• Published 4th Jan 2012
  • 25,709 Views, 1,518 Comments

The Flight of the Alicorn - Ponydora Prancypants

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

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IX. Fallout

IX. Fallout

The crew of Fancy Free had all risen with the dawn, and now the five clustered at the bow rail, taking in a vista of sand and sea as the airship drew near to the southernmost vestige of Equestrian civilization, the coastal city of Gallopoli. Even though the sun was only just clear of the horizon, the tropical air was already warm and thick with moisture and the sweet fragrance of hibiscus. Any trace of foul weather had been left far behind, and Rarity and the others had doffed their jumpsuits in favor of bare coats. She had particularly relished the chance to use rainwater collected overnight for a quick scrub. For this brief moment in time, steaming over a tropical paradise with the trade winds at her back, she could imagine the race as a vacation. The only things missing were a chaise for lounging and an orchid to place in her mane.

“Behold the Gallopolian Coast, the most remote, and dare I say most beautiful shoreline in all of Equestria,” Fancypants declared.

Rarity had no basis to disagree, as the seemingly endless white sand beaches stretching toward the horizon were undeniably remarkable. Calm blue waves lapped against the beach below, and inland sand dunes gave way to palms and tropical plants. Signs of civilization were evident in the form of narrow roads, orchards, and fields planted with crops that Rarity couldn’t identify from the air. Perhaps they were something exotic like bananas, coffee, taro, or even pineapples. Whatever the farmers here grew, it was obvious that Rarity was far from the comfortable familiarity of home.

She had never seen the southern ocean or felt a tropical breeze before, but the morning was remarkable for another, more personal reason. For the first time in as long as she could remember, Rarity was out in public without a touch of hairspray or a hint of makeup. No mascara defined and elongated her eyelashes. No eye shadow emphasized the unique almond shape of her eyes. No powder kept her coat a perfectly even shade. Her mane and tail still fell in bouncy coils, but stray hairs sprung here and there as if taking this opportunity to rebel against the normal order.

There wasn’t anything Rarity could do to remedy the situation; her cosmetics bag was back in Canterlot, hundreds of leagues away. Theatrics would get here nowhere, as she was fairly certain that she was not going to be granted shore leave to go shopping, if there even were any cosmetics shops in far southern Equestria. The most absurd and unusual aspect of her situation was that Rarity found herself not caring that her face was naked and her mane was untidy. The only pony anywhere close by who she cared to impress was Fancypants, and he had already offered her more than she had ever dared hope. For once in her life, Rarity had nothing to prove. More gratifying still, the others all looked even more unkempt than she. Even Fancypants was dealing with the beginnings of a scruffy beard in the same bluish turquoise as his carefully-groomed moustache.

More than simply feeling uncharacteristically blasé about her appearance, Rarity had awoken to a pervading zen-like nonchalance that gave her the confidence to believe that everything was going to be okay. Her alarming nightmare had been no more than a fantasy born of foul weather and fitful sleep, her concerns for the welfare of Equestria were overblown, and her worries about what most likely amounted to nothing more than white lies were merely paranoia taking advantage of her mind being overstimulated by new experiences. Today was a beautiful day, and she was a lucky pony to be here with Fancypants and the others. Equestria would be fine so long as Princess Celestia ruled in Canterlot, and likewise she needn’t worry about herself while Fancypants was her captain.

She couldn’t pin down exactly why her anxiety had so suddenly disappeared. Perhaps it simply part of the process of getting her air legs, or perhaps it was this beautiful place over which she had awoken. Regardless, today felt different. Rarity remembered Windlass’ words last night, cautioning her that the day would be “interesting.” Rarity hoped it would.

“I don’t see any of the other airships,” Windlass pointed out. “Could they have passed us in the night?”

“No chance,” Elbow Grease replied, shaking his head. “We were steamin’ strong all night. If anything, we’re so far ahead we lost ‘em.”

“Well, I see one of them over there,” Rarity said, indicating a blue dot several leagues away, inland and south of Fancy Free’s position. As she stared more closely at the dot, she was fairly certain as to exactly which competitor’s airship it was.

“She’s right,” Tempest confirmed, his naturally superlative pegasus eyesight compensating for Rarity’s relative youth and sharp vision. “It looks like the Alicorn, and she’s at least a league closer to the city than we are.”

“Oho,” Fancypants began, “we now have a tactical decision to make. We may choose to race the duke to the second marker, or we may concede that he will receive the pearl strand first and simply continue on our way, intending to make up time and distance later.”

“I say fuhgeddaboudit, and let ‘im go. We’ll be the ones with enough coal for our boilers when we’re in the home stretch,” Elbow Grease said.

“I’m inclined to agree with the conservative approach,” Fancypants said.

“Respectfully, I think we should pursue. We don’t know for certain that the Alicorn is leading the regatta at the moment, and the more we concede now, the more we must make up later,” Tempest stated.

“I vote we go after him,” Windlass eagerly chimed in. “He’s probably been up all night trying to coax enough speed from his engine to beat us here, and that means he’s tired. We can outfly him.”

“That leaves you, Miss Rarity,” said Fancypants, giving Rarity a warm smile. “Ordinarily, tactical race decisions are the captain’s prerogative, but at this early stage I’ve put it up for a vote. Shall we hold back, or shall we give chase?”

Rarity thought for a brief moment. The sun was shining and wind smelled of salt and flowers. Seabirds’ raucous calls filled the air. She breathed in tropical beauty and exhaled the worries of days past. She felt alive and free. The world was her oyster and her pearl was just ahead, waiting in Gallopoli.

“We chase,” Rarity replied, beaming a smile that radiated sunshine.

“A pursuit it is, then!” Fancypants exclaimed. “To your stations everypony!”

Elbow Grease rushed down the stairs to the engine room, and Tempest and Windlass took up positions at port and starboard, respectively. Fancypants returned to the helm, and Rarity, not having a specified “station,” followed him.

“How can I help?” she asked.

“I thought you performed splendidly as our spotter back in Ponyville,” Fancypants replied. “Care to try your luck again?”

“I can promise my best effort, at least,” Rarity said, nodding her head in affirmation. She levitated the spyglass from its receptacle on the helm and returned to her position at the bow of the ship.

The ship shuddered and lurched beneath her hooves, but now Rarity was used to the feel of acceleration to the point where she didn’t need to consciously worry about keeping her balance. Looking through the spyglass, she could clearly see the perciform shape of the Alicorn’s balloon in the distance. She couldn’t yet tell if Fancy Free was closing on the other airship, but a glance at the ground rushing past below made it apparent that she was now flying much faster than a moment ago.

Several leagues beyond Blueblood’s Alicorn, Rarity thought she could see the city of Gallopoli resolving into focus. The coastline curved inward, forming a deep crescent that looked as if some leviathan had taken a bite out of Equestria. At the center of the half-moon shape, wooden docks and platforms extended out into the water, and Rarity could see thatched roof buildings of varying sizes scattered over the beach and well inland. More surprisng was what appeared to be a great pink and gold blister slowly rising from the beach in front of the town. As the object grew and its shape became more defined, it became clear that it was a large hot air balloon in the process of being inflated. At the same time as the balloon was rising, Rarity saw a pair of pegasi fly from the direction of Gallopoli toward Blueblood’s airship and apparently go aboard. A moment later, when the pegasi took wing and began flying directly toward her, Rarity was able to recognize them as a pair of Wonderbolts.

“I see two of the Wonderbolts, and they are coming this way,” Rarity called out to the rest of the crew. In seconds, the speedy uniformed pegasi had closed the gap between the Alicorn and Fancy Free, and they landed lightly on the foredeck between Rarity and the helm console where Fancypants stood. Both of the ponies were mares wearing the traditional blue and gold bodysuits, and sporting wild-looking, wind-tousled manes. One had a brilliant white coat and a mane and tail of sunshine yellow, while the other was cerulean blue with a white mane and tail. Both mares wore aviator’s goggles that masked their eyes.

“Congratulations,” the blue mare said, addressing the crew at large. “I’m happy to inform you that you are approaching Gallopoli and the second marker, and that you are currently flying in second place.”

“We’re here to briefly instruct you on the procedures for recovering the pearl strand marker,” the other, yellow-maned Wonderbolt explained.

“You will be required to tether your airship on the beach and send one representative through a short course to the town square, where you will be presented with the marker by the mayor of Gallopoli,” the blue mare said.

“The townsfolk will secure your ropes once you descend low enough to throw down your mooring lines.”

“Whoever you choose as your team’s runner must descend to the ground via non-magical means, and that includes a prohibition on the use of pegasus wings.”

“Once you’ve got the pearls, race back to the airship and continue on your way.”

“After Gallopoli, you will be leaving Equestria, but the third marker location is still close enough to the border that we have been able to provide full access for course monitors and members of the press.”

“Any questions?” the white-coated Wonderbolt asked.

“Good,” the other said, without waiting for a response. The two pegasi took to the air in a flurry of beating wings and streaked back toward the town.

“Hm, that was rather brusque,” Fancypants declared after a long pause. “I do believe, however, that we have gotten the gist of it. We must select a runner before we get to Gallopoli. Windlass, you are the youngest of us, so I think the duty to recover the marker should fall to …”

“I’ll do it,” Rarity said firmly, interrupting Fancypants and causing surprised looks to appear on the faces of Tempest and Windlass. Gallopoli was so remote that, despite its incredible beauty, most ponies from the core of Equestria had not even heard a first-hoof account of it, let alone had the opportunity to visit. At this very moment Rarity was sailing over a land of warm sun, palm trees, sweet-smelling flowers, and sandy beaches that she might never see again. She couldn’t simply let the opportunity to feel the sand beneath her hooves slip by. Furthermore, she was fairly confident that if it came down to a race, she could beat Windlass hooves down. The other mare was scrawny where muscles defined Rarity’s curves.

“Fine by me,” said Windlass, shrugging.

“Well, Miss Rarity, that’s settled,” Fancypants declared. “We should be able to make up a considerable amount of time during the mooring process, since there are more of us to help secure the lines. When your hooves touch the ground, it will be up to you to outrace Duke Polaris.”

“I understand,” Rarity said determinedly. For a brief moment she had forgotten that volunteering pit her against Blueblood. No matter. He was most likely a self-pitying, delusional liar, and he was most certainly large and slow. She knew she could beat him, and she strongly suspected that she would enjoy doing so. “If you give me a fair chance, I can do it.”

“Then we shall have to get you that chance!” Fancypants exclaimed. He leaned over a small mesh grille embedded into the helm console and shouted into it. “Kindly give us more speed, Mr. Grease,” Fancypants demanded.

“There ain’t much more I can give you without overpressurin’ the boiler,” Elbow Grease’s voice emerged from the grille, sounding tinny and far away.

“Give me everything you can, my good stallion,” Fancypants rejoined. “Tally-ho!”

“Tally-ho!” Rarity echoed, leaning out over the bow rail and waiving to a crowd of ponies spectating the race from a green field below. She smiled as she realized that it was a makeshift hoofball field. Even this far from home, Equestria was still Equestria.

Fancy Free dove steeply, trading altitude for speed in order to have any chance of making up some of the substantial gap between the two leading airships. A league ahead, the Alicorn was slowing as its captain maneuvered it toward an empty stretch of sand. Rarity could see that throngs of earth ponies and unicorns were lining the beaches of Gallopoli to watch the Alicorn’s Cup regatta steam into town. Closer to the water’s edge organized groups had assembled, apparently to assist with mooring the airships to the beach. A very small number of pegasi hovered or wheeled about in the air, cheering for the racers. Gallopoli was so close to the edge of Equestria, Rarity realized, that it must be subject to wild weather coming ashore from the ocean or foreign lands. There would be few weather-related jobs for pegasi here.

While the locals cheered on the racers, the now-inflated hot-air balloon floated higher, stretching its tethers to their limit. Rarity saw that instead of a hanging gondola, it features a rigid passenger area that ringed the base of the balloon. The ponies crowded into the balloon wore the current fashions of the core cities, and Rarity realized that these were the journalists, photographers, and record-keepers who had come from all over Equestria to chronicle the race.

As the town grew closer, Rarity watched as thick ropes were thrown down from Blueblood’s Alicorn and caught by the ponies below. It was slow going, as one end of the airship would begin to drift away even as the ground crew struggled to keep hold of the other. The fact that one pony could not throw all of his ropes down at once was severely hampering Blueblood, who must have been scurrying from one end of his airship to the other so that he could get it secured. Finally, six sturdy lines held the Alicorn in place, and a ladder was let down. The delay had been costly, and Fancy Free was steaming over the beach even as Rarity watched Blueblood drop from his ladder and onto the sand below.

“I can catch him!” Rarity declared. “Throw a rope over the side and I shall shimmy down while you secure the airship.”

“You’ll shimmy?” Fancypants shouted from the helm. “Do be careful, Miss Rarity. Need I remind you that we have eight-tenths of the race left for catching up to the duke, and we will be forced to stop if you require medical attention.”

“Windlass, the rope, please,” Rarity shouted, ignoring Fancypants. Perhaps excited at the prospect of watching a needlessly dangerous stunt, Windlass obligingly tossed the port midships mooring line over the side. The beach was getting closer as Fancy Free descended.

“I say! Are you sure about this?” Fancypants called out.

Rarity levitated just enough of the dangling rope to loop it around her body and forelegs. She hadn’t felt a mixture of excitement and trepidation quite like this since she had hidden herself in the mud to surprise her sister at Applejack’s Sisterhooves Social.

“I’m not sure about this at all,” Rarity answered. “But sometimes, darling, one simply has to leap!” With that, she used all the strength in her rear legs to spring over the rail and into open space.

Rarity didn’t fall far. The rope was secure, and she found herself pushing off against the side of Fancy Free’s hull. She felt a twinge of fear when she realized that the airship’s spinning propellers seemed awfully close and loud from this position. Rarity used magic to loosen the rope enough for her to begin to slip downwards. Slowly moving down the rope, she used her teeth to arrest her descent when she felt her pace was becoming too fast. Once she was clear of the ship, her view was unrestricted and she could the open beach and waiting ground crew ahead. Fancy Free was flying no more than ten pony lengths above the surface, but the ship was still too high and too fast for Rarity to drop to the ground below. She waited, watching the propellers rotate to a more vertical alignment to slow the ship, hanging onto the rope with her hooves and teeth as the ship edged closer to its resting place. At that moment, Rarity caught a glimpse of an unmistakable white unicorn stallion galloping away from the beach and toward the town. This was close enough, Rarity decided. She released the rope.

At the instant her hooves connected with the sandy beach, the lessons and skills of her youth came back to her. Her father had once been a professional athlete, and Rarity had been enrolled in everything from gymnastics to ballet in order to develop her own talents. Eventually it had become apparent to all that her true calling lay in a different direction, but muscle memory was a persistent thing. Instinctively, she bent her legs, rolled to distribute the force of her landing, and came up galloping. If only Applejack could see her now, racing across the beach with her unbrushed mane and tail now gritty with sand. Rarity couldn’t stifle a laugh at the thought of it.

The ponies of the ground crew parted before her as she charged, but as she drew closer to the main body of the crowd Rarity realized she had made one miscalculation. She had thought all the photographers were positioned in the hot air balloon, and that there would be no opportunity for closeups. The first magnesium flashbulb bursting white hot from the front of the crowd proved otherwise. There was no turning back now, she would just have to deal with the fact that every paper from the Canterlot Times to the Ponyville Picayune would publish a most unflattering picture of her. Celestia willing, it would be printed below the fold.

“Try to get my good side,” Rarity breathlessly called to the photographers as she galloped past. “Either one will do!”

As she clambered off the sand and onto the packed dirt main street of Gallopoli, she immediately observed several things. First, the stallions and mares who lined either side of the road, all wearing garlands of tropical flowers around their necks, were universally handsome. Something about fair weather and hard work had made the Gallopolians beautiful. Second, they were obviously excited about, and well-versed on, the race and its competitors, because they specifically cheered her by name as she ran. Third, and most important, Blueblood was not so far ahead that she couldn’t catch him. Rarity lowered her head and spurred her legs to give everything they could.

The warm, moist air did her no favors and Rarity’s coat was soon dripping with sweat. She tried not to think about the lack of a shower on Fancy Free and focus instead on Blueblood, only a hundred lengths ahead now. Beyond him, she saw the stage that had been erected to present the race markers. She was gaining rapidly on the big, ungainly stallion. Energized by the onlookers’ enthusiastic cheering and stomping of hooves, she chased Blueblood down until she was practically breathing down his neck. As she drew alongside, Blueblood glanced to his left and then comically performed a shocked double-take.

“Tell me, what’s a boorish blowhard like you doing in a nice place like this?” she asked between gulps of air.

“You look familiar,” Blueblood replied, huffing for oxygen. “Let’s see, sweaty, stringy mane, dirty coat … didn’t I see you passed out on the stoop of a cantina in the bad part of Canterlot last weekend?”

“Har har,” Rarity replied. “Try to keep your leering to a minimum while I gallop on ahead.”

“Sounds difficult. Your posterior is rather impressive, at least in scope,” Blueblood retorted.

“And now I think I’ve had enough of you,” Rarity said. She drifted just close enough to Blueblood to shove him aside, her lower center of gravity helping to throw him off balance, and then she sprinted onwards. Blueblood stumbled, but didn’t fall. Worse, he had apparently found a second wind, because he managed to gain back the ground he had lost.

The stage was just ahead, and on it Rarity saw a large group of important looking ponies. Earth ponies, pegasi, and unicorns were represented. Most wore decorative raiment of broad leaves tied around their midsections, and the mares had flowers entwined in their manes and tails. At the center of the stage the blue-coated Wonderbolt stood next to a fat yellow earth pony stallion with a breaking wave as his cutie mark. The stallion wore something like a crown of vines and white flowers atop his head, but what interested Rarity most was the jewelry encircling his thick neck. A thick necklace, consisting of multiple strands of seashells and black pearls, terminated in a cluster of three enormous pink pearls set in a half oyster shell at the stallion’s throat. The pearls glowed with a mysterious inner light, even in the morning sun. Rarity and Blueblood simultaneously leaped up the stairs to the stage and skidded to a halt, chests heaving and sweat-drenched. At that moment another flashbulb exploded, and Rarity directed her most menacing glare at the offending photographer.

“Really?” she asked the impertinent journalist, incredulous at his timing. Before she could think of anything truly caustic to say, the fat yellow stallion spoke.

“Welcome to Gallopoli,” he said, his voice deep and warm. “It is an honor to have the Alicorn’s Cup pass through. I am Wavewalker, the mayor of this beautiful town. I hope your next visit will be more leisurely, and you will have the opportunity to stay and enjoy our scenery and unparalleled hospitality. Now, I gladly present to you both a treasure from our corner of Equestria, which I am told will serve as proof of your visit.”

“I believe I was here first, so I should get the marker first” Blueblood pointed out.

“Perhaps in your dreams,” Rarity said. “It was most certainly I who arrived on the stage first.”

“Ahem,” the Wonderbolt coughed, immediately capturing the racers’ attention. “I clocked you both in at the same time. Once you have both received your markers, I’ll give you permission to resume racing, together.”

“As I was saying,” Wavewalker carried on, “I have gifts for you.” Rarity noticed the small wooden chest on the floor of the stage at Wavewalker’s hooves. The Gallopolian mayor kicked open the chest, and Rarity failed to stifle a small gasp at the mound of gorgeous pearl necklaces glowing within. Each necklace consisted of normal cream-colored pearls, with one spectacular pink pearl in the center of the strand.

“Gallopolian pearls have a bit of magic within them, and can bring good fortune, especially for sailors or those lost at sea,” Wavewalker continued. “As I present you with these gifts, let me also share a few words from a poem passed down from our ancestors. ‘Should you e’er be cast adrift, and haven’t got an oar, the pink pearls of Gallopoli will help steer you to shore.’”

“That’s a lovely sentiment, but I am in a race,” Blueblood said impatiently.

“Indeed,” the mayor replied, nodding. “Forgive me, Gallopoli is not a hasty town.” He leaned down and reached his muzzle into the chest of pearls, extracting two necklaces with his teeth. Carefully, he slipped one onto Blueblood, and the second he draped around Rarity’s neck. “Hm, it looks better on you,” Wavewalker said to Rarity, prompting Blueblood to roll his eyes.

“Can we go now?” he asked the Wonderbolt mare.

“On my count,” she said. “Three … two … one … go!”

Rarity needed no additional prompting. Without a second thought she jumped from the edge of the stage down to the street below, and began running. Blueblood sprinted after her, and she saw that he was keeping up for now. Rarity smiled. Whether Blueblood realized it or not, she had already won this part of the race. He’d never be able to keep up with her all the way back to the ship.

“Prince Blueblood,” she called back to him. “Since I’ll soon be leaving you behind, I have a question for you.”

“I already know what you intend to ask, and the answer is yes, you absolutely do need to bathe, immediately!” he shouted back.

“Actually no,” Rarity yelled, ignoring the dig. “Last I saw a strange airship flying with no lights. Did you perchance see it too?”

Blueblood slowed down, clearly surprised, and Rarity had to slow her own pace to keep from getting too far away from him.

“I saw it,” he said. “It looked like griffon construction, but I couldn’t be sure. As you said, it was completely dark. I thought I was losing my mind. Flying alone can make you see things.”

“I can’t speak to your mind, but there was a ship,” Rarity replied. “I’m glad to know. So thank you, and ta ta!” She resumed galloping at full speed and quickly left Blueblood behind.

As pleasant as it was to be in this place, she needn’t completely give up on gathering information. So Blueblood thought he saw a griffon airship? If it was Graywings’ ship, then he would be in violation of the rules and could be reported and penalized. If it was another griffon airship, that would be very strange. The tropics were as far from the griffon homelands as could be imagined, and trade wold normally be conducted with the northern cities, not in the far south.

“Speaking of griffons,” Rarity muttered. As she approached the beach, one of the female crew from Graywings’ ship loped past in the opposite direction without exchanging a word. It was a strange motion, using talons and paws in tandem, but the griffon moved surprisingly quickly and with a predator’s lithe grace. Rarity had wondered whether the griffons would be especially disadvantaged if the race went to the ground, since flying was disallowed, but that did not appear to be the case. The fact that another team was here also meant that the race was still close, and not yet a two-ship affair.

Back on the beach, Rarity kicked up clouds of sand as she made for Fancy Free. She could see Fancypants watching her from the deck, and the others were already hauling the mooring lines back onboard for a swift departure.

“Take the last rope!” Tempest called down. “We’ll pull you up!”

As the airship began to drift away, Rarity bit down on the last dangling rope and magically looped it around her body. In seconds she was off the ground and being pulled upward with the rope. When she cleared the rail, Fancypants released the magical hold he had on the rope, and Rarity collapsed onto the deck and rolled onto her back. Finally, she could catch her breath. Temporarily, at least, she was beyond caring whether she looked sufficiently ladylike.

“You got the marker!” Fancypants exclaimed. “Good show, my dear, good show!”

“It’s beautiful,” Windlass said.

“Tempest, give me a heading toward the third marker’s location if you please,” Fancypants requested.

“Turn starboard, heading two four zero,” Tempest relayed, after quickly consulting his charts. “Toward the Impenetrable Lands.”

Rarity had by now caught her breath enough to ask questions, even if she wasn’t ready to get up off the deck quite yet. “Just what are the Impenetrable Lands?”

“A vast, seemingly endless jungle,” Fancypants answered. “Some ponies call it the dark heart of the world. Many great rivers and streams flow into and out of that jungle, like so many veins and arteries, but nopony has ever gotten far exploring them. Some say there are hostile natives, and others claim that the forest is haunted. Whatever the case may be, the Impenetrable Lands are as alien and uncontrollable as the Everfree Forest near Ponyville, but on a much larger scale.”

“The race doesn’t require us to actually go in there, does it?” Rarity asked. She had already had a lifetime’s worth of traipsing through dark, uncontrollable forests after one trip into the Everfree.

“Not at all,” replied Fancypants. “The botanist who possesses the third marker lives outside the jungle, though close to its edge. We shall only view the Impenetrable Lands from the air. Believe me, I have no more desire to set hoof in that foul and forsaken forest than you do.”

“I’ll be a happy mare if I’m not required to get dirty again today,” Rarity said. “Speaking of which, if we have some time, I’d very much like to wash off.”

“This is one of the shorter legs, but we still have at least four hours before we reach the botanist’s cottage,” Tempest stated.

“Take as much time as you like,” Fancypants said. “After your tremendous effort chasing down Duke Polaris, you’ve earned a respite.”

“Much obliged,” Rarity replied, pulling herself to her hooves. She tried to avoid walking too close to Fancypants as she made her way to the stairs behind him. It was in both of their interests that he not catch a whiff of her at this time.

The lavatory at the front of the ship contained not only the rudimentary toilet, but also a wooden tub large barely large enough for a pony to stand. Collected rainwater emptied into a smaller wooden washbasin, and soap, sponges, brushes, and towels were placed nearby. With no heat, and no means of refreshing the water after each pony bathed, the setup was extremely crude and more than a little unsanitary. It was, however, lightweight and efficient, and it would have to do. Rarity elected not to remove her strand of pearls before stepping into the tub.

The cool water was actually refreshing, and after Rarity’s coat, mane, and tail were thoroughly wet, she soaped herself all over and began to scrub vigorously with brush and sponge. As usual, she was grateful that magic allowed her the luxury of using multiple implements at once. Dust and sweat were easy enough to wash away, but sand had a way of clinging persistently that could leave a pony finding gritty grains days later, if she wasn’t meticulous about removing it the first time. Rarity inspected each hoof, and then began to work all the tangles out of her mane and tail. When at last she was satisfied, she wrapped a towel around her body and another around her forehead to draw the water out of her mane.

The next phase of the process carried the potential for disaster. In the warm, humid air her mane and tail would want to become a big frizzy mess, and with no styling products to fall back on, Rarity was left with a hairbrush and a bit of unicorn magic as her only options. She wouldn’t be able to achieve perfection, but perhaps she could stave off embarrassment. First, she hung the towels back on their hooks to dry. Next, she gave her mane and tail another good brushing, and concentrated on visualizing what she wanted them to look like. She could see the three bouncy twists of her tail, and her sweeping violet mane, draped gracefully left and right and ending in graceful curls. A “pop” sounded in the cramped lavatory as she cast her tried and true styling spell. There was no mirror, so Rarity bounced a curl of her main with a forehoof, and twisted her neck to check her tail. She looked a far cry from fabulous, she decided, but at least a crisis had been averted. Opening the lavatory door, clean and no longer malodorous, Rarity was surprised to be immediately confronted by Windlass.

“Why, hello Miss Windlass, I apologize for monopolizing the facilities. They’re all yours now,” Rarity said. To her surprise, Windlass shook her head and held up a foreleg to stop her.

“Can I ask you something?” Windlass asked, sounding to Rarity’s ears as if she was trying too hard to conceal some anxiety.

“Of course.”

“You and your friends, you stopped Night Mare Moon and Discord in order to save Equestria. You were prepared to do whatever it took to stop them, weren’t you?” Windlass asked.

“Well, yes I suppose so,” Rarity said.

“Even if it meant destroying them?” Windlass pressed.

“Princess Luna is much better now, and Discord is merely a statue again. Neither villain was ‘destroyed,’ per se,” Rarity replied, a dubious frown crossing her face.

“But you would have destroyed them, to save everypony else, wouldn’t you?”

Rarity sighed, wondering what this was all about. “Things were happening very quickly at the time, but yes. When the Elements of Harmony activated I understood that Night Mare Moon and Discord might be destroyed. If that was required for Equestria to be safe, then I think we all would have assented to their destruction. Why are you asking me about this?”

“I have a personal choice to make,” Windlass replied. “I need to know that a sufficiently important end can justify the means to that end.”

“I certainly didn’t say anything of the sort,” Rarity immediately stated.

“You said that you would do anything to protect Equestria, and that you would destroy the ones who threatened it,” Windlass said, a searching look in her eyes.

“I merely spoke about two specific circumstances in my life. It wasn’t a generalization,” Rarity clarified.

“You did you what you believed was necessary for the greater good,” Windlass said, lifting her intonation on the last word as if the statement was a question.

“I suppose so,” Rarity admitted. “Do you care to tell me about this big decision you have to make? It certainly sounds important, and perhaps you’d feel better if you talked it through.”

“I … thank you, but I think I know what to do,” Windlass replied haltingly. With that, she turned away and walked over to one of the piles of supplies and began rummaging, perhaps looking for something to eat.

Rarity shook her head at the odd encounter and made her way topside. For a moment, she wondered whether she should worry about the other mare, but then thought better of it. Whatever Windlass’ big decision was, if it was for the good of others Rarity couldn’t see how it could be harmful, except perhaps to Windlass herself. Celestia only knew that Rarity had made sacrifices for others’ benefit in her life. How much grander would her business be if she didn’t always feel compelled to design gifts for her friends? For that matter, she would have probably relocated to Canterlot long ago of not for her overpowering need to live close to her parents and sister. Selfishness might have translated into more bits in her bank account, but money couldn’t fill the place in her heart that giving did.

“Rarity, reporting for duty, captain,” she announced to Fancypants with a smile and a mock salute.

“And looking marvelous, if I may be so bold,” Fancypants replied, matching Rarity’s grin. “Now that you are here, I’d like to welcome you off the edge of the map. We’ve just left Equestria.”

“Left Equestria?” Rarity repeated, walking quickly over to the port rail. Below, and extending at least as far as the horizon, lay a carpet of dark green vegetation. “Is that the jungle you spoke of?”

“Quite, though what you see is one small outgrowth of one corner of the Impenetrable Lands. Fortunately, our destination lies clear of the foliage,” Fancypants said.

“We’re now forty leagues out of Gallopoli,” Tempest reported. “We still have another hundred to go.”

“Do you care to take the helm?” Fancypants asked.

“While I am more than willing to help, I wouldn’t have the first clue about where to point the ship,” Rarity demurred, though flattered by the offer.

“Colonel Tempest there will give you headings. I prefer to steer using the wheel, but I believe you are already familiar with the mechanized helm controls. You need do no more than push a button and rotate a dial,” Fancypants replied.

Rarity saw no polite way to decline. “How can I refuse?” she responded with an easy laugh. She took Fancypants’ position behind the console.

“A course, Colonel?” Rarity asked, attempting to assume a commanding tone of voice.

“Turn port heading two two six,” Tempest called back, and Rarity swiftly worked the heading indicator controls to execute a left turn to a southwest heading of 226°.

“Two two six degrees,” Rarity confirmed, imitating Fancypants’ style of calling back directions.

“Excellent!” Fancypants said. “A natural, as I expected.”

“Imitating proficiency does not equate to competence,” Rarity replied. “Nevertheless, thank you.”

“Captain, we have weather, at least ten leagues distant and straight ahead,” Tempest shouted urgently.

“‘Weather’ is a rather nondescript term, Tempest. What do you see?” Fancypants asked.

“Cumulonimbus, horizon to horizon. It’s a wall of storms,” Tempest replied.

“Wonderful,” Fancypants replied, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Now, Miss Rarity, we are in for a demonstration showing just why this part of the world has not been claimed by Equestria or any other civilized nation. How is one to live where the weather itself runs rampant? Tempest, I dare not dream that you see a path around the storm, do I?”

“There’s no way around,” Tempest confirmed. “I don’t see any lightning, though, so if this is merely wind and rain, we should be able to punch through.”

“I shall inform Mr. Grease and Miss Windlass of the situation, and request that the latter report topside,” Fancypants declared. “Fancy Free is yours, Rarity.”

“Oh my, are you sure that’s wise?” Rarity asked, but Fancypants was already gone down the stairs. Far in the distance, Rarity could see what looked like a sheet of gray stretching from the ground far into the sky, many times higher than the airship’s present elevation. In fact, the clouds seemed to reach far higher than the tallest mountain she had seen. It obviously would not be possible to pass over the storm. Rarity draped her forehooves over two of the handles extending from the wheel’s rim, and held on tightly.

“Strange place for a storm to pop up, don’t you think?” asked Tempest. “We’re away from water, and I can’t imagine where a cold front would be coming from.”

“How should I know? I’m a fashion designer, not a meteorologist,” Rarity replied testily, focusing on keep the airship flying straight.

“You know, I earned my cutie mark for getting myself and two of my school friends though a terrible gale back home,” Tempest said, gesturing with his head toward the swirling storm clouds on his flank. “Of course, that was a pegasus-made storm, not a wild thing like what we have waiting for us up ahead. It’s hard to say what this will be like.”

“You’re hardly instilling confidence,” Rarity replied.

“I’m not trying to,” Tempest replied with a cold smile. “Wild weather is not something to be trifled with, especially where the rules prevent weather manipulation, either by wings or magic. It could get a little bumpy in there. In fact, a pony could lose her balance and take a spill if she wasn’t paying attention.”

“I’ll be careful,” Rarity said, tightening her hold on the ship’s wheel. It might have been her imagination, but she thought she felt the first shudder of turbulence as the storm drew closer.

“Yes, do. Equestria has no replacements for the ponies who wield the Elements of Harmony.”

“Colonel, I must say that this sort of talk is helping nothing,” Rarity said crossly, attempting to keep the sound of fear from creeping into her voice. “Let’s worry about flying the ship, shall we?” The pegasus shrugged and turned his eyes forward again.

It was a great relief to Rarity when Fancypants returned with Windlass and retook command of the airship. She was only too happy to turn over the wheel after her alarming conversation with the first mate. She walked away from the others and forward to the bow to get a better view of the towering wall of clouds. The storm appeared infinitely tall and wide, and she agreed that there appeared to be no easy way through.

“Company,” Windlass announced. Rarity saw that she was looking aft through the ship’s spyglass. “I can see the Alicorn and Stiletto, and possibly one other far behind them. We’ll all have to slow down to fly through the weather, but whoever flies craziest may gain some distance.”

“That will assuredly not be us,” Fancypants stated. “My priority is emerging unscathed on the other side.”

As the storm grew larger and its towering clouds loomed overhead, rain began to fall. Fortunately, with the speed reduced the large balloon blocked the worst of it. More alarming was the fact that Fancy Free was now shuddering and bucking under Rarity’s hooves. Every few seconds she would feel her stomach float upwards or her legs compress as winds forced the airship down or blew it up into the air. Suddenly, the airship lurched forward and a terrible whining sound filled the air. In other circumstances such a noise might be coming from Rarity herself, but this time she recognized it as the engine. Something was clearly wrong with it.

“Felicitous timing,” Fancypants shouted over the increasingly loud wind. “By the sound of things I must take my leave at once to assist Mr. Grease with the engine. Colonel Tempest, you have the ship. Please see that you live up to your cutie mark and get us all through this.”

Tempest took over behind the wheel, and Rarity continued to hang onto the bow railing for dear life. The situation was becoming intolerable, and the ship hadn’t even connected with the thick clouds up ahead yet.

“Colonel,” Rarity yelled backwards. “As a pegasus, won’t you get stuck in the clouds once we fly in?”

“Clouds are only solid to us when we want them to be,” Tempest shouted over the storm. “I’d rather not be stuck in these.”

The sun was already invisible, but now its light was growing dim as the clouds grew thicker. Windlass joined Rarity at the bow of the ship.

“The rules ban weather manipulation, but not light magic. Why don’t you and I see if we can help the Colonel see where he’s flying.” Windlass’ horned glowed faintly, failing to provide much in the way of illumination. Rarity knew she could do much better, and having a mission took her mind off the storm. She stood up, pointed her horn forward, and cast a brilliant white beam in the clouds, forming a shining path extending several hundred pony lengths in front of the ship. Rarity smiled inwardly at her impressive display. At that moment, however, the first bolt of lightning flashed nearby, shortly followed by a deafening thunderclap. Rarity fell to the deck, whimpering, and her beam of light winked out. Meanwhile, the whining of the engine was growing louder and more high-pitched.

“It’s just a little weather, nothing to be alarmed about,” Windlass said, glancing down at Rarity.

“You’ve simply got to be kidding,” Rarity replied. “This is terrifying!”

“I suppose I can see why you might think so,” Windlass said. Rarity watched the other mare’s horn glow more brightly for just a moment, and another bolt of lighting followed immediately thereafter. “It’s a bit less frightening for me.” She grinned wickedly down at Rarity.

Rarity gasped. “You’re not casting light at all, are you? You’re guiding the storm with magic. I saw your weathervane cutie mark this morning, but I didn’t think to connect it with a special talent. What in Celestia’s name has gotten into you? You know this is against the rules.”

“Why, you’ve gotten into me, of course!” Windlass replied. “You gave me the courage to decide to do what’s right for Equestria.”

“How could whatever it is you think you’re doing be good for Equestria?” Rarity demanded, clinging to the railing as the wind whipped up even stronger than before.

Windlass ignored her. “Also, I’d like you to know that I’m not merely guiding this storm. I made it. You see, being gifted with wind and air is great for an aeronautical engineer, but what I really like is weather creation. Now, I’m not going to tell you how I made this storm, because that would be telling, but let’s just say that a lot of other ponies are going to find out soon enough.”

Rarity put two and two together. “When I didn’t get you for your watch on time last night, the ship I saw was flashing signals meant for you. What did those three flashes mean?”

“It meant that I have to kill you today,” Windlass said flatly, looking away from Rarity.

“Colonel Tempest! Get over here right now!” Rarity shouted, trying not to sound as panicked as she was.

“There’s no need to yell, I’ve been right here,” Tempest said, walking calmly through the rain to stand next to Windlass.

“You thought this was just a race, Rarity, but it’s a mission, and Colonel Tempest is a part of it,” Windlass said. “We’re on a mission to save Equestria.”

Icy fear gripped Rarity as the terrible nightmare of the prior night flashed through her brain. “They’re coming for you,” Windlass’ cloud avatar had warned, before a vicious storm had tossed Rarity through the air and left her to hurtle toward the ground. The dream storm had wind, rain, lightning, and even hail; it had been a veritable tempest. Something inside her had tried to issue a warning, but she hadn’t understood. She began pondering her options for escape, but the list was frighteningly short. She had essentially nowhere to go, and attempting to run on the slick and windy deck would be foolhardy at best. What she would give for Twilight’s skill with teleportation right about now!

“I see you looking toward the stairway,” Tempest said. “Don’t try it. Please don’t make this any harder than it has to be. You seem like a nice enough mare, I’d like this to be quick.”

“Fancypants is going to be awhile longer down there,” Windlass added. “Somepony overtightened the linkages on the centrifugal governor, so the engine is overheating. It’s the last place anypony would look for a problem.”

“So what is this?” Rarity asked, stalling for time. “What are you going to do?”

“It happened like this,” Tempest began, not directly addressing her. “Unfortunately, the storm got so intense that Miss Rarity was knocked from her hooves and slid across the slippery deck.” He walked back to the ship’s wheel. “She stood up, but at that moment a tremendous gust of wind hit us from the side.” He yanked down on the wheel hard, causing it to spin and the ship to begin tilting into a banked turn. “She went over the rail. I tried to save her, even flying into the storm to try to catch her, but the storm was just too powerful. I lost sight of her.”

“Fancypants won’t let you get away with this,” Rarity yelled. She tried screaming for help, but she could tell her voice was easily overpowered by the deafening weather.

“This is for him!” Windlass exclaimed. “He might not understand it, but this is for the bright future that he’s dreaming of, for a free, equal Equestria that is a better place for everypony. We’ll never reach that future as long as the Elements of Harmony stand in the way. The era of magic needs to end.”

“And what about you?” Rarity demanded of Tempest. “You were in the Guard, you should know better than to act so cowardly. You’re dishonoring your oath.”

“I’m here to start a war,” he replied, shrugging. “If Equestria is going to have this bright shiny future, then it’s going to have to be a future without griffons. I’m also being paid.”

So that was it; the conspiracy was laid bare. Rarity thought back to Prince Khufu, who had come to Equestria in the hopes that war would break out. It seemed he would get his wish. She thought of Chancellor Ninetalons, whose death was beginning to seem less likely to have been accidental. She thought of the mysterious airship, apparently filled with other conspirators, whose names she would never know. She thought of Blueblood, and wondered whether he was part of this, and whether he knew she was about to be killed. Finally, she thought of Ponyville; her friends and family. She wondered if Twilight’s eulogy would be like that of her dream. It had been charming, she supposed.

“Fancypants will never love you if he finds out about this,” Rarity said, turning to Windlass to try one last desperate tack.

“Then he’ll never know!” Windlass screeched, lunging for Rarity.

That uncontrolled lunge was what Rarity had hoped for, and she ducked and shifted her weight forward, causing Windlass to trip over her and crash onto the deck behind. Rarity quickly got to her hooves and began dashing for the door to the lower level. She didn’t get far before she lost contact with the deck completely. Tempest had taken hold of her and pulled her up into the air. Without a word, he flew over the side of the ship.

“Goodbye,” Tempest said. Rarity fell.

Art by CaineScroll (Blog) (DeviantArt)