• Published 9th Nov 2013
  • 3,131 Views, 157 Comments

Unbound Skies - Luminary



Equestria isn't what it should be. Fear, smoke and an invisible, ever-growing menace rule the day. A pink toymaker, a noblemare, and an airship captain and her crew are thrown together by peril, and set out to rescue the soul of Equestria

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Chapter Two: The Dagger in the Dark

Pinkie switched the sign from ‘open’ to ‘closed’, locked the door, then patted her shop with a fond smile. Sure, some children might turn up disappointed at the temporary closure, but saving a pony’s life took priority. Pinkie paused to ponder over her perplexing plight. But unfortunately, try as she might, there was no way she could be in two places at once. Gummy, meanwhile, was sitting on her head, thinking Gummy thoughts. Whatever they were.

While the pink pony prudently prepared, Rarity was busying herself with a small, cracked mirror inside one of the music boxes. She was staring intently at herself with a frown, using a hoof to try to coax her mane fully under the hood of her traumatizingly artless attire. In the absence of a proper makeup case, a bit of chimney soot stood in for darkening her protruding horn and her face. However, a disguise based primarily upon smearing oneself with dirt was bringing no small share of shudders.

“I-I think I’m prepared to go, Miss Pie.” Rarity’s voice was faint. She seemed all too grateful to turn away from the mirror and the sooty horror it reflected.

“Goodie! If we’re speedy and sneaky, we should be able to be slippy. The guards won’t notice anything,” Pinkie said. “Do you know a shortcut to The Bellows?”

A frown darkened Rarity’s unevenly grey features. She gave a quick shake of her head. “I’ve had little occasion to visit places of industry. I know a few ways out that lead beyond the gates. But to the heart of the Lower City? No.”

“Gummy knows plenty of hidden ways around the city; I let him waddle around to find oil spills so he can have some bath time. If we need to, we can follow him,” Pinkie replied. Her alligator blinked. “Let’s go. We can take it as it comes.” Tempting as it was to hop, she decided to settle for a casual walk.

“I suppose we shall have to,” Rarity murmured to herself. Though she gave a worried look in the direction of the perching alligator, she followed along. Her posture almost naturally sank down from a proud, aristocratic canter to a weighty slouch. She seemed to age a dozen years in the span of a second.

There was little to talk about as they travelled. Most houses looked empty, curtains drawn. The ones that looked even mildly inviting had decaying features such as dying plants on their windowsills. For the most part, the streets were fairly clean. At least, they were compared to The Rustyard. Conditions could definitely be better, but there was a sense of reluctant contentment. Ponies walked along with bland expressions, not bothering to get in a rage about the dismal state of things. All of them walked by the pair, barely acknowledging their presence.

There wasn’t a foal to be seen. That absence always nagged at Pinkie, like an achy tooth. She was proud of her toys. She really, really was. But it used to be that a ball would have stood in for the fancy contraptions she designed. Ponies seemed to let their fillies and colts out less and less. The gendarmes got meaner. The air stung the eyes. The soot got everywhere. And nothing was happy and green unless you painted it that way—which actually sounded like her next project. Her shop needed painted murals! Trees, birds and pretty much all the things that weren’t around in the city anymore. Well, she also needed bits for paint, too. But dreams were good. Everypony should have something to look forward to.

Unfortunately, reality didn’t often make fulfilling those dreams easy.

“Pinkie Pie,” Rarity cut in, shaking Pinkie from her reverie, “don’t things strike you as… wrong?”

“Wrong’s a really strong word.” She looked around again. Closer, this time. Fragments of a better time were buried within the present. The awe-inspiring Canterlot Castle that stood over the skyline—a testament to pony ingenuity. Faded shop signs that spoke of happier days. Occasionally, she even saw a couple of ponies talking to each other as if blissfully unaware of the world. “I’d say ‘not perfect’.”

“So it is,” Rarity affirmed. She was quiet for a moment, seemingly in thought, to consider Pinkie’s qualification. In the end, however, she shook her head. “Don’t mistake me, there’s good and beauty to be found anywhere.” She reached out, and placed a hoof on Pinkie’s shoulder for a heartbeat or two, before resuming her sunken trot. “However, things aren’t as they should be. The Equestrian people are good ponies. Their leaders are too, traditionally. But things aren’t supposed to be like this, Pinkie. Soldiers and wars. Cities where nothing grows. Famine and illness. There’s a sickness at the heart of Equestria.”

Pinkie turned her head. “What? But it’s been like this since I was born, and since my parents were born, and probably their parents too!”

Rarity stopped, scuffing the ground with a hoof. “Industry is nothing new. The price of progress, and so on, as unflattering as it is. But what of the Lord Regent? It’s hardly a hereditary position, and yet the old Regent’s son has sat wearing the Crown for years. Ever promising to hold an election once things have ‘settled’ after his father’s ‘untimely’ death. Places like the ‘yard are full to bursting. Unicorns are getting increasingly insular. Ponies fear the gendarmerie instead of going to them when in fear.” Rarity flicked an ear under her hood. “Perhaps you simply have never seen things otherwise. There are better places. Places where the sun still shines.”

Pinkie stopped walking. She looked down, her brow furrowed. Rarity was very right about all of that. Perhaps that’s why she opened a soup kitchen: to make a difference. Maybe that was why Pinkie herself opened a toy shop. Those were small differences and wouldn’t affect the big picture, though. It was a lot to think about—the fact that the system you were raised in wasn’t the right one.

Pinkie shook her head, dispelling those thinky-thunky thoughts. “You talk too much. C’mon, we gotta go go go!” she cheered, nudging Rarity along.

A laugh spilled from Rarity’s lips, quite without her consent. The pink pony’s attitude seemed infectious. “Maybe I do,” she admitted, gifting the other mare with a bright smile, before speeding into a light canter.

=====☼=====

Their cheer lasted for the length of another block. It was then that the curving of the street revealed an obstacle. A half dozen soldiers had set up a checkpoint at the entrance to one of the Lower City’s tramways, and were stopping ponies at the intersection it serviced. Though the extent of their search seemed to be checking the citizenry for horns, a rare sight outside of Upper Canterlot.

A hastily assembled toll booth and gate had been cobbled together from pieces of scrap. Guards sat on crates or stood and surveyed the populace. Despite its mix-matched appearance, it was one of the better-looking things in the city, Pinkie thought. At least it had color.

“Hmm… we’re not getting through that. Or,” Pinkie swept her foreleg up in an arc, “over it. Or under it either.”

Rarity bit the inside of her lip, turning herself with no small nervousness to face away from the still-distant guardsponies. “I’d hoped to take the rail. It would get us to this ship of yours in less than an hour, and permit me to get you out of danger.” The unicorn seemed to come to a conclusion. A resolute look hardened in her eyes. “I think we had best part ways, dearest Pinkie. I need but the name of this ship, and I can let you get back to your shop.”

Pinkie wasn’t listening, instead following Gummy down a poorly-maintained flight of stone stairs to the side of the street. “Of course! We can go around it! Gummy, you’re a genius!”

After a moment of hesitation, Rarity followed. Her voice dropped to a whispered hiss. “Pinkie! I was trying to be self-sacrificing. I think we should…”

Pinkie hummed to herself, reaching the bottom of the stairs. The way to the tram track was blocked by a wall, preventing any ponies from wandering out onto the railbed which cut through the shabby neighborhood behind the station. Lower Canterlot was built upon plateaued tiers cut into the foothills below Canterlot proper. An almost univeral rule of hoof was that things got worse as you got further down. In this case, it was no exception. At the bottom of the stairs the passable but unimaginative homes gave way to shabby tenements and small alleyways. It was secluded, dark, and uninviting. The buildings were clustered in oppressively close, all but blocking out the meager late-afternoon sunlight. They almost seemed to lean inward at the top. Then again, the Lower City wasn’t known for quality construction and straight lines, so it might have been more than an illusion.

Rarity trotted along more quickly, despite how painfully loud the clatter of her hooves seemed to be away from the cacophonous bustle of the streets. The courtier found herself huddling in close to Pinkie Pie. If anything, her voice was even quieter than before, and that much more insistent. “Dear, we have to turn back. We’ll find another way. Gentlemares like ourselves simply don’t go into these places.”

“Gummy does!” Pinkie replied matter-of-factly, pointing at the alligator who was heading down an alley, brass feet splashing in the sewer ‘stream’ in the middle of the path. Pinkie kept an eye on him, but gave Rarity a reassuring bump with her hip. “We’ll be fine. We just gotta stick together!”

Gummy took a sharp right, going down an even thinner alley that only ended with a high brick wall. A couple of worn posters were on the walls, offering a reward for a mare with a gaudy, star-adorned magician's hat. The details were impossible to see through a positively unhealthy amount of graffiti. At the end lay a large garbage bin and a couple of crates stacked up nearby. The latter was what Gummy pattered up to. He didn’t stop once there, and continued trying to walk in a straight line through the crate; his snout bumped up against it, and his little claws scraped uselessly at the ground. He didn’t seem at all aware that he wasn’t moving an inch.

“Okay, I think I get it. Gummy wants us to stack stuff, then we’ll climb over the wall!” Pinkie explained, like it should have been obvious.

Rarity took one look at the collection of boxes, most of them damp with assorted foulness, and shook her head. “Surely there’s some oth—”

A rustling sound from farther into the alleyway silenced the mare. The clop of hooves preceded a pony lurching blearily from behind the bin. He’d likely been a friendly tan at one point, but dirt and ash conspired to muddy it. His mane, presumably once green, was rough and unkempt. There was a horn atop his head, or the stumpy remains of one; it was sheared near to the base, too far down to regrow, likely as punishment for some crime where magic was used.

The stallion went first to the scraping clockwork gator, and prodded it with a hoof, absently flipping it over, before he seemed to notice the two mares standing in plain sight. His lips twisted from a frown into a nasty smile. He turned, and started unhurriedly in their direction.

“Eh-heh.” Rarity forced a nervous laugh, taking several steps backward, and pushed a forehoof against Pinkie’s chest to urge her to do the same. “Hello my good, um, fellow. It seems that you’re in luck. I have a proposition. We need a big, strong stallion to move a few boxes for us. And I’d be willing to offer a few bits in exchange.” Rarity glanced around as the broken unicorn continued to advance, searching for something to grab with her horn. “Would that be… satisfactory?”

“Oh, I think there’s gonna be a lot of satisfaction to be had, lady,” he smugly answered. He dipped his muzzle down to root under the neck seam of a shirt not so different from Rarity’s disguise, save for being rather less clean. He drew a crude but nasty looking knife from beneath it. Like many unicorns unused to carrying things in their mouths, he spoke around it mushily. “We’ll shtart wish the bits an’ go from there. Maybe a lil’ time wish the pink one, eh?”

Pinkie already had a wrench in her mouth, standing between Rarity and the stallion. She looked at her companion, jerking her head toward the end of the alley (where Gummy was still walking into the crate), then faced the mugger. “I can spend time with you, sure. But I kiiiinda have things to do first, so could’ja please step aside? I don’t wanna have to start bashing and screaming and flailing.”

“Aw, shweetie, you’re shpeaking my language. Shcreaming and flailing is how I like it.” He managed a convincing leer around the knife as he took an undeterred step forward. His tail flicked behind him with mad excitement.

Pinkie started jogging on the spot, raring to go. The movement kept her going. Got her heart pumping. Made her feel alive. Kept down the screaming part of her brain.

In defiance of Pinkie’s urgings, Rarity lit her horn, all but tearing the saddlebags from the earth pony’s back, and started rummaging around inside. She pulled out a positively bewildering combination—and quantity—of tools, toys, cans of baked beans, and other apparent junk, in search of what she wanted.

The stallion’s pace quickened, his hooves splashing through the noxious puddles and streams in the alleyway. His jaw tightened on his knife, his teeth digging into the splintered wood of what could generously be called its pommel.

Pinkie bent her knees, her legs twitching in anticipation. She tried to narrow her eyes and look somewhat intimidating, but they were as wide as the moon instead. The wrench almost dropped from her mouth.

A glimmering light arced out of Pinkie’s half-emptied saddlebags. A glassy shape, sparkling brightly with sky-blue magic and the meager light from above, lanced down toward the stallion. It came to a sudden, momentum-ignoring stop in the once-unicorn’s path. His hooves clattered and skid as he tried to stop himself. It was only mercy that saved him, as the object floated backward just far enough to leave itself pressed to the skin at the center of his throat, instead of burying half its length into his neck.

A slender, hoofspan-long diamond hovered in midair, held tight by magic. Its edges were razor perfection. The points of its kite-shaped cut were enough that the merest brush sent a little trickle of blood carving a path along the stallion’s throat. There was a metallic clatter as the knife fell from his slack jaws.

Rarity cleared her own throat. Her tone was positively icy. “As I was saying. We need a big, strong stallion to help us move a few boxes.”

Pinkie gasped, once more almost dropping the wrench. She stepped back, eyes darting back and forth between Rarity and the attacker.

For once, she was speechless.

=====☼=====

A horrible screeching sound echoed through the alleyways.

The passing of several minutes found the stallion with his back set against the largest crate, trying to push it along with his rear hooves, scrambling desperately for each inch. He toiled under the watchful eye of the wrench-toting Pinkie. Rarity busied herself with repacking Pinkie’s bags, using a quick spell to clean the objects she’d discarded before putting them back in. Her diamond weapon hung overhead like a bird of prey, waiting to swoop.

Gummy lent his support by continuing to walk forward into the crate from an entirely different direction..

“I wasn’t going to hurt ya,” the stallion grunted, breathlessly, before wedging himself more tightly against the crate.

“Talk to the alligator, ‘cause the mare ain’t listening,” Pinkie warned, glancing at Gummy. “And he isn’t listening either.”

After a few more strained pushes, the named alligator reached the end of the crate. His snout freed of obstruction, he soldiered relentlessly forward, oblivious of how he put himself under the stallion’s hooves, nearly tripping him. The ponies waited for the scraping of tiny metal claws to resume as the mechanical gator found the far wall, but the sound never came.

“Huh? Gummy?” Pinkie lowered her head, following Gummy’s movements. She found him travelling through a hole in the wall, which the crate had previously covered. It was big enough to fit a pony through, but it’d be a squeeze. There would probably be bruises the next day, too. “See? Gummy is a genius! He found a way through!”

Rarity brandished her razor-edged gem in the stallion’s direction, sending him backing up several steps, before gathering up Pinkie’s bags and setting off to investigate the new path. She bit her lip for a moment and gave a resigned nod of her head. “Very well. I’m following a wind-up lizard into a hole in a wall, in a foul, decrepit alley. And it’s the very best course of action available. My life has taken a rather strange turn lately, Pinkie. Yesterday it was all wining and dining Lady Starcatcher, dancing with the Dukes Steel and engaging in proper courtly daring-do.”

Pinkie poked her head out of the hole, having already gone through. “What was that, Rarity?”

“Nothing, dear,” she replied, lowering herself awkwardly to keep her tail or barrel from getting anywhere near the ground as she went about trying to fit herself through the hole.

=====☼=====

Rarity’s hooves desperately scraped at the bricks of a low wall as she tried to haul herself over the top of it. Sharp cracks sounded as rifle balls struck the masonry to the side of her. If she’d had the breath to spare, she’d have thanked the sun that there were few good perches nearby for pegasus gendarmes to settle, to free their wings and bring their wheel-locks to bear. Their accuracy at range was less than impressive.

As it turned out, she did find the breath to criticize. “Why would you…” Her words trailed off into a grunt as she levered herself a bit further, getting the elbow of her foreleg over the other side. “...start singing?!”

“Because every journey needs a good travelling song!” Pinkie darted her head to the side, a lead ball flying past her. “Otherwise we’d get bored! And boredness is a huge drag! You know the saying, right? ‘Time flies when you’re having fun’.”

“Our pursuers can fly, too.” Rarity muttered through gritted teeth, pausing for a moment to take a breath. It really wasn’t Pinkie’s fault, she supposed. It was tragic timing that a gendarme had been right overhead during the cheerful mare’s opening refrain. It had taken only a few shouts to attract further soldiers. Still, it was hard to be forgiving when one was being shot at.

Any further pondering was cut short by a spray of stone chips striking Rarity’s cheek. She yelped, then went quiet as she stared at the small crater from a bullet hole right between her muzzle and foreleg. She felt a tremble coming on, but ignored it in favor of more mad scrambling of hooves against rough brick.

“No time to chat. Time to go!” Pinkie darted forward, her hooves spraying gravel from the out-of-the-way tramway track bed they’d been following to stay off the roads. Her powerful legs coiled, and earth pony strength launched her up into the air below the unicorn. Puffy-maned head struck burlap-covered rump, sending Rarity spilling over the other side of the wall with a wail, legs flailing.

Pinkie herself followed a moment later, leaping up and vaulting over the top with far less fuss. Rarity was still groaning on the ground, rubbing the tip of her muzzle when Pinkie nimbly landed beside her. “What do we do now?!”

“I’m not made for this sort of grunt work,” the unicorn said, with a hint of petulance. “I’m a lady, not some rogue.” She shook her head to banish the thought, before looking around quickly. “We’ll never escape pegasi in the open streets. We need to get to tighter quarters.”

“How far does it look to The Bellows? A five hundred meter dash? ‘Cause it’s all metally and wonky and stuff around the factories. We can lose ‘em there,” Pinkie suggested, helping Rarity up and urging her forward.

“Thank Celestia that all those parties keep me dancing.” Rarity glanced sidelong at her pink companion as she started off at an accelerating canter in the direction of the towering iron factories nearby. “If I fall behind, keep running. I’ll catch up.”

Pinkie tried her very hardest to keep with Rarity’s pace. When the sounds of the incoming guards got too close for comfort, she began to gallop ahead, gaining more speed. Occasionally she’d look back at the lagging Rarity, but too many hops, skips and jumps over things were needed to maintain it.

It was during one of those glances back that a thump sounded in front of Pinkie. A pegasus with a blue-green coat and a white mane, wearing the padded caparison of the Lord Regent’s pegasi, landed in her path. The soldier reared up onto her back hooves to free her forelegs. Her wings curled to cradle and pour powder into the pan of her wheel-lock rifle in a practiced motion.

Pinkie burst forward, flinging herself into the air, her forelegs outstretched. They wrapped themselves around the pegasus’s body as she collided with her. They tumbled onto the ground, violently rolling and kicking up dust and dirt. Pinkie let go after a few seconds, bucking the guard with her hindlegs and using the momentum to get back to speed. The white unicorn followed along a moment later, petulantly tossing a few loose bricks at the pegasus with her levitation spell. It did little but make the soldier curl up for a few moments against the half-hearted assault. By then, however, the pair was in amongst the first factories.

The farther along Pinkie got, the darker it became, until it seemed like someone had snuffed out the daylight like a lamp. Only the occasional flare of sooty flame from some exhaust pipe or another lit the alleyways. Pathways became more twisted and convoluted, like a child’s maze puzzle. Metal girders and scraps criss-crossed from building to building, creating a canopy. She tried to keep on a straight path, but walls and buildings kept cutting her off. To make matters worse, one soaring eyesore of iron pipes, sheet metal and sooty bricks looked like all the others. Each building just seemed purpose-made to leech color and fun out the world. Her heart and legs worked overtime, while her mind kept fretting about Rarity. And for good cause, as it turned out. As Pinkie slowed, her ears swiveled, searching, but she couldn't find the sound of galloping hooves.

“Rarity?” she called out cautiously over the soft hiss of steam and the distant pounding of metal from a dozen sources. There was no reply. She was about to suck in a great big breath, when she put her hoof in her mouth and expelled the air through her nose; it wasn’t a time to be loud. Aside from the echoing sounds of industry and the crackle of fire, there wasn’t much to be heard. There wasn't much activity in the streets so soon after the start of the evening shift. Not even ponies on break. The back alleyways were positively tomb-like.

At least, they were until the frenzied barking and shouts of alarm.

A bit of creeping, sleuthing and some peeking around corners found the problem.

There were three pegasus gendarmes standing at the intersection of the back alleys of three huge factories, rifles drawn, facing down one of the biggest dogs that Pinkie Pie had ever seen. It stood at least as high as a pony at the shoulder. Its fur was mottled black and brown. The guard fur on his aggressively raised scruff looked thick enough to stop a hatchet. His teeth, dripping with saliva, looked like they’d have no trouble at all tearing through the meager cloth the pegasi wore to protect themselves. Oh, and it had a slender, tearful and practically naked fourth pegasus attached to it. She had her forelegs around its enormous neck, placing her buttery-yellow body between the guns and the dog. With jaws that looked as if they could bite through a steel pipe, and thrice the pegasus’s mass in muscle alone, he hardly seemed to need her protection.

“Don’t hurt him!” the pink-maned filly pleaded, spreading out her wings to cover more of him, as if they would stop a gunshot.

The soldiers didn’t seem to be amenable to her begging. Two of them set to retrieving their small powderhorns.

Turquoise eyes wide with panic and shaking like a leaf, the pony fluttered her wings to make some room between herself and the fuzzy dinosaur. Without the pegasus half-covering him, a ramshackle assemblage of pistons and gears was revealed, in crude imitation of a leg that should have been there. The limb hissed as the dog gathered its legs under itself to lunge. The tiny slip of a pegasus filly lowered her muzzle in front of his, looked the slavering beast directly in the eye, and stammered, “H-heel.”

Without so much as a lost beat, the dog dropped down onto his belly at her hooves, his tongue lolling out with a friendly expression. He was looking up at the filly with something approaching mindless adoration. Pinkie blinked. The soldiers blinked. There was a metallic tick between Pinkie’s ears as Gummy blinked his left eye, and eventually his right.

Hovering—barely—in the air, the pegasus rubbed a delicate, quivering hoof in a circle around the dog’s scruff. “S-see. Angel’s just a gentle giant. He was just a little protective. He doesn’t know the gendarmes are here to h-help ponies.” With her ears pinned, and her head held submissively low, the pegasus looked every bit the image of a scolded dog herself. “P-please don’t hurt him.”

Pinkie opened her mouth to intervene, to say something, do something. Anything. But she kept hugging the crumbling corner of the building, only her eyes and the top of her head poking out.

It would be hard to blame the soldiers for taking a step back, and lowering their rifles, if just slightly. The dog looked like he could beat Gummy in chewing up and spitting out mere lead ammunition. One of the gendarme mares was the one who spoke up. She put on a face-saving sneer, and snapped, “Keep your damned dog out of our way, or we’ll put it down.”

The yellow pegasus nodded her head frantically in agreement. She put her forelegs around the metal-legged dog’s neck again, flapping her wings to try to pull him back further into the alley behind him. It was clear to all involved that the only reason the mountain of dog moved was due to good-natured agreement. Seemingly assuaged by the deference, the soldiers stowed their weapons, traded a few words and took to the wing to resume their search. Pinkie pressed in tightly to a nearby rubbish bin as one of them flew by.

The pegasus filly breathed a sigh of relief, nuzzling the dog’s shaggy body. The moment of calm seemed to quickly head in the direction of a panic attack. The rail-thin pegasus’s sides expanded with rapid, deep breaths through the dog’s coat. At least until the beast made a gruff snort, glaring at Pinkie. The little pegasus froze again.

Pinkie forced a laugh and came out from her hiding spot, keeping her movements slow and calm. “Nice doggy?”

With a squeak, the pegasus hopped behind her dogosaurus, almost vanishing entirely behind him, save for the meek, subdued flash of blue-green eyes occasionally peering around black fur. The dog itself handled things rather better. His tail began to wag, once Pinkie emerged, beating the pegasus around the chest. His paws began to shift with subdued excitement; the mechanical one hissed and released a puff of steam and smoke from the tiny boiler built into his shoulder. If anything, the reaction seemed to puzzle the cowering filly. Pinkie was just as confuddled, her muzzle scrunched up.

The dog rose up to its paws once more in a move best described in geological terms. He loped toward the pink toymaker and sat down in front of her, tilting his head quizzically to one side. Robbed of her cover, the pegasus just seemed to congeal further into herself, as if trying to be as small as possible. Even so, she watched with a certain horrified fascination.

“Aaaw, you’re just a big fluffy knight, aren’t you?” Pinkie said, adopting a suitably cutesy voice, reaching up and scratching behind the canine beast’s floppy ears.

The dog seemed to accept it as his due, lowering his head and panting away with an absolutely spectacular amount of dog-breath. Even as his head fell, the pegasus’s rose. One of her own ears rose from where it had previously seemed glued to her pink mane. “H-how did you do that? Angel doesn’t like ponies until I say so.”

“Well, I like everypony and everydoggie until I say so!” Pinkie enthusiastically replied, attacking Angel’s belly with rubs when he rolled onto his back. The miniature boiler powering his arm gurgled and churned in protest at being turned upside-down.

The sound of quiet, cautious hoofsteps from the alleyway sent the pegasus skittishly dancing off to put her back toward a wall with a quick beat of her wings.

“Pinkie Pie? Is that you?” A familiar voice hissed, at the edge of a whisper. A grey-white horned head peeked out from around a small mountain of debris. “They’re gone?”

“Yep-a-roony to all those questions! Plus, I made new friends! This big loveable ball of fluff is Angel, and she…” Pinkie peered at the quivering pegasus, partially hidden behind a couple of dustbins. “I dunno what her name is. I wanna say…” Pinkie narrowed her eyes, staring intently at the pegasus for a long moment. The yellow pony averted her own gaze and squirmed in discomfort at the attention. “...Flutter! Or maybe Buttershy.”

The pegasus turned her head, half-hiding behind her tangled mane. “Close enough,” she whispered.

“Well, err, Miss, I thank you for hiding me. And, well, for keeping your canine companion from eating me, before that. That was most kind.” The unicorn beckoned toward Pinkie with a hoof. “I need your bags, if you would, Pinkie. I’d like to give our poor… friend here a little reward.”

“Gotcha!” Pinkie placed her bag on the ground, but stopped before opening it. “But not the photo. That’s one of the few lil’ things I wanna keep.”

“Oh, no, you don’t have to…” The delicate whisper was barely noticed.

Rarity gave the earth mare a sly look. “Oh, could it be, gossip about our own innocent Pinkie Pie? The picture of a coltfriend perhaps?” Given her recent repacking of Pinkie’s saddlebags, Rarity quickly found her target within them. She took a covert peek inside a small purple pouch and levitated out a single small bit, almost wafer thin. “But I meant money, dear.”

“I didn’t really try to save you. Angel just doesn’t like ponies with weapons around me, and…” the oh-so-light voice continued in the background.

“Speak up and take my bits!” Pinkie interrupted, raising a hoof defiantly in the air.

The two other mares stopped and stared at Pinkie Pie in puzzled silence. At least until Rarity ventured to break it. “Actually, I was using my bits, darling. It would be unconscionable to use yours.” She cleared her throat and levitated the single coin to Fluttershy. “Keep it hidden around here, dear. Don’t hoard it. It’s a platinum penny. A hundred-bit coin. Consider using it to get some shelter. Or to get out of this horrid place.”

“Oh no, I—”

“Take it!” Rarity said, firmly, stomping a hoof.

Silence descended once more when Angel gravitated his way back to onto his belly, levelling a glare upon Rarity and pairing it with a near-subsonic growl, ears folded back in threat.

“Nonononono, Angel. She’s being… nicely assertive.” Pinkie took a second to think through that, then nodded satisfactorily. “Yes. Nicely assertive.”

Eyes a little wider than before, Fluttershy nodded her head and took the tiny, floating platinum chip delicately between her lips, as if fearing she might break it. With his pony seemingly having surrendered, Angel settled once more, albeit far more watchfully.

“Sooooooo…” Pinkie drawled out, swaying on her hooves, “... we’re looking for the place with the big ol’ airbag ships. Do you mind if we ask you to point us in that direction?”

The pegasus tucked the coin somewhere under her mane before answering. “T-they don’t let ponies like me near the Skyport. But… maybe some of my animal friends might know a safe way.” Without explanation, she rose up and carefully climbed the pile of scrap and debris Rarity had emerged from. She found a particular crevice and stuck her head down into it.

Pinkie peeked. She knew she shouldn’t have. She was being a bit of a rudey doody doing it, but it’s not like you got a chance to see a stranger’s cutie mark every day. And it was right there. A Pinkie is not made of iron. She’s made of pretty squishy stuff, really. So the second the little mare ducked her head down, Pinkie’s eyes traitorously drifted. She tried to raise a hoof to block her own sight, but she just ended up peeking around it anyway.

It was really pretty too. Three butterflies with one of the bestest colors for wings. While it was odd and kinda wrong to be staring at such an intimate part of a pony, it also felt kinda right. Like she could see how truly special the pony was, just from a glance. It made her own covered mark itch.

She glanced sidelong at Rarity, ponderiffically. Those sneaky eyes of hers kept trying to drift flankward there, too. What could her mark be? Still, she felt a little extra-bad, since Rarity didn’t seem too fascinated by the pegasus’s mark, herself.

Though that might have had something to do with the slightly nervous staring contest that she was having with the megadog.

A strange menagerie of critters had poured out of the debris. They stood lined up, almost in military fashion, on broken bits of stone and metal in front of the pegasus. Mice and rats, mostly, but also one comparatively titanic raccoon. The pegasus seemed to be talking to them, in a low, cooing voice. She was clearly far less nervous talking to them than her fellow ponies, judging by how the tension just bled right out of her. Without that quivering and cowering, and trying to disappear, she looked older. Her natural delicacy and rail-thinness had conspired to make her seem more a filly than a mare Pinkie’s age.

Or maaaaaybe one year younger, Pinkie thought.

Something made the pegasus nearly squee. She hovered off her hooves and scooped up the raccoon in a cuddling embrace. At the very least, he seemed distinctly cuddleable. He was better-groomed than the pegasus herself. She flew back to the other ponies, and set the raccoon down nearby, distracting Rarity and the dog from their epic contest of wills.

“Wow, you’re like the Pied Piper of Parasprites!” Pinkie said. “Well, you would be if you could play over five instruments at the same time…”

Fluttershy shook her head. “Oh, no. Parasprites are very nasty in the cities. All the smoke makes them… feisty.” She raised one of her forelegs and turned it slightly, to show a few small areas where her coat had grown in unevenly, probably around a series of bites. She lowered the hoof to pet between the raccoon’s ears. “Mr. Raccoon is just a big old sweetheart though. He has a very big range, and he knows the way to the Skyport. He’s willing to show you even if I just ask, but… if you had any food…?”

=====☼=====

As it turned out, to Pinkie’s surprise, there was one creature in Equestria that actually liked boring, bland, baked brown beans. The now fat-and-happy Mr. Raccoon took them down alleys, through abandoned buildings, and even along hidden passages neither Pinkie nor Rarity would ever have spotted. Even better, the little critter seemed to have a preternatural sense of danger. Every so often his ears would swivel, or he’d stick his nose up in the air. Often he’d skitter off to cover, with the ponies close behind. Sometimes they’d hear the flapping of pegasus wings, or the sound of armored hooves marching by shortly after. Other times it was simply ponies on break or throwing trash out into the alleyways.

By the time they were nearing the Skyport they were thoroughly mucky and grimy. They were creeping along through a long, low, curved passage barely high enough to stand in when the raccoon froze again. Even Pinkie and Rarity could hear the reason for his alarm.

A yawn, then a murmur of complaint from a stallion. “This is stupid. No matter how many of us they send, it isn’t going to help. A couple of ponies could crawl into a pipe somewhere, and you wouldn’t find them in a year of searching.”

There was a grunt of noncommittal agreement from a mare. “Yeah, so? You gonna be the one to tell the higher-ups they’re idiots? That mare must have stolen something really important to the Lord Regent. He’s not the forgiving type.”

The raccoon, uncaring about the conversation, seemed to decide to turn and go back. He hadn’t made it a ponylength before he stopped there too, his ears turning forward. It didn’t take long for the distant, but steadily approaching, sound of shod hooves to become audible to pony ears. The echoing quality of the sound made it clear that it came from within the narrow passage.

Silently, panicked glances were exchanged. Rarity crept forward, further around the bend, to peer at the exit. Standing casually nearby were the two ponies who had spoken. They wore the unimpressive but dauntingly thick plate barding of earth pony gendarmes, the sort no other tribe could lug around for a whole day. Both wore the heavy, clawed iron hoof-boots favored for tight city fighting.

Beyond them lay a wide yard stacked with crates and boxes. One of the loading areas of the Skyport, no doubt. Tall boarding towers and cranes could be seen in the distance.

Pinkie licked her lips, putting on her stealthy whispering voice. “Pssst. Rarity. How are we gonna get past ‘em? They’re big and tough and mean. Real mean.”

Rarity shook her head, her ear swivelling to face back down the passage toward the direction they had come from. It had taken them a few minutes to walk along it, but there’d been dismayingly few branches off the main route, save for drainage pipes too small for pony use. They served well for raccoons though, as proved by the one currently squirming his ponderous hindquarters into an opening with a minimally offensive outflow. When the noblemare spoke, after swallowing thickly, it was in a very quiet voice. She wasn’t whispering; the hiss tended to carry. “We can’t simply wait for them to leave. There’s only one way to go.”

Pinkie scratched her head. “Er… we make strange animal noises and try to scare them off? ‘Cause I do a really good chicken noise!”

Rarity’s only response to that was a shaky, but fond smile. She reached out to hook a foreleg around the back of Pinkie’s neck and pulled the smaller mare into an embrace, pressing the earth pony’s muzzle against her ivory neck. “Close your eyes, Pinkie dear. For me?” Rarity whispered into her ear. There was the gentle, thin hum of a levitation spell, opening Pinkie’s saddlebags and drawing something out.

“Okay!” Pinkie replied, closing her eyes and warmly nuzzling Rarity. She still smelled kinda nice and perfumey, despite all the ash and dirt that covered her.

The unicorn shifted her weight, sitting back onto her haunches on the dirty floor. Her other foreleg rose, curling over the side of Pinkie’s face, making sure she couldn’t see in the direction of the exit. It wasn’t a luxury Rarity could afford herself. She turned her head away from the sugary-scented, cotton-candy fluff of Pinkie’s mane. “Celestia, forgive me,” she whispered prayerfully, nearly too quiet even for the other mare to hear.

“Wh—” the stallion guard’s voice momentarily started. It ended with a strangled grunt, a sharp scape, and the rattle of armor. A second, abruptly-ended yelp of shock from the mare came along with it.

Then, a sudden deathly hush, from the direction of the exit. That was until a second, softer, more liquid scrape was heard. A quiver went through Rarity with that sound.

Rarity held Pinkie’s head all the more tightly, as if to keep the other mare from moving an inch. She pressed her muzzle close to a pink ear once more. “Just keep trusting me a little more, Pinkie. Keep your eyes shut and don’t peek. Just follow at my side. We don’t have much time. Can you do that?”

“If you say so… but Rarity, I don’t think this is a time to play hide-and-seek,” Pinkie answered, forcing her eyes shut, almost straining.

Rarity laughed suddenly, the sound more than halfway to a sob. She buried her muzzle in thick pink fluff to stifle the sound. “There is no mare quite like you, is there?” The desperate hold melted into an actual embrace again, if just for a fleeting moment, before Rarity forced herself up to her hooves. She bumped herself lightly against Pinkie’s side and started toward the exit.

The pace was as brisk as the noblemare could manage without risking the blind earth pony tripping. Even given the exertion, Rarity sounded as if she was trying to hold her breath the whole way. Pinkie waddled along, humming merrily, if quietly, to herself. Along the way, one of her hooves touched something wet, and far too warm for an errant puddle.

Pinkie froze, almost tripping. She all but shoved Rarity, pressing closer to the other mare so her rear hooves wouldn't follow into that liquid. The toymaker squeezed her eyes together more tightly. She wished she could do the same for her nose, to get rid of the thick, metal smell of—

She held her breath instead, refusing to consider the scent, just as she forced herself not to think of what was clinging to her hoof. That tacky warmth oozing along—

It wasn't worth thinking about. Pinkie instead thought hard about the design for the super-neat wings for Gummy she'd been trying to puzzle out before Rarity had shown up. Figuring out a way to get the whats-its to make gears spin and stuff up further along the wing was a really fun challenge.

They didn’t stop until they were around the corner of the largest stack of crates Rarity could find. There was a tearing sound as she ripped the cheap, scratchy fabric of her hated disguise. “You can open your eyes now,” she whispered to Pinkie a moment later.

Pinkie’s eyes flashed open, revealing her wonderful blue irises. “W-well, that was weird. Are we there yet?”

“We just have to find the proper berth.” Rarity was tucking what could only be her crystalline stilettos under the remains of her disguise. They were wrapped tightly in the grey-brown burlap the unicorn had torn. Little spots of red were already beginning to show through.

Just seeing that colour made Pinkie's whole body want to shake. And not in the sort of way that told her that she was about to accidentally hit her hoof with a hammer in the next few seconds. She turned her head away from the sight so quickly it almost hurt her neck.

Instead, Pinkie kept looking ahead, with uncharacteristically intense determination, at the Skyport proper. It was a long hangar, situated on the edge of the cliff the city was built atop. Many airships were docked, floating just off the side, tethered to tall towers sprouting from the hanger like a growth of ugly iron mushrooms. Everything felt alive, compared to the alleyways and passages. Dockworkers went to and fro from the ships, carrying crates and other supplies. Gas bags made wheezing sounds as they inflated, then deflated. Cranes ground and squeaked.

“Today’s been a real crazy day,” Pinkie began, trotting along. Her damp hoof seemed to touch the ground more lightly than the rest. “‘Cause on top of this, earlier I got this mare saying she wanted me onboard her ship! And I was like ‘Nah, thanks, I love my job!’ But I thought maybe they could take you away from all the badness and madness! She said the berth number waaaaaas…” She looked down at the ground, avoiding her hooves. Instead she stared at the huge orange number painted on the floor. “Six!”

The pair looked up, in unison, at the vessel above them. Most of it was visible through missing panels in the hangar roof. As an escape vessel it didn’t look terribly promising. It had the metallic solidity of something built to last, all bronze plating and thick supports. Wide lifting wings, like the fins of a great sea serpent, sprouted from the sides, made from sailcloth stretched between long, straight struts. Its envelope was draped in utilitarian canvas and netting. Mooring ropes hung along its hull like Hearth’s Warming garland. It was every bit the image of a working merchant ship; in other words, dull and unobtrusive.

Rarity bit her lip nervously and nodded. “I suppose I’ll just have to use a bit of charm, and doubtless a good number of my bits, to convince the captain to depart in a hurry. Let’s be quick about it, shall we? It feels very… exposed here.”

Climbing the soaring docking tower was a far easier prospect than it seemed. Rarity commandeered a cargo lift that ran up the center of the structure. Gears spun and engines chugged as a wide platform, half-loaded with barrels and crates, climbed skyward. After a quick trip behind the privacy of some boxes to change back into her dress, Rarity sat herself down primly, with a small hoof mirror levitated in front of her. Her magic rippled along her mane and pelt in glimmering waves, straightening and cleaning. All too often, her eyes strayed toward Pinkie, which always brought a moment of hesitation, as if she wished to say something. Inevitably, she would look back to the mirror instead. Pinkie just sat there, with a silly grin on her face, rubbing her hoof on the lift’s floor. Gummy, as was the norm, did not seem to care for any of it, riding her fluffy puffy mane.

“Ding!” Pinkie announced when they reached the top. There was a calm wind blowing her mane and tail to the side. Shivering, she stepped off the lift and looked at the ship, taking a deep breath and bellowing, “Hey! Anypony there?!

There was answering activity from the crew working on the top deck. Soon enough a flash of white was seen, as a pegasus lifted up off the forecastle. The pair of earthbound mares began to walk across the pier protruding from the tower to meet her.

“Pinkie,” Rarity hissed to the mare beside her, “I’m not sure I like the look of this ship.” She made a subtle gesturing motion with her muzzle. “I’ve seen my share of airships. The aesthetics and construction are all wrong. Those panels on the side seem too regular, like the gunports on a warship. Are you sure this isn’t a pira—”

“Don’t worry about it! It feels unique. Different! One of a kind! And one of a kinds are the best kind of kinds! The pony they sent seemed neat, too. Real kindly! Not the same kind of kind I was just talking about before, though.” She gave Rarity a flash of a sidelong look. Her perky tone leveled off a little. “Just, not the kind of pony that would hurt other ponies.

“Anyway, I can tell these things,” Pinkie concluded, with a firm nod to herself. She continued on in an aside Rarity could barely hear over the wind. “Although maaaaybe Madame Pinkie’s not at her hundred percent A-game today.”

Rarity looked to the other side, but she kept walking along in silence, all-too-studiously examining the ship.

The white pegasus landed at the edge of the ship’s deck, waiting as the pair climbed the plank up to her. She looked more a working mare than some cutthroat, as Rarity had been half-expecting. She had an eye-searing yellow mane, worn as a long, curling waterfall around her face. Her garb was more appropriate for an engineer than an officer: pelt-tight black and brown material, with pockets and clips to hold tools and sundries in reach of the mouth. Rarity hoped it was faux-leather, and not genuine.

Rarity stepped forward, and began to raise her hoof, to offer it to be shaken, or kissed, but the pegasus looked past her toward Pinkie. Bright purple eyes went wide as a gasp escaped the mare’s lips. Her wings beat, lifting her off the ground, almost at a lunge.

Before Pinkie knew it, her head felt a whole lot lighter. The pegasus lifted Gummy with her hooves, holding the brass lizard up in front of her, her eyes almost teary with wonderment. The sentiment was echoed in her almost fillyish tone of delight. “Oh! He’s even more beautiful than I heard!”

Gummy blinked.

“Wow, ponies are usually just like, ‘Can you get this thing off my leg, Ma’am?’,” Pinkie quoted in a deadly-serious tone. “But you think he’s beautiful too?! That’s, like, the first time I’ve heard anypony but myself say that! You’ve got good eyes.”

“A fully autonomous animatronic alligator? He’s the smallest mobile walker I’ve ever seen! Of course he’s beautiful.” The pegasus turned and shifted Gummy, trying to look at him from all angles. “Oh! He’s looking at me! His eyes track! Did you really figure out how to make a clockwork decision matrix? They’ve been trying over at Canterlot U for years. They’re still working on those braindead logic pin systems. Can it see? Or is it just following movement? Can he hear too? How’d you overcome turning the vibration receptor into mechanical action? Oh, I have to show Lyra! I’ll bring him back!”

The pegasus shot off for one of the ship’s hatches with nary a breath spared, which was doubly impressive since she barely seemed to take one during that barrage of questions.

A nearby pegasus with a light lavender coat and intimidating red plate barding better suited for an earth pony buried her muzzle against her shod hoof. She gave a martyred sigh and stepped forward toward the pair. “Sorry. That was our First Mate, Surprise. She’s… different. The Captain’s been informed that visitors have arrived. Please, come aboard.”

“I like her!” Pinkie said, her tone bubbly. “Although it sounds like she’s having trouble with thingimajigs, since they’re what I used to make Gummy… but anyway! Where is your Captain? We’re kinda on a tight—” She eyed Rarity for a moment. “—schedule. For Miss Belle, not me.”

Rarity bit her lip, and folded her ears upon hearing Pinkie’s tone. For most ponies it would be neutral at worst. For Pinkie, it was frigid. Her mouth opened to speak, but she didn’t get a word out before she was interrupted.

“I would think so,” a haughty voice called from further down along the ship. The source was a sky-blue mare, with a long platinum mane under her royal-purple tricorn cap. She wore a finely tailored longcoat of the same hue, and she wore it with all the poise of a naval officer, rather than a lowly merchant skipper. Her eyes were narrowed in anger. “You’ve got a great deal of nerve, bringing a fugitive onto my ship. Don’t think I don’t keep my hoof on the pulse of the city, Miss Belle.”

Rarity shrank back toward the plank, at least for a moment. Then her expression hardened, her eyes turning positively icy. “It seems I’m in good company, then. Don’t think that I don’t recognize you. It’s only been a few years, and I never forget a face.”

Rarity took a step forward, lifting her muzzle. “I knew this ship wasn’t what it seemed. Who would expect Equestria’s most infamous and wanted mare to park herself in the capital? But I suppose the heights of gall aren’t lofty enough for Trixie Lulamoon.”

The blue mare’s muzzle scrunched up in distaste at that name. Pinkie’s scrunched up in confusion.

“The Great and Powerful Sky-captain Trixie…” The blue mare raised a foreleg, and lifted her muzzle, half-posing. “... goes where she wishes, and does what she pleases.” She jabbed a hoof toward Rarity. “And right now it would please her to toss you from this ship before you ruin everything.”

Pinkie casually peered down over the side of the ship. Her eyes seemed to bulge out of their sockets for a moment. “Uhhh… guys? Two’s company, three’s a crowd, and ten or so soldiers down there is trouble.” She swallowed hard and carefully backed away from the edge. “Big trouble."

Author's Note:

Thanks to our pre-readers for the chapter, 621Chopsuey, Web of Hope and Dusk Watch. Likewise thanks to my covert proofer, who slogged away for hours correcting all the little details.