

“Movement on the deck, cap’n!” came a shout from the quarterdeck. “They’re comin’ out!”

Blast that lookout to Hades, Salt growled inside his head, though mercifully he was able to hold his tongue long enough to see what the mare was yelling about. Sure enough, the rickety door to the pirate ship’s cabin had popped open while the cannons were being reloaded, and soon enough a single unicorn in a sea-blue waistcoat and tricorne came trotting out onto the deck waving a filthy white kerchief wrapped in a violet magical haze.

For a moment, confusion overtook him: even after several seconds, no other crewmembers came up onto the other vessel’s deck, and the one who had come up wasn’t even a stallion, but a somewhat skinny mare with a lavender coat and navy blue mane. The whispers among his crew further convinced him that something else was amiss, and it only took one closer look at the mare on deck for him to realize what it was. Perhaps it wasn’t in his nature to grant mercy to any crook or criminal that prowled the open sky, but as the hairs on the back of his neck stood up and his lips split into a mad grin, he reasoned he could make an exception just this once.

After all, that was his policy in normal circumstances. And this certainly was no normal pirate.

“Prepare a boarding party and put her in chains. Keep her unharmed, if you can,” he told the first mate before turning to Diamond. “I ought to take your advice more often,” he added with another laugh. “I’ve been looking forward to this day for a long time.”

Diamond returned his sentiment with a toothy smile, and Salt watched with glee as a hastily organized squad of infantry extended long planks of wood over the gap between the two ships and boarded the other vessel. True to form, the pirate on the opposite side of the chasm didn’t seem bothered by the intrusion. She even managed a jaunty wave up to the captain before two pairs of cuffs closed around her ankles and a chain tightened between each one. What she lacked as far as the appearance of a pirate went, she certainly made up for in the ego of one. Beneath their roguish, disagreeable façades they were all the same, Salt mused as the unicorn mare was forced to abandon her ship and follow his soldiers back across the planks: all bluster and bravado, with not an ounce of substance to be found once they finally realized they were in over their heads.

“Miss Twilight Sparkle...” he said as the pirate captain’s hooves finally touched down on the Corona’s deck. “Thank you ever so much for joining us. I must say, it’s truly a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

Now that she was closer, Salt could see a bit more clearly the scruffy, disheveled vagrant he’d been expecting to find aboard that wreck of a ship. The boots covering Twilight’s hind hooves were stained and peeling apart, and her waistcoat hardly fit her at all, misshapen and lumpy as it was along her back and sides. Even her tricorne looked ragged, a relic of too many fights in backwater taverns and too many skirts on the verge of a painful, well-deserved demise. And yet, she still had a spring in her step as she was brought before Salt, even going so far as to bow her head like a servant facing a Saddle Arabian sultan.

“Captain Salt O’Thearth, I presume?” she said, lifting her head again with a look of passionate intrigue twinkling in her eyes. “Believe me, sir, the pleasure’s all mine.”

On the outside, Salt maintained his composure, but inside his head he was reeling with laughter. If this mare thought flattery or seduction would buy her freedom, she was sadly mistaken. “You’ve heard of me?” he asked, already trying to guess which feature the filly would latch onto first? His chest? His flank? Stars above, the gleam of nobility and compassion in his eye?

“Oh, yes, of course! I’ve read all of your books.”

Or that. Perhaps the illiterate, disease-ridden pirate would latch onto that first.

“You’ve... beg pardon?” he stuttered, struggling and failing to keep his tone level. Somepony had read his books? And that somepony was a moondamned pirate?

“Are you kidding? I’ve had a copy of Flying Without Wings on my bedside table for ages, and your textbook on battle tactics and aerial maneuvers is a classic! Really underappreciated in its field. Not to mention your contributions to Skyfaring Monthly are the only things worthwhile in any of the back issues.”

“Well, I...”

Salt was unaccustomed to being at a loss for words, but that was precisely the position he found himself in as Twilight beamed up at him with all the enthusiasm of a bespectacled scholar meeting her lifelong hero. The feeling didn’t sit well with him at all, and his mood about the whole ordeal only worsened once Twilight kept talking.

“And I must say, I never would’ve expected a hoof like yours to be so gifted with prose as well!” she said, the crook in her smile taking on a more mischievous tilt. “Of course, I suppose I should refer to you as ‘E.L. Flames’ if I’m going to spout off about your more lascivious works, but for a grizzled old sky captain you certainly have quite the romantic flair...”

“That’s enough out of you, pirate!” Salt yelled, the pinkness in his cheeks only partially due to the volume of his voice. Twilight started as if he’d struck her, and silence reigned over the deck as she spent a few moments seeming to consider something she’d just heard in Salt’s outburst. Whatever she’d noticed, though, she soon evidently decided it wasn’t that important. Her stormy violet eyes cleared up again, and her lips bent down into a slightly offended frown.

“Just passing on a compliment,” she said. “There’s no need for name-calling.”

After a few deep breaths and another moment taken to smooth out his nerves again, Salt responded with an air of practiced indifference. “Why should I call you anything else? That’s what you are, isn’t it?” He pressed his lips together and paused for a moment, spitting out his next word as if it left a bad taste in his mouth. “Pirate.”

Twilight shrugged. “I prefer ‘extralegal entrepreneur’, but I’ve heard worse.”

“Like thieving, irreverent thug?” Salt growled.

Twilight bit her lip in thought for a moment, then gave a quick nod. “Yep.”

Not without a fair bit of surprise in his tone, Salt tried again. “Chaos incarnate?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“The She-Devil of the Skies?”

Now she was smiling, a giddy little gesture that would’ve more befitted a schoolfilly caught with her hoof in the cookie jar than an internationally wanted criminal. “Always thought that one was kinda cool.”

“Scheming, sniveling spawn of the ninth level of Tartarus?”

“Well, I, uh... huh.” Twilight’s eyes drifted off towards the sails, and her brow knitted in stymied concentration. “You know, I think that’s a new one, actually—”

Whatever name you go by, the facts remain,” Salt interrupted. He had little patience for backtalk from even his editor, let alone a wanted criminal. “You are a pirate and a transgressor of Equestrian aerotime law. Do you deny it?”

Twilight’s smile returned as her cheeks went a little pink, and Salt’s blood began to boil. “Guilty as charged there, I suppose,” she said as she threaded the corner of her lip between her teeth.

No matter, Salt told himself. She’ll be singing a different tune once she’s on the dark side of a dungeon door.

“Then by the power vested in me by their Royal Highnesses...”

Salt trailed off in mid-sentence and leveled a fearsome glare at his captive, who up until that point in his spiel had been mouthing along with every word he said. “No, no, keep going,” she said, waving him along with her hoof and giggling. “I love this part.”

In retrospect, saying that his blood was boiling may have been undue exaggeration. If that had truly been the case, he wouldn’t have much liquid left in his body by now. “... Luna and Celestia,” he eventually went on through gritted teeth, “I hereby place you under arrest for the crimes of coercion, extortion, treason against the crown of the highest degree, and aeronautical piracy. You will accompany us back to port in Canterlot, where you will be imprisoned, tried, convicted on all counts, and sentenced to spend the rest of your wretched life in a very small cell behind some extraordinarily thick steel bars. Is that clear?”

Twilight rolled her tongue around in her mouth, appearing to think things over for a moment. “Mmm...” she finally said. “Yeah, I think I’ll pass.”

A quiet murmur of surprise drifted up from the gathered crew, and in Salt’s eyes Twilight’s purple coat flushed a violent shade of red. “Excuse me?”

“It’s a colloquial metaphor. It means I’d rather not do that right now.”

I know what...”

Salt ground his teeth together again and trapped his words in his throat before the rest of them could escape. This was just a lowdown, disrespectful pirate trying to get on his nerves. The last thing he should do in response was indulge her. “What I meant was, I’m not sure what gave you the impression that you had any say in this,” he said, his tone now level and back under his own control.

“Well, according to Article 14-dash-3A of the Equestrian Constitution and the bylaws of the Equine-Griffion Coalition, intercontinental waters and skies are both considered diplomatic safe havens, wherein reasonable cause must be presented and notarized by executive mandate before the forcible boarding and/or occupation of an extranational vessel can occur,” Twilight replied. “And I don’t remember ever seeing a warrant for search and seizure of my ship. Which the rental agreement says I have to return by midnight, actually, so if there’s any way we could clear this up real quick so I don’t have to pay the surcharge, that’d be super.”

The whispering from the crew was even louder this time, possibly due to the fact that a pirate had just recited seemingly from memory something most of them weren’t even capable of reading. By now, though, Salt had picked up on her strategy. It was a clever one, he had to admit: rile him up through any means necessary, enrage him to the point that he would do something stupid or lower his guard, and leave her an open chance to take to her heels and make a break back to her ship. But as quick-witted and well-read as this particular buccaneer made herself off to be, she could only have the upper hoof here if Salt allowed her to. Now that he had his emotions in check, he fancied it time to return her infuriating favor.

“Ah, yes, your ship,” he said. “The one you presume you’ll fly off into the sunset to live for another day of pillaging and debauchery?”

“Something like that. I’m flexible.”

He shifted his gaze back behind Twilight and towards her ship, a split-second before the figurehead lost its titanic struggle with gravity and snapped off. “My, my, she is a beauty, isn’t she?” he went on with a roll of his eyes. “It would be an awful shame if something were to... happen to her.”

If Twilight had any inkling of what he was getting at, she didn’t show it. That just made what he said next all the better.

Fire.

When he had recognized Twilight Sparkle standing on the deck opposite his own, Salt had called off the second artillery barrage that would’ve sent her spiraling down into the deep. Despite that, the starboard cannons were still primed to fire and had been so ever since Twilight had been taken aboard the Corona, and Salt took advantage of that now.

Before Twilight could even so much as widen her eyes, the thunder of the guns had already blasted into her portside hull and straight through out the other side. The junkyard tug’s propulsion spells sputtered and died in staccato bursts of blue and purple fire, and Twilight shuffled around in place just in time to see the decimated remains of her ship drop out of the sky like a rock, multi-colored flames licking at its skeleton until it fell with a colossal splash into the ocean below and broke apart into scrap.

“Well, shoot,” Twilight said after surveying the damage. “There goes my damage deposit.”

“Does that clear things up, Miss Sparkle?” Salt couldn’t resist asking.

“No kidding,” she replied, shooting him an indignant look that really looked more like a pout. “You owe me eighty-five bits and thirty cents. Plus tax.”

“I’ll put it on my tab,” Salt said, his concentration never lapsing even as Twilight did her best to stare him down and intimidate him. She could preen and pose for him all she wanted now, but if she was half as smart as she liked to believe, she had to know that her little game with him was through. And just on the off chance she was too stubborn to admit it, Salt had no qualms about rubbing his victory in. In fact, now seemed as good a time as ever to do just that.

“Oh, how the mighty have fallen,” he said, leisurely stepping closer to Twilight and straightening himself up so his head towered over hers. “Time was, you were a bona fide role model, Miss Sparkle: the personal student of Princess Celestia, a world-renowned scholar of magic and science, a prodigy behind the prow of any ship still strong enough to sail. You and your crew were heroes, known all over Equestria as the ones who vanquished Nightmare Moon and her eternally cursed crew, who locked away the Spirit of Chaos, who saved the Crystal Empire from complete annihilation with nothing but two retired galleons and three working cannons between them.

“As a matter of fact, rumor has it you were even meant to follow in Celestia’s hooves, to be coronated as her equal and as the unquestioned ruler of every ship and schooner that passed through Equestria’s domain. You had everything a pony could ever want, and Princess Celestia loved you like she would her own flesh and blood... and you squandered her affection. You betrayed her.”

He gestured at her raggedy outfit and sneered. “For this.

“For what it’s worth, I thought she took it pretty well,” Twilight said.

“You bit the hoof that feeds, Miss Sparkle,” Salt continued, too invested in the lesson he intended to impart upon everypony in attendance to be distracted by any vapid comments out of a traitor to the crown’s mouth. “You inspired anarchy, insurrection, dishonor and disharmony. And now, what have you to show for it?”

Salt stopped in front of Twilight and nodded to one of the unicorns guarding her, whose horn lit up as he forcibly emptied her pockets and presented her meager belongings to his captain.

“Six bits in change. A spyglass with no lens. A hunk of quartz worth less than the filth you surely found it in,” the captain said, each new piece of junk inspiring a louder snicker from the gathered crew. After tossing the other items onto the deck behind him, he lifted up the fourth—a black-banded hilt stuck inside a lengthy brown scabbard—and yanked it apart to reveal a dull, rust-spotted dagger no more than three inches long.

“I might keep this one, actually. I’ve got some letters in my office I’ve just been dying to open,” he announced to the crew, who responded with uproarious laughter and even a few catcalls and jeers. They’d had bought what their captain was selling, as Twilight almost certainly had as well given her steadily warming glower.

“Simply incredible,” Salt said, shaking his head as he placed himself mere inches from Twilight’s shackled forelegs. “After all your daring escapades and vicious contempt for law and order, this is how you fall: like a common thief. A vagabond. The spitting image of the fate that awaits all those who spill blood for bounty and pride.”

Twilight cocked her brow. “Geez, and I thought you just talked like that in your books,” she muttered.

“Arrogance will get you nowhere,” Salt said with an irreverent wave of his hoof. “You’re out of moves, Sparkle. Time to join the rest of your pawns back in the box.”

With that, he finally turned away and strode back to where Miss Diamond awaited him. After spending far too much time humoring the pirate queen, his eyes were sore for a more pleasing sight. But even after he rejoined his companion, he still couldn’t find peace. Inexplicably, the doomed pirate queen still wasn’t ready to see reason.

“And I repeat again, Captain,” she called out, as he greeted Lady Diamond with upturned lips that soon reversed their course, “I’ll pass.”

“You’ll what?” he snapped at her, once again unable to keep his frustration at bay.

“Oh, for pony’s sake,” she snipped right back. “It’s really not that uncommon of an idiom.”

For a few precious moments, Salt was actually dumbfounded. Would he have to chain her up in the Canterlot Caves himself before it occurred to her that she didn’t have the upper hoof here? “I’m not sure if you’re aware, Miss Sparkle,” he said, each word spoken slowly and deliberately so he’d have a better chance of beating them into her skull, “but you have no other choice. You’re outnumbered and outgunned aboard my ship, and what’s left of your ship is in pieces half a mile below us. The only place you’ll be going anytime soon is with me, to Canterlot, to stand trial and face justice!”

“And you plan on flying me there yourself? On this ship of yours?” she asked.

“That’s correct,” he said. “Now mind your tongue, for Celestia’s sake, or you’ll pass that time tied to its jibboom.”

As he probably should’ve anticipated, Twilight didn’t listen. “So tell me then, Captain,” she said, her glare intensifying with every word, “just how many ponies here can sail this vessel over three hundred miles of torrential trade winds and unpredictable storm fronts?”

Salt ground his hoof against the bridge of his nose, then stepped forward to answer her, at the same time motioning for one of his unoccupied deckmates to go and fetch some rope. “Myself, for one.”

“And your navigator for two, of course. But besides that? Among all these soldiers and all your crew? Anypony?”

Twilight looked around the deck at the rest of the crew, and heard no replies from Salt or anyone else. The irritation and desperation drained from her face, and had her hooves been free to do so, Salt wondered whether she’d have started stroking her chin.

“Huh. That’s interesting.”

Her eyes flicked over to Salt again, then darted up towards the quarterdeck, where the lookout and the navigator still stood watching over the proceedings below.

“That’s very interesting.”

Salt’s body was at war with his mind; his brain was quick enough to understand that something bad was about to happen, but his limbs moved as if he were underwater, as if some intrinsic part of him refused to believe that he’d somehow let Twilight get a step ahead of him. It was a split second of hesitation, and it turned out to be a moment he couldn’t afford to lose. He whipped around to shout up to the navigator, but his warning died in his throat as soon as it had reached it. The lookout already had the blade of a gleaming steel cutlass pressed up under the navigator’s chin, the hilt clipped to her forehoof and her hood thrown back to reveal bright cyan fur and a messy, tomcoltish mane striped with every color of the rainbow.

“All right, eggheads, nobody move!” she shouted. “Show me your weapons and put your hooves where I can see them!”

The jolt of shock in Salt’s chest set every hair on his body on end, but only until he swallowed away his suddenly dry mouth and forced a neutral expression back onto his face. He had to set a proper example for his crew. If they saw him lose his composure, the safety of everyone on board could be in jeopardy. Besides, they were doing a fine enough job losing their heads and shouting up a storm without any input from their captain.

“She’s a pirate?” a soldier yelled.

“That’s impossible!” answered another.

“I thought she was an astronomer!” one of the starboard gunners despondently wailed.

“I’m a mare of many talents,” the lookout—or rather, as Salt now remembered from the latest naval dossier on Equestrian pirate activity, the infamous aerial ace Rainbow Dash—said over the clamor of the crowd below her. The navigator yelped and tried to wiggle his way out of his captor’s grip, and she silenced him again with a hearty shake and a gentle reminder of the razor-sharp sword balanced next to his jugular. “Now back off and shut up before Sparky here gets a crash course in skydiving!”

Given how quickly Miss Sparkle had become far more trouble than she was worth, Salt briefly considered cutting his losses and bargaining for a peaceful parting of their two parties, but the faint smile playing across Twilight’s face was all the convincing he needed to stand his ground. So she’d managed to slip a spy into his ranks. In the grand scheme of things, that changed nothing. He was the captain of the RES Corona, and captains in the Royal Equestrian Aeronautical Navy did not negotiate with pirates.

“Well, soldiers, you heard the mare!” he barked, sweeping his hoof towards the loosely assembled squadron behind him. “Form up and present arms!”

Salt’s order was enough to collect the crew’s attention and force them into an uneasy, perplexed silence, but after a bit of shuffling and mumbling the stallions he’d been talking to caught on to his meaning. In one coordinated movement, the horns of a dozen unicorns flashed as they pulled iron and wood-crafted pistols from holsters strapped to their legs and aimed them up at the two ponies grappling behind the ship’s wheel. Rainbow Dash gritted her teeth and pulled her prisoner closer, but Salt could see well enough in the size of her eyes that she was feeling a little less confident than before.

“Okay, for the record? Not... exactly what I meant by that,” she said, her voice steady but graced with a higher, more girlish pitch this time.

Both Salt and Rainbow now looked towards Twilight, who was seemingly too busy testing and examining the chains around her hooves to have even noticed the recent turn of events. Once Rainbow cleared her throat a couple times and frantically hissed her name, she turned her attention back up to the soldiers pointing huge and extremely deadly weapons at her friend, which finally prompted her to respond.

“Hmm,” she said.

“Any more parlor tricks I should know about, Miss Sparkle?” Salt asked. Behind him, Diamond coughed and fiddled with her mane, her horn gently glowing as she prodded at her elaborately styled coiffure.

“Funny you should ask,” Twilight replied, her gaze directed at the gun-toting soldiers rather than Salt. “You guys might wanna duck.”

On a normal day, the soldiers might’ve have laughed at a pirate who so boldly tried to assert any authority over them. In this particular matter, though, more than one of them was now of the same mind as Salt: Twilight Sparkle was no ordinary pirate. The entire back row hunkered down and covered their heads with a forehoof, leaving just enough room for another pistol to come sailing through the air just inches from their horns. Salt leapt forward, his intent to keep the gun from getting within Twilight’s reach, but soon he saw there was no need. The throw was far too high, and Twilight made no attempt to grab for it.

Instead, the weapon tumbled end over end a few times before stopping a yard or so above the ground, its descent brought to a quite sudden stop by a haze of sky-blue light that had sprung from midair and enveloped it. Out of the corner of his eye, Salt saw Diamond lift the pistol up to eye level, and in spite of the situation, a mixture of relief and amusement squeezed a smile out of him.

“Nice catch, Miss Diamond,” he said. Diamond batted her eyes and gave him a warm smile of her own, then spun the pistol around, pulled back the hammer, and leveled it right between his eyes.

“Thank you, Captain Salt,” she cheerfully replied. Another moment was lost as Salt’s mind sluggishly struggled to grasp at what was happening. Once that moment was gone and Diamond had the business end of the pistol pressed up underneath his chin, the puzzle pieces floating around in his head finally clicked together to form a very unpleasant picture.

“M... Miss Diamond?”

“For what it’s worth, I am truly sorry about all this. It was quite improper of me to be such a tease,” Diamond said, tugging at her mane again with her hoof while her horn held the gun’s barrel steady against his throat. Soon enough, the knot she’d tied it into gave way and her luxurious mane unraveled out to its full length, forming a disheveled halo around her half-moon smile. “And please, call me Rarity.”

“Rar...” he tried to say, but words, like most of his body right now, failed him. Now it was the dumbstruck soldiers with their pistols slack in their magical grips he could see only in the corner of his eye, and behind them the shadowy form of the cabin colt he’d passed by just a few minutes ago, his hind hooves just now meeting the deck after the precisely measured kick that had sent the pistol flying across the deck.

Before Salt could even so much as point in his direction, the cabin colt shrugged a coil of rope off his shoulder and slipped the loose end in between his teeth, the other end tied into a rough approximation of a lasso. A few twirls of his neck later, the rope had found its target: the legs of an unsuspecting soldier directly in front of him, who yelped in surprise as he was yanked back out of line, his gun clattering to the deck. In the same motion, the cabin colt reached down into his empty sud bucket with his free hooves and pulled out two more pistols, these ones built to be strapped to the hooves of somepony who’d otherwise be incapable of holding them.

By the time the rest of the soldiers finally figured out what was going on, the cabin colt had their companion roped like a runaway steer and trapped in his embrace, one gun pointed at the group in front of them and the other at his captive’s head. His hood was jostled out of place as he pulled the rope tighter, and finally fell off entirely to reveal the green eyes, braided blond mane, and petite, rounded muzzle of... another mare?

“Okay, boys, drop ‘em and raise ‘em!” she said—definitely a she, judging by the Dream Valley Peach twang to her voice. “And let’s not have any confusion ‘bout our meanin’ this time, y’hear?”

Between the sights of their crewmate at the mercy of a rough-and-tumble pirate and their captain at the mercy of a mare in a cocktail dress, the other soldiers on deck were all too happy to throw in the towel. As Salt watched in mute fury, the other members of his firing squad let go of their guns and meekly put their hooves in the air, balancing unsteadily on their haunches as sounds of disbelief buzzed around the deck.

“They’re pirates too?” said the first mate.

“That’s improbable!” shouted the mare next to him.

“I thought you were a stallion...” said the trussed-up soldier, his confusion met with a glare from the mare behind him and a snort from the quarterdeck.

“Oh, for cryin’ out loud,” she muttered as Rainbow Dash snickered into the navigator’s shoulder. “It ain’t that hard to tell a cannon from a gunport!”

“And yet you continue to refuse to trim your fetlocks to a respectable length,” Rarity said with a polite little sigh. “Honestly, Applejack, just because we masquerade as criminals doesn’t mean you always have to look the part.”

“Well, maybe it just keeps slippin’ my mind while I’m scrubbing the decks with a toothbrush an’ you’re sleepin’ on imported silk an’ goosefeathers!” Applejack shouted back. “Maybe some mares ain’t so concerned about every stallion that passes ‘em by!”

“Ah don’t even like stallions that way, dude,” Rainbow grunted, her voice a gravelly imitation of Applejack’s accent that cracked apart when she couldn’t hold back another snigger. Even Rarity bit her lip and let her dismissive expression fall away, and Applejack fumed as her cheeks flushed a brilliant shade of scarlet. Before she could tell either of them to hush up and leave her be, though, Twilight took the initiative herself.

“We can argue about gender politics later, girls,” Twilight said. “I think Captain Salt’s about to make an ultimatum.”

And sure enough, that was precisely what Salt proceeded to do.

“Well done,” he said, his voice dripping with the kind of malice that could make even cutthroats and pickpockets sit down and rethink their choices in life. “Oh, bra-vo, Miss Sparkle. You’ve truly outdone yourself this time. I’ve seen all manner of deception and lies among your kind, but planting spies among my crew takes some impressive nerve.”

“Actually, it took five minutes with the manifest and a few drinks at the right Moneighco tavern, but I digress,” Twilight interrupted.

“And now... well, what now, Miss Sparkle? You’ll kill us all and take the Corona by force? I assure you, we’ll be far more trouble than we’re worth. You may be quick and you may be clever, but you are four mares standing against fifty of the finest soldiers and skysailors Equestria had ever known. Those, Miss Sparkle, are some tall odds.”

He paused, then shifted his gaze down and arched his brow. “Especially, as I believe you’ve noticed, given those hoofcuffs on your ankles.”

Twilight had been fiddling with the cuffs the whole time Salt was talking, and gave in again with a sigh once he drew the deck’s attention back towards them. “Magic-dampening enchantments?” she asked.

“Only unlockable by another unicorn,” Salt said. “A willing supply of whom I expect you’ll find in short supply.”

“And as talented as she is with subterfuge, Rarity’s magic isn’t strong enough to handle these cuffs and keep holding that pistol at the same time.” Twilight smiled, and her horn disappeared under the brim of her hat as she dipped her head in a small bow. “Excellent move, Captain Salt. I’d expect nothing less from you.”

Salt chuckled and returned her smile. Finally, a bit of the fire crackling in his stomach was beginning to creep back up into his heart again. He wormed out of the way of Rarity’s pistol, and though she kept it trained on his head the whole time, he took a daring step towards Twilight, and then another. Neither she nor any of her partners in crime did anything to stop him.

“You see, Miss Sparkle, you and all your pirate brethren are... like gunpowder,” he said. “Your sole purpose is violence, your very essence black as night. Your stench clings to everything you pass over, and when a lot of you gather in one place you can make an awfully big mess of things. But once the fuse has gone off and the powder’s burned away, there’s nothing left of you worth saving. You seek out chaos and relish in destruction, but once the fireworks go off, all that remains is smoke and ashes.”

Salt took another step, this one bringing him close enough to Twilight to force a warning cough out of Rarity. Twilight waved her off with a shake of her head, and her eyes never quite made it all the way back over to Salt.

“You ever seen the death of a phoenix, Captain?” she asked, her voice distant as if she were focused on something above and beyond him. “I saw it once. The bird molts for days, dragging out its demise until there’s hardly much left of her but skin and bones. Then, when she decides it’s finally her time to go, she releases all her energy at once and consumes herself in fire. She makes a spectacle of it, burns hot and bright and as quick as she can until she’s just a little pile of ash on the ground. But inside that little pile of ash, something magical happens, and she’s reborn. And once she’s alive again... she’s the most beautiful thing in the world.”

“A charming tale,” Salt said once Twilight’s silence marked the end of her soliloquy. “Meant to teach me a lesson, I presume?”

Twilight blinked twice in rapid succession, then snapped out of her reverie with a baffled expression. “Hmm? No, I just thought it was neat,” she said. “You really should read up on phoenixes sometime. They’re fascinating creatures.”

“And why, of all times, would I give your opinion any credence now?”

Twilight shrugged and looked off towards the sunset again. Only a tiny sliver remained on the horizon. “Just saying. Might be a mistake not to.”

“My only mistake was letting you aboard my ship,” Salt said. He had reached the spot on the deck now where he had left the trinkets from Twilight’s pockets, and without warning he wound up and kicked one of the stray bits hard enough to send it skittering across the deck. Rarity’s eyes tracked its motion for only a breath of a second, but it was long enough for Salt to reach for the scabbard strapped to his waist, clip the sword inside to the bracer on his forehoof, and pull it out to point at Twilight, its tip separated from her nose by only a few sixteenths of an inch.

“And I intend to make up for it right now.”

Even as her friends gasped and Salt’s sword quivered between her eyes, Twilight didn’t look fazed. In fact, the race between her various emotions to see which would take precedence ended in a dead heat between amusement and disbelief.

“Your only mistake?” she asked. When Salt didn’t elaborate, she did. “I mean, it was your first mistake, but not your only one.”

“I’m sure I don’t care to hear about the second,” Salt growled. Twilight glanced over his shoulder at the sun again, then back at him.

“Your second mistake? That would be destroying that ship I came in on.”

Captain Salt stared Twilight down until he was sure her gaze wouldn’t waver again. “And why, pray tell, was a mistake to shoot down your ship?” he hissed.

“Because, Captain Salt O’Thearth,” Twilight answered without batting an eye, “that wasn’t my ship.”

One more time, Twilight turned towards the horizon. The last dregs of the day’s dying lights fell into the sea, sputtered, and faded away.

That is.”

Salt heard it before he even thought to look for it: the low, rumbling hum of an active propulsion spell, vibrating in the deck’s floorboards as if the ship’s passing was squeezing it out of the dusky clouds around them. The noise built constantly until it was almost deafening, until it seemed the clouds would crack apart and dissolve under the strain of the amplified sound. In the end, it was fortunate that he thought so, because it meant he was already looking right at them at the exact moment they did.

The sky split open beneath the Corona’s port side, and the blanket of clouds they’d been sailing through spit out a vessel that defied belief. The ship’s main mast appeared first, its tip dominated by a spotless black flag with a unicorn skull and twin pegasus wings patterned in white over it, and from there Salt’s eyes traveled down—over the spotless sails stretched taut by the wind—and down—past the main deck railing studded with countless precious gems—and down—all the way to a cedarwood hull that had been bronzed and polished to a gleaming shine, where the word HARMONY had been emblazoned in gold leaf just above the keel.

In the time it took Salt to rub his eyes and suck in his first breath in half a minute, the other ship had already leveled out alongside the Corona, its immense magical power allowing it to match their pace with almost impudent ease. Twilight Sparkle’s ship wasn’t just impressive. It was unbelievable. It was staggering. It was massive.

It’s bigger than mine, said the voice in Salt’s head.

Struck dumb as he was by the impossible sight, it took several seconds for Salt to notice that there was movement on the other ship. A lumpy pink blur was racing around the deck, only slowing down once it appeared to notice the captain staring over at it with his jaw agape. It stopped completely for a moment, long enough for Salt to identify it as a frizzy-maned earth pony swaddled in enough bangles and mismatched clothes to sink a seapony, and then hopped over to a gap in the railing and on top of a cannon rolled up inside it—one of several, Salt noted with a sinking feeling in his chest, pointed right at the Corona.

“There’s a cannonball here with your name on it, Salt!” she yelled over at him, her hoof raised and shaking with unrestrained fury. “And I’m gonna keep firing until I figure out which one it is!

While her threat still reverberated in Salt’s ears, the mare let out a loud and lengthy cackle worthy of Nightmare Moon herself, and struck a match she was holding in her teeth against the railing. Faster than Salt would’ve thought equinely possible, she flipped backwards onto the deck and flashed from stern to bow in an instant, leaving eight lit cannon fuses in her wake. Back on the Corona, Twilight rolled her eyes, then shot a sympathetic look towards Salt.

“You guys might wanna duck again,” she said. And even though Salt still couldn’t bring himself to take her words to heart, the rest of his crew harbored no such prejudices.

Hit the deck!” the first mate screamed, himself the first one to dive for cover before the rest of the deck followed suit. For a moment, Captain Salt and Twilight were the only two left standing.

“And, for the record, that was your third,” Twilight said quietly.

“Avast, ye scurvy dogs!” the crazy pink mare shouted over Salt’s thought of a retort. “FIRE!

The report of the Harmony’s guns ripped through the air, and the Corona reeled as the deck bucked upward and tossed Salt into the air like a rag doll. Splinters pelted his coat as he landed hard by the starboard railing, and instinct forced him to clamp his hooves around it as the bombardment continued, the other ship seeming to reload its cannons as quickly as they fired. He tucked his head into his chest and waited for the shuddering, plunging sensation of his ship losing power and falling down to the earth he’d spent so much of his life above.

But when the whistling keen in his ears died down and the deck laid still beneath him, his eyes opened to a sky dotted with puffs of cumulus clouds and streaks of cirrus, with not a spot of land or sea in sight. The Corona was still afloat. He was still alive.

And Twilight Sparkle was starting to talk again.

“All righty, then,” she said breezily, stepping daintily out of the hoofcuffs which now lay unlocked and abandoned on the deck below her. Salt caught a glimpse of Rarity just in time to see her grab her gun off the deck and point it at him again before Twilight stepped in and blocked his view. “Now that things are a little less hectic around here, I’d like to go ahead and clarify a few things.”

Twilight paused for a moment as she scanned over the deck, her eyes lighting up once she found her spyglass stuck in a coil of rope near the mizzenmast. “Despite what you may think, I hold quite a sizable appreciation for the art of shipbuilding, Captain Salt,” she said as she stuck the glass back inside her vest pocket, doing the same with her piece of broken quartz once she found that a few yards away. “And you always struck me as somepony who’s of a similar mind. So when I found out you’d be captaining the Corona while we committed a horrible sacrilege against the royal crown and goodly society in general in robbing it, it seemed an awful shame that two discerning ponies like you and I would spend all day destroying each other’s pride and joy over a bunch of gemstones and a few gold bars.”

After a few times jogging back and forth across the deck and a tight squeeze underneath a pile of displaced provision barrels, Twilight had completed her collection of the six bits Salt had taken from her. With all her possessions recovered again, she let out a satisfied sigh and turned on her heel to face Salt with a smile. “Thankfully, I managed to think of an alternative,” she said. “And judging by the state of things now, it seems to have worked.”

Her grin widened, and she wiggled her rump in giddy triumph. “I love it when a plan comes together.”

Like all the colors of the rainbow mixing into a muddy shade of brown in a paint tray, the blend of anger, shame, shock, and motion sickness inside Salt’s head resulted in only a weighty and unwieldy feeling of confusion. Once again, though, Twilight was prepared for the latest peculiar turn the events of the evening took.

“If you would, fillies and gentlecolts,” she said, addressing the entire deck now, “please direct your attention to the Corona’s port side cannons. If you look closely, you may notice that she no longer has any.”

Salt’s head swiveled in time with the heads of his crewmates. Sure enough, the cannons that should’ve been lining the deck across from him were gone, along with most of the railing and a sizable chunk of the deck itself. “With this being the case, the Harmony now has a significant tactical advantage over the Corona,” Twilight continued. “Namely, the ability to turn her into kindling wood without any worry of retaliation. Now obviously, I’d much prefer it if we didn’t have to resort to that, but should anypony here attempt to attack us or steer the ship away before we’ve finished our business on it, I can’t exactly promise our demolitions expert and world-renowned pastry chef Pinkie Pie will feel the same way.”

“There’s a party in hell tonight,” Pinkie shouted as if on cue from a precarious position atop the rigging. “And you’re all invited!”

“Pretty sure they get it, Pinkie!” Rainbow Dash shouted during the gap in Twilight’s speech where she stopped to roll her eyes again. Instead of yelling back, Pinkie just blew out a frustrated sigh and crossed her forehooves, her hind hooves the only thing keeping her hooked into the rigging as she fell back to hang in an upside-down pout.

“Aw, c’mon!” she said. “I’ve been waiting weeks to say that one!”

“The point being, Captain,” Twilight cut in before Rainbow or anypony else could go on with skirting away from said point, “we don’t have any intention of starting a big fight or getting anypony hurt here. You just happen to have a whole lot of the Princesses’ valuables on you, and we’d very much like to take them off your hooves. Simple as that. So...”

Twilight stopped again, her forehoof outstretched as if she expected something to appear in it. After a few seconds of silence, she lowered her hoof back to the deck, cleared her throat, and jerked her head a couple times in the general direction of Rarity.

So...”

Another second or two passed, and then a spark of recognition flared up in Rarity’s eyes. “Oh... now?”

“Yes, now would be good."

“Right,” Rarity said, slipping her pistol under the crook of her foreleg as her cheeks began to go pink. “My apologies.”

Without any thought given to the wide-eyed stallions surrounding her, Rarity shifted her magic away from the weapon and towards the hem of her dress, which she hiked up over her flank to the audible disbelief of most everypony on deck. After she’d pointed a fearsome glare at those colts closest to her and the rest had meekly shuffled their hind legs closer together, she pulled a tightly rolled scroll of paper out from a band around her thigh and tossed it to Twilight, who caught it in midair and snapped it open once it was close enough to read.

“So,” she finally continued, “if my sources are correct, you have with you on board, lemme just see here... three hundred and fifty bars of purified silver, five hundred more of 24-karat gold, two thousand unrefined gemstones give or take a few rubies, and one string of all-natural pearls worth approximately two hundred thousand bits, procured from the high-security safe in the quarters of one S. O’Thearth.”

Salt stared at the necklace hanging around Rarity’s neck, his jaw hanging open again and his heart seizing up with rage. “You told me that was your grandmother’s!” he shouted.

“To be fair, darling, I did specifically say ‘among other things’,” she gently reminded him before Twilight interjected again.

“Any case, as is our creed and calling, we’ll be commandeering the impressively extensive contents of your hold, along with your stores of gunpowder, ammunition, spellscrolls, and bladed weapons. My first mate Applejack and deckhand Fluttershy will be taking care of that, while Rainbow Dash, Rarity, Pinkie and I will stick around here to ensure that our acquisition goes smoothly.”

Once her name was spoken, Applejack spun her pistols around and clipped them into their locked positions flush against her forehooves. On her way over to the cabin door leading down into the hold, she was joined by a spindly yellow pegasus wearing a flower-patterned bandana, who fluttered over from the Harmony and gave a timid wave to the Corona’s crew before following her friend belowdecks.

“Also, I’ve been told to ask if we can borrow a cup of flour and a teaspoon of vanilla,” Twilight added, “but given our, uh... current state of affairs here, I’m gonna go ahead and just add that to the list. Any questions?”

Salt tried to speak, tried to demand that Twilight respect his authority like he right well deserved, but he was beyond words now, beyond rhyme or reason or anything resembling the two. Twilight Sparkle was like a virus; even her very presence on the Corona had made his temperature shoot up until it felt like his coat was about to burst into flame. There would be no humoring her now, no expectation that she would go quietly into her good night. This was his ship, these were his crew, and they would be infected by the likes of her over his cold, dead body.

Rarity was nearing him now, ready to resume keeping him under guard so he didn’t try anything stupid or rash. Well, there was nothing stupid about avenging that which was rightfully his to protect, was there? No, there sure as hayfire wasn’t. And there was nothing rash about throwing a wild kick at Rarity’s head and sprinting for Twilight like he intended to take her over the side with him.

Especially when it actually worked, and when he found himself moments later with his blade up against Twilight’s throat, her back pressed into what remained of the portside railing and her top half teetering over two thousand feet of empty air. Fearful incomprehension washed over her face, but it was gone again as soon as it came, wiped away and replaced by a carefully controlled look of neutrality.

“Just raising your hoof would’ve worked too, but I guess beggars can’t be choosers,” Twilight said, already looking past him towards the spot he’d just left. “You okay, Rarity?”

“My nose!” Rarity said, her nasally whine muffled by her forehooves as she clamped them over her muzzle and tried to hide her watering eyes from the rubbernecking crew. “Stars above, he hit me in the nose!”

“On the bright side, I bet your fetlocks look divine,” Applejack shouted from down below.

“Shut up! I think I’m bleeding...”

“You’ll be fine,” Twilight told her, just before she gave the same comforting assurance to Salt. “She’ll be fine. Don’t worry about it.”

In response, Salt just snorted and pressed the blade harder into Twilight’s neck, the weakened rail groaning and crackling as Twilight put more weight on it. “So that’s it?” he said. “You think this is a game? You think you can just stroll onto my ship, rob me blind, and scamper off into the night without a single shot fired?”

“Well, no, not exactly,” Twilight replied. “We did fire a few shots.”

“You think I won’t pursue you?” Salt went on. He was raving now, completely deaf to anything but the rampaging beast egging him on inside his head. “You think I won’t travel to the ends of Equestria and beyond until I find you, so I can chain you up like the lunatic you are and drag you back to Canterlot myself? You think you will ever know peace while I’m still alive and combing every inch of these skies for your despicable hide?”

Twilight’s ears perked up and she gasped, her eyes brimming over with eager anticipation. “Wait, does this mean we’re mortal enemies now?” she asked. “Omigosh, I’ve never had a mortal enemy who’s a sky captain before! I feel like I’m in a Daring-Do novel!”

“I wouldn’t get too excited,” Salt growled. He leaned forward, and one of Twilight’s hooves slipped off the deck and scraped against the jagged edge as she pulled it back up. “In fact, I wouldn’t waste a second thinking about it. After all, you’ve only got a few of them left.”

Twilight’s brow creased as she studied Salt’s face in search of his meaning, then softened again as she put on a hangdog look. “Oh my goodness, I’m sorry. I get so scatter-brained sometimes,” she said. “I did go over the whole deal with the kindred spirits and the cannons and Pinkie shredding the Corona into firewood, right?”

“Oh, I have no doubt you’ll destroy my ship,” Salt said. “Some of my crew might even go with it. Most of them, though, will likely make it to the lifeboats, and I’m sure your two pegasus friends can take care of your fellow crewmates. But what about you, Miss Sparkle? Who’s left to save you? What if you fall overboard before you can reach your ship? What if inertia and gravity are too much for even a pirate queen like you?”

The battered wood shoring up Twilight’s spine had been pushed to its breaking point, and careened over it with a piercing snap. Despite Twilight windmilling her forelegs to keep upright, it seemed inevitable that she’d fall over the edge along with the broken pieces of the railing, but at the last second Salt grabbed her with his free hoof and pulled her back in—though only far enough that her hind legs could find purchase again.

“What if I were to help them along?” he said, her voice barely more than a hiss.

“You... want to throw me off your ship?” Twilight asked, once again overtaken by disbelief.

“Unless you’d care to save me the trouble and jump.”

The incredulous look on Twilight’s face stuck around for several seconds this time, long enough for her to shrug and straighten up a bit. “Well, if it makes you feel better, sure... I guess,” she said. “But frankly? I don’t really think it’s gonna get you anywhere.”

Captain Salt thought back to the cheeky grin he so despised seeing on Twilight’s face, and felt his own lips curling up. Two could play at that game. And he was about to win.

“We’ll see about that,” he said softly. He pulled his dagger back from Twilight’s throat and sheathed it, then braced both forehooves on her shoulders and shoved as hard as he could. A gasp punched its way out of her throat, and a moment later Salt was alone on the deck. Fighting back against the urge to puff out his chest and bellow his triumph to the heavens, he leaned forward and looked down. He wanted to see her fall. He watched to watch as Twilight tumbled backwards and threw her legs out and clawed helplessly at the clouds and...

Floated.

In midair.

On her wings.

Her huge, purple-feathered pegasus wings.

“Yeah...” she called up to Salt after taking a glance back at the brand-new appendages sticking out of slits in the back of her waistcoat. “On second thought, maybe I did forget to mention something.”

With every rational thought in his head either blocked off or washed away, Salt could only stand by and watch as Twilight ascended back up to the deck and touched down in front of him. He felt a tugging sensation in his stomach and eventually realized it was Twilight’s magic undoing the straps on his sword’s sheath, which then allowed her to separate it from him and deposit it safely out of reach in the rigging overhead.

“You’re a very talented sky captain, Salt,” she said. “You’re quick-witted, professional, and loyal to the princesses and your crew, not to mention you have great taste in vessel maintenance and decor. But success... well, it gave you a bit of an ego. And considering how easy it was to stall you long enough for the Harmony and her crew to get into position, it’s probably pretty safe by now to say that pride goeth before the fall.”

Twilight’s tone wavered, and she bit her lip hard as another giggle caught in her throat. “Sorry,” she said to Salt, who no longer held the capacity for anger and instead fell back on being silently dazed. “Just... hubris. Fatal flaws. This really is like a perfect little storybo... anyway. When you first met me tonight, you thought you were stronger than me. And to be fair, you probably are. But naval combat is not just about firepower. It’s about knowing the limits of power, and recognizing when a fire left uncontrolled can come back to burn you. It’s about giving yourself the tools to succeed, and surrounding yourself with ponies you trust to operate them. It’s about the balance between peace and war, savagery and strategy, leadership and teamwork.”

She stopped again for a moment, and her smirk returned. “Flying Without Wings, page 238.”

A hatch near the captain’s quarters popped open, and the pegasus from Twilight’s ship flew out on her own before reaching back down inside to help Applejack up as well. “So yes, you had a whole platoon of soldiers and enough artillery to take down any ship this side of Stalliongrad,” Twilight said, her horn flaring up as her magic prodded at Salt’s chest again. This time, it was her own paltry little knife she took back from him, overlong scabbard and all. “But as you’re no doubt aware, Captain Salt, it doesn’t matter how big your sword is.”

She pulled the knife out a couple inches and inspected the blade for a moment, then sheathed it and slipped it snugly into a loop in her belt.

“All that counts is how you use it.”

With that said and a friendly pat on the shoulder, Twilight skirted around Salt and made her way back towards her friends. “Everything ready, Applejack?” she asked.

“Good to go,” Applejack replied. “Light ‘er up.”

Twilight nodded and closed her eyes, and the light emanating from her horn grew brighter, so much so that Salt had to shield his eyes and squint to see what happened next. The sheer force of the energy being channeled through her body set her mane whipping around as though the ship were sailing towards the eye of a hurricane, and tiny sparks of electricity crackled and popped as they shimmied up and down her horn. Once they reached the tip, they coalesced into a pulsating ball that sent sweeping rays of light all across the sky, but mostly towards the Corona’s deck and through it down to the ship’s hold below.

Twilight let her magic keep building for five, for ten, for fifteen full seconds, and then with a violent shudder and a shout, she released it. The pulsating ball sprang forward from her horn and embedded itself in the deck, and for a breath of a moment the entire ship glowed a brilliant, blinding white. A single clap of thunder split the air, and then suddenly the Corona shot straight up like it’d been fired out of a slingshot, forcing Salt to his knees as the ship’s levitation spells struggled to adjust to the sudden loss of weight.

After a few seconds, the Corona levelled out again, the Harmony easily keeping up despite the massive new load now occupying its hold. Salt half-expected the blast to have taken Twilight and her crew with it, but when he opened his eyes they were all still present and none the worse for wear, save for Twilight being a little out of breath. Her crew all looked like they were waiting for an order, and a nod from their captain seemed to be it. The two pegasi grabbed hold of their wingless friends and hoisted them up off the deck, and Twilight watched to make sure they’d landed safely back on the Harmony before turning back to Salt.

“Pleasure doing business with you, Captain,” she said. Her waistcoat pocket shimmered with her magic’s aura, and the six coins she’d collected just moments ago flew out again, bouncing and rolling across the deck until they reached where Salt was standing. Looking at them now, he could see that they weren’t just spare bits, but rather custom-stamped gold coins, the one nearest to him patterned with a six-pointed star exactly like the one on Twilight’s flank. It only took him a moment to remember where he’d seen the other five symbols.

“Keep the change.”

A few hours ago, such an affront would’ve cut through Salt’s patience like a sharp sword through silk. The Salt from a few hours ago was not the same Salt that stood on the Corona’s deck, though. The current Salt had no thoughts of honor or duty, and certainly not of pride. That Salt rather wished he hadn’t bothered to get out of bed that morning, and as such was a bit too fixated on that to do anything but stare as Twilight flared her wings and took off from the deck, soaring in a lazy loop around both vessels before alighting at the helm of her own.

With a few words to her crew and a turn of the wheel, Twilight set her ship in motion. The sails shivered and ballooned out, and a shimmering haze only noticeable to somepony accustomed to looking for it washed over the hull as the spells keeping the Harmony aloft pushed it away from the Corona and out into open air. The cumulus layer beneath them began to roll up and over their deck, and for a moment Salt could’ve sworn he saw a green flash of light by Twilight’s side.

Then the breeze picked up, the hull glowed, and the Harmony dove below the cover of the clouds. Salt blinked his eyes, and the skies were clear.

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