• 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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XXI. Departures

XXI. Departures

Rarity drifted motionless, deep beneath the river’s surface. She had not been able to hold her breath, and had known with absolute certainty that she would die. Yet, despite her certainty, she was not dead. Instead of water filling her throat and lungs, she had inhaled pure fresh air. This was, of course, impossible, but her continuing respiration confirmed it. Stranger still, she no longer felt wet. It was as though she was inside an air-filled bubble that had appeared miraculously to save her life.

The immediate question that sprang to mind was not how or why this had occurred, but rather what could she do to ensure that whatever was keeping her safe did not cease doing so, leaving her once again at the mercy of the murky water. Rarity was blind in the darkness - unable to move or even determine her direction. She could feel a smooth surface in contact with her hooves, but nothing else.

She began to detect a diffuse pink glow gradually appearing before her, and in seconds the light had brightened enough to allow her to visualize her circumstances. She indeed floated inside a glowing sphere, suspended underwater. The transparent sphere enclosed air, and felt solid against her hooves, yet it appeared as thin and ephemeral as a soap bubble. It seemed to be clearly magical in nature, but there were no unicorns under the water, she being the lone exception. Rarity, however, knew that she could not have created this. She had never learned or even attempted to cast a barrier spell before, let alone one potent enough to contain air and keep out water. For that matter, where had the air come from? It must have been conjured, and conjuring breathable air was magic she had never even witnessed Twilight Sparkle perform. The color of the sphere, though, struck her as somehow familiar.

The pearl! Her Gallopolian pearl had been the exact same warm shade of pink. This sphere had to be connected to the pearl, which she had only just thrown away. The pearl must have contained even greater power than she had realized. In the old stories she remembered, the legend held that if a pony cast a magic pink pearl into the sea while making a wish, it would be granted. She had thought the story nothing more than an old mares’ tale, but there was no doubt that when she had thrown her necklace away she had been wishing fervently to survive.

A faint, soothing hum began to grow louder until it filled her ears. Perhaps the spell was causing vibrations in the water, but then again, the sound was almost melodic, rising and falling like the undulation of waves at sea. She could not see anything in the darkness, so she could not even look for a source for the sound. As the musical hum reached a crescendo, Rarity gasped in surprise as a soft, lilting feminine voice whispered in her ear.

“It is not for you to join us in the deep. Return to the sea of sky, and sail with a fair wind. Our gifts will not be yours for long. Use them, and fare well.”

Rarity spun around inside her protective bubble, searching for the source of the whispered words. The voice sounded as though the speaker had been standing right beside her, but she was unquestionably alone. This, like the appearance of the protective bubble itself, was impossible. Pearls, even magical ones, could not talk. Furthermore, what had the voice meant? Who were the “us” it had referred to? And what “gifts?” How could such strange and powerful magic have been contained in such an innocuous-seeming bit of jewelry? Then again, the Elements of Harmony themselves had been crafted into necklaces and a tiara ...

The glowing bubble pulsed once with a far brighter glow, and instantly everything changed around Rarity. Where there had been only darkness, now an entire aquatic world filled her field of view, and she could barely take in all that was happening around her. This vastly improved vision must have been one of the "gifts" the voice had mentioned! At least fifteen pony lengths above, she could see the dark shape of the barge on the surface of the river, but the watercraft was the least interesting thing around her. Now that her gaze could pierce the murky depths, the awesome magnitude of the jagugars and their feeding frenzy became apparent.

The huge fish were shaped like daggers, tapering from tail to nose, and they knifed through the water at terrifying speeds. Their bodies were covered in scales as thick as armor plate, mainly a rich golden hue, but interspersed with large irregularly-shaped black spots. The jagugars’ long triangular heads were little more than a pair of shining silver eyes and a collection of jagged teeth. There were at least a dozen of them, each large enough to swallow her in a bite or two. They circled the barge, every so often charging to the surface to leap high into the moonlight, clearly waiting to see if any more food was forthcoming.

If she could ever figure out how to move her bubble, would the motion attract the fish? They had not bitten her when she first fell in the water, though she must have seemed a tempting target. In any case, the voice had said that her gifts would not last long, and that meant that the bubble could collapse around her at any moment. As dangerous as it might be, she needed to get to the surface.

Suddenly, Rarity realized that the barge above her was moving, and doing so against the current. That could only mean that the griffons were moving it. There was no engine to power the vessel, and she saw no sign of oars in the water, so she surmised that the griffons had taken hold of the mooring rope and were flying, relying on their considerable wingpower to tow the barge back to their base.

Another realization struck her: the base was where the stallions had gone! With Karroc and all his griffons still here, if the stallions hadn’t already been captured, they surely would be found shortly. Once these scouts alerted their leader about Rarity, Karroc would correctly assume that some sort of plan was in motion, even if he believed she had been eaten by the jagugars. A base full of griffons would surely not fail to spot Blueblood and the others.

Rarity made a decision. She had been given a second chance by the mysterious magic of the pink pearl, and it was her responsibility to use this opportunity to give her companions, as well as Equestria, the same fighting chance she had received. She would simply need to do more, and create such a grand distraction that even an entire base filled with soldiers would have no choice but to attend to it and leave the lifting gas unguarded.

First, though, she needed to determine how to move inside this impermeable sphere, and then she needed to get past the jaws and teeth of the schooling predators. She tried walking, but to no great effect; the bubble merely rotated beneath her hooves. Perhaps she could use magic, then. Rarity attempted to take hold of the glowing sphere with her telekinesis, but that effort too failed. She could not sense anything physically present for her spell to latch onto.

“Oh come on,” Rarity grumbled. The barge was moving further away, and she was stuck, floating along with the current. Maybe she could simply ask for instructions. “Ah, excuse me,” she said, as sweetly as possible. “I am ever so grateful for not drowning, but would you please be so kind as to explain how I might use this lovely magical bubble you have so generously provided? You see, my friends are in danger, and I need to follow that barge so that I can help them.”

To her surprise, the sphere began to move. Up through the water and toward the barge she raced, as though the enchanted bubble had consciously obeyed her desire. Rarity gasped and involuntarily curled up in fright as she realized that her course was taking her straight through the school of jagugar fish that were blasting to and fro, jaws snapping in the apparent hope they might enclose something edible. The fish, however, slowed and become calm as she approached.

All around her, the river monsters fell into a loose formation, almost as if they had decided to serve as escorts for the extremely out-of-place unicorn floating along in their midst. Rarity saw their silvery eyes gazing at her as she passed, and she could not help but stare back. Now that she thought about it, they were rather beautiful in their way, with their gleaming coats of armor glinting in the scanty moonlight that penetrated the water near the surface. Their streamlined bodies and broad fins bespoke their explosive power and strength. She was more than happy to admire them so long as they continued to not act as though she were on the menu.

The bubble carried her along swiftly, easily keeping pace with the barge being towed ahead of her, and she soon passed from the wide, deep main body of the river into the comparatively narrow channel that bisected the griffon base. The jagugars turned back, jetting away into the dark as the river grew shallow, leaving Rarity alone. At least, she would have been alone, had the mysterious voice not whispered in her ear again.

“Our protection must end now, for we are but an echo of what was. Yet know that we do not part forever, for you will find us again someday, and return our small blessing and more.”

“Wait!” Rarity implored. “Who are you? What are you? Please, at least tell me that much.”

The disembodied voice did not reply. Instead, the melodic hum she had heard when the magical bubble first appeared returned, and the pink glow surrounding her body began to dim. Rarity decided that she would have to worry about the identity of her unknown benefactor later, and instead concern herself only with her immediate survival for the time being. She quickly pondered her options, aware that soon she would no longer be able to hide safely beneath the surface.

Indeed, the protective sphere around her imploded seconds later, and she was once again immersed. No longer able to remain safely beneath the surface, she decided to cease following the barge, and instead concentrate on getting onto dry land and into a safe hiding place as quickly as possible. As soon as she breached the water’s surface, Rarity inhaled deeply of the moist tropical air, then hastily swam to shore and crawled under a large broad-leaved plant to dry off and plan.

She was truly on her own now. Her pearl was gone forever, and she already found herself missing its familiar and reassuring weight and touch against her coat. She could only begin to fathom its mysteries, and the powerful magic it had contained, but she did know that it had saved her life several times. She could at least begin returning the favor by preventing the destruction of the Equestrian town where it had been given to her.

She needed to arrange for a second distraction - something that could get, and keep, the attention of an entire base full of griffons. Whatever she did, though, she could not do it here. If the second half of her plan was still going accordingly, Blueblood and the other stallions were not far away from her at that very moment. Calling the griffons down on her in this place would only put them in needless jeopardy. Where should she go then? Into the aqueducts again? Without warning, Rarity’s horn flared to life with a bright blue glow. She attempted to hide it with her hooves until the light extinguished just as suddenly.

“What is your problem, horn?” she silently mouthed. Something then jerked her to sharply to one side, and Rarity immediately looked around in panic, expecting to be yanked out of her hiding place by a pair of sharp claws. There was no one else present. When she felt a throbbing ache in the base of her horn, Rarity finally understood. Karroc was still here, and that meant the Heavenstone was still here. It was calling to her again, even physically pulling her toward it. She shook her head to clear her thoughts, but it was little use. The Heavenstone weighed down on her mind, squeezing out everything else. It was practically begging her to come to it.

She could try to resist, but what if … she gave in to the urge instead? Rarity was struck by an idea, this one perhaps even wilder than her other recent inspirations. It would be the mother of all distractions! In fact, it would be more than a distraction; it would obviate the need for the rest of the plan altogether. She would steal the Heavenstone out from under the griffons’ sharp beaks, right now, and prevent Karroc and Windlass from ever using it to hurt anypony again!

High above, but not far distant, the mighty cataract that fed the jungle river spilled forth from the center of a mammoth cliffside cavern that had been worn through the rock eons ago. She had seen the falls and the cavern before, when Buckaroo and the others had explained that the cavern served as a hangar for Karroc’s flagship. Inside, the griffons would be preparing the enormous airship for departure at this very moment. Moreover, she knew that the Heavenstone was somewhere in there. It did not matter where the stone was secreted, for she knew that her horn would lead her to the gem. If she could claim it, and spirit it to safety, she would have checkmated the conspiracy in one move. If she were discovered, then the fuss she would create would surely give the others enough cover to complete their mission, even if they had to leave without her.

Rarity began to move, creeping through the nighttime shadows toward the vertiginous cliff, silently wishing she had been born with a darker coat color. Even at a fair distance, she could make out the tiny figures of griffons flying in and out of the enormously wide mouth of the cave, but there did not seem to be many guards patrolling at ground level. As she drew closer, she saw that the griffons had set up a large lift behind the waterfull. Strong cables ran through a series of pulleys embedded in the cliffside, reaching from a platform just below the mouth of the cavern down to the ground several hundred lengths below.

There, not far from Rarity’s present hiding place, a broad wooden platform currently rested next to a large black steam engine that must have powered the lift. The griffons could fly to and from the cavern, she realized, but they still needed a lift for transferring heavy cargo between the base proper and the cliffside airship hangar. Rarity knew at once that this was her only means of ingress to the cave, and her only chance at reaching the Heavenstone.

A quartet of griffon laborers were currently stacking barrels and crates onto the lift, which Rarity guessed meant that the airship must have needed yet one more delivery before departing. How could she sneak on without being noticed? She was quite skilled with illusion magic, but her projections trended toward the fantastical and dramatic. What she needed now was to disappear amidst the mundane and ordinary. A giant hat was probably not going to help this time, so where did that leave her?

Aha! Costumery!

Still keeping low and out of the toiling workers’ line of sight, she crept closer and closer, walking daintily on the leading edges of her hooves. Could this really work? It never failed in her guilty pleasure adventure novels, but this was reality, and deadly serious. She would simply have to hope. As soon as she was certain none of the griffons were watching, Rarity telekinetically took hold of a barrel of salt and instantly pulled it off the platform and over to her, silently thanking herself for all the months she had spent honing her summoning magic years ago. After all, one never knew when one would need to call forth one’s fainting couch from halfway across town. She could scarcely remember how many times that spell had come in handy.

Rarity next magically pulled out all the nails holding the bottom of the barrel in place, and allowed the salt to quietly spill out onto the dirt. Realizing what an unladylike image she would have presented to her friends back in Ponyville, but recognizing that there was nothing to be done about it, she reared back on her hind legs, then levitated the barrel up over her head and down. She had taken pains to select a barrel with an open knothole near the top, and she waited once again for the griffons to look away before awkwardly hobbling on two legs back onto the platform. As she had hoped, none of the exhausted laborers noticed anything out of the ordinary. She may have felt and looked utterly ridiculous, but if hiding inside a barrel got her to the Heavenstone, then so be it.

The signal to raise the platform finally came, and Rarity heard the steam engine sputter and whine before she felt a small upward acceleration. The lift swayed and bounced in the wind, and frequently jolted to a halt as the engine below choked and seized. Inexorably, though, the lift traveled higher and higher up the side of the cliff until finally slowing to a stop. She did not dare move now. Everything hinged on blending in with the rest of the supplies.

Feathers flashed in her limited field of visage, and then she was briefly lifted into the air. Rarity tucked in her hind legs as much as possible, and braced with her forelegs lest the barrel’s open bottom expose her. Seconds later, she was unceremoniously dropped onto another wooden platform, which then began to move. She supposed it was some sort of cart. Her knothole now faced another wooden barrel, preventing her from having any clue where she was being taken, but her horn assured her that every second brought her closer to the Heavenstone.

The cart stopped moving, and once again Rarity was lifted and dropped. This time, she could tell she was in a dark, relatively cold place. It was probably the airship’s pantry, the most likely place to find a barrel of salt aboard ship. Soon, all was quiet, and after waiting an extra moment to be certain she was alone, she cast aside the barrel and dropped back to all four hooves.

Rarity gasped. This was not like any pantry she had ever seen outside her nightmares; it was a house of horrors! In addition to the vegetables and staples she would have expected, dead bodies of all manner of creature hung from hooks attached to the ceiling. All headless masses of muscle and fat, she could not identify any of them, but certainly some were quadrupedal and uncomfortably close to pony-sized. Not for this first time in the last few hours, she felt sick, and not for the first time, she forced herself to hold everything in. Awful, awful meat-eaters! How could this horror show possibly be appetizing?

She had to get out of here, and she knew her horn would lead the way. The only question was whether it would lead her directly into the clutches of the griffons who were probably already filling the huge airship’s corridors and chambers. In any case, she could not stay in this horrifying place. There was only one door, and on the other side was the ship’s galley, filled with pots, pans, and many sharp knives, but otherwise unoccupied. Unlike the pantry, this room had a small round porthole, and Rarity raced over to look outside in an attempt to get her bearings.

The airship floated in the center of the cavern, tied down by strong ropes. Rarity could see that storage areas and flat plazas had been carved out of the rock, on either side of the subterranean river that flowed directly underneath the airship. Uncountable dozens of gas lamps left the cavern brightly illuminated. More importantly, the sight below filled Rarity with hope. General Karroc stood outside the ship in front of several rows of griffon soldiers, and he looked to be delivering a rousing speech. If the griffons were outside, then …

Rarity did not waste another second, but spun in place and raced for the galley door, her horn shining brightly as she stopped resisting her gem-finding spell and gave in to the Heavenstone’s pull. She burst out into the wide, windowless, and mercifully empty corridor that must have run the length of the hull. In such close proximity to the Heavenstone, the gem’s pull was irresistible, and though she had never been inside the huge airship before, there was never any question that she was going in the right direction. In fact, Rarity suspected that if she stopped the pretense of galloping down the corridor, the spell would have pulled her along anyway.

She blew past uncounted doorways as she raced all the way to the far end of the corridor. Here, the light shining from her horn was nearly blinding, and the throbbing in her head unbearable. Before she could determine what to do, she was jerked hard to her left, and up a curving flight of stairs to a heavy wooden double door. The doors were unlocked, but if they hadn’t been, there was no question that she would have smashed them down. Nothing could keep her from her prize now. She pushed open the doors and raced into the chamber beyond. Instantly, the glow from her horn faded away and the pain vanished. The gem-finding spell had found its gem.

Rarity stood in a large room dominated by three large windows that occupied most of the opposite wall, all of which had been partially opened to let fresh air into the stuffy confines of the ship. It could only have been the captain’s quarters, and therefore Karroc’s personal chambers. Elaborately decorated firesticks, swords, and daggers hung on the walls, and a huge lumpen pillow, much larger than her body, rested on the floor to her left. The circular pillow was rather nest-like, and Rarity assumed that was where the griffon general slept. In the center of the room a massive wooden desk rested in front of an ornate, high-backed chair. She saw all of this through the periphery of her vision. The only object on which she could truly focus rested on an ornate, four-pronged stand of brilliant platinum atop Karroc’s desk.

The grapefruit-sized, flawless white diamond was unlike any gem she had ever seen. She had not formed a preconceived notion of what the Heavenstone should look like, beyond that she expected an object of great beauty. In that aspect it certainly did not disappoint. Not only did its facets reflect and refract the lamplight in a dazzling array of colors, but it shone as if lit from within by a tiny white-hot sun. It was uniquely beautiful, and more than that, it was irresistible.

Rarity stepped eagerly toward the stone as all purposeful thought fled from her mind. Gone were all thoughts of Equestria, of her friends and family, Blueblood, the Alicorn, and Gallopoli. Gone was her very sense of self-awareness. As she gazed upon the Heavenstone, its inner fire reached out to burn away all perception of the world until there was only the glowing diamond, and her all-encompassing desire to possess it.

“Mine. It’s mine,” Rarity whispered, as she reached out with her magic to take the Heavenstone.

At the instant her telekinesis enveloped the diamond, she felt a sinking feeling, as though she were plummeting from a great height. Then came the pain, agonizing, like somepony was trying to pull her horn out of her skull. Her vision grew blurry, and then Karroc’s chamber and everything in it vanished, replaced by only empty white space above, below, and in every direction.

Rarity gasped and fell to her knees, reeling from the pain and shock of the sudden and inexplicable transition. Where was she? Where was the Heavenstone? Had she been teleported? Had some kind of magical trap been built into the gem?

The surface on which she knelt was hard and smooth, and impossible to distinguish visually from the white sky above. She could not gauge distance either; she could have been inside a compact room or on an endless expanse. There was no visible light source, yet everything seemed brightly illuminated. Rarity observed that she cast no shadow.

She felt a prickly sensation, almost like being enveloped in a spell, but stronger, and much more unpleasant. There was clearly a great deal of magic in this place, wherever it was. At that moment, Rarity realized she was not alone - a slender mare with a light pink coat stood with her amid the white nothingness, glaring, her attractive young face marred by a look of hatred. Rarity stood to face her.

“You!” Windlass exclaimed, her voice echoing despite the distinct lack of visible walls and surfaces in the blank space. “That’s impossible!” She stamped a hoof soundlessly against the whiteness. “But if you are here, that means your body must be …” Windlass paused, a cruel smile turning up the corners of her mouth. “Oh, too rich!”

“What is this place?” Rarity asked in a tremulous voice. The sight of Windlass terrified her, after what the other mare had been able to do, and now it was happening again. If Windlass was here, that meant that she must have felt Rarity’s presence when she made contact with the Heavenstone, and the other mare pulled her here to torment and torture her. What would Windlass force her to do now? Surrender herself to the griffons? Plunge one of Karroc’s ornate daggers into her own heart? Rarity shuddered.

“You’re obviously in Karroc’s airship,” Windlass continued. “Which means that you are either his prisoner or you’ve done something very stupid. You didn’t think you could steal the Heavenstone, did you? You do realize that its power is fully under my dominion, and that I could recall it to Canterlot in an instant, should I so desire.”

“But then – then I would still win, because Karroc would not be able to use the stone’s power against Gallopoli!” Rarity boldly proclaimed.

“Ha! You risked your life on the off chance you might manage to merely delay us? Pathetic, especially if you are so naive as to think I have only one plan in motion. What’s worse, you have absolutely no hope of causing even that much trouble. I am in complete control here. If I so chose, I could trap you in this void forever.”

“Where is here, exactly?” Rarity asked.

Windlass ignored her. “You know,” the other mare continued with a sigh,“I really suppose I should have expected this. I was warned that you might forge a connection to the Heavenstone, but I didn’t listen. As if a brainless seamstress could so easily attain what took me months of study. And now look - here you are. It almost makes me wonder whether any of the other predictions are true.”

“What are you talking about? What predictions? Who warned you about me?” Rarity’s head was spinning from the pink unicorn’s bizarre ramblings.

“What’s that?” Windlass blinked and refocused her gaze on Rarity. “Oh, well, nothing that concerns you, except insofar as it gives me yet another reason to want you gone, in addition to the fact that you are a lying harlot and a stallion-stealer.”

“Please, I swear to you that I do not, and never did, have any designs on Fancypants, nor he on me!” Rarity began to furtively glance around, desperately looking for a way out of this place. She could see nothing other than herself and Windlass, but if she were trapped in her own mind, as before, then there must be a way to wake up.

“Liar! You are not even good enough to speak his name,” Windlass spat. “You exist to torment me and take what is rightfully mine. First, you had to try to get your hooves on my true prince, and now you seek to usurp my destiny by thieving the Heavenstone from those fool griffons. At least you have now given me the opportunity to finish what should have been done when Tempest dropped you over the side of Fancypants’ airship.”

Rarity began slowly backing away, aware that the situation was quickly becoming dire. She needed to keep Windlass talking, while she tried to think of some way out of this mess. “Does Lord Procyon know of your obsession with Fancypants?” she asked. “He aims to take the throne of Equestria, no? It seems to me that as king, Procyon would not take kindly to his lover giving her heart to another. You are playing a dangerous game, Windlass.”

“Oh please,” the mare waved a dismissive hoof. “Procyon is in no condition to challenge me, even if so wished. Moreover, he is completely loyal, willing to give everything for the cause. Why, you did not think I could manage to keep the Heavenstone charged with magic by myself, did you? I would be positively drained if I had to do so, little more than a shell of myself.” Windlass flashed a predatory smile.

Rarity gasped, horrified. “Then, do you meant to say that you are taking his magic to power your spells? That is what the Heavenstone does - it absorbs magic from ponies.” The revelation explained why Procyon appeared so gaunt and frail, even for a stallion of his slender frame. “How could you be so cruel?”

“I am not taking anything,” Windlass protested. “He is a willing donor. I suppose it is possible that he may not be aware that there is more to my vision than simply installing him on the throne, but what he does not know won’t hurt him. Or maybe it will.” The unicorn shrugged. “In any case, while I need a royal figurehead to smooth the initial transition, there will be no place for Procyon when the time comes for Equestria to be reborn, with Fancypants and I as its progenitors.”

“You are utterly mad,” Rarity said. “Fancypants would never want anything to do with somepony like you. When he learns what you really are, you will have to face a harsh reality. You should seek help now, while there is still a chance for forgiveness. If you assist Karroc in using the Heavenstone against Gallopoli, there will be no possibility of atonement for your crimes.”

“And now I am tired of hearing you talk,” Windlass fumed. “I think it’s time to get this over with. Shall we?”

“No, wait, please,” Rarity stalled. “At least tell me what this place is. Are we – are we inside my mind again?”

“Your pathetic mind?” Windlass chortled. “Hardly, though I suppose one could easily mistake this emptiness the brainless expanse between your ears. I’ve been there and seen that, and really, there wasn’t much to write home about. How often do you have that trite fantasy of flying? I do suppose, though, that it must be discomfiting to know that I could enter your head, bend your dreams, and take control of your body.” She paused, and gestured encompassingly.

“This place is no construct of your tawdry imagination. It is a magical nexus, a bridge between the outside world and the Heavenstone, allowing connections to be maintained at any distance. Our essences are, in a sense, now contained within the Heavenstone, while our physical bodies remain outside. I was asleep in my apartment in Canterlot when the stone summoned my essence here. I imagine your body is passed out in Karroc’s quarters right now. It probably won’t be long until they find your empty husk lying there, after I destroy the rest of you here.”

“I almost feel badly for you,” Windlass continued, “so ignorant of your gift. Do you know how long I spent studying the Heavenstone, learning to unlock its secrets? You, on the other hoof – you were somehow given a connection to the stone. You were able to unlock this place, and even summon me here, but in the end all for naught. The Heavenstone may only have one mistress, and I am her. Now, I have the pleasure of finally ending you.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Rarity pleaded. “I swear that I truly do not want to take Fancypants from you, and I did not even know what the Heavenstone was until you used its power against the Alicorn’s Cup racers. It is only my gem-finding spell that draws me to it, nothing more.”

“Enough lies!” Windlass reared back on her hind legs, and her horn began to shine with a burning white light. As Windlass fell back to all four hooves, Rarity saw that the mare’s irises and pupils had vanished, leaving nothing but blank white orbs glowing within her eye sockets. Rarity had seen this before, when Twilight Sparkle had wielded the full force of the Elements of Harmony. Could Windlass possibly have that much power at her disposal? Rarity could feel her coat standing on end, and the air around her crackled with magic. After everything, this was it. There was nowhere to flee. She braced herself, trying not to think about the fact that she was likely about to be immolated. Reflexively, she attempted to throw up a protective shield in front of her, despite not knowing the technique.

The blast came, and Rarity felt a surge of magic course through her, yet the sensation was one of exhilaration rather than pain. Instead of being incinerated by magical lightning, Rarity watched as the blast from Windlass’ horn arced around her on either side, the crackling bolts of electricity flowing around her like a stream parting around a large rock. A faceted enclosure of shining blue light enclosed her body like an enormous gem, protecting her from the attack, and she recognized the perfectly executed barrier spell at once. The divided lightning continued its arc, eventually coming full circle and returning to its caster. Windlass was hurled backwards ten lengths as her own spell hit her with its full force, and the air filled with the acrid smell of ozone and singed hair.

Instinctively, Rarity raced toward the fallen mare, and found her lying on her side, her breathing shallow.

“How?” Windlass croaked.

“I have no idea,” Rarity replied truthfully. “I felt so much magic flow through me, it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”

“You … you used the power stored within the Heavenstone. I don’t understand,” Windlass managed, gasping as she lay on the featureless white surface that covered this strange space. “How? It is mine alone! This isn’t fair!”

“Will you be alright?” Rarity asked. “How can I get help?”

“Idiot. You have only injured my magical essence, not my physical body. I only need to recover my strength, and then I will destroy you. Then again, I do not have to dispose of you. How long have you been here now? Long enough, I should think. The griffons can have you.”

The griffons. She had forgotten how exposed and vulnerable her body was. “Tell me how to get out of here!” Rarity demanded.

“No.”

Rarity leaned over Windlass’ prone form. “Fine. You may choose not to aid me, but understand one thing. Now that I have seen you like this, I know you can be stopped, and I promise that I will prevent you from destroying Equestria.”

Windlass laughed, a hoarse, half-choked guffaw.

“What is so funny?”

“I am trying to save Equestria from becoming a footnote to history. Don't you see that the world is leaving us behind? That's not the really funny thing, though."

"Then what is?"

"I never believed it, but if the inscription is true, and it does refer to you, it is you who would be the end of all of us, not just Equestria, but the world itself, should you continue to live.”

“What new nonsense is this?” Rarity demanded, eyes wide. “What inscription?”

“Don’t worry, you will be long dead before you have cause to find out,” Windlass replied. “Give my regards to General Karroc.” She vanished in a flash of light.

Rarity was alone, and had no idea how to return from this - nexus, Windlass had called it - to her true body. Wishing for it to happen was not helping, and whatever reflex had allowed her to briefly tap into the latent magic around her to defend herself did not appear to be forthcoming a second time. Perhaps she really was doomed to be trapped here. She felt a flutter of panic. What if the griffons did find her real body and destroyed it? Would she simply cease to exist here, or worse, would she be trapped in this featureless purgatory for all eternity?

Just as she was contemplating the various terrible things that were potentially about to happen, the surface beneath her hooves began to rumble and vibrate, as though an earthquake had struck. She felt a sharp pain right on top of her head, and opened her eyes to find herself lying on her side, staring at the base of General Karroc’s enormous wooden desk. The first thing Rarity observed upon finding that she was back in the waking world was a smooth lead ball lying on the floor in front of her. The second thing was that the floor and the entire room really was shaking and vibrating.

Rarity hauled herself onto her hooves and attempted to discern what was happening. Karroc’s desk was a mess, with papers, quills, and collected souvenirs scattered about, though the Heavenstone still rested on its stand. When she touched a hoof to her head and felt the painful lump developing, she immediately solved the riddle.

As she had heedlessly rushed toward the Heavenstone, her consciousness had been spirited away, leaving her unconscious body to fall forward onto Karroc’s desk, scattering office sundries in every direction. The vibration she was feeling had to be from the airship’s engines engaging, and it had been enough to cause a small cannonball paperweight which she had already knocked loose to roll off the desk and onto her head. The blow must have awakened her, in addition to leaving her with what would be a painful bruise.

She was back inside her body, but now she had a new problem. If the airship’s engines were on, then it would soon be lifting off, with her onboard. Karroc would likely be wherever he could best oversee the airship’s departure, rather than in his chambers, but other griffons likely now patrolled the corridors.

Rarity regretfully decided that she could not steal the Heavenstone; if she so much as touched it again, she feared she would be pulled back into the nexus within the gem, with no way out. She would need to find another way to stop the conspirators. Hastily, she used her magic to collect the materials she had knocked off the desk, and rearrange them so that it appeared that nothing had ever been disturbed.

Then, she steadied herself as she felt the ship lurch forward. They were already moving! She needed to get out at once! She raced back through the open double doors, but there skidded to an abrupt halt. There were shadows at the bottom of the stairs leading down from Karroc’s chambers, and she could hear the harsh sounds of the griffon language. Not that way!

Rarity ran back into the captain’s quarters and hurried over to the large windows at the far well, and pushed the center window open as far as it would go. Looking down, she felt a lump in her throat. The underground river flowing through cavern hangar was there, but at least fifteen lengths down. Worse, huge spinning propellers protruded from the hull below her. It would take a powerful leap to clear them, and failing to do so would mean being chopped to pieces.

It wasn’t as though she had options. The griffons would sniff her out if she tried to hide, and she refused to be their prize - or their meal. There was no time for second thoughts. Rarity hurried over to the other side of the room, turned, and then broke into a gallop. She cleared Karroc’s desk with her first leap, and sprang through the open window with her second. As she fell, she felt the powerful wash of the mighty airship’s propellers for just an instant, and then she struck the water, forelegs extended.

The impact was jarring, but the frigid water was more of a shock to her system. No sunlight naturally reached the river here, and the water was nearly ice cold. She hurried to fight her way back up to the surface. As her head broke free of the icy water, Rarity quickly looked around. Above her, Karroc’s incomprehensibly huge airship plowed ahead, picking up speed as it passed out into the world beyond. Rarity could finally see the first hint of the morning sun through the cave entrance.

It did not appear as though she had been spotted yet, and she hurriedly swam for the nearest bank before the current pulled her any further toward the precipitous drop on the other side of the mouth of the cave. She pulled herself out of the water amidst a number of tall stacks of wooden crates, and began to contemplate her next move even as she shivered from the cold. Everything was going wrong! Her initial distraction had failed miserably, the griffons had not left when she had expected them to, and now she had been so close to successfully stealing the Heavenstone, but had failed.

She could not give up. It was a good sign that the griffon airship had left. Karroc must have known that she had been spotted out on the water, and then presumably had been killed by the jagugars. Either he had decided that she truly had been alone, which was doubtful, or he had decided that it was more important to depart for Gallopoli than to devote his own energy to searching for any remaining infiltrators. After all, what could they hope to do to him without an airship?

It was possible that Blueblood and the others were still out there, attempting to recover the lifting gas. There had to be something further she could do to help them, even if her successfully rejoining the group was becoming less and less likely. Peering out from her hidden vantage point, she saw a small number of griffons still in the cavern. She also saw barrels of kerosene and firepowder, both of which could make for a very nice distraction indeed if they were to be ignited. Perhaps she could somehow acquire a match, and then …

Rarity squealed in terror as two massive clawed forelegs dug into her torso and lifted her out of her hiding place.

“What’s this here?” a gruff voice demanded in Equestrian. Rarity quickly determined that it belonged to a massive griffon, so big he hardly looked as though he could take flight. “Seems we have a spy!” The griffon then let loose an earsplitting screech in his dissonant native tongue.

“Let me go, you brute!” Rarity shouted, beating her hooves against the griffon to no avail. Ignoring her vain efforts to free herself, he carried her to the broad plaza where she had previously seen Karroc addressing his soldiers. As other griffons flew toward the commotion, Rarity saw one turning a large crank, and immediately a deafeningly loud klaxon began to blare. This was far from an ideal situation, but at least, she thought ruefully, she had managed to cause a scene.

Soon, over a dozen griffons had gathered, and they formed a tight, unbroken circle around her, talons and sharp beaks ready if she tried to flee. Rarity recognized among them the helmed scout who had nearly captured her out on the barge.

“You fell in with the jagugars! How did you survive?” The griffon stalked toward her, pointing an accusatory claw. “How did you get up here?”

“A lady must have her secrets,” Rarity replied, her chin held high. She was barely even afraid at this point. Mostly, she felt pleased with herself. After everything, she had finally managed to create an appropriate distraction. More griffons flew into the cavern from elsewhere around the base. They probably were not even guarding their shipyard at this point.

The griffons squawked amongst themselves for a moment before the scout spoke again. “You must have had help to sneak into the hangar. Tell us who helped you!”

She could not have asked for a better setup line.

“Oh, you do not have to play coy with me,” she said with a wink. “After all, I have been caught, haven’t I? It's over. We both know it was you who helped me.” As she had hoped, that got the griffons talking, and the scout captain gave his comrades a pained look.

“That is a lie!”

“You said it yourself,” Rarity continued. “I could never have escaped the jagugars on my own. Thankfully, you distracted your colleagues whilst I hid, and then you helped me sneak in here so that I might detonate your store of firepowder. Unfortunately, our plan failed.”

She watched, trying to hide her amusement, as the others focused their attention on one of their own, who withered under the gaze of his fellows. If she were going to make a break for it, this might not be a bad time. She was preparing to spring into action when a new griffon landed amidst the group, this one a lithe and formidable looking female with white lion hindquarters and dark feathers covering her eagle half. Rarity recognized her at once as the griffon who had murdered Elector Graywings and his crew.

“Nice try,” the newcomer said to Rarity. “There is a reason these fools were not picked to accompany the general.”

“And what about you?” Rarity asked.

“I am Colonel Gilara, second in command to General Karroc, and commander of this base in his absence. I do not brook such childish trickery.” The colonel jabbed a talon at Rarity’s forehead before she could react, and a few drops of blood began to trickle down the bridge of her snout. “Try such games with me, and you will yourself eviscerated before you can even comprehend what is happening. Now tell me where the others are. I know that Khufu and his cretinous lackeys are working with you. They must be nearby. Does the unicorn prince live as well?”

Now Rarity was afraid. If this griffon did not like the answers she gave, Rarity had no doubt that Colonel Gilara would not hesitate to kill her on the spot. “Blueblood died of the bullet wound he received, and I do not know where the others are,” she said. “The others forced me to go on this suicide mission, to give them time to escape the jungle. They threatened terrible things if I did not go!” She lapsed into hysterical tears before a hard slap to the face snapped her out of her histrionics.

“Liar,” Gilara said. “As punishment, you shall give me one of your eyes. A shame; they really are lovely.” She turned to one of the others. “Hold her.”

“No!” Rarity wanted to run, but there was no opening, and too many griffons. Even as she desperately looked for some way out, strong claws pinned her forelegs to her side and pulled her up, so that she rested only on her rear legs. The female griffon moved closer and began lifting a claw toward her face.

“Last chance, pony, or you and that wretched camel will only have one good pair of eyes between you. Talk.”

“I won’t.” Rarity said softly, resigning herself to what was about to happen. At least this would all be over soon. After she continued to refuse to betray the others, Gilara would soon tire of this and simply kill her.

“Suit yourself.”

The griffon’s single extended talon was so close now. Rarity squeezed her eyes shut, well aware that doing so would offer no protection. When she heard a grunt and felt the grip on her suddenly slacken, though, she immediately snapped her eyes open and jerked backward, away from the griffon colonel’s menacing claw.

As she fell back down onto all fours, she struggled to take in the chaotic scene that was unfolding. A cacophony of confused squawking and screeching filled the cavern, and feathers flew as the griffons began to panic. Turning, Rarity saw the one who had grabbed her now lay on the ground, quite dead, a slender spear protruding from his neck. Suddenly, a thud resounded next to her, and Rarity saw another griffon fall, similarly skewered. She screamed in horror.

What was happening? Far away, almost at the entrance of the cave, Rarity finally located the source of the projectiles. There stood Zips, launching his hoof-made spears as fast as he could load them into his spear-thrower. Where had he come from? Rarity pondered the young stallion’s timely arrival while simultaneously acknowledging how fortunate it was that his special talent was uncanny accuracy, or she would have been just as likely as the griffons to be speared. In any case, she needed to get to him, and quickly, if she was going to escape.

At the same time as Rarity observed Zips, the griffon colonel screeched furiously at her subordinates, then unfurled her wings and rose into the air to better direct them. Several griffons raced to secure firesticks, while others regrouped and encircled her once again.

“Not this time, thank you,” Rarity declared. She lowered her horn and gave a most unladylike snort while stamping a forehoof against the stone. As she observed the looming soldiers standing between her and survival, everything her father had ever taught her about the sport of hoofball, instructions long ignored but not quite forgotten, ran unbidden through her mind. She broke into a gallop, straight toward the closest griffon.

First, always maintain a lower center of gravity than your opponent. Rarity ducked under the griffon’s clumsy grab, dove under his chest, and easily flipped the soldier over her back. Second, anticipate your opponent’s actions and always try to make the first move. As another griffon rushed toward her from the side, Rarity extended her foreleg and gave the unexpecting assailant a classic stiff-hoof to the side of the head. He fell to the ground and rolled awkwardly as she raced ahead. Finally, always keep your hooves moving - don’t stop! Rarity juked around the next griffon’s outstretched claws, and lowered her shoulder into his ribcage with a satisfying crack. She dodged the next griffon, and the next as well. Father would be so proud, if only he could see her now!

A final griffon flew up into the air, avoiding her headlong rush, and descended toward her. This sort of unfair move was exactly why pegasi were not permitted to use their wings in hoofball. Rarity had no counter, and prepared herself for the imminent pain of claws raking across her back. To her great surprise, however, the griffon tumbled away and collapsed in a heap as Zinzi leaped out of the shadows and delivered a powerful flying kick.

“Come now, we must be quick, they are already loading their firesticks,” the zebra mare stated, pushing Rarity along ahead of her. As if to punctuate her statement, a shot rang out and Rarity heard something whoosh past her. Ahead, she saw Zips finally abandon his spear-throwing and break for cover among the pallets and crates scattered about the cavern.

“Here, friends!” A voice called from the shadows, and Rarity and Zinzi abruptly ducked off to the side and out of the line of fire. Khufu stood, hiding his tall frame behind a massive steel water tank.

“What in Celestia’s name is going on?” Rarity asked. “What are you all doing here? You should be chasing after Karroc!”

“Can you truly so lack a clue, that you do not recognize a rescue?” Zinzi asked between deep breaths.

Zips threaded his way through the shadows and appeared next to his mother. “We saw the barge being towed back to port by some griffons. I just assumed you had been thrown to the fish, but the others wanted to try to find you.”

“We were searching not far away when siren sounded,” Khufu added. “We commandeered lift and sneaked into hangar to look for you here."

“The plan was to get you back quietly, but when we saw you…” Zips trailed off.

“Decisive action was required,” Khufu finished.

“But what of the Alicorn? Did you secure the lifting gas?” Rarity asked, ignoring a shower of splinters from a bullet impacting the crate next to her.

“Well, we stole something,” Zips offered. “I sure hope it was lifting gas.”

“Buck and Duke Polaris remained with airship while we went looking,” Khufu explained. “Searching for you was more urgent than waiting to see if balloon would inflate.”

“Those stallions are our means of getting away. They had best arrive without delay,” Zinzi added.

“So we must hold out here, in the possibly fruitless hope that Blueblood and Buckaroo will manage to get the Alicorn into the air and then arrive at the perfect moment to get all of us onboard safely, while these griffons are shooting at us and the ship,” Rarity summarized.

“Indeed,” Khufu confirmed.

“We could have gone with the stealth approach and waited to save you until after they tore out your eyeball,” Zips noted, before popping up from behind a barrel full of nuts to throw another spear.

“Point taken, and lest I forget, thank you most sincerely for the timely intervention,” Rarity replied. Zips nodded.

“We need to move from this spot. They are positioning for an easy shot,” Zinzi declared urgently, pulling her head back under cover just in time to avoid a fusillade of bullets.

Before any of them could react further, a mass of dark feathers and snow white fur landed gracefully before them. Colonel Gilara raised a gilded, twin-barreled pistol and pointed it directly between Rarity’s eyes. As she did so, several of the remaining griffon soldiers also landed nearby, brandishing their own firesticks.

“This is the end of the line, little pony. I don’t even have to ask you what your plan is now, or where your friends are, because the fools decided to join our little party of their own volition.”

Rarity's eyes were wide open as she stared down the polished barrels of the griffon's weapon. She had been so close to unraveling the conspiracy and escaping the jungle, and now ... She could only grimace as Colonel Gilara slowly tightened her claw around the pistol's trigger.

“No! Never again!” Before the griffon could fully depress the trigger, Khufu charged forward with astonishing speed, barreling into Gilara and knocking her to the cavern floor.

The other griffons were already moving to raise their weapons, and Rarity reacted quickly to prevent them from succeeding where their leader had temporarily failed. Reaching out with her telekinesis, she released the triggers on all of the firesticks at once, before they could be aimed, causing them to be discharged harmlessly into the ground.

“Run!” Khufu shouted, struggling to his untangle himself from the furious griffon colonel. “Make for lift. Others will come.”

Rarity did not need to be told twice. She broke into a gallop, Zinzi and Zips hot on her hooves, and flew across the cabin toward the mouth of the cavern where the lift waited. It wasn’t much of a chance for escape, but it was their only chance.

Outside, the sun was finally rising. In Canterlot, Rarity knew, Princess Celestia had raised her charge over Equestria and the entire world. She was reminded once again that she had to survive, for her nation, her princesses, and her family and friends. She ignored the pops of firesticks behind her, and barreled ahead.

Glancing behind her, she just managed to catch Khufu land a powerful headbutt against the unarmored head of the griffin colonel, and she at last released her grip on him. The exiled prince dashed after Rarity and the others.

Ahead, just outside the cave entrance, a dark shape began to rise into view, blocking out the early morning sun and throwing the cavern back into shadow. What was it? As she drew closer, Rarity could finally make out the bright blue color of the object, and the ornate designs woven into its fabric. The Alicorn! Blueblood!

As the airship ascended fully into view, Rarity could see the two stallions standing on the deck, apparently yelling something. She was not quite close enough to hear them over the roar of the waterfall spilling out of the cavern and over the cliff below.

“What is it?” she shouted. She could neither make out what Blueblood and Buckaroo were trying to tell her, nor could she read their lips, but she assumed they were urging her to hurry. She could see sparks and chips of wood fly as errant bullets from the griffons’ firesticks impacted the Alicorn’s hull. Doubtless some were tearing t fabric balloon as well. With any luck, they would not cause more damage than could be easily repaired with magic.

“Can’t you hear? Get down!” Zips called out, tackling Rarity from behind. As soon as she fell to the rock floor, Rarity witnessed a fearsome sight. Buckaroo had positioned himself behind the ugly cannon mounted on the Alicorn’s deck, and now at the earth pony’s direction the weapon spewed forth an unending torrent of destruction. While the griffons seemed to be able to reload and fire twice in a minute, Buckaroo’s automatic cannon must have been firing half a dozen times every second. Against such withering firepower, the griffons retreated further into the cave.

“Now giddyup y’all!” Buckaroo shouted as the weapon ceased firing.

Rarity pushed herself off the ground and hurried the short remaining distance to the edge of the cave, while Blueblood carefully maneuvered the Alicorn as close as possible, descending so that the airship’s deck was just below the cavern floor. It was going to be a long jump, and there was only a small amount of flat stone here between the cavern wall and the raging river pouring out of the mouth of the cave. If she slipped, it would be a long, wet ride to the bottom.

Without allowing herself to dwell on it, Rarity pushed off with her rear legs and leaped into open space. The next second of her life seemed to stretch into an eternity as she watched the edge of the cliff pass below her, and then the several hundred-length drop to the base of the waterfall, until she finally crashed down on the hard wooden planks of the Alicorn’s deck. The impact smarted, but she had managed somehow to avoid injuring herself.

“Consider your promise to survive fulfilled,” Blueblood called back from where he stood at the airship’s helm. “Though you certainly made us all work for it!”

“I cannot believe you spent all this time looking for me when you could have been pursuing Karroc. What about Equestria?” Rarity asked.

“What about it?” Blueblood replied. Rarity could only shake her head. She was only one pony, and millions of lives were at stake. Still, she could not deny that she was happy to be alive.

Seconds later, Zinzi and Zips both made the leap onto the airship look easy and graceful, and now only Khufu was left, charging toward the ship. Rarity noticed that he ran awkwardly on three legs, and was leaving a trail of blood in his wake. One of the camel’s rear legs had been mauled by griffon claws.

Now that Buckaroo was no longer firing his cannon, Rarity watched, horrified, as the griffoness colonel quickly emerged from her hiding place, leveled her pistol, and fired at the fleeing camel prince. The first shot from her twin-barreled weapon missed its mark, but the second caused Khufu to stumble. Nonetheless, the camel continued to stagger forward. He was almost at the edge, but Rarity could tell there was no chance he would be able to complete the jump onto the airship’s deck.

Rarity hurried over to the Alicorn’s deck rail, her horn glowing brightly as Khufu toppled over the rim of the cave entrance. Instead of falling to the ground far below, his glowing figure was soon deposited on the deck of the Alicorn. It had taken all of her concentration and magical strength to catch the plummeting camel, but she had done it. She rushed over to him even as Buckaroo resumed firing at Gilara and her griffons.

Glancing up, Rarity saw that the griffons had once again taken cover. She blinked in surprise, though, when she realized exactly where the griffons were hiding. If her memory from her short time in the cavern served her correctly, they had, apparently unthinkingly, sought refuge behind a large tower of firepowder barrels - barrels which Buckaroo was now unrelentingly firing upon. Rarity winced as her suspicions were shortly confirmed by a deafening explosion and a massive fireball that spewed like dragonflame from the mouth of the cave.

“Whoa, guess they ain’t gonna be followin’ us,” Buckaroo observed. A pall fell over his face as he looked down at Khufu’s prone figure. “Oh no.”

Khufu was badly hurt, that much was immediately apparent. His left rear leg was a shredded mess. Worse, a bullet wound in the left side of his chest was still bleeding copiously. His breathing came in sporadic, weak gasps.

Zinzi turned toward Rarity and slowly shook her head. Zips looked on in silent shock.

“Rarity, are you there?” Khufu asked, his eye darting this way and that, not focusing on anything.

“I am here, Prince,” Rarity whispered. She knelt down and rested a foreleg gently against the side of the camel’s face. As she did so, she noticed that the ship was moving, ascending skyward and leaving the jungle far behind. "You should never have come looking for me."

"Nonsense. Now, listen to me ..." Khufu's voice trailed off into silence.

"Yes?" Rarity prompted.

“Prove me wrong, Rarity,” the camel whispered hoarsely. "You must prove me wrong."

“What?”

“Prove harmony can exist without pointing weapons, as you said. That is world I want for you - for my friends. That is world you deserve.” Khufu coughed, and flecks of blood appeared at the corners of his mouth. “That world is not for me, it seems.”

“No, do not speak such nonsense. We can pick another Badge of Courage flower. You will be fine!”

“No … time. Now you must save everyone else … from this madness.” Khufu laboriously drew in a ragged breath. “Madness ... that I made possible.”

“You have atoned for your mistakes by fighting to stop these conspirators,” Rarity said, a sad smile on her face. “Perhaps you may not always have been the most forthright, nor the most conventional in your approach, but your heart has always been in the right place. You are a hero to me, and very brave.” Khufu’s breathing was now a horrible, wet sucking sound. She knew that his lungs were filling with blood.

“No," he said, "but you proved … still … heroes left.” With a final gasp, the exile prince was gone.

The airship was picking up speed, and the tears Rarity shed were immediately blown away by the wind. Silently, she closed Khufu’s single eye, and stood up.

“Blueblood, however fast this airship can fly, you need to make it fly faster,” Rarity commanded, as steadily and firmly as she could manage. “We are going home.”