• Published 4th Jan 2012
  • 25,718 Views, 1,518 Comments

The Flight of the Alicorn - Ponydora Prancypants

Rarity finds herself forced into an unlikely alliance when her airship crashes far from home.

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XIII. Firesticks and Flowers

XIII. Firesticks and Flowers

Art by WizardWannabe (deviantART)

“Would you please stop waving that thing around?” Rarity asked. Ever since Blueblood had first picked up the captive griffons’ wood and metal firesticks, he had apparently been entranced. Even now he was still magically spinning one of the tubular weapons around in the air, scrutinizing it carefully from every angle. “Honestly, it’s embarassing. It looks as though you’re compensating for something.”

Blueblood kept twisting and rotating the firestick, focusing on each detail. “This is very fine crafting, I must say. Whoever designed this musket is nothing less than a fiendish genius. The firing mechanism uses a steel wheel rotating against pyrite to ignite the firepowder, and the flash pan is covered to keep out moisture until the trigger is depressed. I dare say that if the griffons who boarded us had been equipped with these, they would not have been hindered by the rain and wind.” He turned to Rarity. “And I assure you that I have no need to compensate for anything.”

“I assure you that I do not care, and will never find out. I do care that we are wasting time that could be spent getting as far away from these ruffians as possible,” Rarity said. The rope-bound griffons, under threat of their own firesticks as wielded by Blueblood, sat back-to-back on their haunches in stone-faced silence, only a few lengths away.

“We can’t leave yet,” said Blueblood. “We haven’t even determined whether there is anything here worth taking. Perhaps these griffons have a map that reveals the locations of their patrols? Even if not, perhaps we can convince them to tell us the safest direction to take, or who they are working for and what they aim to achieve.”

Rarity threw a foreleg around Blueblood and ushered him away from the captives before whispering. “Just how do you plan to do that? You must realize that the more we interact with them, the more likely they are to remember that they are cold-blooded killers and we are merely a pair of ponies who have no business being here in the first place. Do you want them to start screeching for help once they realize we aren’t going to use these ... muskrats, did you say?”

“Oh, I don’t know. I, personally, would be tempted to pull the trigger if they did try to summon aid, if only to find out how these firing mechanisms work in practice. I swear to you that I’ve never seen such a brilliant piece ...”

Rarity shot Blueblood her most baleful stare.

“Fine, fine,” Blueblood replied, rearing back and throwing his forelegs up in mock surrender. “You win. We’ll not try our hooves at interrogation, but I still propose that you rifle through their supplies and determine whether anything useful may be found there. I shall stay here and keep a watch on the prisoners.”

“I’ll do it,” Rarity replied, gritting her teeth.

From the moment the griffons had been subdued she had been on edge, imagining how the pair would escape and turn on their captors, planning to rend them with beak and claw. These griffons did not look like the stately creatures who had signed on to race in the Alicorn’s Cup, nor even like Rainbow Dash’s brash and hot-tempered foalhood friend, Gilda. She had been put together, at least. These griffons wore no armor or insignia, their feathers were ruffled, and their fur was shaggy and unkempt. It appeared as though they had been away from civilization for some time, and the murderous look in their eyes was not that of a creature with self-restraint. All Rarity wanted to do was get away from them, as quickly and as far as possible. She had no reason to believe that Blueblood was even capable of using the weapons he seemed to be treating as toys, and she had no idea whether they would actually be effective. She wasn’t even certain what the strange tubes even did that made them such apparently fearsome weapons.

She hurriedly trotted over to the ruins of the ramshackle shelter the griffon pair had been using. It had initially consisted of a framework of thin logs supporting a thick mat of fronds, leaves, and branches set against the frame at a forty-five degree angle. It hadn’t been much, but it would have provided shelter from the weather. After the griffons had pulled it down due to her little rope trick, the shelter was reduced to nothing more than a jumbled mess of forest detritus. Wisps of smoke still rose where the falling mass of moisture-rich leaves and green wood had smothered the griffons’ fire.

Still, Blueblood might be correct that something useful could be found here. She had seen papers and a few small boxes before the lean-to had been destroyed. As long as Blueblood had the griffons quiet and under control, she supposed that it couldn’t hurt to quickly sift through the jumble to see if there was anything worth requisitioning. Rarity had barely begun carefully lifting branches from the pile and placing them in a neat stack off to the side when she was interrupting by a strangled wheezing sound.

“Come quickly!” Blueblood called, sounding panicked.

Rarity whirled around and raced back to the other pony. The stallion stood frozen in place, mouth agape, as one of the griffons clawed at his throat, gasped pathetically a few final times, and then was still.

“What did you do!?” Rarity demanded.

“What did I do? You tied him up! You must have tied him so tightly that he suffocated!”

“Ponies,” the other griffon croaked harshly. It was the first word of Equestrian either of the captives had uttered. “You two did not kill my comrade. He swallowed the poison pill that was affixed to the inside of his upper beak. I have such a pill as well, but I do not wish to die, even though I have been dishonored by my capture. My comrade could not live with that dishonor, but I can.”

“That’s absurd! It wasn’t necessary!” Rarity exclaimed in shock. “We would not have hurt you!”

“Hold on!” Blueblood interjected. “Were you not lecturing me about not telling the prisoners what we would and would not do?”

“We knew,” the griffon stated. “You are but ponies, and therefore would not kill unless it became necessary. You are a prey species, after all. In the end, what you would do matters not. Even if we return from this humiliation, we would be cast out forever once our shame became known.”

“I’m so sorry,” Rarity said, eyes downcast. “We cannot, however, set you free. Even now.”

“I understand,” the griffon replied sullenly. “I ask only one thing, a small mercy. It is a terrible taboo in my culture to have physical contact with war dead like this, for fear that the taint of their defeat will spread and poison the flock. Please, I beg you to move the body.”

“Absolutely not!” exclaimed Blueblood. “Do you think us so gullible as to untie you?”

“Wait,” said Rarity. “Do you promise not to try to escape if I do this?”

“You have my solemn word,” the griffon croaked.

“You are crazy!” Blueblood said. “You’re a madmare!”

Rarity had to admit he might be right, but it was such a simple request. Perhaps there was still hope, even in light of these tragic circumstances, for a bridge to be formed between captor and captive. Perhaps if she showed the surviving griffon a bit of kindness and generosity, he would willingly help them get home. Her horn glowed blue as the ropes began to untie themselves.

“She is crazy,” Blueblood said, exasperation evident in his tone. He turned to the griffon and leveled a floating musket at the other’s head. “I, however, am not. Make one false move, or twitch those wings, and you will discover that some ‘prey species’ bite back.”

The griffon sat on his haunches, completely still, as Rarity removed the rope from around him and his deceased cohort. As soon as he was no longer supported, the dead griffon collapsed in a limp heap. With great effort, she magically dragged the body a few lengths away and then retied the surviving captive. Rarity was pleased to see that the griffon kept still and silent throughout the entire process.

“Thank you, lady pony,” the griffon said, secure in his bindings. “You have shown great mercy in removing the threat of the taboo.”

“You are most welcome,” Rarity replied. “Perhaps we can find other areas of mutual understanding. I, for one, would be grateful if you would agree not to try to kill us.”

“I do not think so,” the griffon said, cackling. “I am a soldier, and you two ponies are my mission.”

“A solider you say, but for whom are you working?” Blueblood demanded, poking the griffon in the chest with his musket. “Come on, now.”

“Secrecy is also part of my mission,” the griffon replied, shaking his head.

“Ugh, of course,” Blueblood scrunched up his face in frustrated annoyance. “Let us finish looking through their belongings and then leave this wretched creature.”

Rarity, still in a shocked daze from the first griffon’s untimely end, returned to the ruined lean-to and her previous work. Sorting quickly through the debris, she soon began to uncover the first of the griffons’ possessions. There was a bag of small, crudely formed metal balls, Equestrian bits and other foreign coins she had never seen before, and finally, a satchel gruesomely formed of some animal’s hide and filled with loose documents. Rarity felt a surge of excitement at the idea that the papers might include a map of the area. This might be her best chance for safe and expeditious transit of the jungle! She found a flat and dry spot of dirt and began to examine the documents one by one.

On top were photographs of Blueblood and herself. The fact that the images were in color indicated that the cameras used to capture them were enchanted, and enchanted technology was rare outside of Equestria. This was more circumstantial evidence that these griffons were in league with ponies. More interesting still was the fact that Rarity could easily place the photograph taken of her. It was Twilight Sparkle’s birthday, two months ago, when Rarity had been staying in Canterlot. The day prior was when all of this mess had begun, when Rarity had gone yachting with Fancypants, and when she had lost her wits and kissed Blueblood. This particular photograph showed Rarity, standing with Fancypants and a particularly rude and pretentious unicorn mare named Upper Crust, in the Canterlot Castle garden green.

As clearly as Rarity remembered the scene, she hadn’t remembered her picture being taken. It made sense, of course, that certain members of the press would have been invited to cover such an important society occasion. They must have blended into the crowd. She had also been so on edge at the time, dreading that her Ponyville friends would make a scene in front of the Canterlot elite, that she had hardly been paying attention to anything other than trying to avoid an incident. She had, however, scanned the newspapers the next morning, for any mention of the kerfuffle that her friends had eventually, and inevitably, caused. There had been nothing. If there had been no story, that meant there had been no official reporters or photographers present, and that in turn meant that the event had not been open to the press after all. The pony who had taken the photograph of Rarity had done so clandestinely. Rarity didn’t like the conclusion she was nearing, but it now seemed that a plot against her had been in motion even then.

Blueblood had not made an appearance at the party, or she would have asked him if had noticed anypony taking photographs. Even the fact of his absence, in retrospect, now seemed strange. Why had he not attended the second most important social function of the year, ranking below only the Grand Galloping Gala? There had to be a noteworthy reason for his failure to appear, but this line of inquiry would have to be wait for now. There were other papers to review.

Unfortunately, the next few documents were pages filled with writing in Griffon, and Rarity did not know a single word of the language, nor did she know how to pronounce aloud the angular, boldly-stroked script the griffons favored, on the off chance that it was merely transliterated Equestrian. Very few ponies learned a second language, on account of the facts that ponies were not ordinarily inclined to travel abroad, and if they did, Equestrian was the default for international commerce and political affairs. There were simply far more ponies than anyone else.

The very last document was the one she had been so eagerly seeking. A large piece of parchment had been folded numerous times in order to fit in to the griffons’ pouch, and when she opened it Rarity saw that it was covered with tiny, detailed drawings of trees, rivers, mountains, and all sorts of points of interest, as well as a miniature compass rose.

“Wahaha!” Rarity exclaimed jubilantly. “It’s a map!”

“Let me see!” Blueblood galloped over to her, momentarily abandoning his charge. Rarity didn’t even bother to scold him, as excited she was about possibly finding directions out of this wretched place. The remaining griffon was clearly an honorable sort, at any rate. He had not made a move to escape so far, and she had bound him tightly. “You’re right! This is a detailed depiction of everything within a hundred and fifty leagues of here!”

“Can you use this to find the shortest safe path through the jungle?” Rarity asked.

“I should be able to, yes,” Blueblood said, before frowning and leaning down to stare closely at the map. “What is this?” he asked, pointing a hoof at a tiny drawing of a structure in the middle of what appeared to be a large number of trees. Writing appeared next to the drawing, but Rarity was unable to read it.

“I assume that is rhetorical question, given that I am utterly lost here and also unable to read Griffon,” she said.

“You don’t need to read the language to read a map. This must be the base from which the griffons are operating, and most likely where they berth that monstrous airship when it isn’t flying,” Blueblood explained. He indicated a serpentine line snaking through drawings of trees, which Rarity surmised represented the jungle. “Here, this must be the river we have been traveling along. According to this, the griffon base is situated on the shore of a large lake further upriver. If we had simply kept following the river, we would have eventually trotted straight into their claws. Now we know that we must find another route.”

“But how will we travel if not along the riverbanks?” Rarity asked. “The jungle is too thick.”

“We have no other choice. After we leave, and that griffon’s patrol fails to report, his friends will eventually come for him. They’ll be able to follow our trail easily if we stay close to the water. We will have to rely on this map to travel through the forest.”

“Is that safe? What if we get lost?” Rarity asked. Deep in the forest, there would be no margin for error. So far, Blueblood had not had to prove his vaunted talent for navigation beyond following the course of a river. Blazing a path where none existed presented an entirely different and greater set of challenges.

So intent was her focus on concerns about traversing the forest that Rarity paid no little mind to a rustling sound behind her, chalking it up to wind and leaves.

“I … Rarity!”

Blueblood shoved her hard with both forelegs, sending Rarity sprawling face first in the dirt. He, in turn, fell back in the opposite direction. Rarity did not even have time to think about berating the stallion for his unforgivable and ungentlecoltly behavior, because instantly it felt as though a firecracker had gone off inside her skull. Panicking, she pushed off with all four hooves and jumped into a standing position, assessing the situation even though her vision was foggy and it seemed that an enormous bell was ringing in her ears.

A griffon wearing a malicious open-beaked scowl faced her, sitting upright on his leonine rear legs, and holding one of the firesticks in his eagle talons. Sulfurous smoke stung Rarity’s nostrils and clouded the air, partially obscuring everything. Blueblood still lay on the ground, staring up in shock and breathing heavily. Impossibly, Rarity could see the second griffon, still bound, sitting right where Blueblood had left him. Somehow this assailant was the dead one, except he was very much alive. The griffon dropped his spent weapon, fell to all fours, and began to advance toward her.

“You!” Rarity exclaimed. “How dare you? How are you even alive?” Blueblood moaned, and she saw a patch of red staining his side. He was keeping a hoof pressed against the wound to stem the bleeding. Whatever the firestick had done, it was obviously serious. “How dare you betray my trust and generosity? How dare you hurt him? What about honor? What about integrity?” Filled with righteous fury, it did not even occur to Rarity to back away from the approaching griffon, who must have outweighed her by a factor of three. She reared back on her hind legs and assumed a fighting stance with her bent forelegs held defensively out in front. Apparently surprised by her audacity, the griffon paused for a moment.

“This is war,” the griffon croaked. “There is no honor in defeat, as you must know. You tricked us first.” He continued to walk toward Rarity.

“But we didn’t try to hurt or kill you!”

“Good tricks are fatal ones. Harmless tricks are the kind that get the trickster killed, in my homeland. Griffons do not care for tricksters.”

“No more tricks, then,” said Rarity, burning with indignation as she backed down onto all four hooves and stared down the advancing griffon. “Back in my homeland, I am quite skilled at finding beautiful, sparkling gems. I’m into fashion, you see. Gems are not much use out here in the jungle, though. Fortunately, sometimes one needs nothing more than big, ugly rocks to deal with a big, ugly brute like you!” Rarity’s horn shone with brilliant intensity as she gritted her teeth in concentration, and a swarm of stones, some nearly the size of her head, rose from the ground and began to swirl and orbit around her like tiny moons.

Rarity was very good at fine telekinesis and simultaneous manipulation of multiple objects, as required for the detail work her profession demanded. These rocks, however, were far heavier than needle, thread, and scissors. Normally, when working with bulky, heavy items like shopping bags or luggage, Rarity did nothing more than keep them suspended in the air. In her fury, however, Rarity became a magical prodigy. The griffon backed up, surprised and afraid, and made the mistake of unfurling his wings in order to evade her wrath. That only made him a much easier target.

Heavy rocks smashed against the griffon from all sides, and Rarity winced at the snapping sound as one particularly large stone connected with the creature’s left wing. She did not relent, however, until the griffon slumped to the ground, motionless. He was alive, but truly unconscious this time. Rarity closed her eyes and focused on letting her anger out through her exhalations. She had hurt this griffon in anger, but now was not the time to contemplate the ramifications of her violent act. Now was the time to collect Blueblood and flee.

She magically summoned her remaining length of rope and bound her foe, cinching the bindings more tightly than absolutely necessary. It was all she could do to stop herself from bucking her fallen adversary in the head. Instead, she used another rock to smash the tiny mechanical metal pieces on the top of both firesticks until she was sure the despicable weapons were rendered useless. Then she galloped to where Blueblood was struggling to pull himself into a standing position while still contorting one leg to keep pressure on his injury.

“It isn’t as bad as it appears,” he said, grimacing. “I think the ball hit a rib. I’ll live.”

“Of all the things, why in Celestia’s name did you push me out of the way?” Rarity asked, her eyes watering. “You stupid, stupid stallion. I deserved that wound for untying the griffon, when I should have seen that it was a ploy all along. I’m so sorry.”

“For all you know, I was trying to use you as a pony shield again, just like at the Gala” Blueblood replied with a game smile. “Go deal with the other one, before he tries something too.”

“Not before I find a bandage for that injury,” Rarity replied.

“I’m going to look like a mummy from Camelon before this is over, aren’t I?”

“Better a fashion disaster than dead,” Rarity replied. “In this instance, at least.” She galloped across the open ground at the water’s edge, to where she and Blueblood had left their supplies. She retrieved a cask of water from Blueblood’s pack and a bedsheet from her own, pausing only to tear up the sheet before returning to her stricken companion.

“Here we go again,” said Blueblood.

“Shh, just lie down and hold still.”

In truth, this was nothing like bandaging Blueblood’s head earlier that morning. Now, Rarity was confronted with a serious, still bleeding injury that was far out of her league in terms of severity. Based solely on what she had observed thus far, it appeared that the firestick worked by flinging one of the small metal balls she had seen at a high rate of speed. The ball, or pieces of it, was probably now somewhere inside Blueblood’s body, and she had no way to determine whether he was correct in guessing that nothing vital had been punctured. The only thing she could do would be to clean the wound, compress it, bandage it, and hope for the best.

Rarity moved Blueblood’s obstructing hoof out of the way and poured clean water from the cask she was levitating onto the wound. Rivulets of scarlet-tinted liquid ran down the stallion’s white coat and onto the ground. Satisfied that the fresh wound was clean enough, Rarity then pressed a large folded square of yellow cloth onto it, before wrapping the rest of the sheet completely around Blueblood’s barrel chest and tying it between his shoulders. If the circumstances weren’t so dire, the effect would have been festive, if not comical.

“All done,” she said. She could scarcely believe that she had faced the bloody wound without flinching, and had managed to dress it.

“Now go see to him,” Blueblood said, indicating the griffon with a tilt of his head.

Rarity was already trotting over to the prisoner. Upon reaching him, she simply stared into his intense golden eyes, silently communicating her anger and frustration.

“Well?” the griffon finally asked.

“Well what?”

“Well, don’t you want to know how, and why?”

“What I want right this very moment, very badly, is to hit you over the head with a rock like I did to your friend. I hate myself for that, but that is what I want,” Rarity said.

“It is the truth that we each have poison capsules to end our lives if the situation requires it,” the griffon spoke. “But we also have sleeping capsules containing a tonic made from the bark of the local catta tree, the effects of which closely mimic death for a short time. A non-griffon would probably not be able to see through the ruse, as you were not. There is no taboo in my culture about touching the dead.”

“Nor is there any concept of honor,” Rarity said hotly. “You are both cowards.”

“On the contrary, we are a noble race, and we are fighting to retain that nobility. Soon my comrades will bring back the golden age of griffons, before we treated with creatures that more rightly belong on our dinner tables. There is no honor to be had by fair dealings with prey.”

“I believe I’ve heard quite enough from you,” Rarity said testily. She roughly shoved a crumpled strip of cloth into the griffon’s open beak before tying it completely closed with a second triple-wrapped length. Finally, she blindfolded her captive with a third piece of fabric. She moved to whisper directly into where she believed the griffon’s ear was located.

“When they come for you, tell your leader exactly what happened, if you dare. Tell each of the ponies and griffons who are conspiring against Equestria that they have failed, and that they will always fail, because harmony is something that is bigger than two ponies lost in the woods. Even if you kill us, harmony lives in the hearts of every peace-loving pony and griffon. The real battle is for hearts, and you lost that battle before it began. If I were you, I would leave this place, return to my family, and forget any of this ever happened. When this mess is finally resolved, I don’t believe you will want to be found amongst the company you are presently keeping.”

She left the griffon where he sat and returned the injured Blueblood. She was pleased to see him already standing and walking in wide, deliberate circles.

“It would seem that everything is more or less in working order,” he said.

“I’m so very sorry,” Rarity began again. She could feel a pit forming in her stomach as her emotions rapidly shifted from righteous anger to shame and sorrow. Her naiveté had once again caused her to act like a fool, except this time somepony else had gotten hurt. She was lucky Blueblood hadn’t been killed.

“You don't have to apologize. I should not have left the griffons to their own devices. You could not have known that they could play dead like that. I didn’t know.”

“What do you mean? Are you absolutely certain that you were not hit in the head?” Rarity asked. “You, Blueblood, don’t blame me the one time I actually should bear the blame?”

“Perhaps later I shall blame you,” Blueblood replied quickly. “For now, we have to leave this place. We do not know how long it will be before these two griffons are missed. I have a map. I shall find us a way.”

“Yes. Right. Of course,” Rarity said. “What are we waiting for?”

Blueblood started to walk back to where their packs were stowed. As he did, Rarity felt the oppressiveness of guilt weighing her down. Blueblood stepped gingerly, favoring his left hind leg. It was obvious that he was in pain, and she had no way to help him. For all he had done to her in the past, and for all the animosity between them, the fact was that he had risked his life to save her. It was the one selfless and gallant thing Blueblood had done in the time she had known him, and he had nearly been killed because of it. Blueblood tried to shoulder the burden of water he had carried previously, but grunted in pain as he collapsed into a kneeling position. Wordlessly, Rarity untied one of the remaining three casks and allowed it to drop to the ground. His burden lightened, Blueblood stood once again.

“Can you carry that much?” Rarity asked.

Blueblood did not answer, but instead raised his chin proudly and looked away. He started to walk into the forest, his horn glowing sky blue as he held the griffons’ map in front of him. “This way,” he said.

Rarity followed. Blueblood didn’t turn around, and so he never noticed her levitate the dropped water cask and a few biscuits from her pack over toward the still-bound griffon hunters. If it was true that the price for failing their mission was expulsion, they would need to find something to eat once their cohorts discovered them. She did not need to believe that these treacherous creatures would change their ways in order to show them a little generosity. Then again, if Blueblood could find it within him to act heroically, maybe there was hope yet even for the most cruel and mendacious of beings.

As they walked deeper into the jungle, the atmosphere seemed to grow even thicker and more humid, if such a thing was possible. It felt as though Rarity was breathing floral soup. Vines and branches clogged the path, and with nothing to cut them, the ponies were constantly forced to exert their magic to lift vegetation out of the way. It was far more ardous than the clear path afforded by following the river, and Rarity’s heavy pannier did not make things any easier. She needed to start a conversation - anything to avoid fixating on her burning and rapidly tiring muscles.

“Blueblood,” Rarity began.

“Yes?” the stallion replied tersely.

“You were brave and selfless back there, and you likely saved my life. I want you to know that I won’t forget it.”

“That’s nice.”

“You could have focused on saving yourself, but you pushed me out of the line of fire instead.”

“And you want to know why,” Blueblood stated.

“I was surprised,” said Rarity.

“Please, for a moment, imagine yourself in my horseshoes,” Blueblood said. “I have literally no friends. What family I have who are not actively trying to have me killed either would prefer me dead or are too silly to care one way or the other, and I am not deluded enough to believe that Equestria is going to make a great show of mourning my passing. As grating, sanctimonious, and disagreeable as you are, you are also the only pony in the whole world who, thanks to circumstances, is now on my team. The converse of that arrangement is that I, for better or for worse, am on your team.”

“That’s it then,” Rarity said with finality. They were teammates now, it seemed.

“I’ve spent my entire life driving everypony else away, to great success. To my surprise, I find that I rather like having somepony else who cares whether I live or die, if only because I can read a map.”

“And you can carry the water,” Rarity added.

“Less so, now.”

“Some water,” Rarity clarified. “I confess that I don’t have any alternate plans for getting home, so I will be sticking with you until further notice.”

“We have so much more fun to look forward to.”

“I’ll try to get hurt next, if you like.”

Blueblood did not respond. Instead, he dropped to the ground without warning, groaning. He quickly unfastened his pack and leaned up against the trunk of a large tree. “I may have to provide that further notice you mentioned now,” he said.

“Whatever do you mean?” Rarity rushed over to his side, and quickly saw that Blueblood’s face was flushed. Without asking for permission, she touched the side of a hoof to his forehead and immediately ascertained that he was running a high fever.

“I have underestimated the severity of my injury it seems,” Blueblood said weakly. He looked bloodless and wan, even accounting for his pure white coat. “In fact, I may have underestimated it by quite a bit. I feel terrible.”

“You are running a fever,” Rarity stated. “I am afraid this may have more to do with your prior injury than the more recent one.” She gently touched the bandage she had wrapped around Blueblood’s head. “May I?”

“I could not stop you if I wanted to right now. But by all means.”

Rarity carefully unwound the bandage, conscious of a foul odor that was released as she worked. To her horror, the gash on Blueblood’s head was now almost black, and the infection had worsened. It was likely already spreading throughout his body. Certainly the musket ball wound had not helped his immune system’s ability to fight the infection, but that was now by far the least of Blueblood’s worries. Without medicine, the infection would lead to blood poisoning, and that would kill him. In fact, it had killed him now that he was already too sick to carry on. It was only a matter of time. At the rate the infection was progressing, he would likely not see the end of the next day. Rarity felt like vomiting and bursting into tears at the same time. It required a practically alicornian effort to control herself.

“I have seen that face before,” Blueblood said. “When the servants came to tell me my father was dead. What is it?”

There was no hope for a miracle, and no possibility for recovery. Therefore, there was no reason to lie. “Your infection has worsened. Apparently rum is not quite the cure-all I had hoped it would prove to be. I am so sorry.”

“Ha!” Blueblood laughed loudly, surprising Rarity.

“What could possibly be funny?” she asked.

“Let me tell you a good story. My great-great grandfather Blueblood, the pony who won the first Alicorn’s Cup and became a hero, also raced in the second Cup years later. He died! Lightning struck his airship and it fell burning out of the sky. Do you know how my father, Blueblood, died?”

“In an airship race?” Rarity hazarded a guess, unsure whether she should be facilitating this topic.

“Good guess, but no! A winch cable snapped and sliced him right in half as it whipped across the shipyard dock, poor fellow. But it was a winch on the airship he was having built, for the Alicorn’s Cup.”

“And now …”

“Blasted race has got me too! Ha ha!” Blueblood fell into such a fit of laughter that tears welled up at the corners of his eyes. “Mother was right all along!”

“Blueblood,” Rarity began.

“Here’s another funny story. My family has a long history of hiding things from Princess Celestia, you know. Like the Heavenstone, and back taxes. Probably should have told her about that first one before now, all things considered. Also, we’ve let her go on believing all this time that the original Alicorn and the Alicorn’s Cup were named after her. Ha!” Blueblood shook with mirth. “Wrong, silly filly! My great-great grandfather called his airship the Alicorn because of how much he hated Celestia for taking away all that was great and noble about our line, and reducing us to nothing more than curious relics of a bygone age. His airship was called the Alicorn because it was the only way he could imagine to give a mere mortal unicorn wings, and show the Princess that the line of Princess Platinum and King Blueblood still mattered. That’s all we have ever wanted - to do something meaningful for Equestria, and matter again. That’s all I wanted, to make the name Blueblood something more than the joke it has become.”

“Oh, Blueblood,” Rarity began, a single tear streaking down her face. “You really are a stupid stallion. Surely you understand that your airships and engines are changing the very face of Equestria. How can you believe that none of that matters?”

“Please, don’t patronize. I was competing in the market with a half-dozen other companies, and obviously not doing a very good job of it. My company failed. I could not even get my greatest and most advanced airship to work properly. Don’t sugarcoat it. The worst part is that now Procyon will become Blueblood, if he hasn’t already asked to be addressed as such. Future generations will remember Blueblood as the name of a traitor to ponykind.”

“You saved my life, twice,” Rarity said. “That matters to me.”

Blueblood sighed. “Just … would you please stay with me for a bit before you move on? If you’d rather make for Gallopoli, I understand, and I’ll give you clear directions on how to use the map.”

“To even suggest that I would leave!” Rarity exclaimed. “A pride of manticores could not drag me away. I owe you my life, remember? Besides, it is getting dark. I’m certain that your fever will have broken by morning, and your health will be much improved.” That last part was a lie.

“Thank you,” was all Blueblood said.

Rarity slumped down next him against the tree and turned away so that he could not see her. Tears flowed down the contours of her face, but she made no sound. She was too horrified to truly cry. Blueblood had finally revealed his inner self. He was not merely an arrogant elite, but a stallion so burdened by generations of resentment and inadequacy that he did all he could to eschew the friendships and relationships that might have forced him into the real world, because he was convinced that the world was laughing at him. Behind his skin-deep veneer of ugly conceit there was a real pony, and that Blueblood had intellect, courage, and even a touch of empathy. She would be the only one to ever know that Blueblood had existed. That is, if she managed to survive this awful nightmare. She risked looking back, and saw that Blueblood had fallen asleep.

Rarity gathered herself and stood up. This was a low moment, but it was not the time to give up. She was appalled to observe that in her distress she had not even properly rebandaged Blueblood’s head injury. It was fortunate that the jungle heat made sheets and pillowcases completely unnecessary, because she was rapidly running out of them. She prepared to wash the infected wound out with rum and water again, not caring that the remedy had already failed to stave off the infection once. There was no harm in continuing to try. With any luck, Blueblood would sleep right through the application this time.

He did not. As soon as the rum-soaked cloth touched the wound, Blueblood’s eyes shot open. Instead of screaming, to Rarity’s surprise he began to mutter incoherently, apparently lost in some fever dream.

“The race! Got to run the race. The flower! The race. The flower. Get the flower!”

“Shh,” Rarity whispered, trying to calm the ailing stallion. He stared back at her, and for a moment his eyes focused.

“Not dead yet! We need the flower. Look!” Blueblood raised a hoof and pointed at the pack of water casks that lay on the ground nearby.

“Do you want some water?” Rarity asked.

“The flower!” Blueblood repeated. Rarity had no idea what he the delirious stallion was talking about. When he tried to push off against the tree and stand up, she had to forcibly hold him down. “Look at the papers!” he exclaimed, apparently frustrated.

Rarity blinked in surprise as Blueblood said something lucid and comprehensible. She turned back to Blueblood’s pack and noticed the maps and course materials that he had slid into the mesh of rope that she had woven. Those were papers. She quickly retrieved the documents and began looking through them, using magical light from her horn to compensate for the waning light of day. Blueblood had, along with his maps, brought one page from the manual of regulations and race instructions for the Alicorn’s Cup. It was labeled, “Third Leg: Botanical Research Laboratory, Impenetrable Lands.” To Rarity’s utter amazement, much of the page was occupied by a single detailed illustration of a beautiful scarlet flower, which was labeled “Badge of Courage.” She remembered the phrase from Fancypants’ team briefing about the race.

“Yes,” Blueblood said.

Rarity read aloud from the page. “The Badge of Courage orchid grows in marshes and swamps on the edge of the Impenetrable Lands, and likely throughout the great jungle itself. This magical blood-red flower cannot be grown outside of its native habitat. If that were possible, however, the implications for modern medicine would be astonishing, because this flower has unique medicinal properties. The Badge of Courage, when consumed, is said to heal any injury or ailment nobly obtained. On less honorable maladies, it has no effect. Once picked, the orchid quickly begins to lose potency after a period of approximately six hours, making its export to Equestria unfeasible. Dr. Shrinking Violet, formerly of the Canterlot Botanical Gardens, has made it her life’s work to find a practicable application for the Badge of Courage. She will provide each team with one of these rare plants as the third marker.”

Blueblood nodded as Rarity finished reading the description.

“Oh my stars!” she exclaimed, throwing her forelegs around Blueblood in a hug that was anything but demure and ladylike. “Do you know what this means? If I can find one of these flowers and bring it back, you shall be saved! Well, of course you knew, you were trying to tell me the entire time, weren’t you?”

Blueblood grunted affirmatively, his eyes once again glazed over and his unfocused gaze far away.

“I’ll do it,” Rarity proclaimed, before realizing that Blueblood was once again asleep. “I shall find this rare flower … somewhere … in this enormous jungle … oh dear.” How would she possibly manage to find it? The instructions said it grew in marshes and swamps. Perhaps she would be able to use the griffons’ map to find such a place nearby. Yes, that is precisely what she would do. Blueblood had saved her life twice, and she had returned the favor only once. It was time to even the score.

By now, darkness had descended over the forest. In the distance, some nameless beast howled at the moon. She would never find anything in the dark, and casting enough magical illumination to see would bring the griffons down on her in a heartbeat. Moreover, she needed to watch over Blueblood until his fever broke. She would leave in the morning. She would save him.