• Published 24th Jul 2012
  • 3,754 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.

  • ...

20: Fateful Hour

"Captain, we've cleaned out the piston chambers and re-oiled the bearings." The dim light cast from Sun Shade's lantern threw strange shadows around the storage room. The pegasus it illuminated looked tired, as though he hadn't slept all night. Which he hadn't. None of them had. "We need to prime the main and secondary pumps before we can try starting the engines again."

Thistle's voice rang with confidence and leadership. "And when the turbine and fuel crews report in, we may give that a shot." The more exhausted and worn the airship Captain became, his commands grew sharper and clearer. He was at his best under pressure. "Until then we're sitting pretty. Now fetch yourself a light and help check the hull for stress fractures."

"But Captain, I thought we spent all night bleeding the lines and dismantling the engine blocks so we could use the sunlight to search. . ."

Thistle glared down his beak. "And if the circuits aren't completely dry, even priming the secondary pumps would cause a massive short, setting us back hours!" He moved to a locker and reached inside, pulling out a lantern and throwing it at the pony's hooves. "Go help the hull shift. By the first forge, you're an engineer aboard the Aether's Vigil! Celestia says she's bringing up the sun early today, so that means no time for mistakes! Sleep when you're dead and until then, let me do the thinking. Got it?"

"Sir." The pony picked up the lantern and shuffled away.

Sun Shade scowled. "Don't think for one second I missed that."

"Look, I can find the rest of the solvent on my own." Thistle carefully stepped to the back of the room. "Maybe you should check on Pin Feather and see what kind of supplies he needs to restock the infirmary. Goddesses know what state those lost souls might be in if we find them." He pried open a floor hatch with a nearby metal bar and hauled out a large metal locker. Popping the seals, he flipped the top open and began rummaging around inside. "And because you're just dying for me to ask, what is it that you didn't miss?"

"Finally." Sun Shade rolled her eyes. "I know you didn't mean to throw that lantern."

"And why didn't I?" He asked innocently. "As captain I have the job of keeping my crew in line at all times. Yes, sometimes this means being strict. Maybe stringing a few of them up by their primaries once in awhile, but it's nothing they aren't used to."

His companion didn't rise to the verbal bait. And she didn't buy it for one second. "The numbness, how far has it spread?"

The gryphon exhaled through his nares. "It's just past the wrist here, it's not that bad. Just feels like it fell asleep or something."

"Thistle," Without transition Sun Shade was by his side, and she stopped his movements with a magenta hoof. "How long have we known each other?"

Thistle sighed. If he'd had a bit for every time she said that. . . He'd have two bits. Maybe. Sun Shade almost never dropped the veneer of playful sarcasm she placed between herself and the world. "Hmmph, forever, at least."

"Remember that first year of college, when you stood up to Professor Arlix in front of the whole class because he kept singling me out?"

Thistle laughed despite himself. "That gryphon wasn't worth his weight in plucked feathers."

"Yes, well, he wasn't the only one prepared to shoot down a high-class and well-bred lady just because she happened to take an interest in mechanicals and inventing."

"Heh, maybe if you hadn't used your first demonstration to insult him directly to his beak. . ."

"I've never forgotten those who believed in me. Those who've stood beside me. Now here we are together, and your task is looking after one of the mechanical marvels of our time. Please, allow me to look after you." She stared deep into his eyes, imploring. "The numbness. How far has it spread?"

Flecks of dust danced in the lantern light between them, suspended by unseen eddies of air. Thistle's features, only partially illuminated down in the darkness, fell in resignation. His eartufts drooped. He traced a foreclaw up his arm and stopped, drawing a line just below his shoulder.

Sun Shade blinked a tear free, but she nodded. "Okay then. Th-that's what, two hours left, m-maybe? Before it reaches your. . ."

The gryphon rolled a shoulder in a subtle shrug. He spoke softly and carefully. "I'd say three, at least. Listen, Shade, we need to keep it together. There are two ponies and a dragon who might still be alive. Right now, they mean a whole lot more than I do. And there are a lot more souls left who need this bird to get them home again. Even if it's with my last breath, I need to get this thing back in the air. And I could use your help."

Shade nodded. "I know. And. . . and I'm going to help you." She sniffled in a very unladylike fashion. "But I swear that when you go all floppy and useless, I'm going to drag you to the infirmary myself and make Pin Feather do his worst." She pulled his head down level with hers. "Maybe you've resigned yourself to this, but you'd damn well better put up a fight! Do you hear me? If you were to die without making, I don't know, at least some sort of needlessly dramatic display, I shall be quite put out!"

Thistle's beak cracked into a soft grin, and he chuckled under his breath. Sun Shade, too, found the will to smile a little. Then she wiped at her cheek, sniffled again, and then turned and snapped open a bag she'd brought down with her. Together, they started filling it with supplies.

When Celestia raised the sun, the first rays of dawn crested the eastern horizon. But the light was a mottled red and cancerous thing. The writhing shadows it cast upon the circle of companions made familiar faces appear sunken and unhealthy. Almost cadaverous. Twilight Sparkle couldn't quite shake the feeling that it was an ominous portent. She didn't want to try the spell at all. The unicorn was suddenly very afraid of what she might find out.

Twilight stood shoulder to shoulder with her friends upon the highest point of their modest island. It was a small rocky hillock surrounded by brush and trees. Before her, Luna carefully levitated a large metal bowl, and she set it down gently before Twilight. A quiet voice threaded itself through the still, tainted air.

"Um, why do we all look like zombies?" Pinkie whispered loudly.

Celestia's reply was also hushed. "I believe the blight upon the mainland is simply filtering the light. As the sun rises, the light should become clean again."

"Oh, okay." Her wide eyes might have only expressed concern, but in this strange light they appeared panicked. "Twilight, do you think this will work?"

"I don't know." She responded truthfully. "If the distances don't render this spell impossible, the water might. It's hard to tell."

"Just tell us what to do, dear." Rarity had managed to prop herself up alongside her friends, having hitched a ride with Applejack through the trees. "And we shall all do our best."

Pinkie Pie asked, "Are we all supposed to stomp together? Like you're doing?"

Only then did Twilight notice that she'd been pounding the thin soil beneath her with a hoof. She stopped herself and blushed a little. She'd been feeling the vibrations of her hoofsteps up her front leg, but only above her elbow. The rest of her leg felt completely numb, like it belonged to some other pony. And she still had no intentions of worrying her friends with her condition. They had other friends to rescue. "Let's try focusing on Rainbow Dash's location. Picture her necklace in your mind, and hold it there."

"Might I suggest picturing her instead?" Princess Celestia offered, "Remember, the magic within her Element has become entwined with her very essence. Her Element is but a channel. I believe Rainbow Dash herself will be a more suitable target."

"So, just think of Dashie?" Pinkie closed her eyes. "Easy enough."

Applejack and Rarity followed suit. Twilight shuddered. In that light, as her closest friends fell still, it was too easy to imagine them all dead. She turned back to the bowl of sand, locking her eyes upon the smooth surface composed of tiny pale grains.

Luna spoke from behind her. "Focus Twilight, and we will lend thee our strength."

Twilight steadied herself with a breath. "Okay, here goes." Her horn began to glow.

As Twilight began to cast her spell, she pictured Rainbow Dash in her mind. She imagined her spiky mane, bold crimson eyes and sky-blue coat. She pictured the shape of her wings and her careless smirk. She remembered how her friend's voice would drone when she was bored, how it would crack when she was excited. Twilight pulled up every emotion she could connect to Dash. Like the pride she felt at Rainbow's accomplishments. The joy they'd shared together as friends. The care and concern she felt. The hope that Rainbow might one day fulfill her dream of flying with the Wonderbolts.

Twilight felt it when the crown atop her head lit with the same lavender glow as her horn. She could feel the other three Elements near her light up with their own soft colors. She cast her spell out into the leylines of the world with equal amounts of hope and dread.

The distance was incredible. Twilight's awareness began to fray along the endless miles, her magic sapped hopelessly away from her mental grasp. It felt like she was casting all of her wishes and dreams, along with her last bit, into a well with no bottom.

But then the alicorn sisters behind her opened up their magic to her, and their ageless force swept through her body and mind. Magical power flooded her, and the island exploded into detail, revealing every leaf and twig and pebble to her senses. The varied breaths of the ponies around her became as vivid to her as the shifting waves lapping every edge of the island. Even the mainland leapt into stark relief, every shift and skurl of shadows revealed to her like a shroud cast off of an ill-preserved corpse.

Yet the mysteries of the curse could wait. Twilight had another task at hoof. She poured her given power into her spell and she felt something, an end to the reach of her magic. She quickly narrowed the glow from her Element onto the bowl before her and projected the other half of the spell. She felt rather than saw the sands before her shifting. But she couldn't open her eyes. Not yet. She'd had her fill of heartbreak, and Twilight Sparkle cringed away from the possible pain of discovery the way a foal might cringe away from a hot stove.

"Hey!" Pinkie Pie's voice carried none of those reservations. "It's working!"

The brightness in Pinkie's voice bolstered Twilight's courage, and she blinked her eyes open. The bowl of sand shone with a violet glow, and the grains within shifted and flowed about one another with a soft, constant hiss. But the sand mounding itself in the center had a hazy, indistinct outline. Flecks of sand leapt and popped, interference rendering the shape difficult to focus on. Twilight thought she glimpsed the vague silhouette of a pony, but she couldn't be sure. Especially through the blood-haze of the evil dawn. It could have been anyone.

Rarity gave voice to Twilight's thoughts. "I. . . I can't make anything out."

"Is it supposed ta look so muzzy?" Applejack asked.

"Can't you see?" Pinkie Pie looked as though she might smile at any moment. "It's Rainbow Dash! She's. . . I think she's swimming, and she's. . . talking to. . . um. . . a bowl of pudding on her back."

"Uh-huh." Applejack had sarcasm down to an art form. "Bowl of puddin'? Now, where in tarnation would Rainbow get a bowl filled with pudding in the middle of the ocean?"

Pinkie Pie, completely deadpan, said. "From sea ponies?"

Applejack sighed and pinched the bridge of her nose as best she could with a hoof.

"Forgive my reticence," Rarity spoke slowly, squinting hard at the miniature sandstorm before them. "But perhaps there's some way to boost the spell's power? I would love to share Pinkie's confidence."

In a flash of intuition, Twilight realized that she hadn't pulled up every emotion she connected to Dash. Not by a long shot. There was the frustration she felt whenever Rainbow let her ego get out of hoof. Anger at her occasional carelessness. The pain Rainbow could cause when she said something thoughtless. Exasperation. Exasperation in absolute spades some days. When Twilight allowed herself to picture every facet of her friendship with Rainbow Dash, not just the good parts, the spell solidified. The living sand sculpture tightened and resolved into a clean image.

And she was there. A tiny Rainbow Dash swam through a shifting sea of sand. Her necklace hung above her shoulders, barely visible. Her wings clamped tight to her sides. and atop her back was a vague half-sphere. Twilight thought she had an idea. . .

"Oh!" Pinkie Pie shattered the silence. "It's not a bowl of pudding at all! It's Spike!"

Celestia spoke without breaking contact with Twilight or the spell. "You are correct, Pinkie. His scales are resisting the magic."

Pinkie's whole demeanor drooped just before she might have laughed for joy. Her pink ears sank towards the dirt beneath her. "But. . . but he's not moving."

"We-" Twilight wanted to allay Pinkie's fears instantly, but her throat was crowded with her own. To get even a partial glimpse of Spike, and to see him not moving, Possibly injured? She didn't have words for the dismay she felt.

Luna seemed to instantly understand. "What we know is that our Rainbow Dash yet lives and breathes. Further, it seems likely that if she is still trying to preserve young Spike, 'tis only because he clings to life as well. This is fair news indeed. We can move confidently with this information."

Applejack's pragmatism leapt to the rescue. "Smellin' salts." Everyone present turned to look at the farm mare. Applejack tossed her straw-colored ponytail over her shoulder. "If we know Spike's unconscious, let's send Rainbow a care package with smellin' salts inside. Might have the little guy up and about in a jiffy, right?"

"Hey, yeah!" Pinkie brightened a little.

So did Twilight. "Good thinking! Although it is Rainbow Dash. We should probably send along instructions, just in case."

"And something floaty." Applejack continued. "She's just got to be mighty tuckered tryin' to swim like that for how long she's been gone. She needs something to rest on, wouldn'tcha think?"

"Yes." Twilight followed her friend's train of thought right into the station. "And maybe we can find some type of flare we can send her. Something she can light up the sky with from the water!" Twilight grew more and more happy as hope flooded her heart. "Maybe Fluttershy's with them!" She threw her arms around Rarity and squeezed, leaving Rarity with one leg pegged in the dirt and the other stuck out at an awkward angle. "Oh, maybe everything will be okay after all!"

"Perhaps you are right, Twilight." Celestia's words were soft and warm. "We will send these things along immediately upon our return. But perhaps we should perform the spell again while we are all still here."

Twilight brought herself back under control, but she couldn't seem to stop beaming. "Um, yes. Of course, your Highness. Let's check on Fluttershy." She hadn't realized just how malnourished her soul had become since the world-shearing hurricane reft her of her friends. The barest taste of hope upon her lips, and she felt utterly renewed. Like the first sip of water offered to one dying of thirst. Or perhaps the first glimpse of sunrise after a seemingly endless night.

She directed a last hopeful look full of care and concern towards the brave figure swimming through sand before her, and then she broke her link to the spell, and the moving sculpture of Dash settled into an uneven mound. Twilight focused her thoughts on the other lost pegasus. She thought of Fluttershy's soft voice and sun-yellow coat. She pictured the way that Fluttershy's mane always seemed to fall into the shape of a heart. She imagined. . .

She could already feel the spell working. Fighting a splash of surprise Twilight completed the spell, and the sand before her shifted. In a moment, an image had resolved itself into perfect clarity. It was unmistakably Fluttershy from forelock to fetlocks, and she was flapping enough for a low hover.

"She's okay too!" Pinkie Pie's features started to brighten.

Twilight felt her stomach drop into her hooves. She'd noticed the way Fluttershy's tail lashed from side to side, as though she were trying to shake off a clump of fuzzy sand attached to it. And the look of fear on the little sand sculpture's face hit her like a physical blow. "Wait. . ." Twilight gasped weakly, reaching forward as though she might help somehow. Whatever had a hold of Fluttershy's tail had the pegasus very, very scared.

But another glob of sand reared up while she was distracted and attached itself to her leg. Flutterhsy's mouth produced no sound when it opened, but Twilight's ears twitched anyhow. And then she was pulled back to the sand. Her hooves kicked frantically, but it seemed to no avail. If anypony spoke around her, Twilight didn't hear it.

Shapeless mounds surrounded Fluttershy's figure, and in moments it was over. Despite the way that every grain of sand streamed and flowed through and between one another, it was crystal clear. Fluttershy wasn't moving anymore. Her mouth hung open, and her slim form lay still as stone, her legs and wings splayed awkwardly.

Pinkie's voice was a lost, hollow thing. "Fluttershy. . . G-get up. . ."

Twilight felt the warmth drain from her limbs, and her chest felt suddenly constricted, as though she couldn't quite get enough air into her lungs. This was the moment she had dreaded, the painful realization that the twisted shoreline and the unclean light had delivered on their promises. Luna's soft gasp and Celestia's murmured dismay barely reached her ears. The world spun around her, vertigo and nausea swirling about a single focal point. An enchanted bowl of sand and an image of unutterable loss.

Rarity choked back a sob.

"Oh. . . mercy, no. . ." Applejack breathed.

Twilight was vaguely aware that Celestia had placed a comforting hoof upon her shoulder. Twilight might have brushed her away if the world wasn't spinning so fast. She needed every hoof on the ground just to stay upright. Her mentor spoke soothing inanities, but Twilight couldn't fathom why. There was nothing to be said. She just couldn't quite process the picture before her. She couldn't wrap her mind around it. It was just too big.

"Wait! What's that?" Pinkie pointed, brushing tears and her straight mane away from her vision. "That, right there!"

Twilight planted her hooves wide in an attempt to slow the ground, which seemed determined to dump her onto her side. She forced her eyes to focus properly, glaring through the pain in her chest. She saw nothing.

"Wait! No. . . now! Her tail!"

And Twilight saw it. The very tip of Fluttershy's tail drifted up, and settled back down into place. It was obvious. Twilight fit the pieces together. "She's on the shore. Of course, she's on the shore somewhere! We have to find her!" She turned a pleading gaze upon the alicorn sisters.

Luna looked to her sister. "The shore is vast, and the direction of our pegasus uncertain." She noted these things without any hint of dissuasion. She was merely relating tactics.

Celestia turned a gaze full of sympathy upon her student. Her voice heavy with grief. "We may already be too late. . ."

Twilight was scarcely aware of how she reacted. It was more like the pain in her chest bypassed all logic and reason, and caused her eyes to narrow murderously. She may have prowled forward a menacing step as well. Celestia verbally backpedaled. "Of course we will find her, Twilight. I never meant to imply otherwise. We simply must think this through."

"Where do we start?" Applejack asked, trying hard to force determination into her voice. "I mean, which way do we head?"

One shuddering, painful breath was all it took for Twilight Sparkle to remember herself, and her brain flew into overdrive. "Goddess knows how she reached land so quickly, but logic suggests a straight line. Considering the direction of the winds of the storm, south is our most likely bet. We need to cover ground quickly, so you'll have to stay with the ship, Rarity. Celestia, see Rarity safely back to the Vigil and send a pair of flyers north, in case we've got the wrong direction. Then send those supplies to Dash and Spike. Luna, I think we'll need your help out there. I can't protect the three of us by myself. We'll need you to escort us south and clear us a safe path back to the airship once we've. . ." Her voice cracked apart a little. ". . .once we've found her."

Celestia's face oozed with globules of red light, making her concern look like something more self-serving and bitter. "My faithful student, I understand your pain. I truly do. However, putting yourself and the rest of your friends in harm's way is not. . ."

"We've been in 'harm's way' ever since we stepped hoof onto the train you sent for us!" Twilight shouted suddenly. She thought she saw flickers of black in her peripheral vision. "We've been in 'harm's way' since the day we found these stupid Elements!" She ripped the jeweled crown off her head and threw it to the dirt between them. "We're going. Either help us, or worry about keeping yourself out of 'harm's way'." Twilight turned eyes as hard as diamonds upon the other alicorn present. "Princess Luna. . ."

Sparing a sympathetic glance for her sister, Luna replied. "Of course. We shall scout for dangers ahead and defend thee 'gainst the lost creatures should they discover us."

Twilight turned back to her friends. "Pinkie, AJ, remember you have access to magic through your Elements. We might need it out there."

Pinkie nodded nervously, her blue eyes darting about as though she were trying to remember everything she'd learned all at once. Applejack deflated. "Oh, buck me." She sighed. Then she scanned around her until she spotted a thick branch, and she picked it up in her teeth, ready to use as a makeshift cudgel.

Twilight retrieved her Element and plopped it back on her head along with a poof of dirt. "I can teleport the three of us to the shore. Luna, you'll be flying, right?" In response, the alicorn spread her wings. "Okay, let's go."

The three ponies appeared in mid-air and dropped a short distance into cold, shallow surf. They were fortunate in that the tide wasn't high, but the exposed beach was narrow. The shifting sunlight looked like blood oozing over the thin skirt of bone-white sand. Twilight immediately lurched upright and flung herself towards the south, kicking up a spray of pale droplets with every stride. She spared one glance behind her, ensuring her friends were keeping pace. But then Twilight's world narrowed to the sea with its deepness, the land with its starkness, and the strip of beach like a tightrope above a swiftly tilting planet.

The shifting shadows to her left seemed to reach towards her, to whisper dark truths Twilight thought she could almost understand if she just let herself veer closer. It brushed against her mind, clawing and beckoning by turns. She fought the sensation, briefly wondering whether her friends felt the morbid pull too. Just as the thought flitted through her head, she heard Pinkie Pie shout behind her.

"AJ, no!" Twilight turned in time to see Pinkie pounce on Applejack's tail, jerking the farm mare to a stop just before they both hit the sand. "What are you doing? You shouldn't need Pinkie Sense to tell you that's dangerous."

"Ugh," Applejack spit the stick out of her mouth. "I ain't rightly sure. I just feel like there's a problem in there I ought to fix. Heh, guess that sounds mighty stupid now that I'm sayin' it out loud, don't it?"

Twilight helped her friend up. "No. I feel it too. It's offering me information, making me feel like there's something important I need to understand. It's preying on our personalities. But we can't listen, and we can't stop. Not here."

From out of the shadows of the cursed land, right next to the trio, a bloated tick the size of a melon dragged itself onto the sand, leaving a trail of ichor in its wake. With a yelp of surprise, Applejack snatched up her branch and batted the creature away. Yet more silhouettes moved behind the veil of darkness, and the sharp smell of ammonia wafted towards them. With a thought, Twilight shoved her friends backwards, placing herself between them and the threat.

Then, from over their shoulders, a fork of lightning struck inland scattering the vague shapes like chaff. Dirt and sand flung everywhere. "Do not tarry!" Luna's eyes shone with pale blue light. "We must move quickly!" Another burst of lightning split the air.

With the taste of ozone thick on her tongue Twilight wheeled, leading the charge south once again. She fled as much from her own recklessness as from the monstrous shapes. She knew she had no plan to bring them back to the island safely. She had led them into a death trap, and running would only prolong their lives. We'll be joining Fluttershy soon, wont we?

As Celestia's sun rose above the corrupted lands, the shifting and foreboding illumination became clean once again. Strong sunlight poured through the bridge windows, reflecting off of every metallic surface in a dazzling array of refracted beams. The whole airship still smelled of salt and seawater, but to Sun Shade it was still a clean smell, full of the promise of freedom. And as Thistle beside her moved down his improvised checklist, she watched as the dismay of the last forty-eight hours lifted from his features. Despite herself, Shade began to notice that the light and warmth of the sun began to feel a little bit like hope.

But then Thistle, sitting on his haunches, would lift a claw to scratch something else off the list, and she could see the tremors in his arm. The extra care he needed to make his claws do what he told them. And her exhausted brain would remember, and her hope would be dashed against the jagged rocks of reality.

A solid gryphon paced into the room, flat black feathers glossy in the sunlight. "Sir!" The edges of his salute were imprecise. "Servos are reconnected, and Skan says they're a go."

Thistle nodded. "Good, good. . ." He made another soft scratch. "At this rate, some of us may get a couple of hours sleep today."

The newcomer swayed a little in place at the mention of sleep. "Oh, and I checked in with Kelbrri in the hold. She says they only found minor leaks, and they're patching the last of them now."

"That's a relief." Thistle said. "With the cooling systems on line, that just leaves the turbine bearings. Huh."

"Wait," Sun Shade blinked, "That's it? I thought we initially agreed upon an estimated a repair time of days."

"Always guess low and aim high." Thistle's chest may have puffed out a bit. "When you have a crew as talented as mine. . . And, of course, you don't let them sleep, you can accomplish miracles." He looked as though he might start preening at any moment.

The black gryphon arched an eyebrow. "Suppose you'll be looking for your share of the glory, eh Captain?"

Thistle chaffed. "What? For standing around and barking orders in a crisis? I'll be taking all the glory, of course. That's history for you." He added matter-of-factly.

Sun Shade's eyes sparkled. "Don't go expecting a parade and an alabaster statue or anything. I simply wont allow a travesty of such magnitude to come to pass."

"Alabaster?" Thistle tisked. "I want my statue to be made out of iron and steel, complete with moving parts. Maybe with fire shooting out of my mouth. Come to think of it, those things would make for an excellent parade, too."

Sun Shade scoffed, "It would be a shame if the engineers 'mistakenly' aimed the fire out of the wrong end, wouldn't it?"

"I say, Miss Shade! Indeed!" Thistle sputtered. "I mean. . . I mean I really do say!"

The clatter of hoofsteps preceded Celestia's voice, an unusual note of urgency pervading her normally serene and regal tone. "Captain? Captain!"

Thistle's playful and stately offense drained away, leaving a hardened expression. "Your Highness?" He called out through the doorway.

Celestia appeared, her face lined with worry. Worry and fear. The same emotions darkened Rarity's face, the injured unicorn having been draped across the Princess's back. "We need to borrow two of your best fliers, and I must see Pin Feather about supplies. Now."

Footing was treacherous. Clumps and strands of seaweed formed gentle snares. The sand gave way just a little too much beneath Twilight's hooves, and the tiny waves that washed the shore just complicated the picture. But the fifth time she stumbled and plowed face-first into the wet sand, she was forced to admit something else was wrong. The numbness had spread too far up her foreleg. She couldn't really tell if it was doing what she told it to anymore. For the first time the ramifications hit her, and hit her hard. She was going to die. Probably today, if what Celestia had said was true.

She threw herself back into motion, glad that Princess Luna had flown ahead to scout. Twilight felt certain that Luna would instantly know what she was hiding. As she ran, she felt a panicky kind of sadness. A thready and desperate loss that seemed built completely out of regrets. The unlived years of her life loomed over her like a tidal wave, and every heart beat in her chest felt distinct and precious. Surely she was too young and had studied too hard to die like this, hadn't she?

Just as they reached a point where the shore began to curve away from the sea, suddenly Luna was in front of her, forcing Twilight to skid to a stop. "Halt a moment!" Luna called out.

Twilight's foreleg gave out as she tried to brake, and she tumbled to the sand yet again. The Princess had to leap nimbly out of the way from the tangled ball of purple limbs. Pinkie and Applejack both exchanged worried glances.

"Princess. . . Luna. . ." Pinkie gasped for breath, "What's wrong?"

"We must turn back." Luna said, her voice just a little unsteady. "'Tis unsafe to persist in this direction."

Twilight rubbed some of the sand from her eyes and brought them into focus. She felt a fresh stab of alarm. Luna's eyes were just a little too wide, and her breathing a little too heavy. Her wings twitched a bit at her sides. It was as panicked as she'd ever seen the Princess. "We can't turn back." Twilight said in a small voice, trembling in the sand. "I- We have to find her."

Applejack transferred her branch to a hoof and gestured with it back the way they came. "Uh, 'turn back' thataways?" She asked incredulously. The beach behind them was now scattered with vague, grey shapes. "That's the safer option now?"

Luna didn't waver. "We can swim. Between the pair of us, Twilight and I can. . ."

Twilight ignored her, choosing instead to resume her southward run. She wasn't afraid of danger. Not anymore. No, she was afraid of failure. The thought that she might never find Fluttershy, the thought that her friend's body might simply lay upon a beach along some Goddess-forsaken hellscape made her want to scream. In a flash, Luna appeared before her again, stopping her with a hoof. The Princess was surprisingly strong. "Twilight, please," Luna implored, "This is a mistake. You must turn aside."

Twilight lifted her numb hoof to bat Luna's arm away. "I'd rather die."

Luna snatched at Twilight's hoof and gasped in shock. Fear and sorrow chased themselves across Luna's timeless features. "Twilight Sparkle. . . art. . . art thou-"

A strange noise vibrated the air, interrupting the pair; a long, guttural, buzzing moan that seemed to shake the entire beach. Twilight felt the sound in her legs and chest. Whatever it was, it was big.

"What was that?" Pinkie stepped in close to Applejack's side, her hoof going protectively to her necklace. "Oh, I hate pinchy knee. . ."

Something hit the sand, emerging from the curve of the shore and the blackness of the curse ahead of them with an enormous whumpf. It was the size of a large horse, maybe bigger, and its body split down the middle of its doughy shapelessness, revealing shards of bone like broken plates and coiled piles of muscle the color of old blood. The smell of ammonia burned Twilight's nose and stung her eyes, making them water.

"Stars have mercy. . ." Applejack breathed.

Twilight had seen enough of horrors to last her several lifetimes. She wondered whether she would ever sleep peacefully again. Yet at the same time, she leaped around Luna and gathered her magic to her. Her sand-speckled horn burst into light, and she blasted the monstrosity before her with all her might.

The thing rocked back, having lost a sizable chunk of its. . . self. Gray and pink pus dripped out onto the beach as it writhed, its split body producing another bass-deep rumble that shook the air. Then another mass appeared next to the first, this one in the shape of a giant paw/hand tipped with long, straight claws. And Twilight realized she'd only seen the head of the beast as it began to drag itself fully into view. Twilight panted for breath, already winded, and she coughed on the acrid reek of the thing.

"Ware our backs, Twilight." Luna dug her hooves into the sand. "We must retreat."

The monster reared up off the sand, flopping another massive limb onto the beach and scraping a vast bulk of decaying flesh into view. What Twilight could now see was its mouth opened up again, and a long rope of what must have been tongue snaked out towards them, impossibly long. Luna's horn flashed, and she struck it out of the air with a scythe of magic.


Twilight turned, feeling like she might throw up. She'd clearly had no idea how deep trouble could get out here, and it hurt to leave Luna to deal with that colossal monster. But a glance showed Applejack and Pinkie Pie facing back the way they came, watching creatures of nightmare stagger towards them from the shadows. Princess Luna would likely survive, but the rest of them? I've led us into a trap. Twilight thought frantically, I just killed two of my best friends this morning.

NO! Twilight's face crumpled with rage. She wouldn't allow it. Flickers of black appeared around the edges of her horn, and her sandy and disheveled mane began to move in an unseen breeze.

Princess Celestia gazed out of the porthole at the calm ocean. She'd dispatched the two fliers Thistle had chosen some fifteen minutes ago, along with strict instructions to avoid anything that even remotely looked dangerous, and to search for any possible signs of Fluttershy.

Then she'd come down to the mess hall, where Pin feather had met her with a small vial of what he called 'spirit of hartshorn,' which should wake someone out of a dead faint. Along with a few other items she'd tracked down and a little more food and water, Celestia had cast the spell that disintegrated the items and sent them along the leylines of magic and into the world.

Thistle had been working tirelessly to bring Aether's Vigil up to flight capabilities. There was little left to do but wait. Celestia may have grown adept at waiting through the years, but she still didn't enjoy it. She was left with altogether too much to worry about. She would have rejoiced at some form of reply from Spike, but her thoughts were now with Twilight. If she lost her student now, Celestia knew she would likely lose hope as well.

A distant whine reached her ears, causing them to flick in surprise. She felt a thrumming in her hooves. The Vigil's engines were coming to life. She turned to trot towards the upper deck, knowing she would want to be out in the open when they found her sister and the others. She needed to ensure their safety. But a voice stopped her in her tracks. "Princess?" A young pegasus hurled himself into view. "Oh, your Highness! Come quick! We've found somepony!"

With a nod from Celestia, he turned and led her forward. "Who is it?" The Princess asked.

"We aren't sure." He replied. "He just asked to see you."

"Wait." Celestia drew up short. "Who on this side of the world do you not know?"

Cloud flicked a series of switches, twisted a thick metal grip and slowly raised a lever, bringing the airship back to life. The engines thrummed, displays lit up, and the airship began to lift out of the surf.

Thistle spread his arms out wide. "Gryphlets and gentilecolts, we have lift-off!"

Sun Shade smiled so broadly, her face started to hurt. She stomped her hooves in a somewhat-unladylike show of enthusiasm, and another pair of ponies did the same. The few crew members on the bridge, shift leaders for the last thirty hours of repair, cheered their success. Sun Shade may have wiped at the corner of an eye, but she hoped she was subtle enough that nobody noticed.

"My fellow aetherounauts and explorers," Thistle boomed, "You are undoubtedly the most talented group of engineers and techs on the planet!" More cheers followed this, along with some hoof-bumps and back-pats. "I need first shift at the helm and three volunteers for rescue ops, anyone who thinks they can still stand for a few more hours. The rest of you, have your crew get some hard earned shut-eye. Dream of what you're gonna spend your bits on when Celestia ponys up some serious overtime pay!" He rocketed his balled-up talons into the air for emphasis.

As most of the crew filed out of the hatch, Sun Shade glared at him through a smile. "Thistle Down, you. . . do you realize just how improper. . . oh, dash it all." She shook her lustrous black mane down into her face to hide her tears.

Thistle tilted her head up with a gentile digit. "What is it?" He asked warmly.

"Oh, it's so. . . so unheard of, I hardly. . . You're just so, so alive, and I've never told you just. . . just how. . ."

Thistle let out a small, kind laugh. "Well well, Miss Shade. I've never known you to misplace words. In fact, I don't think I've ever considered there might be a sentence in all of history you couldn't bend to your will."

His eyes sparkled with joy, but they still remained oblivious to her emotions. She smiled softly. "You beautiful fool." She sniffed. "For all your cleverness and intellect, you haven't the vaguest clue, do you?" She playfully swatted him on the chest. "You idiot, I love y. . ."

Sun Shade's words trailed off as she watched Thistle's pupils constrict in surprise just before he collapsed to the floor.

From the helm Cloud couldn't have heard their exchange, but she must have been keeping an eye on them. She snickered. Next to her, Kelbrri rolled her eyes. "O Captain! My Overly-Dramatic Captain. . ." She sighed.

Sun Shade, however, had to swallow panic before she found her voice. "Fetch Pin Feather." She said thinly.


"NOW! THAT'S AN ORDER!" Shade snapped. The startled Kelbrri seemed to shake herself awake, and she flung herself out of the hatch. Cloud tore her gaze off of the airships course to glare her helplessness at the pair. She knew she couldn't abandon control of the airship, whatever else might be happening. In the meantime, Thistle had curled into a ball and clutched at his chest as though something was tearing apart inside him. His muscles twitched, and his face contorted with pain. Shade pounced to his side and gently cradled his head off of the hard floor.

"No. No, not like this." Shade was crying, but she didn't notice. "Listen to my voice and fight it! Don't you die on me Downs! Okay? You listen to my voice and you stay with me!"

The only replies were muffled mewls of pain that forced their way past his clamped beak.

"We've never seen him before in our lives. That might be why we don't know him." The pegasus likely would never have spoken to royalty like this under any other circumstances, but sleep deprivation could turn even the nicest pony snappish. "But he looks like you, so we came to get you."

"Looks like me how?"

"You know, the whole wings and a horn package?"

They emerged onto the deck into the bright glare of sunlight. The pegasus squinted his eyes almost shut. Celestia had no such trouble. She immediately spotted Skan, his black feathers stark against the light browns and tans of the figure slumped over his shoulder. They were making their way slowly towards the hatch while the airship lifted up into the sky.

She had intended to ask where the scouting crew had gone, assuming that they must have found this survivor living impossibly upon one of the nearby islands. She had intended to ask why the scouting crew wasn't here. But the abused and exhausted figure before her captured her mind and swept away all conscious thought. The tattered remnants of a cream and white mane framed a face as dear as life, and when he opened his mouth, a weak voice emerged from the lost depths of time. "Tia."

She gasped and recoiled, her hindquarters hitting the deck behind her. She brought a shaky hoof up to her suddenly dry mouth. "T-Teryn?"

He nodded, his horn bobbing up and down. He reached a hoof towards her. "My sister."

On the bridge Kelbrri had reappeared, followed by an agitated Pin Feather. He dropped a black bag he'd carried in his beak and gently moved Sun Shade out of the way. "You look like crap, sir." Pin said, his voice thick.

Thistle managed to hitch in enough breath to squeeze a couple words out. It sounded like, "Yeah. . . Thanks. . ."

After feeling for a pulse, Pin Feather began rummaging madly through his bag, coming up with a large syringe. Sun Shade sat back on her haunches, terrified. He pulled the protective cover off the tip, revealing an equally large needle. Sun Shade cringed. She hated needles, and she couldn't bear to watch one plunge into. . . Sun Shade thought she might be sick as Pin Feather placed a steadying claw on Thistle's chest and aimed right for his heart.

"Aw, Pins," Thistle forced out of his clamped beak. "That thing?"

"You're dying." Pin Feather said. "You don't get to ask questions now." He pulled his foreclaw back. Shade squeezed her eyes shut and waited.

"No." Celestia whispered. "You're dead."

He shook his head gently from side to side. "It's okay, sister. I thought I was too."

"What is this?" Celestia asked nobody in particular. She looked like she'd forgotten how to breathe.

"Wait," Skan said from underneath a brown wing. "So, do you know this guy, your Highness?"

"Oh." Teryn coughed weakly. "Are you royalty now? Hmm, of course you are. After all, now that we can live forever, it's only natural. . ."

Celestia's horn burst into light, and a shockwave of magic radiated outward in a glowing sphere. It swept uselessly over the cringing crew members, disturbing not a single feather or tuft of fur. Celestia's horn dimmed, and limping towards her was the same heartbreaking figure. Teryn offered his hoof once again. "I assure you, sister. It's not an illusion. It's me, your brother."

With a startlingly undignified cry, the Princess threw her arms around him, and they held each other beneath the clean sunlight.

Sun Shade felt a tingling sensation wash over her, as though some very powerful magic had been cast nearby and had swept her tail to nose. At the same moment she heard the sick thump of the needle being driven hard into flesh. She opened her eyes.

A massive, oily black insect with shiny, pupil-less eyes straddled Thistle Down. In it's deformed hoof it held the cardiac syringe buried to its hilt in the Captain's chest. Thistle, however, had a hold of that slick hoof, and he could do nothing but glare hatred and pain at the changeling crouched atop him. The creature's wings buzzed a bit atop its back as it's eyes widened in shock.

For a moment that stretched for eternity, everything froze. Sun Shade couldn't grasp the scope of the betrayal she'd just stumbled upon. Pin Feather? She thought, They got to Pin Feather?

With enormous effort, Thistle gasped out one word filled with accusation and hate. "You. . ."

Then the moment shattered.

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