• Published 4th Jan 2012
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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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XV. La Mode Aquatique

XV. La Mode Aquatique

Prince Khufu had said to run. Instead of obeying at once, Rarity stood frozen to the spot where her hooves were planted. It took valuable seconds for the camel’s exhortation to even register in her mind, occupied as she was in staring up into the crown of the Honeytrap, searching for the source of the shrill whine that filled the air.

“Do not hesitate, Lady Rarity. Run now!” Khufu turned and instantly broke into a gallop. Before Rarity had moved he was already speeding away on his gangly legs. Rarity wanted to follow him, but it was just so hard to leave this strange tree and its enticing pool of sweet-smelling crystal clear nectar. It was almost intoxicating, and she was so thirsty. How could that camel simply abandon such a lovely place?

Finally, far above, an explosion issued forth from within the depths of the Honeytrap’s leafy crown. Rarity blinked in surprise as a swarm of argent spheres, each a hoof’s width in diameter, boiled forth and poured down on her like a waterfall of quicksilver. Each creature was ever so-slightly tinted in a different metallic shade, so that the overall effect was something like a translucent-winged Hearth’s Warming tree ornament with bulging black eyes and and a hungry maw filled with needles. She had to run! Why weren’t her legs moving?

“Oof!” Rarity nearly fell as something heavy impacted her side. Blinking, she saw that Khufu had returned and roughly shoved her. He spoke before she could even open her mouth to berate him for his horrific manners.

“Pollen seems to have much stronger effect on ponies, yes? Now listen to what I say and run!”

Rarity blinked several more times and focused on clearing her head while she reassessed the situation. The piranhasprites were coming, they meant to eat her alive, and they were already nearly upon her. She screamed in terror, even as she kicked up a cloud of dust in her haste to turn and follow Khufu.

The old camel was faster then Rarity would have imagined, racing through the forest on his skinny, knobby legs. Despite his strange two-toed feet, he seemed sure-hooved, not panicked, as he flew along the ground. Surefooted, perhaps was the correct term. Rarity had no idea where he was going, but it was clear that Khufu hadn’t chosen the easiest path. Fallen trees and gnarled roots threatened to trip her up with every step, and broad-leaved plants slapped against her as they recoiled from the camel’s passage. She tried - and failed - to erect a magical screen in front of her to deflect the whipping branches and leaves. She would have to simply deal with it. It was far better to be smacked by a stray frond than to be devoured by monstrosities.

The swarm, thousands strong, pursued just behind. She knew that they were collectively waiting for her to make a false step or simply tire of galloping. Every hoofbeat carried with it the danger of impacting an unseen root or stone and sending her tumbling, but she dared not slow her pace for safety’s sake; if she did, she would be overtaken in seconds. If she tried to branch off and take an easier path, the piranhasprites would likely follow, as she was the closer target. Rarity had no choice but to continue to race headlong after Khufu, hoping that he was not leading them to a most unpleasant end.

Of all the things that could happened to her … this was pretty bad, Rarity decided. The others all could have dealt with the piranhasprites. Twilight Sparkle had her magic, which had been powerful enough to have redirected the appetites of an entire swarm of the similar, though non-carnivorous, parasprites. Rainbow Dash had her wings and unparalleled speed. Pinkie Pie was astonishingly elusive when she wanted to be, and could have vanished without a trace until the creatures tired of the chase. Applejack had her muscular legs and inexhaustible stamina. Fluttershy was perhaps the best suited of all to something like this. She could have faced down the entire swarm with her overpowering “stare” if she truly put her mind to stopping them. Rarity had nothing but adrenaline and the overriding primal urge to stay alive. Why had she had the questionable fortune to encounter Khufu, anyway? Couldn’t she have come across somepony having a bad mane day or some problem better suited to her talents? There was nothing to be done except to keep pounding her hooves against the earth in hopes of outpacing the swarm.

On every side, the denizens of the jungle screeched and squawked and fled before the onrushing silvery flood of death. Flocks of birds took to the air in disorganized, panic-stricken clouds. Monkeys hurtled pell-mell through the canopy overhead in a mad haste to get away. Rarity supposed that slower animals either relied on their ability to keep still and blend in with their surroundings, or were simply devoured.

“We must reach water,” Khufu called back to her, between gasping breaths so labored that Rarity could hear them above the maddening whine of the piranhasprites. “That is where we go. River is ahead! Be safe there.”

Safe in the river? Apparently the piranhasprites could not swim. That made sense, Rarity supposed, given their tiny legs and relatively delicate wings. As deadly as these diminutive terrors were, everything had its limitations. Celestia knew that Rarity had hers. Every muscle from her chest to her haunches was burning from exertion, and the strain of galloping so long made her fear that she would tear an extensor or flexor tendon in her legs. An injury like that could be permanently crippling under the best of circumstances, but now it would mean a quick but gruesome end. She had no choice but to fight the pain and keep galloping.

A sharp stinging sensation jolted her into hyperawareness, and Rarity knew even before quickly glancing backward that she had been bitten. The brief look confirmed it; one of the creatures had caught up to her and sunk its needle-like teeth into her flank. Unless they were poisonous, one piranhasprite would not kill her. The real concern was that if one had caught her, it was apparent that she would not be able to outrun the bulk of the swarm much longer. She swung her hips to the side and smashed the offending creature against a passing tree, leaving nothing behind but thin streams of blood trickling down where she had been bitten. The blood further marred her coat, but Rarity was past caring. She was already a filthy mess. The piranhasprites closed in on her from the sides and rear, having evidently chosen her as their target. She magically unfastened the straps of Blueblood’s excellent pannier, and it fell to the ground along with her food and water. The only things that mattered to her survival now were speed and endurance.

Ahead, Khufu broke out of the forest and into open terrain. Rarity could hear rushing water, and knew that the river had to be close. She tried to take heart that salvation was near, but she could only fear that it was not near enough. To her left and right, the whine of the piranhasprites was reaching such a crescendo that it felt as if her tympanic membranes would burst from the volume of their awful noise. She saw the shimmering creatures approaching in her peripheral vision, expressionless black eyes shining.

She was surrounded on all sides now by a wall of silvery bodies and flashing wings, with only a small window through the swarm directly ahead. If the piranhasprites fully encircled her, she would be finished. It really was a shame that they had such an urge to feed on pony flesh. As baubles or brooches, the metallic creatures would likely be a smashing success back in Canterlot. She made an internal note to memorialize this encounter in jewelry form in the unlikely event she survived.

Khufu galloped on, now no more than six lengths ahead of her. His long legs and wiry build must have made him a natural runner, because Rarity could not otherwise comprehend how his advanced age and obviously diminished lung capacity permitted him to match her pace. She could see the river now through the gap in the teeming mass of hungry mouths surrounding her. It was a hundred lengths or more across here, far grander than the comparative trickle near the Alicorn’s crash site. Just ahead, the ground sloped down and ended in a sheer drop several lengths above the water, with no promise that the river below was deep enough for safe diving. Still, the potential for a painful landing was not much of a risk compared to the near certainty of death from ten thousand vicious bites.

Rarity watched Khufu rise into the air even as the swarm closed in around her, cutting off her view of the outside world completely and trapping her in a rapidly contracting globe of buzzing, whirring, whining death. Pain shot through her body as several of the creatures bit her exploratorily, tasting her in advance of the main attack that was going to come. It was an absolute certainty that the next second would decide whether she lived or died. Blindly, Rarity galloped one more stride and then launched herself skyward with all the fear and adrenaline-enhanced strength that her aching haunches could muster. If she landed on dry land, she would die horribly. If she made it to the water, she might survive. It felt like she hung in the air forever, floating suspended amidst the carnivorous silver cloud of piranhasprites.

In the last instant before touching down the land dropped away beneath her. With no time to prepare her body, she hit the water awkwardly with her belly fully exposed, and plunged gracelessly beneath the opaque gray surface. The jarring impact was sweet, stinging relief. The water cooled her burning muscles, the piranhasprites could not follow her, and the river was deep enough that she had avoided striking the bottom and injuring herself.

Still gripped by fear and operating primarily on instinct, Rarity kicked all four legs and dove down to the river bottom, desperate to put space between her and her hungry winged pursuers. At this juncture, she did not care one iota that the water was clouded with muck, tiny creatures, and decomposition, nor that she was exposing her body to a potential menagerie of disgusting parasites and pathogens. She barely registered that her lungs were already screaming for air. All she could think about was getting away.

She kicked off of the riverbed and churned her legs, hopeful that she was covering a reasonable amount of distance. She could not see more than a few hooves distance in the murky water, despite the sun shining own overhead, and she had no idea where Khufu had gone. She needed to swim up to the surface, breathe, and take stock of her surroundings. She could only hope that the piranhasprites were not waiting for her to do just that. Fighting the powerful urge to inhale while still underwater, Rarity swam up toward the bare hint of daylight filtering down from above.

She had no sooner breached the surface and sucked in a greedy lungful of oxygen than she heard Khufu shouting. She spun around in the water, trying to pinpoint the sound of his voice over the rush of the river. Even as she turned to look for Khufu, something whisked past her head and she ducked instinctively. A glance upwards confirmed her fears - the piranhasprites formed a noisy, undulating cloud above as they waited for the opportunity to strike.

“Swim here!” Khufu called. “Hurry!” Finally, Rarity spotted the camel a dozen lengths away, treading water next to a massive tree trunk that had fallen into the river, though it was still partially rooted to the shore. Only the top of Khufu’s elongated face broke the surface of the water. “Tree is hollow underneath water. We may hide from piranhasprites inside!”

Rarity sucked in a deep breath as another piranhasprite buzzed past, brushing up against her mane, and she immediately dove beneath the river’s surface. Khufu was upstream, so she would have to fight against the current to reach him. The difficulty of this task was compounded by the fact that her legs and hooves provided little water resistance, and therefore little propulsive power. Normally, ponies who liked to swim strapped on flippers in order to navigate the water faster and with greater control than bare hooves allowed. Rarity did not even like to swim. Since flippers were out, she had to rely on willpower. She churned all four legs like never before, frothing the river in her wake. When she surfaced again, she was amazed to find herself a mere half-length away from Khufu. The whine of the piranhasprites greeted her as well. They were relentless.

“There is pocket of air trapped under tree,” Khufu said. “Follow.” He ducked under and disappeared. Remaining in view of the ravenous piranhasprites was not an option, so Rarity once again slipped beneath the surface to follow him. As before, she could not see anything. Instead, she felt her way beneath the fallen trunk, groping with her forehooves for an opening.

Finally, the tree’s rotten bark crumbled before her and she was able to rise up through the water’s surface and into a hollow space. A few tiny holes in the upper side of the dead tree provided scant illumination and enough ventilation to prevent the oxygen in the hollow trunk from being replaced by unbreathable gases. She immediately noticed that it smelled horrible in the enclosed space. The hidden sanctuary also provided little opportunity to rest, as the riverbed was far enough below that Rarity had to keep swimming to stay buoyant. For all the space's downsides, at least the piranhasprites would not be able to force their way inside. The creatures buzzed and whined ineffectually as they swarmed about, waiting in vain for their erstwhile prey to emerge.

“Well, you certainly found the foulest-smelling place in which we could hide,” Rarity said, consciously suppressing the urge to gag.

“Ah, I am afraid what you smell is most likely me,” Khufu replied. “It is unfortunate truth that ponies do not tolerate scent of camels well. It required inordinate amount of deodorizing powder to allow me to dine with you back in Canterlot. Now that I am in natural state, in enclosed space, I can only apologize.”

“Oh,” Rarity said, chagrined. It hardly seemed possible that any one creature could reek so powerfully. “Well, how did you know we would find shelter here?”

“I did not,” the camel replied. The hidden space under the hollow tree was so dark that Rarity could not even see his face. “But was hopeful. Fortune chose to smile upon us, yes?”

“For now, it would seem. Will they leave?”

“Yes, creatures will go. They need much energy to sustain chase, and will soon return to nest to recover. We wait until then. Water is fine, no?”

“It had better not take long for them to leave. I’ve already lost valuable time."

“You cannot leave quite yet,” Khufu said. “Perhaps while we wait, you might tell me how you are alive. Before griffons leave me to die, they tell me you perish.”

Rarity produced enough of a glow from her horn to light the hidden hollow and allow her to see Khufu’s bulbous and elongated head bobbing in the dark water. She still did not particularly trust the deposed camel prince, and did not plan to volunteer the information that Blueblood was injured and waiting for her return. “Rumors of my demise were exaggerated, as you can see.”

“Ah, many for thanks for illumination. I see you still wear pearl from Gallopoli. Is very good thing. Waters here safe from piranhasprites, but great fish swim in river. Large enough to eat you and me.”

Rarity’s blood ran cold at the thought of monsters lurking both above and below, and she nervously touched a hoof to her pearl necklace. “What does this have to do with monster fish?”

“How do you not know stories?” Khufu chuckled. “Perhaps it is because I am much older. In my youth, mariners in search of new lands braved oceans in tiny boats, and all who could buy or steal Gallopolian pearl kept one as talisman. Is said those who carry such pearls will not be harmed by water or its creatures. Is very good idea to keep with you.”

“I don’t plan to part with it,” Rarity said. She could only wonder what, if anything, Khufu said was accurate. Still, the pearl did give her a certain sense of security and well being, and it was undeniably lovely. She needed nothing more to justify wearing it.

“When you crossed my path, you were attempting to flee these lands and return to Equestria, to spread warning about griffons, yes?”

“Yes,” Rarity replied, truthfully. It was her eventual goal to return home, she merely needed to make a stop along the way.

“No,” Khufu shook his head. “Is not so. You were too far south. Equestria is north, but you must have been journeying east when you find me, not north. Only river is south of where you found me, and is too wide and swift in center to cross. Be truthful with old camel.”

Rarity was surprised that Khufu had seen through her slight misdirection, and hesitated to respond. If she wanted information from Khufu about the conspiracy, and potentially valuable advice about where to locate the Badge of Courage orchid, then it behooved her to be forthright with him. If he planned to betray her, however, giving anything away could prove fatal. So far, everything she had heard and seen seemed to indicate that he truly had been left for dead by the griffons, but that did not mean that the camel did not want back in their good graces. Betraying her could be just the ticket he needed.

“You know, it strikes me that I no longer hear the sound of the piranhasprites,” Rarity said at last. “Perhaps we should return to dry land before my hooves get too pruney.” It would be easier for her to flee on solid terrain, should it become necessary to do so. She also hated pruney hooves.

“As you wish,” Khufu replied.

Rarity swam out from under the downed tree and quickly paddled over to the riverbank. As she had hoped, the piranhasprites were gone, and she leaned against a warm rock while Khufu clambered out after her. Even though the humidity would keep her coat, mane, and tail from fully drying for hours, the hot sun kept any possibility of a chill at bay.

“If I reveal my secrets to you, I must gain some information in return,” Rarity said coolly, once the old, one-eyed camel stood in front of her again. His sodden scarf now hung limply around his long neck, but at least it mercifully still covered his horrific scar.

“I am only too happy to share with you all that I know,” Khufu replied. “As said before, though, many things I only learn days ago, after we make landfall during the storm.”

“I need to know who hired you, why, and what they plan to do,” Rarity stated. “I need to take that information back to Princess Celestia. If you want to thank me for saving you, telling me everything you can should suffice.”

“Of course I will tell all,” Khufu assented. “Story is not long. As you know, some time after I fled Camelon, I became merchant in business of procuring implements of war. Griffon General Karroc contacted my establishment over year ago. Said ponies crowding out griffons, preparing to drive griffons from their mountain homes. He wanted to have fighting chance, and said money was no object. This is story with which I sympathize. I always believe that best way to prevent war is to assure neither side could survive one, and at time none could doubt that ponies had great advantage of numbers, magic, and mighty weapons.”

“A rather cynical outlook,” Rarity observed.

“Long life has taught me cynicism is just another word for ugly truth. I agreed to help General Karroc. My speciality is having connections, and I quietly entered into many discreet contracts, all with companies outside Equestria, in order to build Karroc his secret base in the jungle. Buffalo, Bighorns, Dogs, Zebras, Camels, Griffons, and even ponies who had left your country long ago worked on project. So much money it cost, I still do not know where Karroc obtained it all. Seemed to cost more than entire griffon treasury, but he always have payment for work, all in previously circulated Equestrian bits. First we build factory and base, then Karroc supplied schematics and engineering plans for new warship, mightier than any other. I never knew where he found the plans, but he has no engineers to design such a thing himself. Again, though, he had money, so ship was built. To have come so far, you have surely encountered this ship, that he calls Gromm.”

“I have indeed,” Rarity said. “It was nearly the death of me, as was the intent.”

“Karroc also has magical weapon to bring storm, which he boasted about obtaining for months, though only actually received in time to disrupt Alicorn’s Cup. Griffons not magical, so I know he is working with unicorn ponies. I did not understand, since he hates and fears your kind, but I did not ask questions because …”

“He had the money.” Rarity finished. “But where could he have obtained so much Equestrian currency? Surely it would be noticed if that much money was being sent out of the country.”

“I never found out,” Khufu replied, shaking his head. “Your instincts are good, though. He definitely had source in Equestria. As months passed, it became clear that Karroc wanted more than to even odds - he wanted to build grand armada. Factory was expanded and modified to produce smaller airships in great numbers. My own lieutenant designed and created new firestick to work in wet conditions, so that griffons could fight even where ponies controlled weather. Even at this point, I foolishly did not question Karroc’s aims. I believed that peace would be maintained by showing that griffons were strong enough to fight, as he had claimed. I even believed in plan to disrupt race and kill Equestrian duke so he could no longer design new weapons for ponies.”

“That is simply outrageous!” Rarity seethed. “You should have known better than to believe such nonsense. Blueblood never designed weapons.”

“Perhaps or perhaps not, but his airships flew faster and farther than others. He could have turned mind toward nefarious ends.” Khufu paused, and his face fell. “I agreed to all of that, but I never knew Karroc planned for his agents to kill you, Lady Rarity. When I learned you were killed I confronted him. He admitted that true plan was to disable greatest pony weapon, Elements of Harmony, and then strike crippling blow to Equestria, to soften ponies for invasion. This was appalling. I never wanted war, only parity. Truly, I never believed you would be harmed. I and most of my crew repudiated agreement with Karroc, but Zolo, my lieutenant, had already chosen to turn on me. My remaining crew was imprisoned and I was left to die.”

Rarity mulled over the camel’s words, attempting to combine the information he had provided with her own knowledge. Somehow, it seemed that the more she learned about the conspiracy, the less anything made sense. Why would Lord Procyon combine efforts with a griffon bent on destroying Equestria? Procyon was, by all accounts, obsessed with power and money, not blood and glory. She had to believe that embroiling Equestria in a protracted conflict, or worse, a losing war, was not part of his plans.

At the same time, there was no doubt the two were working together. General Karroc had to be getting his bits from somewhere in Equestria, and it only made sense that Procyon of all potential ponies would be able to deliver them. A startling thought popped into Rarity’s mind. What if Blueblood’s airship company had only been failing on paper? Procyon controlled all the finances. He could have easily ruined the company by funnelling all of its financial resources straight to General Karroc. Then, when Fancypants began buying secrets and investing in North Star, Procyon could have diverted that money as well. With the personal and corporate resources of Blueblood’s family, and millions of bits of Fancypants’ money as well, Karroc could have afforded to construct his armada.

If Blueblood’s brother was in fact bankrolling the conspiracy, that meant that he, not Karroc, was ultimately the leader. Moreover, it required unicorn magic to utilize the Heavenstone. Confusingly, though, these rogue griffons with their warships, deadly weapons, and murderous intent, seemed far too serious a threat for Procyon to have wittingly set the stage for an invasion. Rarity was frustrated and tired of even thinking about this insanity. Why was it so hard to put it all together? All she was accomplishing now was wasting time that she needed to find the Badge of Courage and return to Blueblood before dark.

“Listen to me, Prince Khufu,” Rarity said. “I am going to return to Equestria to put a stop to this madness, but first I must help a friend.” She decided to take a chance. Trusting Khufu might prove to be a terrible mistake, but the risk would pay off handsomely if he could direct her to the object of her quest. He had been operating in this jungle for over a year, so if the flower was nearby, he should be able to point her to it.

“A friend?” Khufu asked, intrigued.

“Prince Blueblood, or Duke Polaris as you know him, still lives. He is currently hiding in a safe place, but he is injured. He needs my help.”

“Aha.” A spark of recognition shone in the camel’s remaining eye. “Is clear why you go east now, you seek healing bloom that grows here.”

“Yes!” Rarity exclaimed, hardly believing this stroke of luck. “Do you know where I can find it?”

“Is no problem to find it,” Khufu said. “Bloodflower, that is griffons’ name for it, grows everywhere in the swamp near griffon base. Too many even for griffons to keep track. Should be easy for you to take as many as you like.”

“Finally some good news,” Rarity responded happily. “Thank you, Prince.”

Khufu shook his head. “Not all good. Is not problem to find flower, but is big problem to correctly harvest. One cannot simply uproot the orchid, or its magic turns toxic. You must know to sever the stem while keeping the life-giving magic from flowing out.”

Rarity felt her spirits sink. “Are you quite certain? The race guide said nothing of the sort. How do you know so much about the Badge of Courage?”

“Most esteemed lady, I know so much because this flower is very reasons why location for base chosen. Equestria is well aware that pony scientist seeks to create medicine from magic orchid, but not know that griffons want it even more. General Karroc is desperate to brew tonic from Bloodflower so griffons may fight on and on forever, no matter how grievously harmed. Put pony scientist Doctor Shrinking Violet under guard. Forced her to work on potion night and day. She is only one in this part of world who knows how to harvest and use Bloodflower.”

Rarity’s mouth fell open in surprise as the import of the camel’s words hit her. “If Karroc obtains such a tonic, then it will not matter how few griffons fight for him, because they will be unstoppable.”

“It is so, though no certainty that tonic will ever be realized.”

“I must get the orchid to Blueblood today, and it must heal him.” Rarity declared. “Tell me how to do it. There must be a way!”

“Concept is simple,” Khufu said. “Execution may be impossible. Doctor Violet is at griffons’ base even now. Is very close. Rescue her, and she will help you.”

Rarity was aghast. “You’re joking, right? I cannot simply waltz past armed griffons who are all actively looking out for me. I realize that I look absolutely horrid at the moment, but I am a bright-coated pony mare with a horn protruding from my forehead, and no beak, claws, paws, or wings. There is a small chance that I might stand out in a crowd there, don’t you think?”

“It would not be easy,” Khufu agreed. “But it should be possible. When Doctor Violet spends time at base, she is locked in laboratory at edge of swamp. Only few guards, and it is away from main base. You must find her if you want flower to save friend.”

“What about you? What are you going to do now?”

“I cannot accompany you, if that is question. Same odor that so assaults your nose would give me away to the griffons, even at a distance. I am also twice your size, much harder to hide. I can only offer to tell you everything I know, so you might have good chance to succeed.”

“You misunderstand,” Rarity began, “I wanted to know where you plan to go now. Equestria? What about your friends the griffons have taken prisoner?”

“I cannot rescue them,” Khufu said, shaking his head. “Do not know what will become of me, but still life left in old bones. I can start again, again.”

“What if a different opportunity were available, one that could help wipe the slate clean of any responsibility for arming General Karroc, and which might be lucrative as well?”

“Go on,” Khufu prompted.

“I came for the orchid, and I will not give up now. I plan to retrieve Doctor Violet, but if I do not return, Blueblood will need care. If you help him and, if I am captured, return him to Equestria, you will be greatly rewarded.”

“Is intriguing proposition, to which I am not averse. Why trust me, though? If I kill duke and bring body to griffons, maybe we become friends again.”

“I most certainly do not trust you. I believe, however, that the griffons would not welcome you back under any circumstances. If you return to their fold, you must be paid. It is likely that this Zolo has agreed to bargain down the price. Moreover, I believe that you really are as fond of me as you seem to be. If that is so, you will help Blueblood.”

“You are as perceptive as you are lovely, hero Rarity. Indeed, I will help your friend, both because of my fondness for you, and to play part I thought I had all along. If I can prevent war, then perhaps I can silence ghosts of past.”

Rarity telekinetically removed Blueblood’s compass from around her neck, and tapped once with a hoof before transferring it to Khufu.

“This compass is enchanted to point directly to Blueblood’s location. Go there and help him, and I shall find you once I have Shrinking Violet and the Badge of Courage. So long as it is not dark, I can retrace my steps without the compass. Blueblood will not trust you unless he believes I asked you to help him, so tell him that I promise to let him have five sugars in his coffee without mocking him, if he can hold out until I return.”

“I understand,” Khufu nodded. “Now, allow me to help you.”

Rarity listened patiently as the camel described the base, for which he had overseen the construction and accordingly knew every access point, secret passage, checkpoint, and patrol route. He sketched diagrams in the dirt while he spoke. If she could simply get across a stretch of swamp without being spotted, she would be able to enter Doctor Violet’s laboratory without proceeding any further toward the factories and barracks where the majority of soldiers and guards were located. If she proceeded northeast away from the river for half a league, she would reach the swamp.

“Good fortune be with you,” Khufu said at last.

“I have already survived the worst these ruffians could throw at me,” Rarity said, attempting to project confidence. “I shall prevail here too.”

“I believe you will, hero Rarity. I truly believe it.” Khufu bowed and turned to walk away.

“I’m choosing to believe in you as well,” Rarity called after him. “Prove that I placed my trust in the right creature for once.” Khufu swung his long neck out and swiveled his head to look at her, even while his body kept walking away in a straight line. He nodded once again, and then resumed his course.

There was no time to waste, and Rarity began walking in the direction of General Karroc’s base. A voice in her head screamed that this was folly, that she had no business attempting something so insane and even idiotic on her own. Even if she could find the botanist, she had no idea how to free her and lead both of them to safety. Thankfully a stronger voice overrode the doubting one. She had made a promise, and she would keep to it, at whatever cost. Even though the odds were long and the stakes were life or death for both her and Blueblood, she had to try.

It seemed like she had been walking only for minutes when she saw her first Badge of Courage. The jungle had given way to a bog-like terrain of ferns and damp soil, and near the base of one large fern a small, blood red flower grew. The entire plant had a red cast to it, even the leaves and stem, and the small leaves were traced with delicate veins of brilliant crimson. The flower itself was the color of fresh arterial blood, and its overlapping petals dropped down from a long, curved stem, forming a shape like an inverted wine glass. Inside the flower a circle of red filament-like stamens surrounded a long silver pistil, tipped with red, that thrust from the center of the bloom like a bloody dagger.

It was beautiful, unique, and unmistakably what she had come this far to find. If she had not encountered Khufu she would have plucked the flower at once and returned to Blueblood. Then he would have died, because she would not have known that the flower had to be harvested using any particular special technique. It was truly a stroke of luck after all the misfortune that had found her recently that Khufu had told her of the flower's secret. She continued on, spotting many more of the scarlet blooms along the way.

As promised, the bog ended at the edge of a large body of water, completely covered in giant lily pads and enormous yellow water lilies. Each thick green pad was easily large enough to accommodate something the size of a pony, even if it could not support the weight. Directly across the swamp, Rarity could see land. Off to the right, the lily pads gradually disappeared as the swamp gave way to a large lake that fed the river along which she had travelled. She could see buildings on the other side of the swamp, though the architecture was strange. The buildings were all low to the ground, and it appeared that there were plants and even large trees growing on top of them. All of it, she noted, was exactly as Khufu had described.

The base had been constructed with secrecy as the paramount goal. Accordingly, there were no obvious roads or paths, and the buildings were blanketed in vegetation so that anypony flying overhead would never recognize that anything unnatural existed at all. According to Khufu’s description, the closest building on the other side of this swamp should be the laboratory. She only had to reach it without being seen.

From her vantage point among the large ferns at the edge of the swamp, Rarity could make out several griffons flying circular patterns in the sky above the base. It did not matter that they flew a thousand lengths or more above her, any visible movement in the open would attract the griffons’ eagle eyes in a second. Boldly Rainbow Dashing over to the laboratory was an appealingly simple option, but doomed to fail. She needed a more elegant solution, something that called for stealth and subterfuge ... and style!

“I-de …” Rarity stifled her mouth with a hoof before she could make any more noise. Finally, after all the trauma and misery to which she had been subjected, she had found a use for the greatest and most fabulous of all her talents - millinery! The key to successfully rescuing Doctor Violet was the same key that unlocked some of the most fashionable venues in Canterlot for her: a stunning, one of a kind, original giant hat! The particular chapeau Rarity now intended to create, however, would not be appropriate at any society occasion, except perhaps a society of frogs. She would take one of the innumerable enormous lily pads covering the surface of the swamp, detach it from its stem, and use it as a covering to conceal her passage through the water. The long hollow stem could be repurposed as a snorkel. It was a brilliant idea, of that Rarity was certain.

Cautiously, she magically hauled one of the heavy pads out of the water and over to her present hiding place, along with a pony length’s worth of its stem. The work from this point was easy. The plant’s stem was crisp and easy to snap into sections. First, Rarity broke half of the stem down into the fibrous cellulose of which it was comprised. This she magically wove into a series of straps to hold the pad in place on her head. She used a bit of fashion magic to reform the other half into two bent hollow segments, each of which could serve as a snorkel. The single lily pad was easily large enough to conceal two ponies, but she would need a second snorkel for Doctor Violet. Out of the water, the lily pad was unwearable, too heavy to do anything but drag. It was the most ridiculous “hat” Rarity had ever designed, but it was also her proudest creation in recent memory.

Now, before she could think better of it, was the time to put this crazy plan into action. As quickly as she dared, Rarity crossed the distance to the water’s edge and slipped in. Her hooves sank deep into the mud, and she had to keep moving to prevent the suction each step created from holding her in place. Once she was in deep enough to submerge, she pulled her disguise in after her and affixed in place atop her head. By breathing through her stem snorkel and pushing the pad no more than an inch or two up out of the water with the tip of her horn, she could see where she was going and with any luck remain undetected. She pushed Khufu’s warnings about giant predatory fish to the back of her mind, touched her pearl necklace for good luck, and began to paddle.

The journey across the swamp was slower going than she had anticipated. The lilies grew so thick that it required considerable effort to make room for her own, mobile one, and she had to be careful to leave no wake or telltale splashes that would draw the watchful eyes of the griffons flying above. More than once she felt something unknown and unseen brush against her, but she kept reminding herself that it was nothing more than the stems of the lilies. Eventually, though it felt like she had spent nearly an hour in the water, she drew near to the opposite bank without incident. Rarity could not suppress an underwater smile. After all these years, giant hats had yet to fail her once. Better still, she was mere lengths away from a building that, based on Khufu’s description, had to be Shrinking Violet's laboratory.

The building, like most of the others she could see, was low and squat, and draped with flowers, thick ropy vines, and greenery of all sorts. It was really a rather lovely effect, all things considered. If she ever decided to engage in a bit of freelance exterior design work, she would have to remember the concept. The only windows in the structure were small, rectangular, and high up on the exterior walls. Even though they were open, they were too small for a pony. A door graced the side of the building most directly facing Rarity, flanked by two griffon females on guard duty. This was her best point of ingress and egress, if only she could remove the guards cleanly and quietly.

Unlike the armorless griffons she and Blueblood had encountered in the forest, these two wore short haubergeons of mail. They also wore belts with daggers, but did not seem to be equipped with firesticks. Rarity could see that one of them had a ring of keys dangling from her belt, one of which almost certainly opened the door the griffons were guarding. Some sort of distraction might convince the guards to abandon their post, but then they and everyone else at the base would be alert. She would be far better off if everything remained quiet. She also needed that keyring. She searched the area for anything that might allow her to quietly subdue the guards, but then realized that the solution was directly before her eyes. She would use the building itself.

More accurately, she would use the vegetation covering the building. The dozens of vines snaking down all sides of the laboratory were the perfect means with which to ambush the guards, who would never think to watch for foes above and behind them. It would be something of a test of her ability to use telekinesis on multiple objects at once, although such a feat was still well within her magical comfort zone. She could weave a thousand strands of wool in an instant. She could cut cloth, draw patterns, and operate her sewing machine all at the same time. She had such fine control over her telekinesis that she could write a letter with perfect penponyship without looking at her work, while putting on makeup at her vanity on the other side of the room. She did all of this regularly. She was no Twilight Sparkle, but Rarity was sure she could handle a few vines. The larger challenge would be working quickly enough to prevent the guards from sounding an alarm, and then finding a place to stow them for awhile. Fortunately, the plants growing on the roof were so large and lush that it should be easy to hide the guards, even from the fliers overhead, if everything went according to plan.

From her vantage point in the water, Rarity focused on seven thick green vines draping down from the roof the of the building behind the guards, and took hold of them with her telekinesis. The sight made her cringe. If anyone looked closely, the telltale glow of magic would give her away, even in the bright light of day. She probably had no more than a few seconds to do what she needed to do, and she could already tell that it was going to be more difficult than she had anticipated. Even from a dozen lengths away, her control was attenuated enough that her hold on the vines felt clumsy and slippery. Nevertheless, she had to act.

The vines moved in concert like a ballet of serpents. Two snaked out and quickly wrapped tight around the beaks of both guards, preventing them from calling out. Two more trussed each griffon’s wings to the side of her body and then pulled the guards onto their backs. The final pair of vines slithered and coiled around each griffon’s legs, binding them in place. Rarity used the seventh vine to forcibly wrest the keyring away from one of them, before using all her remaining strength and control to haul the guards up into the mass of vegetation growing on top of the building, where they instantly disappeared into the foliage. It was done. The griffons were tied tight and unable to call for help, and her solid understanding of knots prevented her from having to maintain the spell. Now nothing stood in the way of her racing over to the door and retrieving the keys.

Rarity waited in the water a few moments longer, until she was certain no griffons were coming to investigate what had befallen their colleagues. Then she unfastened her lily pad hat, pulled it up out of the water just far enough to where she was certain it would not drift away, and used her head straps to tie down her pair of makeshift snorkels. Without further ado, she crossed the distance between the edge of the swamp and the laboratory door, pausing only to magically retrieve the guard’s keyring from the vine where it dangled. Only one of the three keys on the ring fit the lock, and Rarity turned it excitedly before opening the door and quickly slipping inside. She remained wary, since there was no reason that additional guards might not be posted inside.

To her surprise, the room in which she found herself did not resemble a laboratory at all. Instead, it was clearly a kitchen, one that would not have looked out of place in any average home in Equestria. The kitchen was clearly well-used, and filled with supplies, pots and pans. A dining area with a long wooden table occupied one side of the room, and an entryway led into a hall. Rarity proceeded cautiously, dripping water all the way. She sighed, knowing that she must look ridiculous in her sopping wet and disheveled state. It was hardly the image she wanted to project as a rescuer. She could faintly hear a female voice, speaking Equestrian, emanating from someplace ahead.

As Rarity continued forward, it soon became apparent that this building was a residence, not a laboratory. She passed a series of bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a study as she cautiously advanced. Had she committed a terrible error and picked the wrong building? Her heart was caught in her throat at the thought. Blueblood's life depending on her getting this right. Finally, the hall opened up into a larger living space. Somewhere in there was the source of the voice she had heard. Muscles tensed and magic at the ready, Rarity strode into the room. The first thing she noticed was a dark-haired mare, seated on a sofa and facing away from her.

“Doctor Violet, I presume,” Rarity announced, even while simultaneously realizing that she was significantly mistaken.

In fact, there was only one other pony in the room: a large stallion with an umber coat and tawny mane. The dark-haired mare who Rarity had mistaken for Shrinking Violet was not a pony at all. Her mane was actually striped, as Rarity now saw, in alternating bands of very dark and very light gray. She was a zebra, and a rather elegant-looking one at that. She turned to stare at Rarity, displaying an expression of shock and surprise. A much younger male occupied another chair. He was striped like a zebra from his head to his chest but with hindquarters a solid pony-like shade of gray-green, not unlike the color of laurel leaves.

This was not a laboratory, and Rarity realized that there was no pony botanist to be found here. These three were Khufu’s crew, and she realized with dismay that he had tricked her into rescuing them.