• Published 29th Oct 2014
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Better than the Best - BronyDad



Rainbow Dash convinces Twilight to enter a flying pairs competition with her.

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Mt. Aerie

Chapter 3

Mt. Aerie

"I'm so super excited to see the Griffon's home town, city, mountain place!" Pinkie Pie cried as she hopped up and down on her seat.

"Pinkie, stop that bouncing this instant!" Rarity scolded, leaning halfway into the aisle to avoid being stepped on. "There is simply too little space here for you to carry on as you are." As Pinkie settled down with an apologetic smile, Rarity flipped her mane. "Thank you."

"I'm right there with ya, Pinkie," Applejack said. "I've heard tell of Mt. Aerie and seen some pictures, but I ain't ever been there."

"I'm more excited to meet their Falconers," Fluttershy told them as she turned in her seat. "Supposedly, they train all sorts of large birds to help with their daily lives. Like mail delivery and trash collection."

Rainbow glanced at Fluttershy and rolled her eyes. "We aren't here for sightseeing. We're here for a competition. Me and Twilight still have a day and a half to practice before it starts, and we'll need every second of it."

Twilight remained silent as she watched the trees zip past the window. They had only been on the train for an hour, but her stomach was already tying itself into knots. She had worked hard with Rainbow Dash over the last two weeks, and knew that she had improved her flying skills tremendously, but she still wasn't convinced that she was good enough to compete with other expert fliers.

"Practice is, indeed, important," Rarity commented, "but I'm sure that Twilight would love to explore and learn about the Griffon's home and cultures. Wouldn't you, Twilight?"

Twilight glanced at her friends and forced a smile before returning her attention back to the window. The smile quickly melted from her face as she watched the evening sun begin its slow descent toward the horizon.

"Yeah, yeah." Rainbow leaned back in her seat. "Just don't waste too much time. You still need to perfect your corkscrews."

The knot in her stomach tightened at Rainbow's words. Twilight reminded herself that she was doing this for Rainbow, and that it didn't matter if they won or lost. But she couldn't stop envisioning herself failing, and seeing the look of disappointment on Rainbow's face.

Fluttershy grimaced. "I hate corkscrews. They always make me so dizzy."

"I love being dizzy!" Pinkie exclaimed before rearing up on her seat and quickly spinning in circles.

After being slapped in the face by Pinkie's tail for the third time, Rarity growled with annoyance, and rolling up her magazine, levitated it above the hyper Earth pony and smacked her on the head.

"Ow," Pinkie said as she sat back down. "Sorry, Rarity."

Rainbow turned around and placed her forelegs on the back of her seat. Gazing over Rarity's head at Twilight, she asked, "How different is their culture from ours anyway? The only Griffon I've ever known was Gilda, and she really wasn't all that different from the other Pegasi." Suddenly, Rainbow sneezed. "Geez, Rare, you got enough hairspray in there?"

As the others chuckled, Rarity placed a hoof to her mane indignantly. "Excuse me for wanting to look my best."

"Gilda grew up in Cloudsdale," Twilight explained, happy to focus on a topic that would help to keep her mind off of her nerves. "So she would have picked up on a lot of pony culture. I'm sure the Griffons living at Mt. Aerie will be different. So let's try our best not to do anything offensive." She turned her gaze to Pinkie. "Okay?"

As Pinkie nodded with a bright smile, Applejack asked, "I hear that Equestria ain't on the best of terms with the Griffon Nation. Is that anythin' that we need to worry bout?"

"Of course not," Rarity answered. "The Griffons residing in Mt. Aerie are the descendants of those that were exiled from the Griffon Nation when their revolt failed three hundred years ago." Rarity cocked an eyebrow. "Honestly, Applejack, haven't you ever read a history book?"

Applejack crossed her forelegs across her chest. "Ya know, some of us didn't have it so easy as fillies and had to scrape by with only the basics of education."

Rarity's eyes went wide. "My sincerest apologies, Applejack. I didn't mean to imply that you were not well educated."

With a smile and a tip of her hat, Applejack replied, "I know ya didn't mean anythin' by it. I'm sorry for bein' so touchy."

"Well, different cultures or not, I hope they're ready to lose," Rainbow stated, "because me and Twilight are gonna wipe the floor with them." Twilight felt a wave of anxiety wash over her as her friend met her gaze. "Right, Twi?"

Twilight forced another smile. "You bet!"

With another sneeze, Rainbow turned back around in her seat. "Urgh, that hairspray is killing me."

As Rarity glared at the back of Rainbow's head, Twilight stood. "I think I'm going to go pick up a little snack. You girls want anything?"

Without warning, Pinkie quickly climbed over a protesting Rarity. "I'll go with you!"

Twilight had been hoping to be alone for a bit, but figured having Pinkie for company wouldn't be so bad. Pinkie had a way of brightening even the worst of days.

"That's fine," Twilight said. After carefully squeezing around Applejack and reaching the aisle, she glanced at the others. "How about the rest of you?"

When the others shook their heads, Twilight followed Pinkie to the end of the car. Opening the door, Pinkie stood aside and allowed Twilight to enter first, and then closed the door behind them.

"Twilight?" Pinkie said hesitantly as soon as the door was shut.

"Yeah, Pinkie?"

"I hate seeing frowns on my friends," Pinkie told her. "But what's even worse is seeing fake smiles. Since we got on the train, you've made a lot of fake smiles." Pinkie cocked her head. "What's wrong?"

Unable to help herself, Twilight chuckled. Pinkie was always so happy and goofy that it was easy to forget just how observant and intelligent she was.

"What's so funny?" Pinkie asked with a look of confusion.

Still smiling, Twilight answered, "Sorry, Pinkie. You just caught me completely off guard." Walking to the first set of seats beside the door, Twilight sat. "I'm just worried."

"About what?"

"I'm worried that I won't be as good as Rainbow thinks I will. I'm worried that I'm going to ruin the whole competition for her."

Pinkie smiled brightly as she took a seat beside Twilight. "Don't be silly! You're not going to ruin anything for Dashie." When Twilight only sighed and shook her head, Pinkie placed a hoof on her shoulder. "You know, while you were agreeing to enter the competition, I was having a late lunch with Fluttershy at the Sugarcube Corner. All of a sudden, Rainbow came flying inside, yelling and shouting about how excited she was that you were entering. I think she nearly scared the life out of Fluttershy!" Pinkie began to laugh and raised her forelegs over her head. "She was all pumping her forelegs in the air and flipping around. She was so happy, Twilight. You should have seen her.

"Nothing you do is going to ruin this for her. You've never ever ever ever ever let any of us down before, and that's because you always do your best, no matter what. And that's all you need to do now."

Twilight embraced her friend. "Thanks, Pinkie."

With a giggle, Pinkie nuzzled her cheek affectionately. "You're welcome!"

After a moment longer, Twilight released her. "You ready to go back?"

"Actually..." Pinkie glanced toward the door on the far side of the car. "I am kinda hungry."

Twilight laughed. "You're always hungry."

"Pretty much."

Together they made their way across the car and stepped through the door. The next car was a dining area, and was full of tables and a long bar that was surrounded with numerous stools.

Trotting over to the bar, Twilight ordered a single sandwich, and then watched with amusement as Pinkie ordered five sandwiches and a smoothie.

"I'll get it," Twilight said as Pinkie reached for her saddlebag.

Pinkie blinked. "Are you sure?"

"Very," Twilight answered as she paid the stallion, and lifted all of their food with her magic.

"Thanks!" Pinkie beamed as she led the way back to their seats. As they arrived, Twilight noticed Applejack cock an eyebrow, then Pinkie winked, and Applejack smiled and leaned back in her chair.

Twilight couldn't help but grin as she took her seat beside Applejack. It was great knowing that her friends were watching over her. Even when she wasn't aware of it.

As Rarity stood to allow Pinkie to return to her window seat, Applejack glanced at Twilight. "Did ya want your window seat back?"

"No, I'm fine. I don't need it anymore." Twilight held Pinkie's sparkling sky blue eyes as she spoke the words. Thanks to her fun loving friend, she now understood that her worries had been baseless. Rainbow would enjoy the competition as long as she did her best.

"Glad to hear it," Applejack stated.

Rarity looked at the two of them with a confused expression, but remained silent. Behind her, Rainbow and Fluttershy carried on their own conversation, both of them chuckling as Rainbow told one of her captivating stories.

For the next several hours, the six of them sat together, talking and laughing as the sky slowly darkened outside the window. Then, while Rarity was recounting her latest visit to Canterlot, Pinkie's head slumped onto her shoulder.

Rarity paused in mid-sentence and lifted her head to gaze at her slumbering friend. "Well, I didn't think my story was that boring."

As the others laughed, Twilight suggested, "We should probably all get some sleep. We're scheduled to arrive at Mt. Aerie pretty early." Noticing that Rarity was gently shaking Pinkie, she quickly said, "Don't. I'll carry her."

Her horn glowing with a magenta light, Twilight carefully lifted Pinkie into the air. Enveloped in a shimmering aura, Pinkie snored loudly and rolled onto her back as she rose over their heads. Giggling quietly, the five remaining conscious mares made their way to the opposite end of the car.

The final train car was a long hallway with several bedrooms on either side, each with two beds and a small bathroom.

"I'm going to share a room with Pinkie," Twilight stated, indicating the sleeping mare hovering directly overhead as they approached their door numbers.

"Me and Fluttershy's got this one," Rainbow announced as she entered the closest room.

With a sweet smile, Fluttershy said, "Good night, girls," and then shut the door behind her.

"It looks like we get to be bunk pals," Applejack observed, playfully nudging Rarity's side.

"Oh, fabulous." Rarity rolled her eyes. "Now I get to listen to you snore all night long."

"I don't snore," Applejack argued.

Rarity flipped her mane. "No, Fluttershy doesn't snore. You sound like a freight train."

Whatever Applejack's retort may have been, Twilight didn't hear it as she shut the door to her room. Gently lying Pinkie on the closest bed, Twilight drew the covers up to her friend's chin before sitting down beside the window.

Twilight sighed peacefully as she gazed at the pinks and purples in the sky that were her namesake.

In just a few short hours they would be arriving in Mt. Aerie; the only place in Equestria that one could experience the lifestyles and cultures of the Griffons. She had been excited by the prospect of visiting the mountainside city since she had first agreed to enter the Annual Flying Pairs Competition, but it had been overshadowed by her fear of disappointing Rainbow Dash. Now that her fear had been squelched, however, Twilight couldn't keep her mind off of the abundant opportunities to learn more about the Griffons that were sure to present themselves.

As she climbed into bed, Twilight wondered how she could possibly sleep with all of these eager thoughts swirling in her head, but as soon as her head it the pillow, her fatigue quickly overcame her.

She slept peacefully and dreamt of flying alongside Rainbow. The two of them laughed and teased one another as they soared across the sky and busted through clouds.

Without warning, she was startled awake by the train's shrill whistle announcing their arrival at the Mt. Aerie train station. Twilight sat up and yawned as she wiped the sleep from her eyes, and was suddenly knocked onto her back.

A moment later, Pinkie's nose was less than an inch from her own. "We're here, Twilight! I can't wait to see what it's like!" She began to jump up and down on the bed. "Let's go! Let's go!"

"We will as soon as you get off of me," Twilight grunted as she pushed the hyperactive mare off of the bed.

Pinkie climbed to her hooves as Twilight stood and stretched, and then the two of them left the room to find the others waiting in the hallway.

"Isn't Rarity ready yet?" Twilight asked as she stepped aside to allow an older couple to squeeze past them.

Applejack rolled her eyes. "She's wearin' earplugs and that, uh, whatever it's called over her eyes. I shook her a couple of times, but she just hollered at me to leave her be till mornin'." She snorted with annoyance. "I'm tempted to just leave her in there."

"I'll get her!" Pinkie announced before opening the door and disappearing inside. Twilight heard Pinkie shout, the squeak of a mattress, and Rarity's startled cry, and then Pinkie reemerged looking pleased with herself. A moment later, a disheveled Rarity stumbled into the hallway, gazing at each of them in turn with an air of indignity.

"Really, none of you could have awoken me? You had to send in Pinkie Pie?"

"I tried to wake ya," Applejack stated heatedly, "but ya'll were too stubborn."

With a resentful harrumph, Rarity turned and made her way down the hall and toward the closest exit. The others followed, knowing that Rarity's anger would pass soon enough.

As Twilight climbed off of the train, she heard her friends gasp, and looking up, she gasped as well.

Looming just ahead was a massive mountainside, its face littered with hundreds if not thousands of caves. At its base were several large wooden platforms that could lift visitors halfway up the mountain, and numerous smaller platforms hanging from wires interconnected the higher caves. Griffons could be seen entering and exiting the openings as they went about their daily lives.

"Oh my," Fluttershy said as she took a tentative step back. "That is a very tall mountain."

"It's impressive, all right," Applejack agreed. "Ya'll reckon all them caves are the Griffons' homes?"

"I'm sure that some are shops and restaurants and the like," Rarity stated.

"Speaking of shops, look at all these!" Pinkie exclaimed as she pointed at all the wooden stalls that lined both sides of the path that led from the train station to the base of the mountain.

As she followed Pinkie toward the closest of the stalls, Twilight suddenly heard several loud gasps and a voice cry, "It's the Princess!"

Quickly turning toward the commotion, Twilight caught sight of a pair of Griffon guards taking flight as a crowd of Griffons and ponies dropped to a bow.

Her face flushing fiercely, Twilight said loudly, "Everyone, please return to what you were doing. I'm not here on any royal business, I'm just visiting."

Seemingly confused, the crowd slowly rose and lingered for several moments. Once they realized that she wasn't going to address them any further, they finally returned to their business.

"I'm never going to get use to this," Twilight muttered as she turned to her friends.

"Of course you will, darling," Rarity reassured her. "You just need a little more time."

Twilight started toward the nearest stall with the others, but came to a halt when she noticed that Rainbow wasn't following. "Rainbow, what's wrong?" Twilight inquired as she approached her friend.

Rainbow studied her for a moment before she spoke. "Twilight, I just want you to know that...well..." She turned and looked at the crowd that was milling about the stalls. "I know that all this attention makes you uncomfortable, and if you want to back out of the competition, I won't hold it against you."

"Not for a million bits," Twilight stated with a smile.

"Great!" Rainbow returned her smile. "Just wanted to throw that out there."

"I appreciate that, Dash, but nothing is going to keep me from this competition."

"Princess Twilight Sparkle, I presume," a voice suddenly spoke from above.

With a start, Twilight turned her gaze up to find a Pegasus wearing an elegant crimson robe and flanked by two Griffon guards descending toward her.

"Um...yes," Twilight affirmed.

The Pegasus landed before her and bowed, as did the two guards behind him. "I am Ambassador Overwatch. It is a pleasure to finally meet you."

The Ambassador straightened and his steely gaze met her own. "Governor Gideon humbly requests you to accompany him for breakfast." He glanced behind her as the others drew near. "Your friends are welcome to join us as well."

Twilight swallowed hard. The ruler of Mt. Aerie was inviting her to breakfast? What should she do? She had no idea how to conduct herself for such a formal meeting. What if she messed up and caused tension between Mt. Aerie and Canterlot? How would she ever be able to face Princess Celestia again?

"Um, Twilight?" Applejack mumbled as she poked her in the flank.

"Uh, yes, yes! We accept." Twilight smiled sheepishly as she stared at Ambassador Overwatch's stern face. "Of course we'll attend Governor Gideon's breakfast. We'd be happy to!" She heard the others voice their agreement behind her.

Overwatch lowered his head. "Please follow me, Your Highness."

Following the Ambassador, Twilight glanced back at her friends and saw that they all looked as nervous as she felt. Apparently, she wasn't the only one that was worried about attending the breakfast.

As they approached the large wooden platforms at the base of the mountain, several Griffon guards stepped forward to block a group of ponies from boarding. "I'm sorry, sir," Twilight heard one of the guards say. "The Princess and the Ambassador take priority. You can board the next platform."

Twilight climbed the stairs that led to the platform, and then eyed the two chains that extended from the midpoint of the mountain all the way to the ground. She surmised that the chains acted as a pulley system that would raise the platform up the mountainside.

"I was very excited to hear that you were visiting." Overwatch suddenly smiled and the hard lines on his face vanished. "I've heard so much about you from Princess Celestia."

"Princess Celestia?" Twilight blinked. "The princess told you about me?"

"Indeed." Overwatch nodded. "We are good friends."

Just then, the platform started upward with a lurch that caused them all to stagger.

The Ambassador watched them as they regained their balance, then turned to Twilight. "I can see that you're nervous."

Twilight's ears flattened against her head as she averted her eyes. "I thought I was doing a better job of hiding it."

"Twilight isn't very used to this whole being a princess thingy," Pinkie unexpectedly chimed in. Smiling brightly, she added, "She doesn't even like wearing her crown."

"Yes, I was wondering about that."

"I just don't feel comfortable wearing it," Twilight explained, throwing Pinkie an angry look. "I don't want anypony to feel like I'm better than they are."

"Celestia was right," Overwatch commented. "You do make a fine princess."

As Twilight's cheeks began to burn, Fluttershy suddenly pressed against her. She glanced over and saw that Fluttershy was eyeing the edge of the platform fearfully as she continued to push her way to the center. Feeling her friend quivering, Twilight put her foreleg around her neck reassuringly.

"So, if ya don't mind me askin'..." Applejack scratched her head. "Why is an ambassador needed here? We are still in Equestria, ain't we?"

"We are," Overwatch confirmed. "When the Griffons crossed the sea from the Griffon Nation three hundred years ago, Princess Celestia not only offered them this mountain and the surrounding land as a new home, but also as a place where their culture and customs could be practiced unopposed.

"Although Princess Celestia wants to interfere with the Griffons' way of life as little as possible, it is still necessary to have someone around to remind them that they are under Canterlot's rule. As ambassador, it is my duty to ensure that Equestria's best interests are always kept in mind. I also uphold all Equestrian laws, and watch over the pony residents of the city."

At that moment, the platform came to a halt in front of a large cave.

Immediately inside were several Griffon guards wearing golden armor and wielding spears standing along one side of the cave. On the far end of the cave was a long table where several Griffons sat and talked to the new arrivals. A long line of ponies and a few Griffons ran from the desk all the way back to the platform. The small crowd chattered and shuffled impatiently as they waited to be allowed into the city.

Upon seeing Twilight, the guards straightened, thrusting out their chests and holding their heads high as they raised their spears in a show of respect. One of the Griffons that had been sitting at the table knocked his chair over in his haste to reach them.

"Ambassador Overwatch, sir, and Princess..." he hesitated.

"Twilight Sparkle," Twilight offered.

"Ah, yes. Please pardon me," the Griffon said as he deeply bowed. "Welcome to Mt. Aerie. We are honored to have you in our humble city."

"T-thank you," Twilight stammered, unsure if she was supposed to say anything or not.

"Right this way," he instructed, indicating the exit of the cave to their right. "With the upcoming competition there have been many more new arrivals to the city than usual. But there's no need to make the princess and her entourage wait in a line."

As they reached the exit, Overwatch stated, "I can handle it from here. You best get back to your job."

"Yes, sir," the Griffon said as he turned and headed back toward the table.

They followed Overwatch out of the cave, and found themselves standing on a huge ledge. Twilight watched the train in the distance as it carried its passengers away from the city, and then looked down at the ponies that were milling about the station. Directly below, she could see the platforms being boarded by the next group of arrivals.

Suddenly, they all heard a small, pathetic squeaking sound, and turned to find Fluttershy trembling uncontrollably.

"Is she all right?" Overwatch asked with concern.

"Yeah," Rainbow answered as the others gathered around Fluttershy. "She's just terrified of heights."

Rarity took Fluttershy's hoof in her own. "You've been doing fabulous, darling. Don't stop now."

"You want to support Twilight, don't ya?" Applejack asked. When Fluttershy swallowed and nodded, Applejack smiled warmly. "Then we've got to keep goin'."

Fluttershy offered a small smile in return. "O-okay."

Twilight turned back to Overwatch. "I think we're okay to continue."

The six friends continued to follow Overwatch as he led them along the ledge.

He paused and indicated a group of six smaller platforms that were fastened to thick metal cables. "These platforms take you to The Den. The Den is the central hub of Mt. Aerie. You can reach any part of the city from there." Several yards further was a lone platform flanked by two guards. "This platform will take us directly to Governor Gideon's home."

As they approached the platform, Overwatch came to a halt. "Only three passengers can safely ride the lift. So the rest of us will have to fly."

Fluttershy gulped. "Oh...I don't think I can."

"Of course you can," Rainbow urged.

Twilight gently took Fluttershy's hoof. "Rainbow and I will hold your hooves the whole way, all right? Just close your eyes and we'll be there before you know it."

When Fluttershy still looked hesitant, Rainbow pointed out, "You know, you're going to have to do this if you want to see those Falconers you were going on about on the train."

Her features suddenly hardening, Fluttershy nodded. "You're right, I can do this."

"Uh...ya'll sure this is safe?" Applejack asked nervously as the platform slightly swayed beneath her.

"Absolutely," Overwatch assured her. "The only instances in fatalities were when those riding the lifts were foolish enough to jump around or roughhouse on them."

At his words, both Applejack and Rarity threw dark looks at Pinkie, who smiled sheepishly and quickly sat on the center of the lift.

As the platform began to move, Twilight and the others took flight. Fluttershy gripped Twilight's hoof with a strength that surprised her, but she simply squeezed back as she whispered words of encouragement.

Understanding just how difficult this was for Fluttershy, Twilight focused solely on helping her reach their destination, and so she didn't realize that anything was wrong until she heard her three friends below begin to scream.