• Published 27th Jul 2014
  • 4,309 Views, 256 Comments

Foreigner - AugieDog



Gilda has taken a posting in a far-flung corner of griffon territory in the hope of never seeing another pony again. That hope is, of course, in vain.

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2 - Interloper

Wild squawking and flapping shattered the valley's morning stillness at that point, but Gilda had been expecting it. She didn't even bother glancing up.

Derpy did, though. "Oh, wow! Gilda! Who are all those griffons?"

They're dweebs popped into Gilda's head, but she pushed it out pretty easily. Sure, it was true, but she didn't say those sorts of things anymore.

Not out loud, at least. "Those're the professors, the ones who study the city here." Giving the mosaic one last look, savoring the feeling of being the first griffon to see this artwork in maybe fifteen hundred years, Gilda sighed—time to get to work—and turned to Derpy. "Now, some of 'em are gonna pretend they're really mad at you when they get here, but you just ignore 'em, OK? This picture you uncovered is gonna make 'em as happy as griffons like them ever can be."

"Huh." One of Derpy's eyes drifted over to fix on Gilda. "Is it just that griffons like being grumpy? 'Cause you were doing a really good job of it earlier."

"Me?" Gilda made a shooing motion with her talons. "I'm an absolute amateur compared to these grouchbags."

"Praetor!" a voice shrieked as gratingly as claws on slate. "This is completely unacceptable!" Wings ruffled above her, and Professor Gloriana dropped to the cobblestones, the smaller griffon's feathers all askew, the white coat wrapped around her so wrinkled, Gilda felt pretty sure that the prof had slept in it. "A pony? Here in Catlatl? Damaging the single most important cultural site our people possess? I demand this interloper be hauled away in chains at once!"

Another eight or ten professors had landed by now—most of the current contingent visiting the site—their squabbling and complaining filling the air like the wailing from a rookery of newly hatched kits. Godfrey, however, settled soundlessly beside her, and when he cocked his head, Gilda nodded. He nodded back, cleared his throat, and let out a single cry so perfect and piercing, Gilda had to fight not to wince, the burst of sound seeming to slice straight through her head.

As always, it did the trick of shutting the professors up. They snapped their attention toward her, and when Gilda raised the edge of the balloon fabric just enough for them to see the mosaic, their beaks fell open and their eyes just about blew up to balloon-size themselves. "Now," Gilda said, feeling more like herself than she had all day, "we'll be following the protocols for dealing with changes to the site. Aedile Godfrey will remain here with you as you begin your initial assessment. I will be escorting Ambassador Doo to the Eyrie, then I'll be informing those cadets on survey duty that they're to report here to fetch and carry for you for the rest of the day. Any questions?"

Even that blowhard Gloriana just shook her head, the prof creeping over the stones of the knocked-down wall like they were unhatched eggs. "Good." Gilda stepped away and let the balloon drop; Gloriana gave an alarmed chirp, leaped forward, and grabbed for it, the rest of the professors practically swarming over each other to get a better view. "Aedile," she said, and she gave the proper chirp for passing command of the situation to Godfrey. He knew the profs better than she did anyway and would certainly be able to keep them from accidentally smashing anything important.

"Praetor," he replied, that not-quite-a-smile not quite visible along the edges of his beak.

Gilda turned to Derpy, the pony watching the scrum with her ears folded, and asked, "Ambassador Doo? Shall we go up?"

For several seconds, Derpy didn't move; then she gave a start and swiveled her head to Gilda. "You mean me?"

"Yes, I do." Gilda spread her wings. "After we get some breakfast, we'll send word to your Princess Twilight that you're safely here instead of anywhere around Ponyville."

Derpy blinked. "Well, they probably know that I'm not there already, but telling them that I'm here would be a really good idea." Those weird little pegasus wings puffed open. "Up, did you say?"

Gilda leaped into the air. "To the Eyrie!" She looked back at the pony and waved her talons toward the peak of Mt. Chimalli.

Giving a flap, Derpy raised her head, part of her wandering gaze following Gilda's gesture. "Oh, wow!" she cried.

With a grin, Gilda faced forward and found herself remembering the first time she'd stood among the ruins of the ancient city and looked up through the quarter mile of empty air at the glass and steel structure built into the top of the mountain. And sure, the Eyrie had grown and changed in the thousand and more years that the Guardians had kept vigil over Catlatl and over those griffons, pilgrims or professors, who felt drawn here. But Gilda still shivered every time she made this flight, her thoughts turning to the hundreds and hundreds of praetors in whose claw marks she'd been treading since she'd taken the post commanding the most griffonish place on this whole pony planet.

"Oh, wow!" Derpy said again. "Gilda! This is so great! Do you live here all the time?"

It took Gilda a couple swallows before she could say, "I wouldn't wanna live anywhere else."

Larger and larger the structure grew, the main landing terrace jutting out from the center of the complex, the cadets' quarters below, the main Corps garrison above. Two cadets stood at attention on either side of the big, wide-open granite doors, and Gilda couldn't help giving her wings a little flare as she touched claws and paws to the carefully smoothed but just as carefully unpolished stone. The cadets tapped their talons in salute, and Gilda returned it before something heavy thumped down beside her. "Oh, wow!" Derpy exclaimed a third time. "When you said this was griffon territory, I didn't know you meant ev'rypony was a griffon!"

That Godfrey and the eight junior aediles were doing a great job training the cadets, Gilda had never doubted. But when being called "everypony" got nothing but the tiniest eye twitch from the younger of the two on guard, that seemed more a miracle than anything else. Still, with everything that was about to fall out of the sky onto them, Gilda figured the sooner she started preparing the garrison, the better for every griffon here. "Cadets!" she barked. "Introduce yourselves to the ambassador!"

The bigger of the two, a female with multiple badges marking the crimson senior sash cinched across her chest, gave a stomp, hopped forward, and sang out, "Cadet Gyre, Praetor!"

She leaped back into place, and the slighter one, his purple junior sash completely unmarked, saluted less showily and said, "Cadet Gimble, Praetor."

"At ease, cadets," Gilda said. Gyre fell into parade rest as if she'd been hatched in that position, but Gimble narrowed his eyes a bit, sliding more warily into the less-restrictive stance. Nodding—yeah, these two were gonna be perfect—Gilda gestured to Derpy, still sitting beside her and staring in multiple directions. "Cadets, this is Ambassador Doo."

"Umm, Gilda?" Derpy's brow wrinkled. "You keep calling me that, but I don't think that's really me."

Of course, preparations went both ways: Gilda leaned toward Derpy and whispered, "But you can pretend it's you while you're here, can't you, Derpy? As part of the game?"

"Game?" The pony's gray ears perked.

"Kind of." Because one of the several things Gilda had learned during her lost years among the ponies was how much they loved playing stupid games. "It's a game with a lot of rules—there's a whole shelf of books in my office if you're interested in looking them over—but we've got to follow as many of them as we can. And one of them says that a pony this deep in griffon territory has to be an ambassador. Can you do that, Derpy? Can you follow that rule?"

For a moment, Derpy just stared, one eye slightly up and to the left, the other slightly down and to the right. But then the edges of her mouth curled into a smile, and she leaped to her hoofs. "I can sure try!" she declared. "So, can you tell me what an ambassador does in this game? Or is it more fun if it's a surprise?"

"Y'know, in this game, 'surprise' and 'fun' don't go together." Gilda tapped Derpy's chest gently with a claw. "So I'll tell you: an ambassador is supposed to be cheerful and friendly, and she comes to a new place to learn about the folks there while at the same time she teaches those folks about her own folks back home."

"I can do that!" Derpy's smile seemed to radiate from her whole body. "I can do that really well!"

"Yeah, I thought so." And since the pony was gonna be here for who knew how long— "But one other thing an ambassador needs is an honor guard." Gilda swept a talon toward the two cadets. "Ambassador Doo, may I present Cadets Gyre and Gimble? They'll help you in any way you need while you're visiting us."

"Oh, wow!" Derpy sprang into a hover, her front hoofs clapping together. "This is gonna be so great!"

Gyre seemed to puff out her chest, though Gilda was sure any measurements would show the cadet hadn't actually moved.

Gimble, though, came all over wary again for the briefest instant, then it was like he slid a mask over his face, fear and uncertainty showing there suddenly. "Permission to speak freely, Praetor?" he asked, a phony quiver in his voice.

"Of course, Cadet." Gilda gave him a smile, not bothering to soften any of the predatory edges.

Feathers ruffled along his neck as he swallowed. "I'm the fifth lowest-ranking junior in the squadron, ma'am, and for an honor guard, well, Ambassador Doo deserves nothing but the best."

Which just made Gilda's smile get wider. She'd had Gimble pegged the moment she'd laid eyes on him three years ago, a frosh recruit skinnier than the rest but one whose sharp eyes, she was sure, didn't miss a thing. Most of the cadets assigned to the Catlatl Garrison, Gilda had quickly found, were either kits from wealthy families looking for a fancy entry to put on their university application or were kits with nowhere to go who'd been dumped into the Corps by a judge or a social worker. Gilda had nearly been in that second group herself before she'd run off to Cloudsdale, and she recognized some of the same signs in Gimble: a griffon without a single badge on his sash, for instance, was working very, very hard to stay unnoticed.

She stepped toward him. "Tell me, Gimble. Are you a cadet in the Catlatl Garrison?"

Another sharpening of gaze spattered so quickly across his face, Gilda was sure she would've missed it if she hadn't been watching for it. Then that droopy, underachiever look slipped back into place, and he said, "Uhh, yes, ma'am."

"And that—" Gilda poked him a good deal harder in the chest than she'd poked Derpy. "—makes you better than ninety-five percent of the griffons in this world." She snapped her attention toward the other cadet. "Isn't that right, Gyre?"

"Yes, ma'am!" the fledge just about shouted, and Gilda knew she meant it. Not that Gilda had memorized the cadets' files, but Gyre carried herself in a way that stank of an old-school military family. More than once, watching this kit lead the drills above and around the peaks of the Wyvern Range, Gilda had found herself picturing her own retirement ceremony forty or fifty years from now, Gyre as the Grand Imperator or even one of Aquileon's Consuls snapping a medal to Gilda's chest...

"OK, then." Gilda shook her thoughts back into order; so much could still go wrong with all this, she couldn't afford to get distracted. "Cadets, fall in behind the ambassador and myself. We'll stop at the company clerk's desk for a moment, then it's down to the mess hall for breakfast."

"Mess?" Derpy blinked, each eyelid moving at slightly different rates. "Do we hafta eat the jam without toast or spoons or anything?"

And as much as part of Gilda wanted to rear back roaring, grab the pony by the scruff, and shake her till she popped like the bubbles on her flank, vanishing once and for all and letting Gilda get back to the life she'd made for herself, another part of her, an older part, a part that had driven her out of griffon territory all those years ago in search of the magical rulers of the world, that part gave a nearly hysterical little laugh at once again taking a breath scented with the warm, weird, and wonderful dry-hay-and-damp-oats aroma of pony.

Needing to steer a middle course between those two extremes, Gilda let herself smile at Derpy. "It's a part of the game," she said. "We call where we eat the mess hall, but we do all we can to keep it very neat and clean."

Derpy laughed. "I think I'm gonna like this game!"

"Yeah." Gilda gestured to the open doors of the garrison's main entrance. "I'm sure we'll all enjoy it." She started inside, heard the clip-clop-clip-clop of hoofs beside her and the shuffle of claws and paws behind.

No turning back now...

The main corridor stretched tall, wide, square, and empty into the heart of the garrison, the passage designed to be big enough for a squadron with full packs to wing in and out quickly and in single file. The company clerk's desk sat at the end of the hall, and Gillian was just leaping to attention beside the desk, her eyes wide and her neck feathers ruffling. "Praetor?" the fourth of Gilda's junior aediles asked. "Is that a...a...a pony?"

"Aedile Gillian." Gilda gestured to Derpy. "This is Ambassador Doo. She'll need guest quarters for the duration of her stay, so let's put her in Three Sapphire." She glanced at the pony. "That's just down the hall from my rooms."

Derpy leaned forward and whispered intently, "Do ambassadors say hooray?"

Try as she might, Gilda couldn't keep from grinning. "I think that'd be OK," she whispered back.

"Then hooray!" Derpy practically exploded into the air, wings and legs flailing, the two cadets and the aedile giving little squawks of alarm. "I'm so glad you're here!" Derpy said, darting forward to wrap a huge hug around Gilda's neck. "This'd be really hard without you!" And she flopped back onto her hoofs again, her yellow mane practically glowing in the sunlight streaming through the doorway behind them.

For about five seconds, Gilda couldn't think, both parts of her arguing brain frozen at the pony's embrace. She forced herself to move, though—keep it together, catbird; there's no time to stand around like an idiot!—turned to Gillian again, and found the aedile seemingly just as frozen, her beak hanging open and every hair on her back standing up. "Aedile," she growled, and while she couldn't quite manage Godfrey's deep, resonant tones, her voice was more than enough to shock Gillian into blinking and focusing again. "Three Sapphire for Ambassador Doo," Gilda repeated.

"Right! Yes, praetor! I'll just— Of course!" Gillian hopped behind the desk, seized a quill pen, and started scrawling notes.

"Second," Gilda went on, "get the next shift of gate wardens out here on the double: Cadets Gyre and Gimble will be the ambassador's honor guard while she's with us, so they're to be removed and excused from all other duties and assignments until such time as I tell you otherwise."

"Yes, Praetor." Gillian seemed to be breathing more normally now, her notes almost legible.

"Third, all cadets currently assigned to survey duty are to report to the site. We've had a major find at the Scribes' Union Hall, and most of the professors are down there already. Fourth, I'll be needing a message sent along the relays to HQ, so have our top-rated signal cadet ready with the big mirror on the upper deck." Gilda risked a glance at Derpy. "Anything I'm forgetting?"

Derpy opened her mouth, but the sound that followed came from her midsection, a long, drawn-out rumble that Gilda almost thought she could see rippling through the air around them. "Breakfast?" Derpy asked, a pinkish blush touching her gray cheeks.

"Breakfast." Gilda gave her a nod, then brushed a salute over the floor in Gillian's direction. "Aedile."

"Praetor." Gillian tapped her claws, then gave a series of whistles that echoed ringingly from the stone walls and carried Gilda's orders to the duty cadets down the hall to the right.

With another nod, Gilda turned down the hall to the left. "This way, Ambassador," she said.

On a normal day, the mess hall stood pretty much empty at this time of the morning, the cadets already fed and in class with the aediles while the professors wouldn't yet have begun stirring. And knowing that they wouldn't be having many normal days for quite a while, Gilda was glad to pad into the long, bright room, the bay windows looking out over the valley and the Wyvern Range beyond, and see everything neatly arranged, white mountain laurels in the vases at the center of each rectangular table, cushions in their places on the stone floor. She'd never known a more serene feeling than sitting at the head table here during meals, nearly a hundred griffons quietly eating or chatting in the room around her.

Again, something that she doubted would be happening for a while...

Gilda gestured to the end of the room where she and her nine aediles had their places. "Cadets, please escort Ambassador Doo to the head table." She nodded to Derpy. "Oatmeal OK for you?"

An astonished look never seemed far from Derpy's face. "It's my favorite, Gilda! How'd you know?"

"Lucky guess." She pushed through into the kitchen and gave the 'halt action' chirp at the sight of Cookie starting to pour last night's goose schmaltz into this morning's porridge to make tonight's gravy. "Dish me out two bowls of that oatmeal first, Cookie, and dust off your vegetarian cookbook. We've got a pony visiting."

Of the two possible reactions Gilda was expecting—anger like Gloriana or wonder like Gillian—Cookie seemed to lean toward the second. "A pony, Praetor? Here? For real?"

"Yep." Not the sharpest knife in the drawer, Cookie, but the way he augmented the rations HQ sent up the supply lines with locally caught and grown poultry and produce helped to keep the garrison under budget every month. "There'll be more of 'em along any day now, too."

"Never seen a pony afore," he muttered, his claws shaking as he scooped the oatmeal from pot to bowl. "All magical and like that, ain't they?"

Gilda didn't even try to stop her teeth from grinding. If getting half the griffons here not to react with outrage at the presence of ponies was going to be tough, getting the other half not to react with awe was going to be even tougher.

All right. One step at a time. "Bring the bowls out, and I'll introduce you." That was key: once her griffons met Derpy, Gilda figured, they'd see that she was neither the sort of tyrannical overlord ponies tended to be in some of the more lurid branches of popular entertainment nor a fuzzy bundle of golden sunshine, the image of ponies that the Consulate in Aquileon often seemed to embrace. Ponies were people no better or worse than any given griffon, and while learning that lesson had destroyed Gilda's view of the world, her equilibrium, and much of her life during her time in Cloudsdale, she'd come away a good deal stronger afterwards.

Or so she kept telling herself...

No. No time for doubts. She pushed the kitchen door open and gestured for Cookie to precede her. He flew out slowly, his talons more clutching the bowls than holding them, and she followed to see Derpy settled at the end of the head table. Gimble stood so rigidly at attention along the wall, Gilda thought he was trying to become part of the stonework, but Gyre was chatting with the pony: "—many business connections in Manehattan, Ambassador, so my parents often have pony guests at the estate."

Derpy nodded, her mane flouncing around her face. "I don't get out of Ponyville too much, and we've only ever had one griffon come there, I think. A real party-pooper, too, the way she called ev'rypony names when all we wanted to do was—"

"Ambassador!" Gilda interrupted, hoping that Derpy's train of thought really was as easily derailed as it seemed. "I'd like you to meet Gideon, our cook."

Cookie opened his beak, but before he could make a sound, Derpy launched into a long story about a baker friend of hers back home and the amazing things she could do with oatmeal. Watching Cookie's reaction shift over the course of the next several minutes from slack-beaked amazement to blinking confusion to his usual glassy-eyed stoicism made Gilda want to cheer, and she sucked down her luke-warm porridge with a feeling that this might work out after all. "Thanks, Cookie," she said then, cutting Derpy off in mid-sentence and reaching a claw over to tap the pony's bowl. "Better eat up, Derpy. We've still got lots to do today, and Cookie's gotta start lunch."

"Oh!" Derpy snapped her crooked gaze down to her bowl, grabbed it between her front hoofs, and rammed her snout in. Four seconds of slurping, and she straightened, her tongue darting out to catch a last splash of oatmeal dripping from her nose. "All done! And it was really good, too, Mr. Gideon! You should come to Ponyville and show my friend Pinkie—"

"Yeah, he should." Gilda nodded, and Gyre leaped forward, grabbed both their bowls, and zipped into the kitchen. "Right now, though, he's got to get to work, and so, Derpy, do you."

"Work?" Derpy's face fell. "I thought we were playing a game?"

"The work's a part of the game. Kind of." Gilda gestured to where Gyre was standing now next to Gimble. "The cadets are gonna take you down and show you your room, and then I'll need you to make a list of your favorite things to eat so the cadets can give that list to Cookie."

"Cookies?" Derpy's face rose again. "I love cookies!" She sprang to her hoofs. "I'll get started on that list right away!"

"Good." Giving Cookie the little 'dismissed' chirp, she got to her own paws and claws. "I'll come see you after I've sent the message to your Princess Twilight telling her that you and her balloon are here."

"OK!" Derpy took a step away from the table, then seemed to stagger sideways, spinning back to face Gilda. "A message? But...Ponyville's a long way away! It took me all night to get from there to here, and it woulda taken way longer if I hadn't been caught up in that big storm!" She tapped a hoof against her chest. "Believe me, Gilda: I deliver packages and mail and pianos and stuff all the time, so I know it's sometimes not easy to get them from someplace to someplace else. You griffons don't have unicorns to send messages by magic, either, so..." Derpy blinked. "How're you gonna tell Ponyville I'm here?"

Her own divided head and heart smacked her back and forth again for half an indrawn breath: show Derpy the com system to get the sweet rush of her approval, or show it to her just to rub her face in the way that griffons had figured out how to handle the world without resorting to the sort of magic that made the air twitch whenever a pony so much as moved through it.

But no. What Gilda needed more than anything at this point was to get away from the smell of this damn pony and get her brain back on track. "You just let me worry about that message, Derpy," she said, digging up a smile and shoving it into place across her beak. "You go with the cadets, and I'll be down to see you real soon."

Derpy cocked her head. "If you're sure, Gilda."

"I am." She flicked her talons toward the door to stop them from curling into a fist. "You're an ambassador and our guest, remember? You get to take it easy."

"Hooray!" Derpy shouted again, and Gilda flinched, half-hoping and half-afraid that the pegasus might hug her again. Instead, though, she hopped to her hoofs and started trotting toward the door.

"Gyre? Gimble?" Gilda pitched her voice low and straight at the two cadets. "Keep your heads, and keep her in her room."

Both cadets saluted, Gyre turning the motion into a leap that brought her quite smartly to Derpy's side. "Let me show you the way, Ambassador."

Gimble gave Gilda a look that made her think of someone working on a really hard math problem, but he quickly followed, the three of them padding out of the mess hall together. Gilda blew out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding, pushed away from the table, and started out into the hallway herself. Equestria's newest ambassador and her honor guard would be heading to the east wing of the garrison—officers' quarters—but Gilda had an appointment on the roof.

Turning left, she ducked down a side passage, the only light provided by the firefly lanterns set into the walls every few yards. An alcove near the end of the hall held a set of stairs that wound upward, and Gilda took them at a scramble, her wingtips brushing the wall to keep her focused on the here and now. She needed to phrase this message exactly right, or she'd have nutjobs of every feather and stripe crowding up here.

That she'd get an imperator or two from further along the chain of command was a foregone conclusion—news that a pony had not just knocked down a wall in Catlatl but had also uncovered proof that ponies had apparently been in contact with griffon society from the first moment of its hatching, that was just too politically volatile not to draw attention. But if she phrased it dryly enough, made it sound dusty and dull—maybe not mention what the mosaic showed—that might limit the impact and keep anyone from Grand Imperator Gustavus's staff from noticing. The less that hack and any of his cronies got involved in things, she'd learned over the past few years, the better those things turned out for everyone involved...

She reached the top of the spiraling stairway then, shoved the door open, and slid out onto the signal platform, a large, circular stone area set at the very pinnacle of Mt. Chimalli. A burly male cadet leaned against the railing, his front claws balancing one of the garrison's two big mirrors on edge. He straightened to attention with a hind paw salute—the only sort of salute allowable under the circumstances—and Gilda started right in: "Message to Consulate Headquarters from Catlatl Garrison. Pony Ambassador Derpy Doo, assigned to the court of Princess Twilight Sparkle, arrived on the winds of last night's storm with the princess's hot air balloon. The ambassador is well and the balloon seems unpunctured. Repeat that, cadet."

He did word for word, and Gilda nodded. "Last night's storm also uncovered a previously unknown piece of mosaic artwork when part of a wall collapsed." Swallowing, she focused on the ruins laid out on the valley floor below. "Scientists on site are currently investigating and—"

"Praetor!" The alarm in the cadet's voice snapped Gilda's head up and over. "To the south-east!" Discarding all protocol for handling one of the big signal mirrors, the cadet removed one shaking claw from the silvered glass and crooked it in that direction. "Something—!

Spinning, staring into the mid-morning blue, Gilda just had time to register what seemed to be a solid mass of swirling color streaking directly toward her. "Look out!" a scratchy and all too familiar voice shouted, and every hair and feather on Gilda's body crackled at the stroke of pony magic, the air around her puffing up into something as soft and pliable as a cushion. She got one glimpse of outstretched blue hoofs and wide-open purple eyes before the pony slammed into her, the magic in the air keeping the impact from being bone-shattering, but it still knocked Gilda back, her forelegs tangling with the pony's and tumbling them both across the signal platform.

Several sounds jabbed Gilda's ears: a shouted squawk from the cadet; a tiny tinkle like the smallest possible bell being dropped; and an explosive shattering of glass that made Gilda's blood freeze. Then she was slamming up against stone, wind swirling like a tornado around her for less than an instant, and silence fell as heavily as an avalanche.

Gilda let herself take a breath, her brain screaming with what she knew had happened; then she opened her eyes with a prayer to the Cat Mother and Eagle Father that she might be wrong.

Several dozen scattered flashes of light hit her first, the shards of the mirror spread over the floor of the signal platform. Damn. Second, she craned her head around till she saw the cadet sitting up a few yards away, his face a grimace of pain, his right talons clutching his left talons to his chest.

Double damn. "Report, Cadet!" she barked at him.

"Just a sprain, I think, Praetor," he said through clenched teeth, but Gilda was staring at the little spots of red starting to seep across his white feathers.

"Infirmary," she said. "Now."

He went to salute with his front claws, winced, and scratched it across the stonework with his back claws instead. Spreading his wings—a quick glance told Gilda they hadn't been injured—he rose over the railing and descended toward the nearest entrance to the garrison.

Only then did Gilda glance down at the weight sprawled across her stomach, at the blue pegasus with that rainbow mane all askew and those big purple eyes blinking. "G?" the pony asked in a whisper.

"Dash." Gilda couldn't keep the growl out of her voice. "You gonna let me up, or we gonna lay here sunbathing all day?"

Rainbow Dash leaped into the air, one front hoof pointing to herself, the other waving behind her. "I was— I mean, I didn't know— I mean, a friend of mine, we think she got caught in a storm last night! I was following the wind traces, and they must've been, like, totally hurricane force! So I maybe got a little caught up in, y'know, surfing them, and maybe wasn't exactly looking where I was—"

"Derpy's fine." Gilda got slowly to her paws and claws and wished everything everywhere wasn't shaking so much. "She's downstairs if you wanna see her."

"Really?" The smile that burst over Dash's muzzle made Gilda wince. "Hey, G, that's great! Lemme just—!" She reached for her chest, fumbled a hoof there for a second, then looked down, her smile vanishing. "Hey! Where'd it go?"

Gilda's feathers began prickling again, the air around her suddenly sharpening. "Go?" she repeated.

"I had this necklace." Dash put both her front hoofs to the back of her neck and fumbled in the mess of her mane. "Twilight gave it to me so we could keep in contact, but I guess I maybe dropped it when I ran into you." Dash looked around, her brow wrinkling. "What goes on here, anyway?"

The air had gotten so sharp now, magic filling it like the scent of molten steel, that Gilda found herself gasping for breath. "Dash?" She managed to raise a claw and point to a little pile of blue powder among the shards of the broken signal mirror.

Dash swiveled her head, and her face fell. "Uh-oh."

Exactly what happened then, Gilda had no idea. But the air tore like a bolt of lightning had struck even though it didn't make a sound or any sort of light. The empty space in front of Gilda just ripped open, and out of that rip charged colors brighter than any she'd seen since returning to griffon territory: purples and pinks, oranges and yellows so vivid, Gilda wanted both to squeeze her eyes shut against the onslaught and open them wider than she'd ever opened them before.

"Rainbow!" a voice shouted, high-pitched but resounding with a magic that Gilda was sure she could taste. "I felt the amulet get smashed! Are you all right? What happened?"

"I'm fine, Twilight." Dash still sounded exactly the same when she was annoyed, some part of Gilda noted. "It was an accident." She still had the same sandpapery laugh, too. "I just ran into an old friend."

The flood of sensation froze, and Gilda was sure her heart froze with it. Then it all whisked away, letting her see and move and think more or less normally again. Not that she wanted to: six figures had appeared on the signal platform, a purple pony front and center, her wings and horn marking her out from the others. To her left, an orange earth pony with a battered brown hat stood glaring, and to her right, the pudgy little purple dragon Gilda had seen wandering around Ponyville during her one and only visit. The other three behind them—another earth pony, a pegasus, and a unicorn—were also familiar from that awful afternoon, and Gilda realized that the moment she'd hoped would be days away had dumped itself fully-formed over her right here and now.

Absolutely certain that no protocols existed for this situation, Gilda forced herself to step forward, nodded what she hoped was an appropriate bow, and said, "Princess Twilight? Welcome to the Catlatl Garrison."