• Published 2nd Dec 2012
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Three Wishes - TimeBaby



Trixie assembles an unlikely team to help her find a magic stone that grants its bearer three wishes

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Chapter 6

"You can't make me stay here," Gilda hissed. "I can sneak out tonight! I know my way back home!"

The pegasi who ran Cloudsdale’s Junior Speedsters camp had seen their share of family drama. Every year, there were the ponies who were being forced into camp by overzealous parents or, conversely, weren’t ready for their first long separation from their families. But none of the coaches had ever seen a griffon before, let alone an entire griffon family whose daughter was determined to air her grievances in a very public manner.

Gilda knew what an unusual sight the three of them were, and hoped to use that to her advantage. Of course she didn’t actually know what that advantage was for, other than to goad her father into a proper fight. She got so tired of his constant demands that she learn some discipline, and wanted nothing more than to get him to betray his own. The young griffon smirked as he turned and took a step in her direction, but to her disappointment, the fire in his eyes cooled as quickly as it always did. He looked at her for a moment, and Gilda sensed that his disappointment was far greater than his anger had ever been. Rather than continue the fight, though, he simply took a deep breath, then turned to leave. It was the one outcome she was completely unwilling to accept.

"Did you hear me?" Gilda shouted, her voice cracking under the strain of her directionless anger. "I'm not gonna stay here with these stupid featherin' ponies!"

This time, the tactic succeeded. With a suddenness that frightened her more than she would have admitted, her father was in front of her, their beaks touching.

"You will not speak of your hosts that way!” he growled. “Despite your complete lack of pride in the fact, you are a griffon, and hopefully by the time this camp is over, you'll start to understand what that means!"

Gilda stood her ground, but she could feel the joints in her legs weakening, as if being melted by the heat of her father's anger. She knew he had called in favors to get the camp to accept a non-pony, knew how proud he would be if she returned home a more stable member of the small griffon society. Both of those facts just spurred her on to greater heights of rage. She was not about to conform to the griffon culture’s rigid social norms just because her father sent her off to a fancy pegasus flight training camp.

"You think a bunch'a lame ponies can teach me what it means to be a griffon?" she said, hoping her voice wasn’t as shaky as it felt.

For endless seconds, Gilda's father did not respond. When he did, she was again disappointed by his measured tone.

"I don't doubt that you can find your own way back home," he said, "but if you try to come back before this camp is over, you won't be welcomed." Without another word, without even waiting to see Gilda’s reaction, he rejoined her mother. The matronly griffon gave him a concerned look, but the pair departed into the bright Equestrian skies without another word. For the first time in her life, Gilda was completely on her own—an arrangement that suited her perfectly well. As she turned to walk toward the camp, she caught several ponies trying to pretend that they hadn’t been gawking at the altercation.

“Yeah, I have so much to learn here,” she grumbled, shuffling off toward the check-in line.

***

The Crystal Mountains were an awe-inspiring sight, one of those rare places with a fantastical name that was to be taken completely literally. For the last few miles, Trixie had watched with interest as the composition of the ground beneath her hooves changed, with the soil becoming thinner and thinner until she was walking on a field of solid rock. When at last she, Braeburn and Gilda reached the foothills, the rock was giving way to a bed of blue and white crystal that sparkled in the midday sun, gradually curving skyward to form the mountain range's miles of craggy, snow-covered peaks.

“Y’all, I think we oughta stop for lunch here,” Braeburn said, as they reached what appeared to be the last stretch of flat ground before they would have to begin their ascent into the hills.

“Just what I was thinking,” Gilda agreed, not waiting on Trixie’s approval as she tossed her bags on the ground and started rooting through them for something to eat.

Trixie didn’t respond to either of her companions, but stopped anyway. She was still gazing up at the mountain that lay between her and the goal she had been harboring since the night Twilight Sparkle humiliated her. Her horn lit up with the magic of a scrying spell, as it had so many times since they left Manehattan. Even on the outskirts of that bustling city, she had felt magic emanating from so many artifacts that she couldn’t be absolutely sure of the Wishing Stone’s position, or even its presence. With the metropolis behind them, though, she could feel only one powerful magical signature, coming from the mountains directly ahead of them.

Gilda, her voice muffled by a mouthful of food, broke the concentration of Trixie’s casting. “So’s it still there, or has it moved since you cast that spell ten minutes ago?”

“Y-yes, it’s still there,” Trixie said, too distracted to return Gilda’s sarcasm. The griffon was putting on a nonchalant front, but Trixie could tell she was nervous, too. Even if she didn’t fully understand the power of an artifact like the Wishing Stone, Gilda had to know she was getting close to an achievement of legendary proportions. That alone was enough to convince Trixie that her sarcasm was really just an excuse to make sure that they were still headed in the right direction.

“Ain’t no way we’re gettin’ all the way up that mountain today, though” Braeburn said. “I sure hope we can find a cave to spend the night in.”

“Yeah,” Gilda agreed, “you two probably have no idea what the conditions at those altitudes are like. I’ll be fine, of course—griffons are made to deal with that kind of environment. But if we don’t find you guys some shelter, we’ll have a serious problem.”

As Trixie crunched on an apple, she looked back up the mountain. Brash as Gilda was, she was right: Trixie and Braeburn wouldn’t last through a night on the mountain without shelter. Trixie could create a magical barrier around them, but unlike the alarm spell she had cast back at the coven’s sanctuary, it required her attention to maintain it. That meant she would have to trade sleep for shelter.

“Well, we need to know what we’re gettin’ into,” Braeburn said. “Why don’t me and Trixie go ahead and start climbin’, and Gilda can fly up ahead and make sure we’re gonna have a place to sleep?”

“Trixie has a better idea,” the unicorn said. “How about, instead of us climbing the mountain, Gilda can take one of us up with her while she scouts out a place for us to sleep, then if we find one, she can drop the first of us off while she goes back for the other.”

Trixie had barely gotten the words out of her mouth before Gilda protested. “No feathering way!” she shouted. “I didn’t come on this trip to be your feathering steed!”

“You didn’t mind carrying me when we escaped from the guards back at the Dragon’s Breath!”

“Because we didn’t have a choice! But when we do, griffons aren’t crazy about ponies riding on us!”

“Trixie’s got a point,” Braeburn said, surprising Trixie and, based on her expression, Gilda as well. “I mean, hear me out here. You gotta fly up once to scout for us anyway, then you gotta come back down and tell us what you were able to find. So is it really that much more work to carry us up when you go?”

“Yeah it’s more work!” Gilda countered. “Do you wanna carry Trixie and me up the mountain?”

“No, but I’d give it my best if it was gonna help everyone.”

“Right, of course you would,” Gilda said, exasperated. “I keep forgetting what a feathering goody four shoes you are.”

“Hey, that’s uncalled for,” Braeburn said. “I’m just tryin’ to make it easier for all of us to get what we came for.” Then, his expression darkening, he added, “Some of us ain’t sure how much time we got.”

“I’ll fly up the mountain and scout ahead,” Gilda said, standing and beginning to repack the few things she had taken out to get to her food. “That’s the best you two are gettin’ out of me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m gonna get this show on the road.” Without another word, she lept into the air and, with a few furious beats of her wings, was soaring toward the mountains.

“I guess we’d best get goin’, too,” Braeburn said with a sigh as he began packing his own saddlebags. “We got a long walk ahead of us, assuming Gilda’s even gonna be able to find a place for us to sleep.”

Trixie watched the griffon fly as she finished off her apple. With the mountains towering over them, and still no sign of opposition, a strange feeling was starting to come over her.

“Braeburn,” she said, ignoring his suggestion, “do you think it’s a little strange that we’ve made it this far with so little trouble?”

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’d call what that cult put us through more than a little bit of trouble.”

“But we’re after a magical artifact with the potential to completely change the balance of power in the world. Other treasure hunters, and even Princess Celestia, know it exists and are looking for it. It seems to be the worst-kept secret in Equestria, but somehow we’re the only ones who have gotten close to it.”

“I can’t say I know why that is,” Braeburn said, “maybe we’re just lucky.”

“But even the Royal Guard is after us!” Trixie argued, the urgency in her voice rising. “The coven were a bunch of idiots, but let’s be honest—Celestia’s private army should be able to stop us!”

Braeburn silently finished loading his saddlebags onto his back, and turned to Trixie with the same look of determination he had worn for the entirety of their time together.

“I knew when I left Appleloosa that this whole thing might be a wild goose-chase,” he said, “but I went through with it anyway. I figure it’s the same with Gilda, and maybe deep down, with you, too. We all got something we want, that we think we ain’t got no other way to get. Right now, I ain’t thinkin’ about why we’ve made it this far. I’m just gonna do whatever I have to to see this thing through. Now let’s get goin’, before we waste anymore daylight.”

He started off for the foothills, leaving Trixie to quickly levitate her own saddlebags onto her back, and hurry after him. As she did, she gave one last tentative look over her shoulder. Once again, she saw that nopony was pursuing them. Trying to shake her growing feeling of unease, she hurried after Braeburn, into the sparkling crystal landscape.

***

No sooner had breakfast ended than a crowd of pegasus ponies rushed out of the cafeteria—some flying, some galloping along the clouds—in hopes of being the first to reach the Junior Speedsters ranking boards. The entire first week of camp had been spent on drills and time trials that would determine the ponies’ placement into one of the camp’s three tiers. For many of the young pegasi, it would be their first taste of glory—or stinging defeat.

Only two of the campers remained behind, casually walking across the cafeteria together as if they couldn’t have been less concerned about their own placements. One was a rainbow-maned pegasus who, while in that awkward stage of adolescence that was all legs and wings, still showed the toned conditioning of a true athlete. The other was the only camper who had attracted more attention than the most promising young flyer in Cloudsdale, the griffon who had quickly distinguished herself as much by her temper as by her flying skills.

“Look at those dweebs,” Gilda said with a derisive snort. “If they had any confidence, they wouldn’t be running off like that.”

“No kidding,” Rainbow Dash agreed, “I don’t even have to look to know that I’m in the top tier. Now you on the other hand...”

“Hey!” Gilda shouted, laughing as she give Rainbow a playful punch in the shoulder.

As the two of them exited the cafeteria, they could already hear the reactions of their fellow campers, some elated, some despairing. The herd that had gathered around the board was already starting to thin as the uncommon pair sauntered up. As Rainbow Dash scanned the board, Gilda watched her carefully. The pegasus was unlike any pony or griffon Gilda had ever met, a bundle of contradictions as messy as her multi-hued mane. Her attitude was brash and effortlessly confident, but Gilda had already seen how many extra hours of practice and harsh self-criticism went into making her the athlete she was. And despite her sarcastic remarks about the other campers, Gilda could see real concern in Dash's rosey eyes as they scanned the board for her name.

Soon, though, Rainbow's self-assured grin returned, and she turned to Gilda. "Well, look who ended up in the top tier!"

Gilda, taken aback as she realized she hadn't even been thinking about her own ranking, looked up at the board. Her eyes darted around until she saw her name, then Rainbow Dash's, in the top bracket. It was odd, but she realized she hadn't even cared where she ended up. In a way, she had expected the ponies in charge to bust her down to a lower tier just for her attitude, or for her outsider status.

Gilda laughed, hoping to mask the real happiness she was feeling at not being separated from Rainbow with her usual bravado. “C’mon, there was never any doubt. We’re gonna show all those other top-tier ponies how it’s done!"

"Well, you know what they say—no time like the present!" Laughing, Rainbow Dash shot off into the sky, leaving Gilda bewildered behind her.

"Hey, no fair!" the griffon called, giving chase. For the first time since her parents had enrolled her in Junior Speedsters, Gilda smiled the kind of pure, honest smile had been missing from her life for as long as she could remember.

***

As she ascended into the mountains, Gilda found herself being overtaken by an unexpected feeling of homesickness. It had been over a year since she had last flown through the turbulent skies of the griffon homeland, or perched in the tall, forbidding mountains that dotted her entire country. The Crystal Mountains, for all their grandeur, were, from what she had seen of them so far, nothing compared to the deadly peaks in which she had been born and raised. While she would have preferred the challenge of navigating more dangerous terrain, she also realized that the less trouble her pony companions faced in scaling the mountain, the better.

Gilda noticed the trail she had been following from the air widening as it cut into the mountain, forming a path that was bordered on both sides by high natural walls. She pushed away the thoughts of home that had been swirling in her mind as she darted into the gap, hoping to find a dangerous series of obstacles awaiting her within. To her disappointment, the only danger she found was a few jagged outcroppings where the two sections of the mountain had separated, and those were easily avoided even with the increased wind velocity created by the crystalline passage.

Coming out the other end of the natural corridor, the griffon saw exactly what she had been looking for. Ahead of her was a snow-covered plateau; on her right side was a drop back to the ground, on her left an almost sheer cliff face leading farther up the mountain. While the terrain would present a great difficulty for her pony companions in the second leg of their climb, Gilda's concern was counterbalanced by the presence of a crack that looked just large enough for her to squeeze through. It might have been nothing more than what she could see from the air, but it also might have been an entrance to a cave.

As she landed gingerly on the plateau, Gilda became aware for the first time of just how much her tolerance for the harsh mountain cold had declined since she returned to Equestria. The howling wind stung her face and body, and she was morbidly cold despite her having eventually accepted Braeburn's gift of the flight cap and scarf that had caused such a row during their brief stop in Manehattan. Mental and physical exhaustion were both beginning to take their toll. The one time she had managed to sleep through the night since leaving Hollow Shades, she had dreamed of Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie, and the humiliation they had caused her. Now the sinking feeling that she was losing control of both her body and mind threatened to pull her into a downward spiral that would only hasten that outcome.

Regardless of her confusion and exhaustion, regardless of the way her talons and paws refused to grip the snow-covered crystal beneath them, Gilda pressed on. All she cared about now was making it to the cave entrance. Just like she had done when she first started training, she set an achievable goal, and went for it with all she had. She wanted to be inside, to have shelter—and maybe to prove to Trixie and Braeburn that she was good for something besides hauling their flanks out of the fire when a fight broke out. In the ferocious winds, every snowflake hit her like a bee-sting, but the cave was there, within her grasp. She reached out with her talons, pulled herself the last few inches, through the crack that was bigger than it had looked from the air. It was dark inside, but the wind was not there, and so she knew it was safe. She collapsed against the wall through which she had just entered, sighing in relief.

Then she heard the growl.

***

Rainbow Dash was worried about the end of Junior Speedsters camp.

Gilda knew this as soon as Rainbow didn’t turn up for dinner the night before the camp’s final big test. She also had a pretty good idea of where she would find her friend. After just a month together at camp, Gilda knew all of Dash’s quirks, like how she trained even more obsessively than usual when she was worried about something. She rushed through her own dinner, then took a leisurely flight over to the training area where, just as she suspected, Rainbow Dash was flying herself ragged.

After a couple of minutes of watching the pegasus streak back and forth between a couple of clouds she had placed in the sky as markers, Gilda finally approached her.

“Why don’t you save some of that energy for tomorrow?” she asked. For a moment, she thought Rainbow was going to ignore her. However, after completing another sprint between the clouds, the pegasus flew over to her side.

“Look, no way I’m going into that obstacle course tomorrow at anything less than one-hundred percent. Now if you don’t mind—”

“Woah, there, Dash!” Gilda grabbed the pegasus’s tail before she could speed off again. “First of all, slow down. Second, the only thing you’re doing right now is exhausting yourself, which isn’t gonna to help you tomorrow. I thought we could just hang out and relax tonight. I mean, this is our last night at camp.”

“Exactly! And tomorrow morning we’re going up against a replica of the Wonderbolts’ own training course! Everything is riding on this! If I feather things up—”

Gilda shifted her grip from Rainbow’s tail to her shoulders, allowing her talons to bite into the pegasus’s flesh just enough to focus her attention. Her golden eyes locked with Rainbow’s as she spoke slowly, calmly, but with the commanding tone that even a young griffon could muster if she needed to.

“Dash. Chill.”

Rainbow Dash wriggled her way out of Gilda’s grip, but she didn’t immediately bolt.

“Fine. What’dya want?”

“I told you what I want, Dash. I want to hang out with you tonight, because it’s probably the last time we’ll be able to for a long time.”

“What’re you talking about, Gilda?” Dash asked, still looking a little petulant. “You’re acting like we’re never going to see each other again after camp’s over.”

“Yeah, that’s it, pretty much,” Gilda said. “After tomorrow, I go back home. And no matter how good a flyer you are, you’re not ready to cross an ocean by yourself.”

Rainbow Dash finally chuckled, though there was a note of bitterness to the sound that threw Gilda off.

“But you think you are?”

“What the hay does that mean?”

Rainbow flew over to a nearby cloud and sat down, and Gilda followed. “The first day of camp. You were yelling at your parents—don’t pretend you weren’t, everypony heard it. You told them you were gonna sneak out of here and fly home by yourself. Even your dad thought you could do it.”

“So?”

“So, don’t take this the wrong way, but only one of us is winning that obstacle course tomorrow, and I plan on it being me. If I can outfly you here, that means I should be able to visit you whenever I want, right?”

Gilda snorted. There was a juvenile logic to Rainbow’s idea, but Gilda was almost worried that the pegasus was foalish enough to actually try to make the trip.

“Dash,” she said, suddenly feeling like she was the pegasus’s mother rather than her friend, “it doesn’t exactly work that way. Griffons are kind of...built for long-distance flight. Even if you do outfly me tomorrow, it doesn’t mean you can make a trip that long by yourself."

At last, Rainbow Dash seemed to relax a little. She rubbed the back of her head with a hoof, and the determined expression she had been wearing began to soften. “So, I guess this really is it for a while, then, huh?”

“Yep.”

“So, you really didn’t want to come here, did you?”

“Geez, you’re gonna bring that up again? It’s ancient history.”

“It was a month ago! You said ponies were all lame and you couldn’t learn anything from us. Do you still think that?”

Gilda’s feathers puffed out a little. She knew Rainbow Dash was just teasing her, but she still felt a wave of embarrassment at being reminded of her temper tantrum. “First of all, I did not say all ponies were lame. Second, you don’t know what happened before I got here.”

Rainbow Dash was looking at Gilda with a sincere concern that the griffon had never seen from her before. “So, tell me about it,” the pegasus said.

“Oh, man, you really want me to get all serious? Well, um...my dad’s pretty big on the whole discipline thing, and I guess I’m not, so much. I got in a few fights back home, and he decided to ship me off somewhere to—I don’t know, get me out of his feathers for a while? So he called in a few favors, and I ended up here.”

“So did you win?” Rainbow Dash asked, an eager grin on her face.

“Did I win what?”

“The fights! I bet you really gave it to those other griffons, huh?”

“Yeah, but...geez, Dash, your brain moves even faster than you do.”

“Oh, sorry,” Rainbow said. They were both silent for a while before Rainbow finally spoke up again.

“Seriously, though, I don’t think your dad wanted to be rid of you. When he dropped you off, he said something about learning to be a griffon.”

“He says that kind of stuff all the time.”

“Do you know what he means?”

For the first time in her life, Gilda gave that question serious thought. As often as her father talked about her needing to become a “true griffon”, she couldn’t remember a time that he had tried to explained to her what a true griffon actually was. She had just assumed that he was telling her to act more like him—stuffy, boring, all business all the time. It was the best answer she could come up with.

“I think he means I should be a little version of him,” she finally answered.

“That’s rough,” Rainbow said, settling deeper into the cloud and looking up at the sky. "I mean, I think my dad wants me to be like him, too, but we've never fought about it because I do want to be like him."

“Let’s not talk about it anymore,” Gilda said.

“Fair enough,” Rainbow responded. “Man, Celestia’s killing it, isn’t she?”

Gilda looked over at Rainbow, irritated again by her random topic jumping. Still, not wanting a fight, she tried to roll with it. "Huh?”

“Celestia—you know, the princess who controls the sun and the moon. I mean, look at that sunset.”

Gilda laid back on the cloud and looked up into the sky, a rage of pink, orange and red, laced with thin stripes of purple clouds. The thought of a single pony in charge of the entire sky, the sun, moon and stars—it should have filled her with awe, but her reaction was quite different. All she could think of was whether she would ever meet this supreme ruler, and if she did, if she would be able to take the sky away from her. She didn't know why she would want it, just that it would be another way to show what she was capable of.

"Hey!" Rainbow Dash yelled suddenly, "Why are we just laying here looking at the sky when we could be flying in it? Let's go, I got some new tricks to show you!"

Dash darted up from the cloud, not waiting on Gilda’s response. The griffon rolled her eyes at her friend's inability to sit still as long as she was awake, but her face soon relaxed into a smile. Dash might have been a squeaky-voiced little pegasus with the attention span of a drunk fruit-bat, but she was the first real friend Gilda had ever had. For the first time in her short, angry life, that made the griffon feel like she had something to fight for, rather than against.

***

The beast was on Gilda as soon as she realized it was there. Its first swipe was only a glancing blow, but it was enough to take off her flight cap. She cried out, more in surprise than pain, as she leapt backwards, toward the crack through which she had entered. Instinct took over. She knew that she had to get out, otherwise the fight would be over before her eyes could adjust to the darkness. Whatever had hit her was big, snarling. If it was intelligent enough to know what griffons were, it wasn’t intimidated by the sight of one. She was in trouble.

Gilda growled a low warning to her opponent as she edged her way back toward the cave entrance. She had only made it a few feet into the cave when the thing came at her, but she was going to have to go through the entrance backwards if she didn’t want to give it the opportunity for an attack. That was not going to be easy. Even though the hole was bigger than she had first thought, she had still had to squeeze through it. She could feel, more than see, the creature that had attacked her pressing forward as she tried to make her escape. As she backed up, she swept her tail left and right until it felt the icy winds on the other side of the cave wall. She was there now, she just had to get out.

That was when the creature struck again, lunging forward with a crushing blow probably meant to pin its prey against the wall. If not for Gilda’s lightning reflexes, the fight would have ended there. In an instant, though, the griffon managed to turn the tables. She ducked the blow, and the small amount of light filtering in through the cave entrance was enough to show her that whatever she was fighting was tall, furry and, most importantly, bipedal. From her low position, the griffon was able to scramble between its legs, get behind it. Once there, she sprung back to a standing position and kicked out with her powerful lion’s legs, sending the beast sprawling headlong into the wall. Enraged, the monster cried out and pounded its fists against the obstacle that had stopped it. As Gilda heard the crystal cracking, she realized that whatever she was dealing with, it was not a rational animal.

But she was, and she was not going to waste an opportunity. There was no room to fly in the small cave entrance, but she could move—enough to throw herself at her adversary. As the weight of both bodies slammed against the weakened cave wall, Gilda felt the cracks expand, then explode outward in a burst of light and wind and snow and crystal shards.

She was free. But the fight had just begun.

***

Aside from Trixie giving Braeburn occasional directions based on the detection spells she was using to guide them to the Wishing Stone’s location, the two ponies had climbed the mountain in complete silence. Trixie was in better shape than one might have imagined, given the number of miles she had logged traveling Equestria with her mobile stage in tow; but even with the strength that had given her, climbing at high altitudes was still causing her some trouble. More than the exertion, though, it was her preoccupation with the thought that things were going too smoothly that kept her silent.

Had the two ponies been talking, they might have missed the first rumblings coming from farther up the mountain. The first sound was a sharp, distant boom which nevertheless reverberated all the way down to the narrow path Trixie and Braeburn were inching their way along.

“That didn’t sound good,” Braeburn said, looking up with a sickened expression.

“You don’t say,” Trixie replied, clinging to sarcasm as her preferred means of coping with a crisis.

Braeburn began to move more quickly along the ridge, and Trixie followed suit. Neither needed to say how bad a spot they would be in if an avalanche were to happen right then. Mere seconds passed before the next rumble. This one started with a tremendous crack, as if part of the mountain had just been blown open, but a low rumble continued after the echoes of the shattering impact ceased.

“We gotta go, now,” Braeburn said, quietly but urgently. Trixie did not reply, but followed his lead. The pair continued along the ridge as fast as they could. By the time the path widened enough for them to achieve a full gallop, the rumble was getting louder.

“What did that griffon do?” Braeburn asked grimly.

Trixie did not respond. She was too surprised by the relief she was feeling at the possibility of a real crisis.

***

The avalanche was well underway before Gilda’s brain was able to process what was happening. She could see the creature now, a hulking thing covered in shaggy white fur, its hands and feet the size of some of the bigger crystal chunks that were left from the cave wall, its broad, flat face cut all the way across by a gash of a mouth filled with crooked teeth, like the stalactites and stalagmites of the cave it called home. She risked a quick glance up to confirm her fear, saw the debris beginning to cascade down toward them, but tried to subdue her rising panic by thinking of nature as just another enemy she had to defeat.

The snow-beast lumbered forward, its eyes locked on Gilda. With a speed she did not expect, it swung down at her. Even when taken by surprise, the griffon was still the faster of the two, and easily dodged the blow. As the creature pulled its fist from the crater it had made in the ground, Gilda launched herself into the air, and over the beast’s head. She landed on the other side of it, gave it a second to turn, then ran around it in the opposite direction. Griffons rarely faced enemies larger than themselves, but when they did, they had a simple strategy for evening the odds: cut your foe down to your size.

Gilda’s talons flashed toward the beast’s calf. Its fur was thicker than she had expected, and provided some protection against the attack, but she knew she had done some damage as the monster howled in pained surprise. The adrenaline of the fight meant that the thing wouldn’t really feel the effects for seconds, even minutes, but the damage was done. Now Gilda just needed to add to it. With her opponent’s lacking mobility reduced even more, that would present little difficulty.

“Let’s do this,” she growled.

Her muscles tensed as she focused on the creature, but just as she was about to dart at it again, something crashed into her from behind. For a moment, her world was nothing but a red splash of pain. When it passed, she realized she could no longer move.

***

As Gilda expected, Rainbow Dash had been her only true competition in the final trial of Junior Speedsters. The obstacle course was tough, but not so tough that it allowed any of the other young pegasi to keep up with her. But Rainbow Dash was on another level. Her lean frame allowed her to dart through the obstacles and change direction in the blink of an eye. As fast as Gilda was, her bulkier frame just didn’t allow for the same sort of hair-trigger reflexes. As they entered the final leg of the race, Gilda realized that she couldn’t win unless her friend made a serious miscalculation, something the pegasus was highly unlikely to do.

“C’mon, Gilda, don’t make it easy on me!” Rainbow Dash taunted her as the two of them entered the race’s final gauntlet.

“Wouldn’t dream of it,” Gilda said, beating her wings as hard as she could in a desperate bid to overtake her friend. The gap narrowed, but only slightly. Worse, the momentary distraction of Rainbow Dash’s taunting had allowed the pegasi in third and fourth place, a mare named Silverspeed and a stallion called Thunderlane, to narrow the gap. As Gilda fought just to hold onto second place, Rainbow Dash streaked ahead, the colors of her mane and tail trailing behind her as she effortlessly maintained her lead.

The rest of the world disappeared around Gilda as she pushed herself harder and harder, her muscles crying out in protest as she marshalled every last ounce of their power to propel her forward. The final set of obstacles was coming up fast, a series of cloud-rings and pillars through which the fliers had to navigate in close succession. Gilda forced herself to forget about catching Rainbow Dash; that was a lost cause. If she wanted to keep Silverspeed or Thunderlane from closing on her, she would have to make her way through the last obstacles without losing any speed.

She cleared the first set of pillars perfectly, but a quick glance back told her that Silverspeed had, as well. Thunderlane appeared to have been thrown off balance a bit by the challenge, but Gilda didn’t have time to analyze her competitors’ performance as a series of rings, staggered both vertically and horizontally, was bearing down on her. Rainbow Dash’s lead actually served the griffon well in this case, as her rainbow trail showed Gilda the perfect line through the obstacles, which she was only too happy to follow.

This time, though, Gilda didn’t even have to look to know that Silverspeed hadn’t been as lucky. The pegasus’s sharp cry, “Ponyfeathers!”, told her all she needed to know. Gilda turned her head, meaning to shoot Silverspeed a smirk as she widened her lead, but instead she looked back just in time to see Thunderlane, who had managed to clear the rings far more skillfully than the previous obstacle, shoot blindly through the final ring, and right into the flank of the distracted Silverspeed. The collision of the bodies sent a sickening crack resounding through the air. Gilda hesitated, but only briefly. With her competition out of the way, she could give her all to overtaking Rainbow Dash, even if that was hopeless.

No sooner had the griffon returned her focus to Rainbow Dash than the pegasus blew past her in the opposite direction, diving toward Thunderlane and Silverspeed, who were plummeting toward the earth. Gilda took another moment to survey the area and saw that Dash’s help wasn’t actually necessary. The camp’s coaches had sprung into action, and were already building up a cloud-mat under the falling pegasi. Even on an adrenaline rush, Dash could only catch one of the two anyway. Thanks to her pointless heroics, the race now belonged to Gilda. She took off again for the finish line, revelling in the foregone conclusion of her victory.

***

As Gilda lay there, her right wing pinned under a huge hunk of crystal, she thought about the fact that the first fight she had ever lost had been completely unnecessary. She could have flown, grabbed Trixie and Braeburn and waited out the avalanche from a safe distance. Instead, she did what she always did: she let her temper and her competitive streak take over, driving out any semblance of reason. In the past, it had cost her the respect of friends and family. This time it was going to cost her far more.

The beast lumbered forward. It had taken only a glancing blow from the cluster of debris that had trapped Gilda, not enough to even knock it down, let alone incapacitate it. Despite her dire predicament, Gilda found it within herself to marvel at how huge the thing looked from her vantage point. It was so rare that she encountered a creature so much bigger than herself.

The avalanche was over. The beast raised fists like tree-stumps high over its head. Gilda closed her eyes, and was only slightly disappointed that what came to her in that moment was an image of Rainbow Dash and Pinkie Pie watching as she angrily stormed out of Sugarcube Corner.

***

“You didn’t even try to help!”

Rainbow Dash was mad. Not just a little upset, but red-faced, irrational, say things you can’t take back mad.

“Because I didn’t need to,” Gilda replied, trying hard to keep her cool. Rainbow Dash hadn’t cared about losing the race after what happened to Thunderlane and Silverspeed. What had gotten her worked up was that Gilda had focused on winning instead of helping the two ponies who could have ended up gravely injured if nothing had broken their fall. “The coaches got to them even before you did, because they’ve been hovering around us like we’re a bunch of helpless babies this whole time!”

"Who cares?" Rainbow shouted. "When somepony's in trouble and you can help them, you do!"

"Dash, it's been cool hanging out with you here, and I don't want our friendship to end this way, but you are sounding super lame right now."

"And you're living up to every bad thing I've ever heard about griffons—you're being a selfish, cruel—"

Gilda cut her off with a sarcastic laugh. "You know, a self-righteous lecture might be more convincing if it wasn't based on pony racism! There's a reason griffons don't spend much time in Equestria—you ponies aren't so into the whole loving and tolerating thing when you meet someone who doesn't live up to your stupid morals!"

"At least I have morals!" Rainbow was right in Gilda's face, and a physical altercation seemed unavoidable. At the moment, that suited Gilda just fine.

"At least I have morals!" she replied in a childish, mocking tone. "Don't make me laugh!"

Gilda tensed, and waited on Rainbow Dash to attack her. The last thing she expected, though, was for the pegasus to hang her head, a defeated look on her face.

"Aren't you even gonna go see how they're doing?"

Gilda dearly wished that Rainbow would have hit her. Anything would have been better than the absolute dejection in her voice. The two of them stood silently staring at each other for interminable seconds before Gilda finally replied.

"Ok, Dash,” Gilda said, rubbing her brow, “let's go see them."

***

"Stand aside, or be vanquished by the Great and Powerful Trixie!"

"Um, I don't think he can understand ya, Trixie."

The blow Gilda was waiting on hadn't come. When she opened her eyes again, she immediately saw why. Trixie and Braeburn had intervened, distracting the beast from finishing her off. Trixie was using her magic to make hundreds of the broken crystal fragments from the shattered cave wall swirl around her. The trick would have even less offensive capability against the monster than it had against Void Nightshade the first time Trixie used it, but the mere sight of magic seemed to have mesmerized the creature for the time being.

"Shut up and go help Gilda!" Trixie hissed, her attempt at whispering ineffectual given that Gilda could hear it clearly. “Trixie will keep its attention!”

Braeburn began to creep away, and Trixie continued her improvised routine. The creature was moving toward her, slowly but perceptibly. Gilda knew they didn’t have long, and was far from convinced that Braeburn and Trixie’s arrival would result in her being saved.

“You think I can move this without hurtin’ ya worse?” Braeburn asked when he finally arrived at her side.

“I don’t know, but we don’t have a choice,” Gilda said. “Just get it off me!”

Without another word, Braeburn positioned himself between Gilda’s side and the huge crystal that had her pinned to the ground. He threw his weight into moving the obstacle, and Gilda was only able to keep from screaming because she was afraid the monster would turn its attention back to her if she did. She tried to take her mind off the pain by listening to Trixie yammer on at the thing while she distracted it, as if she were just performing another stage show. For a moment, she felt her heart softening toward her companions, though she suspected it was just delirium induced by the pain.

“We’re almost there, Gilda,” Braeburn said. “If you can run, you need to do it soon as I give the word.”

“What about you and Trixie?”

“Don’t worry ‘bout us.” Braeburn smiled down at her, and Gilda couldn’t stop herself from returning it. “You just take care’a yourself.”

“All right.”

With one final push from the muscular Earth pony, Gilda was free. She only knew her wing was still attached because something at her side was sending a frenzy of pain through every cell of her body. Still, as Braeburn gave her the all clear, she was able to spring to her feet and run to the first place she saw—the cave that had been the start of all the trouble. Gilda was only half-conscious of what she was doing, but she was determined to win the race, even if she couldn't quite remember who her opponent was.

“Now, Trixie!” Braeburn called, running behind Gilda. The griffon, drunk on adrenaline and agony, looked back just in time to see the unicorn send the crystal shards shooting out in all directions in a shower of little pyrotechnic bursts and crackling rapports. It was the kind of spell that might have delighted a crowd of fillies, but the monster had clearly never seen anything like it. With a terrified howl, he turned and ran, falling over his own gangly limbs in his haste to escape from Trixie’s harmless fireworks.

“You did it, Trixie!” Braeburn called, as loudly as he dared seeing as they had just rescued Gilda from one avalanche. Trixie stood, gaping at where the creature had been.

“I did,” she said, as if she couldn’t believe it herself. “I just—I just vanquished a yeti!”

Gilda was swaying back and forth in a way she hadn’t since her first run in with Griffonian ale. “Good one...Lulamoon,” she said, before collapsing onto her one good wing at the mouth of the cave.

Author's Note:

Sorry about the delay on getting this chapter out. Real life intervened and drained me of any inspiration to write. Hopefully that won't happen again, as the things that were dragging me down have changed for the better.

That said, I may take a brief hiatus from this story and try to knock out a couple of one-shots I've been thinking about. Or, I may try to power through the last 3 chapters I have planned before moving on. We'll see, though, as I'm terrible with sticking to any plans I actually make.