• Published 27th Jul 2014
  • 4,340 Views, 263 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.

  • ...
7
 263
 4,340

4 - Delver

The clickety-clatter of pony hoofs rattled from the stone walls of the narrow side street, and Gilda couldn't stop her ears from twitching, the sound so completely unlike the usual shuffle of griffon claws and paws. Not that she would be hearing it for much longer, she knew: the shrieking of the professors would easily drown out everything else once she and her guests rounded the corner up ahead.

For their parts, the ponies seemed more subdued than she thought she'd ever seen ponies. Even when Pinkie Pie came out with her inevitable comment—"They really oughtta hire more janitors around here"—she whispered it instead of shouting it. Twilight craned her head around as if she was trying to look everywhere at once, the biggest grin on her snout, and glancing back, Gilda saw expressions ranging from thoughtful to wary spread out over the rest of the group.

Were they actually having more or less appropriate reactions? Maybe this wouldn't be such a disaster after all.

"Umm, Gilda?" Derpy's thick voice said into her ear, and Gilda couldn't stop herself from jumping, the wall-eyed pegasus suddenly right beside her. "D'you think the professors are gonna be less grouchy than they were earlier? 'Cause that doctor friend of yours up in the barracks was pretty grouchy, too, and, well, too many grouchy griffons in the same day—" She stopped, a wide grin splitting her face. "Hey! Grouchy griffons! Those're both grumbly, growly words, aren't they?"

Gilda shook herself. Of course this was gonna be a disaster: what was she thinking? "Yeah, they are," she said, then she turned to Twilight. "So let's keep this formal, OK? I'll call you 'Princess,' and you call me 'Praetor.'" She looked back at the others again and raised her voice. "Like Twilight was saying before, you ponies being here at all is a real big deal, and some of the professors we'll be meeting in a minute are likely to raise a stink about it. Just smile and shrug it off: they're pretty much harmless."

Twilight's giggle drew Gilda's attention back to her. "I knew professors exactly like that when I was in school. But don't worry. We'll all be on our best behavior." She grinned at those behind them. "Right, girls?"

"Mmm-hmmm!" Pinkie nodded so fast, her head blurred, and Gilda was sure she could hear something rattling.

Rarity tossed her mane. "When are we ever not?" A slight wrinkle wavered across her nose. "Although one could wish that one's ancient culture weren't quite so dusty..."

A clearing of throat from Spike. "Just for the record?" He raised a front claw. "Not a girl."

They'd reached the corner by then, and Gilda faced forward with a silently chirped prayer to the Cat Mother and the Eagle Father—you two got me into this, and by the thousand feline Hells, you'd better get me out! Padding onto the wider avenue, she took a breath, turned right, and started uphill along the cobblestones toward the flurry of activity around the Scribes' Union Hall.

Poles propped the purple fabric of Twilight's deflated balloon into something like a canopy above the whole scene, and a gridwork of yellow string stretched across the street and up the wall. More canopies shaded the professors crouched down among the grid, and Gilda could only stare at them, dusting little brushes over the rocks that had fallen when the storm had slammed the balloon into the building. Typical profs: a fifteen-hundred-year-old piece of art gets uncovered, and they were focusing on a buncha rubble...

But looking at the little alcove under the balloon, Gilda could see why some of them might choose to find something else to do for a while. Godfrey stood there, of course, but so did Professor Gloriana. And yes, she was the number one expert on ancient Catlatl, but Gilda had always found that her life went a lot easier when it didn't have Gloriana in it.

Cadets swirled everywhere, carrying boxes and bundles and responding to whatever commands the profs barked at them, so Gilda wasn't surprised when one of them, unfolding a table before a glowering Professor Garibaldi, caught sight of her and whistled a sharp 'ten-hut.' She sent out a quick 'as you were' chirp, but enough of the cadets had snapped to attention to make the profs notice.

Which meant that they noticed the colorful parade behind her. Which meant that all sound, all motion, all activity everywhere ahead froze like the windigoes had returned, all eyes and beaks wide and pointed directly at Gilda.

How her voice didn't crack, Gilda never knew. But she nodded, turned to Twilight, and said with enough volume to reach every pricked-up ear in the vicinity, "Princess? May I present the researchers who have made it their lives' work to preserve and study ancient Catlatl?"

The look on Twilight's face somehow combined eagerness with hesitation as she bowed her head to the professors. "It's an incredible honor to be allowed access to—"

"Praetor!" Gloriana leaped down the slope, her wings and talons spread, sparks all but shooting from her eyes. Gilda stepped forward, let her own wings unfurl, set herself between the onrushing prof and the ponies, and fixed the other griffon with as fiery a glare as she could muster. Gloriana seemed to notice—fortunately for all involved; Gilda really didn't want to write up a report detailing why she'd smacked down the site's senior archeologist—and she drew to a quivering halt a few paces away with a shrieked, "What is the meaning of this??"

"Princess Twilight Sparkle?" Gilda gave the slightest glance in Twilight's direction before drilling her glare back down on Gloriana; she really, really didn't want to write up a report detailing how the site's senior archeologist had smacked down an Equestrian princess, after all. "This is Professor Gloriana. She's our—"

"Gloriana?" Twilight stepped around Gilda with an almost liquid ease. "The author of Legends from the Time of the Resettlement?"

For once, Gilda was glad to be looking at the sour-faced old prof, her rheumy eyes going wide and her neck feathers puffing out. "You...you're familiar with my work?"

"Of course!" Twilight literally glowed, the air shimmering purple around her and smelling slightly of blueberries. "In fact, your studies of griffon legends inspired me to investigate obscure pony folklore in the Canterlot libraries when I was a student! That's what eventually led me to discover the truth behind the Mare in the Moon!" She spread her wings. "It's so wonderful to meet you, Professor! And here on the streets of ancient Catlatl as well! It's like a dream come true!"

Gilda had studied a lot of combat techniques since joining the Guardian Corps, but she had never seen an opponent so thoroughly disarmed as Gloriana was just then facing the princess. "I— That is, you— I mean—" Gloriana stopped and took a breath. "Your Highness, I don't know what to say."

"Oh, please, Professor: call me Twilight." She took another step toward Gloriana. "I know you're still in the preliminary stages of your current investigation, but it's such an astounding find, I hope you'll forgive me for asking if you can share anything of what you've learned so far?"

And Gloriana smiled: a brief thing, sure, less than the flutter of a butterfly's wing, but Gilda knew she'd seen it and knew they'd moved past one of the several obstacles in the path toward getting this all resolved without any mountains collapsing or buildings bursting into flame. "Certainly, Twilight." Gloriana gestured to the alcove under the balloon. "Let me show you the mosaic."

Blowing out a breath, Gilda heard a rough chuckle beside her, a sound she'd once known so well, she could barely stop her hackles from rising. She glanced over to see Rainbow Dash grinning at the professor and the princess moving up the street. "Eggheads of a feather gotta flock together." Dash shook her head, then spun partway around to face Gilda. "So! What actual fun stuff d'you guys got around here?"

A part of Gilda wanted to let the years whisk away, wanted to leap into the sky and show Dash the cadet training courses further up in the Wyverns, wanted to stretch her wings against the only flyer who'd ever really given her a challenge—

But Godfrey, alighting just then on Gilda's other side, was clearing his throat. And that was that. "Gimme a minute, Dash; I'm pretty much on duty here." She looked at her senior aedile and gave the 'report' chirp.

Godfrey scratched a salute. "All's well, Praetor. But may I say what a pleasure it is to meet the illustrious Rainbow Dash?"

Dash blinked. "Ill—what—strious?"

A snort from Applejack. "It's a good thing, sugarcube."

"Indeed." Godfrey had that annoying little not-quite-a-smile playing around his beak. "I've often wondered about the adventures you and our praetor must've shared during her years in Cloudsdale."

Every follicle on Gilda's body seemed to stick straight up, and the laugh she forced out sounded more like she was gargling thistles. "Oh, there's no need to go into that." Any of it. Ever. "We were just a couple stupid kids."

"Yep, yep, yep." Dash threw a foreleg around Gilda's shoulders. "And look at us now: a couple stupid young adults!"

A passing cadet let out about half a laugh, but Gilda's glare sent him quickly flapping down to the far end of the dig. "Yes," Gilda said, her mind racing for an excuse to get the ponies off the site and out of griffon territory as quickly as possible before they could start telling the story of that last awful day in Ponyville. "How 'bout I give you folks the grand tour of the city? If we can pull Twilight away from Professor Gloriana, I mean..."

That seemed an ever-taller order as she started through the professors' grid toward the balloon, the ponies falling in behind her. They had to go slowly, for one thing, the whole crowd of them in single file picking their zig-zagging way along. And it didn't help that the profs seemed to have lost interest in anything except staring like they'd never seen a pony before. Which, Gilda had to admit, was a real possibility: not up close like this and certainly not on the streets of ancient Catlatl.

None of them screamed and leaped like Gloriana had at least. But some of the stares were a lot closer to being glares, and all the ponies—even Pinkie—looked more than a little uncomfortable under the attention. No, actually, Gilda saw quickly: Derpy trotted along completely unfazed by it all, her weaving way somehow never quite running her into any of the rock piles the profs were supposedly studying.

From ahead, Gilda could hear excited voices—Gloriana's and Twilight's—but she couldn't make out their actual words until she'd reached the poles holding up the balloon: "—commemorating the institution of the seasons!" Gloriana was saying, pointing a claw at the ancient writing above the image. "The text says that King Magnus agreed to have his unicorns move the sun further north every day between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice in order to create milder winters here in Catlatl and strengthen our agricultural base!"

"Oh, Professor!" Twilight was nearly hopping in place. "This is...it's revolutionary!"

A small gasp from behind, and Rarity squeezed past Gilda. "And the tile work! The colors! They're exquisite!" The pony's eyes actually sparkled. "But why in the wide, wide world of Equestria was it hidden for so long??"

Twilight's ears folded, and Gloriana flinched. "Yes," Gilda said, unable to stop a grin: trust a pony to cut right to the prickily heart of the matter. "I was wondering that myself, Professor. Why would the evidence of pony involvement in the affairs of Catlatl from the very beginning be covered up like this?"

Gloriana turned, just about all the excitement that had been lighting her face draining away. "Perhaps you can imagine, Praetor, that pony involvement in the Fall of Catlatl created some very strong feelings among our ancestors?"

A coldness gripped Gilda's gut. "So some griffon somewhere just decided to erase the ponies from our history? Is that it, Professor?" Why this bothered her so much, Gilda didn't know. But the thought that hundreds of generations had grown up, lived, and died thinking of ponies as ungriffonly monsters who casually sewed chaos and destruction in their wake made her want to start shouting. She clenched her teeth against the urge and waved her talons toward the city, the ruins stretching down the hill and across the whole valley. "There could be other mosaics, you mean, hidden for a thousand years, covered up like this one was? Other evidence of Catlatl's true past that have been denied to us for all these centuries??"

Something flickered in Gloriana's eyes—anger, Gilda thought it was, but it vanished almost instantly. "It's a certainty, Praetor." A tight smile sharpened across her beak. "But unless we have more freak storms and accidental balloon releases, I don't see how we could ever know which walls cover similar mosaics and which walls are merely walls."

"Ask Rarity," a bored voice said, and Gilda snapped her head over to a shaded section of the street where Pinkie and Derpy were sitting, their top-spinning game set up on the stones in front of them. Pinkie waved her hoof without looking up. "She zappety-zapped those mirror bits earlier, and since the tiles are all shiny, too, she could prob'bly use her horn to sniff 'em out."

"Huh?" Derpy blinked at Pinkie. "Horns aren't noses, Pinkie Pie. I mean, I don't think they're noses." She raised her sideways glance. "Twilight? Your horn's not another nose, is it?"

Twilight was staring at Rarity. "Not really, Derpy, but—" She nodded to the mosaic. "I haven't used your gem-finding spell in years, Rarity, but can you sense anything here?"

"I— I don't know." The unicorn stepped daintily forward, and the air began to shimmer around her horn, Gilda swallowing against the sudden dryness in her throat. Could it really be that easy? Just point a pony at a wall and have her—?

"Hmmm..." Rarity closed her eyes, her forehead wrinkling slightly. "It's not a strong sensation, but the greens have more than a bit of jade in them, and some of the red tones seem to be made using ruby or garnet." She stepped back, took a breath, opened her eyes, and looked up at the artwork. "I'd have to be fairly close to it, but yes, if we had a wall that we suspected of hiding a mosaic—" She shot a narrow-eyed glance at Pinkie Pie. "—I could likely 'sniff it out,' as our dear colleague so delicately puts it."

"Whoo-hoo!" Pinkie jumped to her hoofs. "Totally called it! Treasure hunt, ev'rypony!"

"Pinkie," Twilight began, her mouth going sideways.

But a strangled squawk from Gloriana drew Gilda's attention away from the ponies, the professor's throat vibrating like she was having trouble swallowing. "You—" she said before stopping to cough and sputter a little more. "You could sense a mosaic? Through the stone even?" Her right front talons twitched, clenching and unclenching. "You're sure??"

Rarity had one front leg drawn up to her chest, more than a little alarm on her face. "I believe so, Professor, but as I said, I'd need to be—"

"Praetor!" Gloriana spun, and Gilda almost wanted to take a step back herself. In the three years that she'd been praetor of Catlatl Garrison, Gilda had seen the professor agitated many times, but never like this. "You've got to—!" Gloriana stopped and struggled for several deep breaths; Gilda was about to let out the 'medical emergency' squawk, but the older griffon seemed to get herself under control. "By which I mean: might you and our, uhh, our guests join me for a brief excursion?"

Godfrey gave the quietest possible warning chirp, and Gilda gave a head bob in acknowledgment. She'd be careful, sure, but she definitely wanted to find out what had gotten the prof's feathers in a bunch. "Of course, Professor. I know some of our guests had expressed an interest in seeing more of the city." She looked at the ponies and the dragon arrayed along the wall of the Scribes' Union Hall and noted wide grins from all but two of them: Rarity, who was still staring at Gloriana like she might explode at any moment, and Fluttershy, who Gilda was starting to think didn't know how to grin.

Then Gloriana grinned, a sideways thing that pulled at her beak like a star spider stretching its web, and Gilda found herself hoping that she would never see the professor grin again for as long as she lived.

"Praetor," Godfrey rumbled, and Gilda knew it meant he was worried.

"Understood, Aedile," she said. But as much as she wanted him along— "I'll ask you to keep an eye on things here, though. We're likely to have imperators on route, after all, to view the new find, and I'll need you coordinating things when they come flapping down." Trying for nonchalance, she turned back to Gloriana. "Any idea where this excursion will be taking us, Professor?"

"The heart of the city." Gloriana gestured down the hill. "The Weavers' District." She took another gulp of breath. "And I apologize for my odd behavior. I'll be happy to explain on the way."

***

They had to walk, of course, something for which Gilda was extremely grateful since her guts still felt a little scrambled after the princess's teleportation spell. But the autumn late morning showed every sign of staying clear and lovely—probably Dash's doing—so the short stroll down the hill and into the center of the city, Gilda in front beside Gloriana and Twilight while the others followed with Gyre and Gimble bringing up the rear, certainly wouldn't be any sort of a hardship.

"It's a personal project of mine," the professor was saying. "Back when I was researching the legends of the Resettlement period, I found several references to a mosaic mural that apparently had decorated a wall in the Weavers' District. It was said to have been commissioned by Eight Waterfall early in her reign—she was the last queen of Catlatl, froze to death helping the final group of refugees leave the city. The mural showed her victory over the wyvern tribes who give the mountains their name and who had been a constant, savage scourge to the city throughout its entire three hundred year existence." She gave a slightly nervous glance over her shoulder. "No offence, young dragon."

"None taken." Spike waved his claws. "All the dragons I've ever met have pretty much been jerks, too."

That got another creepy grin from Gloriana before she went on: "The mural was the last great piece of public art ever done in the city—even then, the effects of the windigoes were being felt throughout this entire part of the world—but the three accounts I've found that mention the mural don't quite specify exactly where it was located."

Pinkie Pie popped out of nowhere to bump her shoulder into Gloriana's side. "We'll find it, proffy! Don't you worry your kitty little head! Except—" She blinked. "You've got an eagle little head, don't you? But I can't say, 'Don't you worry your kitty little butt!' That would be really, really rude!" She heaved a sigh. "Maybe we'll hafta start worrying after all..."

Twilight cleared her throat. "So you have three possible locations?"

Gloriana was still staring at Pinkie, but with a shake of her head, she turned to Twilight. "More like ten, I'm afraid. One of my sources only says the mural was in the Weavers' District while another says it was on the north wall of what the author refers to as 'the Great Bazaar.' But the District had nearly a dozen bazaars with north walls, and none of them as far as I can discover was called 'great'." Her crest feathers fell. "This is nowhere near as hugely important as the mosaic your balloon uncovered, Twilight, but it's become something of an obsession of mine over the years. So when your friend said that she might be able to detect it, I...I may have become a bit overly excited."

Twilight gave another one of those smiles, the kind that Gilda was starting to think of as the pony princess's secret weapon: sincere and bracing and making the less cynical part of Gilda's brain feel sure that, whatever the problem was, they'd be able to figure out an answer. Of course, it made the more cynical part of her want to cough up a carefully selected hairball or two, but still—

"Not to worry," Twilight was saying. "I get a little loopy sometimes, too, when I've found a way to prove one of my theories. But, umm, didn't you say you had three sources that talked about the mural?"

"Ah. Yes." Gloriana's eyes shifted again, her beak tightening, and Gilda perked her ears at the prof's sudden reluctance. "The, uhh, the third is a twelve-hundred-year-old manuscript written by a griffon who passed through Catlatl two decades after the Resettlement when the city was still locked in perpetual winter and completely uninhabitable. The parchment is very worn, torn and faded to near illegibility in many spots, but as close as I can tell, it says that the mural was in one of the bazaars along Canal Street or possibly Channel Street." She gestured to a bridge ahead that arched the road over the old East Canal. "Canal Street is just on the other side here, so we'll try its largest bazaar first."

"Huh." Dash had a look on her face that Gilda recognized from school; she hadn't seen it often, though, since it meant Dash was thinking. "So wait. This was a whole city of griffons, right?"

"Indeed," Gloriana said, her voice quietly echoing from the ruined buildings around them. "The heart of griffon civilization for three hundred years."

"Well then—" Wings flaring, Dash leaped into a slow forward drift, not hovering but moving at the same walking pace as the rest of them. "Why'd you have bridges and roads and stuff like that? I mean, yeah, Cloudsdale's got flat places, but they're more for landing and taking off. Didn't you all just fly everywhere?"

The question jabbed hard at Gilda, and the words came out before she could stop them: "We're not magic, Dash. You ponies could just tie on a cart full of provisions and fly it from, say, the river up to the palace. But gravity actually pulls on us; we've gotta put heavy stuff on wheels and haul it along the ground if we wanna move it."

"But—" Twilight turned a crease-browed look at her. "You griffons cloudwalk."

Gilda couldn't stop a snort. "That's not magic: everyone can do that!"

"I can't," came Applejack's voice from behind her.

"Nor I," Rarity added, "not without magical assistance."

"Yes." Twilight cocked her head, Gilda's tongue frozen in her beak. "Y'know, I don't recall ever reading a study of griffon magical abilities. They obviously exist, but—"

"No, they don't!" Gilda shouted. They'd reached the bridge by then, and she couldn't keep on the ground, had to spring up so she could wave all her front talons at the city stretching east and west along the road and north and south up and down the dry and dusty canal. "I mean, look around! This city was the greatest thing griffons ever did, the place where our ancestors developed the art and culture and everything that makes us griffons! And not once did any of them learn how to use magic! Hells, the whole city died because they couldn't use magic, and it almost took all of griffondom with it when it went! Even now, nothing we do on our best days can match what you ponies can do just making breakfast!"

The whole group had stopped at the top of the bridge, the ponies and the dragon—and Gyre, Gilda noted—staring at her with wide eyes. Gloriana and Gimble, though, were looking at the cobblestones, their pinions tight with embarrassment, and Gilda knew they were feeling as hot and tight-stomached as she was. "So yeah, us griffons can fly, Dash." She couldn't keep the growl out of her voice, didn't want to keep it out. "And yeah, we can sit on clouds, Princess. We can even push 'em around a little if they're not too big and we concentrate real hard. But that's as far as the Cat Mother and the Eagle Father let us go. And compared to what certain other folks I could mention can do, it sure ain't magic."

She let the silence sit on them for a couple heartbeats, then she leaped to the paving stones and started along the bridge's downslope. "Now, the largest bazaar on Canal Street's just a block north, isn't it, Professor?"

"Yes, Praetor." Gloriana's words came out tight, too. "It is."

Gilda just nodded, heard the rest of them start shuffling along after her, and refused to feel guilty when that was the only sound for the next several minutes. If they didn't like the truth, well, that wasn't her department. She hadn't invited them here, after all. Stupid ponies...

Taking a right on Canal Street, Gilda led the way to the first of the big market squares, the buildings on the left side of the street folding away to reveal a flat area of stone bordered by the jagged remains of two and three story tall brown brick structures: warehouses for the animal hides and the cotton the weavers used, she thought they'd likely be in this part of town.

"So." Twilight cleared her throat, the cheeriness in her voice more than a little creaky. "The north side, you said?"

"Yes," Gloriana said. "I've examined the walls at all the locations over the years, but since I had no idea where to begin excavating, I didn't want to risk any needless damage to the site by just pulling out random stones here and there."

They crossed the square quickly, Gilda searching the semi-collapsed wall for any sign of a mosaic beneath the stone debris piled three and four times a griffon's height along the entire length of the age-ravaged building. "Let's hope it wasn't up on the top story," she said, still feeling a little grouchy from her outburst at the bridge. Not guilty, though, she kept telling herself. No, not guilty at all...

"It wasn't." Gloriana gestured with a claw. "According to the city chronicles, the artwork ran along the lower story from one end to the other." She turned to Rarity, and Gilda could smell the spicy scent of her excitement. "So anywhere you wish to begin..."

Rarity had been glancing up and down the wall, but now with a shrug, she took the few steps that separated her from the dusty tangle of rocks and dried mud. She clenched her eyes, and that same ghostly glow wavered to life around her horn.

Immediately, her eyes shot open. "Oh! I...I'm sensing— Something, I think." Bending her neck, she swept her horn slowly through the air a hair's breadth from the stones and glanced over at Gloriana. "Usually, I can cause a visual image of the gemstones to appear, glowing through the dirt covering them; it shows me how deep they're buried and what sort they are." She gestured to the wall. "This is so faint, I fear I'm not getting so much as a flicker."

"But—" Gloriana was getting that 'medical emergency' look again, her crest feathers puffing up and her talons bunching; Gilda aimed a 'heads up' chirp in Gyre and Gimble's direction in case they had to evac the professor back up to the garrison. "Is it there?? Or isn't it?? It's got to be one or the other!"

"Whoa, now." Applejack slid between Gloriana and Rarity. "Simmer down, there, Professor. How 'bout we take a little look-see and find out?"

"A little look-see??" Wings pumping, Gloriana rose jerkily a pawspan into the air. "We'd need an entire crew excavating for days to remove just the top layer of sediment! To get all the way down to the wall—"

"Hear me out." Turning a wink toward Gilda, Applejack rested a front hoof on the debris field. "Might be some of us can't walk on clouds, but we know a thing or two 'bout rocks and dirt and how to make 'em behave." She pressed her ear against the wall, tapped her hoof, frowned, moved her hoof slightly up and to the left, and tapped again. "All this stuff's perty much sandstone, and sandstone splits into fissures all nice and polite if'n you ask it just right."

A few more taps, and she nodded, her hoof pressing against a brownish-yellow spot that looked just like every other brownish-yellow spot as far as Gilda could tell. "I buck the thing here," Applejack said, "and I reckon it'll split the face of your rockfall just like so." She sat back and moved her front hoofs upward in a narrow 'V' shape. "The cracks'll run to about there, and this chunk'll crumble on out so we can get us a squint at whatever's underneath." She looked over her shoulder at Gloriana. "Any objections to that, Professor?"

Certain parts of Gilda's brain practically danced, thinking how absolutely worth it this whole crazy pony visitation was just for the expressions it had drawn out of Gloriana. "You...you honestly expect me to believe—!"

"Honestly?" Applejack grinned and pushed her hat back a bit further. "That's my middle name, ma'am. 'Sides, you don't gotta take my word for it." She raised her voice. "Pinkie! You're the rock expert! Back me up here!"

Gilda glanced over her shoulder to where she'd last seen the group's other earth pony, but that glance just made her turn all the way around and gape. Pinkie Pie sat several paces away among the weathered stones scattered across the old bazaar, not just Derpy with her now but Spike and Fluttershy as well. As Gilda watched, Pinkie pulled a deflated balloon from her mane and gave it to the dragon. He filled it with green fire and gave it back to Pinkie. She quickly tied a string to the nozzle, tied a rock to the other end of the string, and set it among the other balloons and rocks already floating in front of them. "Who the what now?" Pinkie asked, moving one of the rocks an inch higher so the whole assemblage suddenly became a bust of Professor Gloriana.

The two pegasi gave several 'Ooo's and 'Ahhh's, but Applejack's sigh gusted from behind Gilda. "If'n I bucks this wall right here—"

"Down just a little." Pinkie flashed a grin and waved a hoof. "You had the right spot the first time."

Beside her, Gilda heard Gloriana sputtering followed by Twilight clearing her throat. "Think of it as an exploratory trench, Professor. And I'll personally vouch for Applejack's touch when it comes to this sort of thing: I mean, she can clear every apple from a tree with a single kick, and they land in their baskets so gently, they don't even bruise." She gave that disarming smile of hers again. "We'll be able to tell right away if anything's there, and if not, we can move on to the next possible site with no trouble at all."

Gloriana's inner argument was playing out so clearly on her face, Gilda could almost hear it. Not that it was really an argument, of course: Gilda knew from experience how hard it was to walk away from ponies when they were standing right there offering to help. "You'll be careful?" Gloriana asked after several seconds of nothing but wind whistling through the ruins.

Applejack nodded. "Like Twilight said, ma'am, this's how I make my living." She turned her hindquarters toward the sloping stone debris, looked back over her shoulder at it, and said, "A little lifting spell or some such, maybe, Twi, in case the rocks get a mite rambunctious?" And with a sniff, she reared back both hind legs and slammed her hoofs into the wall.

Gilda was sure she felt the air shiver around her, cracks spiderwebbing up the rocky face in almost exactly the wedge shape Applejack had traced out a moment before. More splintering sounds, and purple light spattered across the scene just as the whole wedge crumbled into pebbles, Twilight's magic catching the little stones and drifting downward with them embedded in it. And in the space the wedge had once covered—

Green and yellow shone in a scaly pattern, the colors even more vivid than the earlier mosaic up the hill. And Gilda couldn't help grinning at the open-beaked professor. "Wyverns, you said, right?"

"It's true," Gloriana whispered, her eyes wider than Gilda had ever seen any griffon's. "It's here. After...after all these years..." She blinked, took several deep, panting breaths, and turned to the ponies behind her. "I can't— The words, they—" She gave a hiccupping sort of laugh, that frantic tremor coming over her again. "Just the irony of it! Your ancestors destroyed this city, and now in less than six hours, you've returned more of our heritage to us than we've managed to uncover in the past sixty years!"

Was she sobbing? Gilda leaped forward at the same time as Twilight, both of them reaching out to steady the gulping professor, wavering on her paws and claws. "I'm all right," Gloriana said, flicking a talon from side to side. "Or rather, I will be all right." She focused a gaze that Gilda would've called feverish on Twilight. "Saying 'thank you' is simply insufficient, Your Highness. But I promise that I will find a way to show you how much this means to me, how much this means to all griffons everywhere. Count on that; oh, yes, count very much on that."

"Please, Professor." Twilight's scent still came a little sour to Gilda's nose, but the princess was all smiles. "Don't worry yourself. We're just happy to help."

Gilda cleared her throat. "Shall I send the cadets to get equipment from the other dig, Gloriana? You'll need a team down here to start—"

"No!" She masked her panic immediately, but Gilda knew that she'd seen it. "I just—" Gloriana looked back at the slice of color among the tumbled yellows and browns. "I'd just like to be alone with it for a moment, if I might. Then I'll head back myself and gather the others." Her smile had way too many ragged edges. "You've done enough for now, Praetor. In fact, you've made this all possible." She tapped Gilda's chest feathers with a claw. "Something else I shan't forget, let me assure you."

For an instant, Gilda considered asking Twilight to wrap one of those purple bubbles around the professor so they could drag her up to the infirmary and have Doc dose her with whatever tranquilizers he might have in stock. But it was just for an instant. All the profs were crazy in one way or another, Gilda had learned the past three years, but none of them were what anyone might call dangerous... "OK, then." Gilda clapped her front talons together. "I'd say we've done enough for one morning; how 'bout we head back to the Eyrie and see what Cookie's got going on for lunch?"

"Hooray!" from Derpy, and the stomach that Gilda heard growling, she was pretty sure, belonged to Spike.

Twilight gave a nod. "Shall we teleport again?"

Her own stomach gave a little lurch, but Gilda swallowed against it. "If you wouldn't mind, Your Highness?"

"Not at all, Praetor!"

She was ready for it this time at least, the ruins melting into plum jelly around her and reforming into the main landing terrace, the two cadets at the front door earning themselves another gold star apiece for their nearly reactionless reactions. Gilda took a breath to invite the whole crowd of them inside, but Dash spoke up suddenly: "Was it just me, or did that professor seem really creepy?"

"Rainbow!" Twilight's head jerked around. "Professor Gloriana is a highly respected scholar and one of the greatest historians in all of griffondom!"

Dash shrugged. "Still creepy."

The look Twilight turned toward Gilda brimmed with apologies, but Gilda cut her off before she could say any of them: "I've worked with her for three years now, and yeah, 'greatest historian' and 'creepy' pretty much sum her up. Right now, though, how 'bout we—"

A far-off shriek stopped Gilda and made her ears fold, but it wasn't a griffon, she realized immediately. It was just—

"Oh!" Fluttershy had straightened from the crouch she'd been in since the ponies' arrival. "Was that—?" She sprang into the air and wheeled around to face in the direction the sound had come from; Gilda looked that way, too, and saw the gray specks she'd expected to see flapping through the blue above toward the peaks of the Wyverns across the valley. "Peregranite falcons!" Fluttershy finished, breathless wonder in her voice.

"What now?" Spike asked beside her.

"How wonderful!" Fluttershy was still hovering, her gaze fixed on the specks. "They're the only lithic life form capable of flight!"

Spike rubbed his snout. "What now?"

Twilight's mouth went sideways. "It means they're animals that're made out of stone, Spike. Like cragodiles or rock lobsters."

"Those guys?" Spike's snout wrinkled. "They're even bigger jerks than dragons."

Fluttershy landed with a move that was practically a pirouette. "I've read about peregranite falcons, but I certainly never thought I'd see one! I'll be able to check them off in my bird book now!"

The memory struck Gilda again: roaring at Fluttershy and her ducks. With a wince, she waved a wing toward the Wyverns. "They've actually got a rookery over on Gorgonio Peak. We can all head over there later if you want, get you a better look at 'em, y'know?"

The pegasus's eyes went almost as starry as when Rarity had seen the old mosaic. "Could we?" Fluttershy spun to Twilight, then to Applejack, then to Dash. "I mean, would that be OK with everypony? If we...if we went over and looked at the peregranite falcons nesting?"

The other ponies all exchanged glances, and Gilda could see the smiles they were trying to hide. "Yeah, I guess," Dash answered with that phony coolness she did so well.

"Darn tootin'!" Applejack added with another wink at Gilda. "I mean, long as we're already here creating a diplomatic incident and all."

Fluttershy gave a little squeal, and Gilda finally managed to invite them inside: "Derpy? Cadets? Show 'em all down to the mess hall, if you'd be so kind. I'll check in with Aedile Gillian and meet you there."

Happily discussing the morning's events, the whole crowd of them moved ahead of Gilda down the entrance hall, Gillian at her desk perking up and returning their waves. Gilda stopped, waited till the ponies had rounded the corner, then asked quietly, "What response from HQ?"

Gillian's perkiness fell. "Nothing yet, Praetor."

"Nothing?" Gilda felt her own perkiness take a dive.

"Not even an acknowledgment." Gillian hunched over the surface of the desk, her scent drier than usual. "I mean, we've got ponies in Catlatl, Gilda! Ponies! And HQ doesn't give us so much as a—!"

Gilda gave the 'as you were' chirp as forcefully as she could. "Focus, Aedile." Though Gilda had to make a genuine effort to keep her crest feathers up: of all the reactions she'd been expecting from down the line, absolute silence hadn't even been on her list. "We've had another mosaic discovery, too."

"What?" Gillian straightened.

Mind racing, Gilda held up a claw. No response from HQ could mean all sorts of things, of course, but the more she thought about it, the less she liked it. "At the top of the hour, Gillian, call out that classes are cancelled for the rest of the day. Lunch is formal mess for all personnel not assigned to other duties." So they could meet the ponies and get up to speed; whatever was going on, she needed to prepare her people. "One of those other duties, though, is signal corps. Get someone up there to relieve Gutierrez right now, then it'll be half hour rotations after that. The order is to sing out at the first flash of a response."

"Yes, Praetor." Gillian scratched a salute, her ruffled feathers already a bit smoother.

Good. At least—

"Gilda?" Derpy's voice asked in her ear.

This time, it only sent Gilda jumping partway out of her skin, and when she snapped her head over, Derpy was watching her intently, concern in the pony's skewed gaze. "Is ev'rything OK?" she asked.

Taking a breath, Gilda decided to say, "As far as I know." She nodded toward the mess hall. "Did everypony get settled?"

"Yep." Her concern seemed to thicken, though. "But if ev'rything wasn't OK, you'd tell me, right, Gilda? Not just 'cause I'm the ambassador but 'cause I'm your friend." She reached out a hoof and gently touched Gilda's right foreclaws. "Twilight and the others are here to help if you need it, too."

And strangely enough, just hearing her say it made Gilda feel better. "Let's hope I don't need to take you up on that." She gave Derpy's hoof a squeeze. "Now, let's get some lunch; there's some people I wanna introduce you all to."