• Published 16th Dec 2011
  • 36,053 Views, 604 Comments

Daylight Burning - Guesswork

The return of an ancient enemy draws the ponies into a deadly spy game.

  • ...

Chapter 7: Inclement Weather

Chapter 7

Shield Banner watched the chariot descend from the heavy, rain-soaked sky. Its occupant was long overdue to meet them here at the outpost, and if there was one thing the Guard Captain hated, it was waiting around. At last, the chariot touched down and Shield Banner spotted a silhouette dismounting the vehicle. It was the intelligence agent, owl-spectacles glaring in the torchlight.

"You're late," said Shield Banner as the agent walked up. "That's not like you."

"Yes, sorry about that," said the agent. "Things have been a little topsy-turvy at the castle since you left. Secret time-traveling infiltrations and god-tier watermelon-floods and so forth. I barely had time to make the tracking rune you needed." He patted his saddlebag.

"It sounds like we're having comparably bad nights," said Shield Banner.

"Oh, I didn't even tell you the best part: Celestia has been kidnapped."

"Yes," said Shield Banner with a black note. "I heard. Spitfire relayed the news, although she lacked details. Maybe you'd better start at the beginning."

The agent gave Shield Banner a brief rundown of the incident at Canterlot. "Then, Celestia blasted straight at the Apprentice, just as Miss Sparkle was teleporting. The Princess was caught in the event horizon and pulled through herself. That's the last we've seen of them. We've got the Royal Diviners locating Celestia now, though. It shouldn't be long."

"I may have a head-start on that, actually," said Shield Banner. "I just dispatched several teams to Appleloosa. Depending on what they find, I can be on a train there myself within the hour."

"Appleloosa?" said the agent. "Where'd you get that?"

"It came from an informant we picked up," said Shield Banner. "One of the conspirators, in fact. She told me Luna might still be alive."

The agent looked at him. "I suppose I don't have to tell you to take whatever she says with a lick of salt..."

"Of course," Shield Banner assured him. "I've already set rather extensive precautions, and once I put the tracking rune on her, she might as well belong to us. If she's lying to me, or if she tries to escape... Well, she'll wish she hadn't. But for now, she's the best we've got."

"Which pony was it? Rarity?"

Shield Banner looked at him strangely, "Yes."

"However did I guess," said the agent.

"Not partial to seamstresses, are we?"

"Seamstresses I'm fine with," said the agent. "It's the skilled liars that concern me. You ought to see her clearance-K file--"

"Oh, you and your files," scoffed Shield Banner.

"--which lists charm and manipulation very prominently among Rarity's skill set. Also on the list: disguise, protocol, languages, sleight-of-hoof, acting, appraisal, fine-motor telekinesis, and treasure sense. Would you like me to go on?"

Shield Banner reconsidered him. "Well, she's a charmer alright." He stroked his chin with a hoof. "Maybe a manipulator. I don't know, she seemed legitimate enough, but my instincts have already been wrong once tonight. I'd hate to think I let a double agent slip by, right under my nose."

The two ponies looked at each other for a moment.

"We'd probably better go check on her," said the agent.

"You know, I was just about to say the same thing."

They turned to trot back toward the garrison buildings. After a moment, they quickened to a gallop. Cold rain fell across them in sheets.

* * *

Dash was trying to pick the lock on her shackles with a wet twig, which was turning out to be even less effective than she'd expected, and she hadn't expected much.

A harsh whisper suddenly came from just outside the cage bars. "Rainbow Dash! Psst! Rainbow!"

"You've got to be kidding me," said Dash. "Come back to gloat, Rarity? You two-faced, turncoat, rain-soaked horse-apple!"

"Shh!" said Rarity, and she tossed something through the bars. It landed in the straw at Dash's hooves. A tiny brass key.

The pegasus looked over to see Rarity standing in the shadows behind the cart, wearing a Royal Guard's hooded cloak--probably as much to shield her hair from the rain as to disguise herself.

"What are you doing here?" Dash asked, not sure whether or not to pick up the key. "Didn't you just betray us, like, half an hour ago?"

"Goodness, Rainbow," said Rarity. "I don't know whether to be flattered for my acting abilities, or offended for my integrity! How could you really believe I would turn my back on all of you?"

Dash sighed. "After the night we've had, I'm willing to believe anything is possible."

"Well," said Rarity, "that was a pretty weak apology, but I guess you're forgiven. Your little performance helped me sell it to the Captain, after all. Although I'm sending you the bill if I chipped a veneer."

"What's going on over there!?" shouted a red earth pony guard from a nearby doorway. Rarity and Dash froze, holding their breath. "If those prisoners are getting too chatty," the guard called over to Rarity, "feel free to rough 'em up a little."

"Uh, yes sir!" said Rarity in a gravelly baritone, throwing him a salute.

The guard nodded and turned back to his conversation.

"I can't believe that worked," Rarity said with a sigh of relief.

"Well, he's a little distracted," replied Dash. The red pony guard was talking up a pretty squire-mare with a shapely rump. Despite the storm, despite the crisis, he was still trying to get lucky. Can't really blame him if the world's about to end..., thought Dash with a snort. "Pinkie," she whispered, picking up the key. "C'mon, help me get these shackles off."

The pink earth pony didn't even look over her shoulder. "Go away," she said.

Rain fell harder across the camp, moving from cold to freezing. Dash and Rarity exchanged a look.

"Pinkie Pie," said Dash, "you have to get your marbles together. If we don't break out of here, they're going to kill us, do you understand?"

"He made me see all of it," she said, "at the same time." A hot tear ran down her muzzle.

"There, there," said Rarity, putting a hoof through the bars to rest on Pinkie's shoulder. "The past is gone, dear. Those things he made you see are just pictures now. You aren't that pony anymore. You're strong now."

"The Pinkie I know is a hero," said Dash. "She's unstoppable. And she's my best friend. You have to get up, Pinkie Pie. You can't let the Nightmare win. You can't!"

Pinkie was silent for a long time. Then, at last, she sniffed and sat up, wiping her eyes. "I was a sad pony, once," she said. "Sometimes, I still am."

"We all are, sweetie," Rarity soothed.

"So, are you back in it with us?" said Dash.

Pinkie Pie looked up. Her hair was slowly starting to crinkle up into its usual mass of curls. "Okie-dokie-lokie," she said.

"Thank you, Pinkie," said Rarity with a sigh of relief. "Now you two get your shackles off, while I take care of the cage lock."


* * *

Rarity crept around to the front of the wagon, pulling out a set of pins from her hair. She had barely begun to work on the lock, however, when they all heard the splashes of heavy hoof-falls marching up through the camp in their direction.

"Twitcha-twitch!" hissed Pinkie, but it was too late.

Rarity and Shield Banner saw each other at exactly the same time. The white unicorn barely had one chance to do something. Anything.

"Pinkie!" she cried, rapping her hoof on the locked cage door. "Knock knock!"

"Ooh, ooh," said Pinkie, banging the door open and poking her head out. "Who's there?"

"Lettuce," said Dash from behind her, shackles dropping to the floor. "Lettuce out of this stinking mudpit!"

"Prison break!" shouted Shield Banner. "Grab them!" His horn flared and a spray of orange bolas whirled from its tip, streaking between the bars of the cage directly at Dash. But the captain's attack hit nothing but a luminous rainbow contrail.

Dash was away like a rocket, snatching up a surprised Pinkie Pie and Rarity, and plowing through the cluster of guards like bowling pins. She reared up and increased her angle of ascent, flapping up over the outpost's battlements and ramparts, up into the stormy sky. If I can gain enough altitude, she thought, as the rain pelted her face, I can turn it into speed and get a Sonic Rainboom going. Nopony in the world is going to catch me then.

Something was wrong with her flight trim, though. Dash's pegasus aura-- which was malleable and could stretch around things like chariots and carriages-- was deforming backwards at a weird angle. Of course, she was carrying a full-sized mare under each foreleg and that always wreaked havoc with her aura, but it felt like more than that...

She looked over her shoulder, and in the stark relief of the lightning, saw that somepony had thrown a loop of wire around her ankle and was hanging onto the line now for dear life. He was a charcoal-gray earth pony with a shock of white hair and owl-spectacles. Despite the storm and the freezing rain, he began crawling up the line using his teeth and hooves.

Horse-apples!! she thought, freaking out. I've got to brush him off before he gets to me! Dash dipped back down towards the treeline-- a risky move under any circumstance, but absolutely insane with almost zero visibility and a crosswind like this. Well, that sounds like my style, doesn't it? she thought to herself.

"I just want to talk!" shouted the earth pony into the roar of the wind, but Rainbow Dash knew better than to believe him. Does he think I'm an idiot!?

"What's happening?" shouted Rarity, sounding terrified.

"We've got a stowaway!" Dash shouted. "But not for long!"

"Wheeee!" said Pinkie Pie as they descended into the forest canopy.

The agent crashed through the ocean of foliage, spitting out leaves by the mouthful. A massive tree trunk rushed up at him, and he yanked the line hard, swinging wide, just barely clearing the obstacle. Lightning flashed again, and Dash could see he had lost his spectacles. "Oh, you've done it now, missy!" he shouted, and continued to climb, looking pissed-off.

"Let's see how you like this!" yelled Dash, pulling up hard, until her flight-vector was almost completely vertical. The rain tore at them like icy knives. She struggled to go faster and faster, higher and higher, into the great thunderheads over the valley. Equestria fell away into the yawning darkness below, and now the sheet-lightning echoing through the clouds seemed close enough to touch.

The agent grabbed the last section of line in his teeth, and threw his foreleg out to grab Dash's rear hoof. She kicked backwards with her other leg, but the agent swept the blow aside, climbing further up her body. "I said pull over!" he growled, grabbing for her wings.

They entered the absolute darkness of the stormclouds. Dash spun as fast as she dared without losing hold of Pinkie and Rarity. She felt the agent's hooves slip on her rain-drenched feathers, then he lost his grip around her waist and slid back towards the trailing line again.

Blue static electricity crackled across the ponies' skin and manes as they soared up and up through the black mist. Dash was getting exhausted-- the weight of four ponies was just too much to handle unless she was Rainbooming-- but there was just a little further to go...

They punched through the top layer of clouds and soared up into the clear night sky. Surrounding them were billowing, white mountains under a vast sea of stars, and the clearest, brightest moon that Dash had ever seen.

And suddenly, her pegasus aura winked out. They stalled, inertia still taking them upwards, but at a quickly receding pace. Omigosh, omigosh, omigosh! she panicked. My flight field! Concentrate! Kick-start that sucker! But over and over again, the energy that should have surrounded them was drained away by something else. Dash tried to sense the direction. Something close by. Some sort of magic-drainy-thingy. Their upward inertia ran out and for one terrible second, they were weightless.

It's Rarity, though Dash suddenly, she's absorbing the energy... In that same moment, an orange glow burned from Rarity's eyes. The unicorn's cry of alarm froze into ice crystals in the thin air. In a flash of orange light, she was gone.

Then they were falling. Down, down, away from the moon and sky, into roiling cotton-ball mountains, down through the thick and terrible storm clouds. Back into the rain, the hurricane wind, the darkness.

Dash felt something slap against her cutie-mark, and she looked back to see a piece of paper peeling away from her flank. A strange, glowing rune flared with light and sank painlessly into her flesh. The agent gave her a little salute, then flung himself off of her back and into space, falling through the storm, pointing his body downwards at an angle. He was aiming for the lake.

What the hay was that thing he stuck on me?? she thought with panic. Some sort of homing beacon? A poison? A hex? Some kind of bug egg that's going to grow in my skin now?? What do I do? She looked down at Pinkie Pie, still tucked under her foreleg. Ice had coated Pinkie's hair, and the poor earth pony was shivering madly from cold. She's not used to the altitude like a pegasus, thought Dash. That made up her mind. She had to save Pinkie Pie.

Dash nosed into a dive, wings flush against her back. Her pegasus aura was returning, but too weak to slow their fall. She focused the paltry field into a point in front of her, and a cone of water vapor flared along her flight path. It grew steeper and steeper as her speed approached the critical threshold. The ground was getting kind of close.

At last, a massive charge of magic detonated along the surface of Dash's flight aura, releasing a blinding array of chromatic shock-rings over the whole valley. She and Pinkie blasted forward into the night on a rainbow trail.

Still not fast enough, thought Dash as they tore through the sky. Sorry Rarity...

* * *

The Guard Captain lifted a hoof to shield his eyes from the blinding Sonic Rainboom. For several seconds, the valley lit up as if it was day.

Beside him, a gold pegasus in a blue flight-uniform paced back and forth, bouncing excitedly on her hooves. "Do you want us to pursue?" she asked. "I have Fleetfoot and Soarin in a holding pattern, just give the word."

As if you could catch her now, thought Shield Banner as he watched the glowing shock-waves dissipate. "Not yet," he said. "We don't want to spook her. Better to let Rainbow Dash lead us back to the enemy and strike when we're good and ready."

"If you say so," said Spitfire, "although I don't like being benched like this."

"Come now, Wing Leader," he said. "I've not forgotten that Rainbow Dash saved your life, once."

"So have you," said Spitfire. "And I'd kick your rump upside-down if you ever turned on Equestria. Look, I admire Rainbow Dash's flying ability, but her lack of discipline is the reason she's not a Wonderbolt today. I think a mare like her is exactly the kind of pony who would get duped by a false cause."

"I agree with you," said Shield Banner. "And I believe in you. That's why I'm letting your team stay in the game at all. But for now, I need you in a support role to avoid a conflict of interest. I hope this will not affect your performance."

"No, sir. Of course not. Wonderbolts always fly true."

He turned back to look into the driving rain. "Ah," he said. "Here he is now."

The agent falling out of the sky was nearly invisible against the backdrop of the storm-- just a pinprick of black in a sea of rain and lightning. Then he hit the lake, and the massive geyser exploding from the surface of the water was a little hard to miss. Shield Banner watched the lake slosh and ripple like a giant bathtub. Minutes ticked by, and still the agent did not resurface.

"Sir," said the gold pegasus, "shouldn't we... uh... go help him?"

"Patience is a virtue, Spitfire."

At last, they heard a splashing sound from a bed of cattails nearby. The agent pulled himself onto the beach and collapsed, coughing up water.

Shield Banner walked over. "Well? Did you get it done?"

"Fine thanks," gasped the agent, turning over onto his back, "and you?"

"Stop wasting time and answer me."

"I'm afraid not. She kicked me off before I was able to plant the tracker rune."

"Horseradish!" said Shield Banner, slamming a hoof down. He shouted into the storm. "Horseradish!! It's just one thing after another tonight!"

"Yes, poor you," said the agent, crawling painfully back onto his hooves for the third time in as many hours. He was wringing out his tail when a flash of white light issued from his vest pocket. He poked a hoof in, pulling out a pair of owl-eyed spectacles. "Ah," he said to himself, "there you are." He put them on.

"Orders, sir?" asked Spitfire.

"Return to the outpost for now," said Shield Banner with a rumbling sigh. "Rotate the scouts and make sure your team is standing by for action. Then come meet me at the castle. I'm going to see if the Royal diviners are onto anything yet. And while I'm at it, I'll be interested to know if our 'informant' is finally ready to tell the truth this time. I think she is."

They all looked back at Rarity. The filthy white unicorn wore an iron bridle with a thick chain attached to Shield Banner's saddle. Orange magic still crackled along her coat from the powerful recall spell that Shield Banner had planted on her, back at the outpost. Rainbow Dash's flight aura had both triggered and powered the latent spellframe, and here was the result. Rarity looked drunk, woozy from all the hexes he had just put on her. Even still, there was fear in her eyes.

"Shouldn't she be turned over to Canterlot Intelligence?" said the agent.

"Not this time," said Shield Banner. "I think I'm going to exercise my privilege as Guard Captain and question her again myself. Let's just say she and I have a few things to work out."

"Seriously," said the agent, "you shouldn't waste your time on a single prisoner, Captain. You've got other ponies to do that for--"

"This unicorn thought she was more clever than us," interrupted Shield Banner. "I'm eager to show her that she was wrong. And she won't be doing any more escaping either, now that I've got her hexed to the gills." He walked over and grabbed Rarity by the collar, yanking her off the ground as she cried out in pain. He brought her level with his face, looking right into her eyes. "You have good reason to be scared, traitor. I promised you the worst possible outcome, and now you're going to find out what that is." He threw her back down into the mud. Then he turned to the agent. "Do you need a lift to the castle?"

"I've got a few errands to run first," the agent said. "But I'll be in touch. Try not to 'over-interrogate' the prisoner."

"Trust me, she'll know the date and time of her death long before it happens," the Guard Captain said, and saluted. "You have your orders, Spitfire. See you in Canterlot." He disappeared with Rarity in a flash of orange magic.

"Well, he was in a great mood," said Spitfire.

"The Captain takes everything very personally," said the agent. "Make sure he doesn't hurt Rarity too much, okay? I have a feeling that nothing here is what it seems to be."

Spitfire considered him. "I'm not sure what I can do, but I'll try to stall him as long as possible."

"Thank you, Spitfire."

Once she was gone, the agent reached into his saddlebag and pulled out a yellowed map of Equestria. His tracking rune was transmitting nicely from where he'd stuck it on Dash's cutie-mark. Shield Banner had been right about one thing at least: the rune would lead straight to Twilight and the rest of them, not to mention one or both Princesses.

The agent put the map away and peered into the distance to the southwest. It was time to see if his hunch was correct.

Picture Credits:


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