• Published 24th Jul 2012
  • 3,761 Views, 145 Comments

Darkened Shores - Silver Flare

An adventure that takes the Mane 6 around the world to face the what destroyed the alicorn homeland.

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11: Vigil

Twilight Sparkle surfaced through thick layers of clinging blackness. A fine pinpoint of light began to grow, acquire definition. Conscious thought began to follow as a dark shape appeared. Twilight made out a beak and eartufts. You. The shape vanished, and a distant crash reached her ears. “Ponyfeathers!” Should she have recognized that voice? Twilight became aware of something else, something foreign intruding into her throat, making her body convulse and gag. She reached up with her hooves and pulled. With a terrible scraping sensation an impossibly long tube slid out of her esophagus. She almost threw up.

Another shape appeared in her vision, this one purple and green and heartbreakingly familiar. “Twilight! Stop!” Spike? It took real effort, but she blinked her eyes wider. Spike? She wanted to grab the little scaly beast and cuddle him to her chest. Instead she blinked painfully slowly, and she turned her head to try and figure out where she was.

She found herself on the floor of a small antiseptic room. Her attention could have been taken in by the soullessly bright electric lights. Or the strangely tasteful black and burgundy trim. Or the elevated cot next to her, over the side of which dangled Princess Celestia’s golden hoofshods, looking much the worse for wear. Or the tiny snippet of the night sky outside the porthole above her head.

Instead, Twilight found herself focused on a gryphon, slightly smaller than average, with a coat of a dull, dusky blue with sporadic bands of lighter blue. His foreclaws were the standard yellow-gold with black talons, and his hindpaws were flat white, like socks. Also, he was writhing against the ceiling while a sopping wet and bedraggled Rainbow Dash tried to pull him down and Spike continued shouting at her.

With a start, Twilight dropped the spell and with it her captive. The gryphon tumbled unceremoniously atop Dash, landing together in a heap on the threshold. Spike turned wide, trembling eyes upon Twilight before flinging himself into her arms, hugging her tight. Twilight ached everywhere, and the hug really kind of hurt. She didn’t mind.

“Mmmmfff!” Rainbow’s mane twitched from underneath the pile of feathers and fur.

“Oh, sorry!” The gryphon carefully arched off of the floor, allowing Dash the room to scootch out. “Gak! My back!” He twitched and fell away from the pegasus before they both picked themselves up.

“Hey, are you alright?” Dash reached out a tentative hoof.

“I’m fine, except for your purple pony pal trying to rip my limbs off my body.” He gingerly put weight on each of his legs in turn.

“Twilight, what gives?” There was no accusation in Rainbow’s voice. None. Only exhaustion tinged with relief. “He was just trying to help.”

Twilight’s eyes widened. She opened her mouth to apologize, but doubled up into a coughing fit instead. Spike backed away a little to give her some room; unshed tears making his eyes shine in the bright lights. The stranger sighed and walked back to her side. “At least you didn’t break anything. Here.” He reached up out of sight and produced a pair of pills and a cup of water. “These will help with the pain and should stave off infection. You’ve got some serious explaining to do, you know. Thistle is livid, seeing as how. . . wait, sip it slowly!”

Twilight took two large gulps and nearly choked, spitting some of the water back out rather than inhaling any of it. The gryphon shook his head and said, “Yeah, I probably should have said that last thing first. Here, let me get that.”

Rainbow Dash glanced from the cot to Twilight and back as water dripped off of her blue coat and pooled around her hooves. “Twilight, what the hoof happened?” She seemed subdued by some new seriousness; all of her usual bluster was gone.

Twilight took a second look at the cot above her, wondering why Celestia wasn’t moving or joining in the conversation. When cold logic implied that she’d been hurt somehow, Twilight found that she felt. . . not much. She was concerned, of course, she just felt no surprise. Twilight had come to see her mentor as fallible, even mortal, over the last few weeks. The candle of her blind faith or ignorance had been snuffed out, leaving a colder, darker sensation behind. A larger picture had been drawing into focus, and Twilight was just beginning to see her place in it.

“Equestria to Twilight!” Twilight’s eyes swam back into focus as Rainbow Dash prodded her hindhoof. “Are we losing you?”

“How. . .” Twilight coughed a bit more. “How is she?”

The gryphon didn’t glance behind him as he fumbled with the sink. “Who? The giant winged horned goddess? She’ll be okay, so long as she doesn’t move around too much.”

Spike didn’t take his eyes off of his only family in the world. “Twilight?” Spike’s voice hitched in his throat. “Does it hurt?” He reached a gentle claw towards her face. What doesn’t hurt? She thought. Then she realized everyone was staring at her face. As her memories resurfaced, Twilight felt a fresh wave of stinging pain across her eye and muzzle.

“Here.” The gryphon pushed forward again, proffering a fresh cup of presumably water. “Sip this, and I’ll clean those cuts out.” His tone of voice suggested a measure of forgiveness for Twilight’s past sins. “Ocean water only does so much as an antiseptic. I might even have an eye patch around here somewhere.” He offered her a lopsided grin alongside perked eartufts. “Then we’ll let you meet the rest of the crew. If you’re feeling up to it, of course. And if you promise not to ponykinesis them about the place.” Twilight smiled guiltily.

“Honestly, I think anyone looks cooler with an eye patch.” Rainbow Dash kept a limping pace next to the gryphon who had introduced himself as Pin Feather, the airship’s medic. Spike clung to Twilight’s back at her insistence. His solid reassurance felt very comforting in the strange surroundings she found herself in. Twilight wasn’t certain what she’d been expecting, but she hadn’t been expecting an airship to look so. . . stylish. The trim matched the soft carpeting, which in turn matched the décor. Beautiful paintings offset the occasional bench covered in silk cushions which probably cost more than anything Twilight owned, including her rare first-editions. She’d figured that any royal transport would look nice, but. . . sheesh.

Pin Feather nodded earnestly. “A lot cooler. Hey, maybe we could try to get Cloud to wear one! Clouded Gaze is our core helmsgryph, and she always looks like she’s ready to throw someone out of a hatch. Like, seriously no-nonsense all the time.” He bounded in place for emphasis. “If she put an eye patch on, I bet she’d look even more awesome!”

“Hahah hah! Yeah, we’ll have to ask her.” Rainbow Dash’s grin slowly deserted her as voices drifted towards them from an open room ahead.

“It’s not happening! We aren’t heading far from provisions without knowing what’s out there!” A male voice, probably a gryphon.

“ARE WE NOT FULLY PROVISIONED NOW?” What? Princess Luna? Twilight nudged Rainbow’s flank, and Dash turned her a look as if to say I know! Crazy, right?

“Yes, we are. But that’s not the point!”


“I’m fully aware of both facts. . .”


The four of them rounded a corner and stopped in the doorway to a large, elegant room. Clearly a place where the crew could grab a bite to eat and relax. There were mahogany tables bolted to the floor, and benches near one wall where one might have a view of the stars. Another section had what looked like a bar, although no one stood behind it. In the center of the room a stern Princess Luna squared off against a large tawny gryphon. He was tall enough that he didn’t need to look up to meet Luna’s eyes.

“Treason? Ha! More like avoiding suicide! Until I know what that thing was. . .”


Applejack, Rarity and Pinkie Pie all stood well back from the altercation. Fluttershy hid behind Rarity’s tail, as far as she could get from a magenta earth pony Twilight didn’t recognize. Twilight cracked a small, relieved smile at the sight of her friends and placed a hoof around Rainbow Dash.

“Until I know what that thing was we aren’t leaving sight of shore! And stop shouting! This is a small space! And I have excellent hearing! This isn’t a train station!”

“OUR. . . Our apologies! We are still somewhat out of practice with normal conversation, Captain Thistle Down. Truth told, we are vexed.”

The magenta pony with the raven black mane stepped forward, glaring daggers at the somewhat windblown gryphon trying to smooth his feathers. “What the good Captain is trying and failing to adequately express, your Highness, is a simple and practical fear.” Her fluid bow denoted obeisance while gesturing to the airship as a whole. “The forces we have seen unleashed this night could have scourged our beloved dirigible from the sky a dozen times over. Should this creature find us over open ocean, our odds may prove unfavorable. Wouldn’t you agree?”

Whatever Princess Luna might have said in reply was lost beneath a squeal of joy as Pinkie Pie shot across the intervening space like a brightly-colored hug rocket and knocked Rainbow Dash clean over. Rarity’s features were positively aglow. “Twilight! Rainbow Dash! Thank Celestia you’re both alright!”

Twilight smiled and said, “I guess we all made it. Oh, it’s so good to seeWAUGH!!” Her breath was knocked out of her as Pinkie Pie tackled her from the side and sent Spike tumbling off her back. Pin Feather leapt nimbly out of the way, his own eyes sparkling at the energetic display.

Pinkie’s bright blue eyes dominated Twilight’s field of vision. “Twilight! We saw Dashie bring you in but they wouldn’t let any of us stay by your side except Spike and that’s maybe because he’s smaller than the rest of us but we were all so worried we didn’t care but Thistle Downy here explained that on an airship even a big airship like this one here there’s only so much room for stuff like lamps and desks and bouncing bubblegum-looking wackjobs so they made us *long, gasping inhale* wait in this room which looks like it’s for eating but it seems mostly used for yelling so I think I’m going to call it the Arguing Room and what’s a wackjob because I just now realized he might have been talking about me when he said that what happened to your eye?”

Applejack pried Pinkie Pie off of their friend while Pin Feather giggled in the background. “Now let the filly talk, Pinkie. I reckon she don’t need more rough handlin’ than she’s seen.” She helped Twilight to her hooves and eyed her friend nervously. “Um, you didn’t lose an eye, didja?”

Twilight shook her head, but Pin Feather answered for her. “Oh no, nothing like that. But her eyelid was cut rather deeply, and her cornea got scratched a little. She’ll be fine, the patch is just to keep her from blinking too much and making the scarring worse.”

Twilight’s head jerked back in surprise at his words. She hadn’t considered the possibility of facial scars. Rarity noticed her reaction and reached out a hoof to comfort her. “Oh, don’t worry Twilight, dear. If you’ve got any blemishes when these things heal I’ve got a cream you can try. It’s wonderful for smoothing skin and getting your coat to grow back evenly.”

“Why would she want it?” Rainbow Dash was struggling to stay upright as Pinkie Pie directed all of her overflowing hug energy towards the cerulean pegasus. “Scars are awesome! I bet she looks even cooler without the eye patch! Right Pin Feather?”

He seemed to take her suggestion seriously, peering critically at Twilight from a few different angles. “Hmmm, I don’t know. Maybe.”

Princess Luna paced up to the group of friends. “TWILIGHT. . . Twilight Sparkle. We are pleased to find you hale and ambulatory.”

Pinkie Pie, finally distracted from her hugging mission, dropped her current victim back onto his scaly haunches and scrunched up her face at Luna’s words. “Huh?”

Twilight’s good eye unfocused. “I. . . I thought I died out there.”

“Well, you nearly did.” Pin Feather’s grin slid off his face. “Rainbow Dash here saved your life, somehow flying you both to the Vigil’s upper deck. She’s quite the athlete.”

Dash shrugged. “Well, I swam towards some sort of commotion in the water, and I found this gryphon treading water, holding up Twilight’s limp body. I almost put my hoof across his beak before I realized he was trying to help her.” She chuckled weakly. “He gave me a boost to get airborne, otherwise I probably couldn’t have taken off at all. He deserves as much of the credit as I do, whoever he was.”

Luna’s expression was grave. “Didst this gryphon inflict this harm upon you, Twilight?”

Twilight nodded. “I teleported us both into the ocean. In Rirton’s defense, I don’t think he was expecting that.”

“Wait, King Rirton?!” The tawny gryphon finally spoke up, stalking forward a pace. “As in King Aurak Rirton?! The liege of the seven gryphon tribes?” He seemed at a loss for which gesture to resort to. “Are. . . Have we all gone barking, raving mad? How. . . How could this. . .”

The magenta pony stepped to his side and looked up at him, gently touching his side to get his attention. “They’ll send flights after us. You know they will. Perhaps the Princess of the Night is correct. We should disembark now. Sooner, if possible.”

“Paugh. . . Madness.” The tawny gryphon crossed the mess hall in a pair of bounding leaps towards a far door. His voice rang out as he disappeared. “Moon to stern and ahead full! Gaze, I want us well above second cloudline in three! Let’s move move move!”

The magenta pony, her eyes the only part of her that appeared worried, gestured to a large central table. “Perhaps we should make ourselves comfortable while we make one another’s acquaintances.” Even her walk was somewhat stately as she took a seat near the end of the rectangular table, hooking her hindlegs under the bench. Twilight found herself between the stranger and Fluttershy (who was trying hard to disappear behind her own mane) as she took a seat, marveling at the subtle designs. Each place setting had an elegantly carved and gilded depression for holding a food tray steady through turns and tilts. And the bench itself had subtle depressions to make holding oneself in place quite comfortable.

A sleepy Spike clambered up to wedge himself underneath Twilight’s arm as Rainbow Dash took a seat next to Rarity. Pin Feather sat across from Fluttershy, causing her to shrink even further into herself. Princess Luna marched to the end of the table, declining a seat with a shake of her head. Pinkie Pie contented herself with pronking around the table, her eyes closed and fairly beaming with undisguised joy.

“My dear Miss Pie,” The unnamed earth pony’s eyes sparkled beneath her raven-black locks. “Are you certain you wouldn’t like to join us properly?”

“Mmmm hmmm!” Pinkie Pie bounced through another circuit. “I’m too happy to sit!”

“Of course you are dear.” She turned to Twilight and held out a hoof. “My name is Sun Shade.” With a sudden lurch, the airship skated sideways through an arc, throwing Pinkie Pie into a long skid on her face. Princess Luna looked as though her hooves were bolted as securely to the floor as the benches were. Twilight found that she was anchored well enough to her bench that she could take the hoof proffered her with an amused smile.

“Ex-ambassador to the Higher Gryphon Court, amateur interior designer and unfortunate spinster. And you are?” The airship began to pick up speed as its nose angled upwards. Pinkie Pie scrabbled her hooves against the carpet as the g-force dragged her across the room and away from her friends. Pin Feather laughed aloud. Sun Shade hadn’t broken eye contact, but she was clearly enjoying the moment, amused by Pinkie Pie’s plight.

Twilight giggled, something she felt she hadn’t done in forever. “My name is Twilight Sparkle.” She suddenly felt as though that wasn’t enough of an introduction. She tried to think of something to add about herself. “Um, Bearer of the Element of Magic and, uh, primarily diurnal arboreal librarian.”

Applejack rolled her eyes. “Is this gonna be one a’ those conversations?”

Sun Shade’s smile widened. “It’s a true pleasure to meet you, Twilight Sparkle. And you, Miss?” She turned her attention to the semi-dry pegasus wringing saltwater out of her mane and onto the carpeting.

Dash tossed her colorful mane back, flinging water droplets everywhere. “Oh, I’m Rainbow Dash! Element of Loyalty, winner of Cloudsdale’s best flyer competition and, uh, Pentagon of Awesomliness.”

Rarity interjected. “Don’t you mean ‘paragon?’”

Dash cocked her head to the side. “Why? What’s paragon mean?”

Rarity swept her nose through a subtle arc for emphasis. “It means ‘quintessence.’”

Applejack leaned toward her friend. “Gesundheit.”

Rarity’s expression instantly fell into mock offence.

“Art more introductions in order?” Princess Luna glanced about the table pointedly.

“No ma’am.” Pin Feather’s smiling eyes widened suddenly. “Oh, I mean your Highness.”

Sun Shade tilted her head to the side. “Almost, your Highness. There remains one pony I have not yet properly met.” She directed her gaze to the yellow pegasus sitting low on the bench.

Fluttershy’s voice was a delicate thing, barely discernible above the roar of the airship’s engines. “Uh. . . Um. . . F__sh__.”

“Help!” Pinkie Pie crawled across the carpet one inch at a time. “Why are you all so uphill?” A subtle course correction caused her to lose what traction she’d had, sliding back down towards the far wall again. “Aaaaaaaackies-OOF!”

“Well, it is a divine pleasure meeting you, Miss F__sh__.” Sun Shade mimicked Fluttershy’s mumbling perfectly. “Your mane is full of luster, and I find I am quite jealous of it. Should we become friends, I intend to shamelessly pester you for mane-care advice.”

Fluttershy may have squeaked something out in reply. But even though she’d sunk so low in her seat she appeared no bigger than Spike, a small smile may have been visible.

“Princess Luna.” Twilight’s violet eyes grew worried. “I mean no offence, your Highness, but why are you here? Is Canterlot alright?”

“Your concern is misplaced, Twilight Sparkle. Equestria remains tranquil. When we scryed my sister’s train and discovered it derailed, we decided to disobey her orders and proffer her our assistance. Fortune smiled upon us, for we arrived this very night, and it seemed not a moment too soon.” Princess Luna’s eyes unfocused. “We discovered our beloved sister beset by some fell beast, a foe of such puissance and darkness that we shudder to recall it.” Luna’s horn began to glow, and a black stain began to spread across the table, drawing everyone’s attention. The center of the blackness bulged upwards, forming the outline of a face struggling to define itself. It writhed and snapped its jaws, glaring at the companions seated about the table.

Fluttershy squeaked and hid. Twilight tried to hide Spike’s eyes, but he moved her hoof out of the way. “Coooool.” Dash said, leaning closer for a better look.

Luna continued, “It was injured when we blindsided it, and we injured it further, forced it to retreat. We remain uncertain whether or not we could have destroyed it utterly, given time. ‘Twas fearsome.”

Twilight cleared her throat. “So, we don’t know what it was? We don’t even have a clue?”

Luna shook her head. “Only that t’was powerful, corrupt of soul, self-aware, and it had no body if its own. Instead, it fought from within a vessel; this mature changeling. One with a mane of red and grey. When the darkness fled, it left the changeling’s body behind.”

Applejack tipped her hat back. “That’s the changeling from the hive! ‘Ember’ or something.”

“Cinder. His name was Cinder.” Twilight slapped a hoof against the table, jostling a wide-eyed Spike. “Oh, if only I had access to my library. . . or better yet, the Canterlot library. I think I’d at least know where to start looking for clues.”

“Twilight.” Luna’s intense, teal eyes bored into hers. “Whatever this creature may be, we believe it is older than the Canterlot library.”

Rainbow Dash whistled through her teeth and left her seat, hovering in place just above the bench. “Woah. So like, on a scale of um, let’s say ‘obnoxious’ to ‘Discord,’ just how dangerous. . .”

“DO NOT SPEAK THAT NAME.” Princess Luna shattered the illusion she had summoned. Dash dropped back into her seat, and Luna dropped her voice into the shaken silence. “Dare not speak his name. The ensconced draconequus you faced is possessed of powers drawn directly from the heart of the Darkness we journey towards. We are exceptionally lucky that during his brief freedom he did not actively seek our harm.”

“Sure he was powerful,” Rainbow Dash rolled her eyes, “But he folded up like a lawn chair when we hit him with the Power of Friendship! Right Twilight?” Twilight nodded, but she didn’t reflect Dash’s confident smile.

Princess Luna seemed unimpressed. “We studied his prison, and it appeared quite formidable. The combined force of the Elements of Harmony has not waned in our absence. You claim, however, that he did not fight back, nor dist he flee?”

Twilight shook her head. “He seemed confident that our friendship would fail us. He’d gotten inside our heads, convinced us to act against our natures, I guess.”

“With our beloved sister, we pursued the Spirit of Chaos for years before we managed to exhaust his capacity for deception and his proclivity for cunning escapes. Hmmm. Perhaps his long imprisonment somehow blunted his wits.” Luna’s eyes remained doubtful. Twilight suddenly wanted to return to Canterlot, maybe examine Discord’s statue herself. She had never before considered their victory over him ‘easy.’

Luna flung her mane over one shoulder, effectively dismissing the topic. “To address your earlier question, Rainbow Dash, the creature we faced tonight displayed knowledge of ancient magics and was possessed of no hesitation to employ them towards our end. At the height of our powers mayhap we would tarry to engage such a beast upon even hoofing.”

Rainbow Dash didn’t look impressed. She looked like she was doing algebra in her head. Rarity offered a translation. “She said ‘it’s dangerous,’ Rainbow.”

“I knew that.” Dash looked only vaguely annoyed.

Twilight glanced nervously out the window. “Um, should we keep some sort of watch, your highness?”

“Of course. ‘Tis the only sane solution for the time being. We will stand first.” Luna’s gaze turned critical. “Until my sister may join us, you are the only other creature aboard who may provide effective vigil. Whilst we rest or raise the celestial bodies, thou must watch over this vessel. Do not engage except for defense, and call for us instantly. Do not rely upon your eyes, rather open your other senses. Dost thou understand all we have conveyed?”

Twilight hesitated, but she agreed with a nod. “Yes, Princess.”

“Good.” Luna began to walk towards the far door. “Join me upon the flight deck ere sunrise. Thou hast five hours.” Luna paused to scowl at Pinkie Pie, who lay in a jumbled heap near the door. With a spell, Luna lifted the earth pony up into the air and set her down at the end of the table, where she clung for dear life. Then the Princess was gone.

“Thank you!” Pinkie Pie shouted after her.

Twilight waited a beat before turning back to the rest of the table. “Okay, is anypony else worried that our Luna might be a changeling?”

“What?!?” Pin Feather looked shocked.

Sun Shade nodded. “Quite honestly, I am happy we can address this now. I hadn’t wanted to broach the possibility myself.”

Rarity toyed with her mane in thought. “She certainly sounded like Princess Luna, even down to the Royal Canterlot Voice. . . Yet that scarcely proves anything.” Rarity sighed, her hooves massaging her temples. “Ugh, I grow so tired of unthreading deceptions and suspicions. Why must these cursed changelings complicate everything?” She whined.

Pin Feather glanced around warily. “I guess they’re just mindless, disgusting parasites, aren’t they?”

“Um, fer what it’s worth,” Applejack removed her hat and held it to her chest. “I didn’t get the sense there was rats in the cellar, ifn y’all get my meaning.”

“Oh, how delightful!” Sun Shade laughed. “Your euphemisms match your hat!”

“Oh, you have no idea. . .” Rarity rolled her eyes dramatically.

Twilight caught Applejack’s gaze. “We need to be sure, AJ. Pay keen attention to everything she says. Until we can try a spell on her, we need to be on our guard.”

“And, why can’t we try that now?” Rainbow Dash’s mane fell into her eyes as she glared. “You know we’d all have your back. Let’s go! I’ll hold her down while you do your magic thing.”

Sun Shade and Rarity both made equally offended noises, paired with scandalized expressions to match. Twilight shook her head no. “We can’t let her know what we know until we know for sure.”

Dash rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Ugh, why not? You know, you can’t just tippy-hoof past all of your problems by thinking through every little thing. Sometimes you gotta get in and get your hooves dirty to take out the trash.”

“This is the same problem we faced in the changeling hive, remember? If we reveal Luna as an enemy, we might not be able to keep her from destroying this ship. I don’t think we can afford a confrontation until Celestia’s on her hooves. And we can’t leave Celestia alone with her until we’re sure.”

Sun Shade nodded her agreement. “I’m certain this is the real reason Thistle wanted us to stay near shore; the possibility that Luna isn’t who she claims to be. Having Rirton’s military board the ship would be only slightly more fatal to our plans.”

“Gah, fine.” Rainbow dropped into sulk mode. “We’ll play this your way. I guess I’d rather drown than get dragged off to some smelly gryphon dungeon anyway.”

Applejack grit her teeth. “Manners, Rainbow. We’re guests here, remember?”

Rainbow Dash glanced guiltily at the only gryphon at the table. “Heheh, sorry. No offence, Pin Feather. I guess I’m just tired.”

Pin Feather clapped her on the back. “No sweat, Dasher! Truth be told, our dungeons do have a kind of funk to them. . .”

Fluttershy’s quiet voice drifted across the table while she fidgeted nervously with her mane. “Um, if Princess Luna was, um. . .” Fluttershy seemed to realize she was speaking, squeaked and hid behind her mane again.

“It’s okay Fluttershy. What were you going to say?” Twilight placed a hoof on her friend’s shoulder. The pink mane squeaked again, but neither a face nor recognizable words emerged.

“My dear,” Sun Shade spoke gently. “Did you mean to say that, should our Luna mean us ill, she would have acted against us by now?” Fluttershy’s pink mane nodded. “That was well reasoned. We should be safe enough at present. Fluttershy, beneath your lovely mane you possess both perception and wit. We shall indeed be fast friends.”

Rarity smiled fondly. “Quite. Our Fluttershy is a true gem.”

“Ain’t that the truth.” Applejack agreed.

Rainbow Dash shrugged. “Yeah, if only she wasn’t entirely useless in a fight.”

Pinkie Pie reached across the table and whapped Dash over the head. “That’s awful! Say you’re sorry, Dashie!” But Fluttershy was already half-running, half-sliding towards the far door, embarrassed to be seen crying in front of strangers. The airship chose in that moment to level out as Fluttershy ran for the door and she tripped, smacking her face against the doorframe. Crying openly now, Fluttershy vanished.

Applejack turned a glare of death upon the blue pegasus. “Just what is your problem, Rainbow?”

“What?” Dash looked from face to face, wide-eyed. “All I’m saying is that I think she’d lose a fight to a breakfast muffin. But, in the nicest possible way. . . Seriously, am I wrong? Tell me I’m wrong!”

“That is not the point, Rainbow Dash. You’ve gone and hurt her feelings.” Rarity glanced from Sun Shade to Pin Feather. “What kind of comfort foods do we have? You don’t have tea aboard this delightfully posh airship, do you?”

Pin Feather held up a pair of foreclaws, warding off the question. “Don’t look at me; they don’t let me in the kitchen anymore.”

“You are in luck.” Sun Shade’s eyes brightened. “We have only the finest tea aboard, Miss Rarity. Twenty hoof-selected imports directly from the Mareiage Freres. ”

“Oh, marvelous! You simply must show me your selection!” Rarity squeaked.

Sun Shade nodded. “I’ve done my best to ensure modern comforts on our voyage. Allow me to accompany you to the kitchen, and we shall see what we can find to cheer up our friend. Pin Feather, would you be so kind as to show our guests to their rooms for the night?” Her gaze once more swept the company. “I hope our accommodations suffice. Rest as you will, and rejoin us as you like.”

Twilight stood up from the table, trusting that the airship wouldn’t turn again and fling her hooves out from underneath her. She set a quietly snoozing Spike gently across her back. “Okay, but. . . I can’t allow myself to sleep tonight. There’s too much at stake.”

“That’s funny.” Pinkie Pie observed. “Because you don’t eat steak, and you look like you’re asleep already.”

Twilight glared a bit before she shook her head a little and gently slapped her cheeks. “Ugh, I feel like I’m asleep. But too many things could go wrong. Maybe I’ll just grab a book and sit where I can keep an eye on Princess Luna. And maybe I can trouble you for some of that tea.”

Sun Shade’s serious eyes closed as she conceded with a nod. “As you wish. I am certain I do not speak solely for myself when I say we are glad to have you aboard, Twilight Sparkle.”

Twilight smiled in reply. Turning, she regarded the scaly beast on her back. Spike looked so adorable whenever he slept, more so than any tiny colt or filly Twilight had ever seen. She’d never once considered having a foal of her own; uncovering the mysteries of the world had been Twilight’s sole obsession since she first watched Celestia raise the sun in Canterlot. But this tiny dragon had come to teach Twilight just why some ponies wished nothing more than to devote their lives to raising their young. She thought of the endless hours she’d spent in research and study over the last few years, and her eyes misted over. Maybe he would have had a better life if someone else had raised him. Her voice cracked a little as she gently nuzzled Spike. “H-- hey, how about you go with this nice gryphon and find out where we’ll be sleeping, hmmm?”

Spike rubbed tiredly at one eye. “Mmmpff. . . what ‘bout you?”

“I’ll join you in awhile. I promise.”

“No.” Spike mumbled. “No. . . ’m staying with you.”

Twilight sighed. Spike’s eyes had already closed again, so he didn’t see the love welling up in Twilight’s. “Okay.” She whispered. She kissed his forehead. “Okay.”

“Once you loop that bit around here, and clasp this section here, you should be all set.”

“Hmmm. . .” Twilight had perked up slightly when Sun Shade started strapping her into a belay harness, but now that she understood how it worked, her mind went back to feeling soggy and semi-useless. “Thank you. So, the anchor rope loops under here. . .” She indicated the coil of rope neatly hung about her chest. “And the eyelets on the deck will be obvious?”

“Quite.” Sun Shade indicated the short staircase before them. “They’re all painted a bright yellow, so as to be unmistakable.”

“So, just how bad will the wind be out there? How fast are we going?”

“Fast enough to give you far more of the ‘windblown’ look than you’d like, I’m sure. But your footing should be just fine. Barring major course corrections, naturally. That’s what the belay line is for. Just be cautious, darling.”

“Of course.” Twilight indicated the sumptuous cushioned bench nearby, whereupon Spike slept soundly next to a well-worn adventure novel. “And thank you for tracking down something for me to read. I’ve never heard of the ‘Parasol Protectorate’ series before.”

“I hope you find it a delightful romp.” Sun Shade said. “Now I simply must catch up with Rarity and see to Fluttershy’s state. I do hope a little light banter will do the trick. If you require anything further, do not hesitate to ask.”

“Of course.”

Sun Shade trotted out of sight, leaving Twilight alone with her thoughts. And her tea. It smelled like honeysuckle and mint, an invigorating combination. Twilight leapt lightly atop the cushion next to Spike and he barely shifted. Twilight smiled and stomped around a bit. If Spike were a wineglass, Twilight didn’t think she could tip it over. But scant seconds after she settled down she realized her danger. The bench was far too comfortable. With a small sigh, Twilight lay herself upon the cold, hard floor in front of the bench where she could see the intimidating steel hatch which opened to the flight deck, but she could also lean her head gently against the sleeping Spike.

Twilight’s horn began to glow as she pushed her senses outward, feeling her way through the structure of the ship. She sensed old, obdurate wood atop cold steel supports, thinly overlaid with the accruements of living. She sensed the subtle crackle of electricity through wires, the low thub-thubing of pumps moving various fluids, and the warm glow of a cluster of living creatures nearby. Perhaps the control room, or something similar. Further ahead, at the front (prow?) of the ship, she felt the deep presence of Princess Luna; unmistakably the one who had been chatting with her and her friends earlier.

Luna wasn’t doing anything that Twilight could sense. No destructive magics, no communication spells. Nothing even remotely suspicious. Also, she was standing confidently in what Twilight imagined was intense wind without budging. Please please please be the real Princess. By the hoof of the Celestial Matriarch, we could use a break. Twilight tried to maintain her awareness as she cracked the book open in front of her. Just like pulling an all-nighter study session. Twilight yawned hugely. Except I feel like I just ran a mareathon. She sipped some tea and tried to focus her eyes upon the page in front of her.

Twilight Sparkle awoke with a gasp, her heart pounding wildly in her chest. She glanced through the porthole in the door above and glimpsed the sky. The first vestiges of lighter colors had tinged the darkness as the dimmer stars began to wink out. Glancing down at the book in front of her, Twilight noticed the page number: 56. She could scarcely remember if she’d actually read any of it. Spike still slumbered on the cushion next to her, and her teacup idled on the floor before her, cold and forgotten. Twilight leapt to her feet, raced softly up the steps before her and fiddled with the circular wheel on the metal hatch.

The door opened inward a crack, and a surge of wind shoved against the far side. Twilight had to set her shoulders and her hooves to keep from being mushed uncomfortably against the wall. Flipping her mane out of her eyes and squinting hard, she peered out onto the deck of the airship. The deck itself was a dark polished wood, inset with bright yellow eyelets, just as Sun Shade had promised. Bright silver guardrails bordered the deck, and where they met Princess Luna stood like an immobile icon carved of onyx and shadows to honor the mysteries of the night. The alicorn’s horn was wreathed in layers of light; various blues mirrored by the lightening sky before her.

Twilight resisted the impulse to reach out with her senses to touch upon the magics at work. It would be simple enough to determine whether the creature before her was truly raising the sun, yet it would be equally obvious that she was doing so. With a shake of her head, Twilight pushed out into the wind.

She had trouble breathing. The air before her was snatched away, forcing her lungs to strain just to pull air down into them. She ducked her head beneath the worst of it and focused upon putting one hoof in front of the other. After a few steps, a brilliant idea occurred to her. With a soft glow, a familiar purple dome formed around her, cutting out the wind entirely. Twilight smiled at her own cleverness and blinked the tears out of her eyes, just as the wind fully caught her makeshift bubble and flung both her and it backwards through the door. She landed heavily, her shield softening her fall a little. She let go of the spell and collapsed upon the stairs beneath her.

Ow. I really should have seen that coming. Twilight shook her head, irritated. Okay physics, you asked for it! Twilight charged out the door again. This time, her shield appeared as a pair of flat planes forming a ‘V’ in front of her, cutting through the air and forcing it to either side of her. Wind still skirled around the edges, buffeting her mane in all directions, but it wasn’t nearly the force she had been dealing with. Twilight reveled in a deep satisfaction. Universal Laws:1 Twilight Sparkle:1 Hah! With another spell, she pulled the door shut behind her.

Twilight made her way up the deck until she stood alongside Princess Luna’s ethereal mane. It seemed only somewhat touched by the wind, as though Luna’s mane and tail only partially existed upon this plane of reality. Up close, flecks and sparks of silver appeared and vanished, twinkling like stars. If that’s not the real Princess Luna, I will. . . um. . . eat something improbable. That’s one hoof of a disguise.

As the sky lightened, a tiny mote of fire peeked over the horizon. A minute speck which, given time, would utterly unmake the night and usher in a new day. Twilight tried not to look directly at it as she held her tongue and shivered in the cold, thin air. Looking up, she took in a perfect, cloudless dome of sky, with little to obstruct the view. Twilight had always envisioned that any airship imaginable would hang beneath a giant balloon, zeppelin-style. This vessel had no such source for lift, and she instantly felt a burning curiosity as to how this airship worked.

Minutes later, with the sun fully up and the stars having retreated, the light surrounding Luna’s horn faded, and the Princess of the Night turned a disapproving glare upon the unicorn beside her. “Twilight Sparkle. Didst thou maintain vigil whilst we ushered in the dawn?”

Twilight’s gaze dropped and she blushed hard. What with her falling asleep unexpectedly, being suspicious of Luna and battling the wind, she’d forgotten why she’d be out here in the first place. Her chagrin cut deeply, choking off any reply. She needn’t have spoken aloud in any case; her guilt radiated off of her.

“We had thought not. We had also thought thou might take the safety of your friends and the safety of these kind strangers with a measure of gravity.” Twilight wilted even further. “Our sister has erred in your instruction, young Twilight Sparkle. Do not shame her further.” Twilight nodded miserably.

Luna turned to walk away, unaffected by the howling river of air sweeping above and below and around her. She paused and looked back as Twilight took her place at the head of the ship. She called out effortlessly over the sound of the wind. “Thou’rt shielding thyself quite cunningly!” Twilight glanced up at her words, a glimmer of hope in her eyes. “However, we would still advise use of thy harness, young one.” Twilight quickly fumbled the loop of rope from her harness and, reaching down, snapped the carabineer onto the closest eyehook. By the time she glanced back again, she was alone.

With a dejected sigh, Twilight took her place at the prow of the airship. The ocean was visible far below through the purple sheen of her shields. She could just make out a slight curvature to the horizon. Even atop the high mountain peak overlooking Ponyville, or the looming parapets and balconies of Canterlot with grand views of the vast lands of Equestria, had Twilight ever been able to see so far. Yet the only real feature she could discern was the thin line where the ocean met the sky.

The enormity of it all was oddly comforting. It made Twilight feel small. Dizzyingly small. Which, at least for the moment, made her forgetfulness seem small as well. She savored the illusion of the world being too large for the fate of it to rest squarely upon one filly’s shoulders. With another spell, Twilight conjured up some warmth and pushed her senses outwards, feeling for trouble as the crisp morning air tousled her mane.

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