• Published 18th Mar 2013
  • 1,406 Views, 28 Comments

Siren Song - TheDarkStarCzar

My name is Sea Swirl and I love swimming in the Ocean. That hardly tells you anything about a pony, though. My name is Sea Swirl and my Mother is a thief and a murderer. Maybe. Maybe that tells you too much.

  • ...


"It seems simple enough, you told Fluttershy to be more assertive so she took Equestria's flagship for her own and decided to go into the privateering racket. I'd think you'd be proud of the dread pirate Fluttershy, she's already taken out one of another kingdom's warships." I said dryly. My little joke was poorly received, the griffons would have appreciated it regardless of the circumstances, but the four mares glared at me.

Rainbow Dash seemed not to have realized that Fluttershy was still onboard the Morningstar until I brought it up, "Hey, shut up! That's not funny!"

"I agree." Rarity said haughtily, "That's in very poor taste given the circumstances."

Applejack stared straight through me, "She's right, sugarcube," When she said 'sugarcube' it managed to hold the sting of some invective, "and this don't concern you so I'd appreciate if'n you'd just butt out."

Pinkie Pie just gave me a disapproving look and shook her head. Et tu Pinkie?

My mouth had betrayed me for the insensitive foal I really was once again and now I was excluded from the clique. It may be a saving grace that Twilight Sparkle was still above decks with the Captain, so at least one pony didn't hate me. Yet.

There had been talk of putting us in fetters when it had become clear that the Morningstar had crippled the other griffon airship. It became apparent that Captain Grizelda was not inclined to imprison us and the ship was ill equipped to restrain unicorns except by the most drastic measures so we were confined below decks in the same bunk room that had served as a banquet hall last night.

We were kept in the dark for long minutes and had begun to speculate on what had happened when I uttered my faux pas about Fluttershy. With such shameful awkwardness hanging over me I retreated to one of the benches and lay my belly down upon it, trying to calm myself before tears betrayed my weakness as they were attempting to do.

Why was I such a jackass who couldn't keep her mouth shut when it mattered? They were, of course, terribly concerned about their friend and my glibness was far out of place. Not only was it an asinine thing to say, it didn't even have the saving grace of being particularly funny, but there I went and just stuck my hoof right in my mouth.

That line of thought was getting me farther away from calm so I tried to focus on something else, I needed to think. I relaxed, stared at the bench and let my eyes unfocus content to spend a little time in my head.

Morningstar turned on us, but of course it's not it's own entity, it was the crew. Not the Captain or his officers, there weren't enough of them to contain the reservists. That implies that, unless they were in it together for some reason, it was the reservists themselves who've taken the ship, yes?

Must have been and since they were mother's unit, maybe they're still loyal to her, or is it some kind of telepathic mind control? Was she capable of that? I wouldn't put anything past her at this point, she was already built up as a legendary figure in my mind, with Celestia's power, Discord's cunning and the changeling's ruthless evil.

She gave me the coordinates, though, she had to expect I'd come. She didn't expect the Elements or an avenging army, though, did she? She was after me, which made me feel a bit validated, I guess. It also made everypony else expendable to her so there was little enough choice but to run.

What about Fluttershy? My insipid, insistent brain reminded me, they still had her as a hostage, not to mention the Captain and his officers. Buck. If not for that we really could just run.

That was the direction my thoughts were taking as I sat motionless on the bench. The four mare's speculations continued unnoticed by me until Twilight and Captain Grizelda came below to address them. I continued to ignore them as best I could, picking up the nuance all the same. It sounded like the griffons were fairly convinced of our innocence or, at the very least, our ignorance.

I was coming abreast to something and I didn't want it to steal away.

Shortly it came to me and I interrupted Twilight in mid sentence, I rose abruptly and spoke softly, ensuring that they'd have to silence themselves to hear me. Their scowls were neither unnoticed or unfelt, but I spoke all the same, "This cannot turn into a hostage situation and that's what it will become if we don't run away immediately."

I held my hooves up to to quash Rainbow Dash's rebuttal, "I know, I know you want to save Fluttershy right away. Certainly they're aware of it too, but out here we have little enough recourse when they want to trade her for something or somepony."

"Probably it's me they want, for reasons that I can't say, but if it is you can't let them have me because then they'll just shoot you all out of the air and kill Fluttershy as expendable, and I'm not just saying that to save my own skin, though it is some consolation."

"The only way to come out ahead in the negotiations is to not have them. They won't hurt their hostages without making any demands first, there'd be no point in it, but as soon as we meet with them there'll be some sort of ultimatum and they're libel...bound even, to make good on it. We have to run, get to Eagleland and find help there, it's the only choice."

Twilight Sparkle and Captain Grizelda shared a frown, then the Captain spoke, "She's got a point, but why do you think they're after you in particular?"

"I...I can't say."

Twilight Sparkle's eyes went wide, "You think it's her then? But how could...no no, I could see that if she was in control of the reservists somehow, but it doesn't even matter, we can't outrun the Morningstar, there's no chance at all. If they weren't still tangled up with the harpoons the griffons shot into their hull and having to cut those loose they'd be on us already. Rarity was right in saying it's not cutting edge, but it is a massively overpowered ship."

Here Georgia, apparently one of the higher ranking officers, joined in, "Captain, our other airship's hull will still float if it doesn't capsize when it hits the ocean. I'll take half the crew down to it and wait for rescue. We've got too many birds roosting here with the whole of the other ship's crew and it's the best way I can think of to lose weight fast."

"No, Georgia. I appreciate your bent towards self sacrifice, but our crews are small and it's little enough weight to make a difference, even if I was willing to abandon half my crew, which I'm not. Without substantial additional motive power it just won't make any difference." Captain Grizelda said.

"This is a steam powered ship, correct?" Twilight asked and received a nod, "What are you burning to make the heat?"

"We aren't burning anything per se." Georgia pointed to the exposed firebox flickering it's amber glow, "We have an alembic of phoenix fire that fuels us. It's the longest lasting, lightest weight heat source available."

"Maybe, but it's not the hottest. Dragonfire's twice as hot and it happens I have a source of that right here if he's willing to volunteer." Twilight gestured to Spike who perked up for a chance to be useful.

"Sure Twilight, I can keep a fire going if it'll help. No sweat." He puffed out his chest, volunteering even though he had to know he'd have to keep a pretty steady blaze going for a taxing period of time.

"It's a great idea, but the boiler won't take the extra pressure, it's got some leeway built in, but dragonfire's sure to burst it.." Georgia said.

This is where I volunteered myself and Rarity for an arduous undertaking that I hoped would put me back in everypony's good graces, "Me and Rarity could magically reinforce the boiler. It wouldn't need but the crudest shielding spell to work, and we could trade off on four hour shifts or so. Then you could burn it hotter than the fires of Tartarus without having to worry."

"That could work." Twilight said, "We'll go through an awful lot of fresh water for the boiler that way, though. Rainbow Dash, do you think you can keep us supplied?"

"You know it! I can just park a fat thunderhead alongside the ship, shouldn't slow us down enough to matter." She said, hovering restlessly.

As Captain Grizelda furrowed her bow in contemplation a scrawny griffon burst below decks skidded to a halt and saluted, "Captian, they're signaling with their bow lights."

Grizelda Blanched, "If they so much as utter the words hostage or demands open fire and take out that light!"

"Aye!" He replied and was just as quickly gone. Within thirty seconds a few shots could be heard, then two staccato volleys followed by silence. We weren't too far away, but the Griffon guns had no proper sights, so it probably took that many rounds to hit it. The griffon returned after a moment, "Captain..."

"Gottfried, Did they?"

"Yes Ma'am." He answered.

"Okay. If one of them gets out there and starts trying to do semaphore, blow his hooves of." Captain Grizelda ordered. It was enough information to validate my prognostications to Captain Grizelda, she gestured to me and Spike, "Do it, we're getting under way."

Then she was off off at a trot towards the bridge. Moments later the ship lurched ahead, it's tactic decided. I moved to the boiler, preparing to cast a shielding spell but Rarity cleared her throat to gain my attention, "Darling, you seem a bit peaked. Perhaps I should take the first shift so that you can recover from last night's festivities?"

My first reaction was to lash out, insist that I was just fine and since I'd volunteered us I should stand the first shift, but as loathe to admit it as I was, she was right. I wanted nothing more than to lay back down so I halfheartedly thanked her and told her to wake me when it was my shift. I pulled down one of the bunks and nestled in, my stomach still queasy and my head throbbing.

It felt like mere moments had passed when my eyes sprung open, but the sun had moved and I felt considerably better so I must have slept for a while. Over the boiler's growl I heard Rarity beckoning.

"I hate to be a bother, but I'm simply famished so if you're ready I'd be grateful for some relief." Rarity smiled politely. I wondered how long I'd been asleep but I didn't want to ask. If it had been too long I'd feel guilty and if it hadn't been long enough it might read as a tacit accusation, so I simply walked over to the boiler, plopped down and cast the spell.

Our magics merged, then Rarity let hers wane as I took the brunt of the spell on my own. She gave me an odd look that I couldn't quite place as her aura receded. I could tell she wanted to say something, but I had no earthly idea what.

"Thanks for covering the first shift," I told her, and I meant it, "The rest did me a lot of good."

"Oh, no trouble darling, I had Spikey Wikey to talk to the whole time so the hours just flew by. Incidentally, if you'd like me to bring you something to read, I'm hoping to scrounge something up from the Captain." She offered.

"No, that's okay, I think." I considered the weight of the spell and the marathon ahead of me, "I'll probably need to just keep my mind on maintaining the spell."

Rarity cocked her head, but still didn't say whatever it was that was on her mind. Instead she just nodded and bid me and Spike good afternoon, "Just call me if you need something or when you want to switch back. Oh, and Spike, the same goes for you."

"Naw, you already told me there's no gemstones on this ship." Spike said between jets of flame, "I'll just wait until the porter comes around with dinner."

"Alright, toodles." She said and climbed the stairway to the main deck.

"There's not really a porter is there?" I asked.

"No, I really wish there was though. Maybe with some ice cream with crushed rubies or something." Spike licked his lips.

The baby dragon was seated in front of the firebox with it's cast iron doors propped open. With every other breath or so he'd loose a gout of green flame with an ease that looked as if it were his normal respiration. He noticed me looking and spoke between flaming breaths, "Mother dragons have to do this for months to incubate their eggs. I've never had to do it for this long, but it's easy enough."

"How do you know how hot to keep it?" I asked.

"Pressure gauge." He pointed to a dial set just beside the door, "I just keep it in the high orange zone and try not to let it into the red too often. They said it'll be fine that way. We outran the Morningstar this morning, but we're not losing them. At least now we're far away enough that they've given up shooting at us with the cannons. They can shoot this far, of course, but it's like they can't even aim when we're this far out. For a bit there they were using crossbows, we've gotten past their range too. They don't do much, but at least they could still hit us with those."

"They were shooting their cannons at us?"

"Yeah, but Twilight's on deck so nothing much is going to be able to get through her shield. They even sent some pegasi after us, but between her and Rainbow Dash they didn't manage to do any damage. They think they'll try again when it gets dark. I still don't think they'll have much luck." Spike said.

"Have they refined the plan further than just running?" I asked. I had to stop looking at Spike, the constant flames were starting to sear my retinas, I rested my eyes on the clusters of valves and gauges that had more readings than I'd think a steam engine should have.

"No. They don't want to get too far ahead and lose sight of the ship since Fluttershy's on it," He paused to spew forth his green flame, "and since we need a lot of water to maintain this speed we can't send Rainbow Dash ahead to get help. It's so far she probably couldn't make it anyway. The griffons don't do that well on long distance flights and they're not as fast as Rainbow Dash so they're not much help. Then again, nobody's as fast as Rainbow Dash."

"What about you? How are you holding up?"

"Like I said, I'll be fine. This is natural for a dragon after all."

"The fire breathing, maybe, but what about sleep? How far out are we?" I asked.

"I don't know, really. Twilight was down for a minute a while ago, but she didn't say either." He sighed, "The griffons are all up on deck in case something happens and the only one who's come down here is the fireman. Every fifteen minutes or so he comes down, makes funny faces at the gauges and adjusts the valves. He doesn't seem too interested in talking, so we're pretty out of the loop down here, but no news is good news."

"As for sleep, I'll be okay as long as I have somepony to talk to."

Since that's what he wanted we talked for the whole first hour. I got up and wandered around the boiler for a bit, keeping the spell and the conversation going at the same time was a bit taxing, but I wanted to see this thing we were enslaved to.

It actually sat just rearward of midship, clearly for balance. There was a bulkhead behind it but I'm not sure what it hid in the far aft of the ship. I would have expected the crew's bunks to be closed off to the engine room, but they were not. The transition from one space to the other was noted only by sheet metal lining the walls.

Pipes and rusty steam lines sprang from manifolds that in turn grew out of the rear of the boiler, which had the look of a giant mailbox, four yards long by three high and wide. There was a door on the front, above the firebox. I knew from the ships I'd seen that the boiler tubes were enclosed behind it.

I still had no particular idea what all the gauges could be reading nor what all the valves were actually for, but just as Spike said a greasy looking griffon would come down every few minutes and tweak things. I tried to engage him in conversation but his replies were terse and irritated. I don't believe he was happy with the things we were doing to his contraption, even if it was to save all of our lives.

By the second hour I couldn't think of anything else to talk to Spike about and I was running out of energy so I resorted to my tactic of asking questions which would prompt him to tell me his own stories. They all involved Twilight Sparkle rather heavily and I was beginning to get a more favorable impression of her than I had previously held, but my strength started to go and shortly I fell silent. By the third hour Spike started to make worried inquiries.

"Sea Swirl? Are you sure you're okay? You, um, you don't look so good."

"I'm...fine. It's just really...hard to keep this spell going for so...lon...long." I was really struggling but if Rarity could make it through the shift I'd volunteered her for, then so could I.

"If you say so." He shrugged and puffed out another burst of emerald flame, "But I mean Rarity was at it for a little more than six hours and..."

"Six hours!?" I interrupted, "Rea..lly?"

"I don't know. About six anyway. She, um didn't seem to be struggling with it quite as much as you though." He gave me a startled look as soon as he realized what he'd said, "No offense, though! I just, um...eh, I got nothin'."

I was too tired to be angry for what he'd said. It was, after all, true. How could I be so weak compared to Rarity? It was undeniable, though, I was failing fast, but I just couldn't admit it, "Celestia dammit! At..At this rate...I may as well be...be an earth pony!"

Spike cocked his head at me, "C'mon, now, that's racist. I think, anyway. Look, I'm just going to call Rarity and she'll have to take over the shift a little early, then you can rest for a minute."

Over my protests he hollered for her and shortly she came down. I think she was surprised to see my wearied state, "Oh, do I need to take over...?" Charitably she stopped before she said 'already,' but I could tell that was what she was going to say and it irked me.

"Yeah, I think Sea Swirl's had it." Spike said and turned back to the firebox, a peel of magical flame spewing forth.

I wanted to deny it, to rebel, at least to say something snippy. I just didn't have it left in me. Rarity's next words doubled that feeling.

"Oh, I rather thought that might happen." She said. My jaw dropped, I couldn't believe she'd say that, "I mean no offense, of course, but you're casting the spell all wrong."

I sputtered, but couldn't mount any coherent defense. She must have realized how it sounded and she backpedaled.

"No, now don't get upset, it's not your fault." She ineffectually tried to soothe me, "Either whomever taught you spellcasting was incredibly strong and didn't need to conserve their energy or you are self taught and didn't know but...no no, now don't get angry. Please do just hear me out."

I was getting angry, but I couldn't let the spell drop lest the boiler blow, so I was, for a large measure, restrained.

"What you're doing is casting as if you were using a fast, powerful spell. You simply let the magic flow from your horn and it returns to you through the aether, a continuous circuit. That's all well and good, but it expends too much effort to maintain a spell for long periods. You need to use your power more elegantly."

Rarity took over the spell just enough to demonstrate a pulsing sort of magic. I'd felt other unicorns use it before, but I didn't know why it mattered which way it was cast, just so long as it worked, "Now you see how my magic is in little waves, yes? The power is pushed out, then pulled back in by an equal measure, over and over again. Like breathing but many full cycles for every second or so. In this way you have to move much less energy overall and you can keep your casting up for longer periods, you see?"

"There is a downside in that the leylines are static in the middle of the cycle. It doesn't matter on this spell so much, but when it is an issue you have simply to add in another cycle opposite of the first...well it's easier to do than explain, I'm simply dreadful at this sort of thing but Twilight could probably give you some pointers better than I could."

Have you ever had one of those moments where you realized that you'd been making a foal of yourself for years, maybe your entire life and nopony had thought to mention it before, even though several of them had to have known, and when they did you felt like a complete idiot?

I was having one of those moments just then. A shamepiphany, and I handled it precisely as well as I handled all my interactions of that sort.

"It's fine. I'm fine! I just wasn't feeling well and...it's fine! Leave me be!" I protested, anger bolstering my still improperly cast spell.

"Oh, well then, I'm sorry for intruding, I thought maybe you were having troubles. I see now that I was mistaken." Rarity said gracefully, showing no sign of either her annoyance or any hint of smugness for calling out my ineptitude, "I'm just going to make certain Twilight's okay and I'll be back down in a bit for my shift. But darling, do call if you need a hoof, there's no shame in asking for help from your friends."

With that she departed again. As soon as she did, and I mean just as soon, I switched to her method of spellcasting and was immediately relieved of the unbearable strain.

Spike gave looked at me askance, but chose to stay silent for the better part of an hour as he intermittently sent flares into the firebox.

By this point it's a forgone conclusion as to what I was doing, exploring the depths of my own self hatred, mental mewling and self flagellating.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

A cycle interrupted only when Spike finally broke the silence, "Sea Swirl, I'm...I'm sorry I called Rarity down here even though you told me not to."

I looked to him incredulously, "Is that what you've been thinking about all this time?" He nodded, "Spike, don't beat yourself up, you did exactly the right thing!"

"But you told Rarity..."

"That I was fine? Right? Did I look fine?" He shook his head, "That's because I was lying, trying to save face." I slumped down and dropped my head on the flame warmed deck, "Not that there was any point in it. She knew I was casting the spell wrong and she knows I know, too, so who was I trying to save face in front of? Spike, the plain truth is that I'm a pretty lousy unicorn when you compare me to somepony like Rarity. Still I've got to keep up the illusion, haven't I?"

"But Rarity said..." Spike started, only to have me cut him off again.

"Bah. She's the element of generosity, isn't she? Not calling me out when I was so clearly, demonstrably in the wrong, letting me off the hook gracefully while also teaching me the right way to cast, that's an act of true generosity." I talked to Spike with a candor I usually reserved for conversations with myself. His easy demeanor and innocence made him seem like someone I'd like to have as a confidant and I was unusually reckless with my honesty when I was feeling contrite, "When I first met her I thought she was a bit of a stuck up mule. Don't look at me like that, I said 'thought,' like in the past tense."

"All that extra baggage, trunks full of frilly lace kind of reinforced that opinion. But what did she actually put in the trunks? Outfits for herself, sure, and some designs to show off to the griffons I'd wager, but dresses for her friends in case a formal occasion called for it so they wouldn't feel out of place. I bet if you went through all that frou frou silliness you'd find that most of it was for the benefit and comfort of her friends rather than her own, wouldn't you guess?"

"I guess so. That sound like her, but you don't have to go that far to convince me of how great Rarity is." Spike admitted, "I think you're being too hard on yourself, though. Sure Rarity's a pretty good spellcaster, but who was it who knew what to do to get us away from the Morningstar?"

I slumped down further, chin on my crossed hooves, "They would have figured it out in a minute anyway."

"Ugh. Sea Swirl, if it bothers you that much why don't you just talk to Rarity? Apologize if you think you need to, do whatever, but quit with the sad sack act." Spike rolled his eyes.

"It's not an act, I am just one big old sack of sad. Sad and horseapples." I grunted, "Besides, I can't apologize now, she'll know I was lying about the spell."

"Yeah, okay, but you just said she already knows and that she knows you know and...whatever, so why does it matter?"

"Spike, really!" I rose and glared at him, "Even if we all know it's a whole different thing to actually go and admit to it! I have some pride left, haven't I?"

He considered it for a long while, chuffed out a particularly lovely green burst, and said, "You're kind of a screwy pony, Sea Swirl." Then he lapsed into silence for a while, only to continue minutes later, "But I like you anyway. You're not a bad sort of pony, just different. I think the problem is that you're never going to win comparing yourself with others."

"I mean compare Twilight and Rarity, for instance. Twilight has her magic, but no sense of style at all and she's so socially awkward that she had to have a royal proclamation forcing her before she managed to make any friends. Rarity has fashion sense and poise and grace, but she can be over dramatic and she sure doesn't have Twilight's raw power."

Spike looked to me conspiratorialy, "Now don't let on that I admitted anything about Rarity wasn't perfect, but she also gets a bit grabby around gemstones. My point being you can't be good at everything, unless you're the Princess herself there's always somepony somewhere who's better than you at whatever. Even the Princess has to take her lumps every once and a while."

"But even if you're not as good as you want to be, you've got to start somewhere. Do your best and keep trying and you can be as good a spellcaster as Rarity, at least."

"I don't really care about spellcasting." I admitted, "What I'd really like to be is a writer, but a cutie mark for talking to fish doesn't really bode well for that and there's so many writers out there who just blow me away by leaps and bounds, it seems like a pipe dream. More than seems like. It is a pipe dream and a pretty unoriginal one at that."

"Well I don't know, but you're sure not going to get there by giving up, are you?"


"If it's really what you're meant to do you can't help but do it anyway, so you just have to keep chugging along. Call yourself a writer and stay at it. Maybe something comes of it, maybe it doesn't, but at least you'll have tried and you'll be doing what makes you happy in the meantime."

"Heh, you're right Spike. Sort of a fake it 'til you make it philosophy you've got going there?" I chuckled.

"Well don't tell her I told you, but that's been Twilight's method for years and it always seems to work out for her." He winked, "Say, just out of curiosity, who did teach you spell casting?"

"I can't say."

"Ah, your mother." He understood, "I guess that makes sense. I guess she's pretty powerful, huh?"

"I can't say."

"Can't say, like yes or can't say like you don't know? Eh." He waved off the question, "Don't answer that, it doesn't make any difference. It's just, I knew your mom, she spent a lot of time at the library researching with Twilight. I still can't believe it was a lie. I didn't know her that well myself, she only started coming around recently, when all this weirdness started. She had lots of friends, though. All those years and all those friends and she just sells them all out, I can't understand it at all."

I shrugged. There was literally nothing I could say about it so we remained in shared contemplation for a bit until the silence was broken by a thump, then another, then a brief storm of them. I thought it could be hail.

"What's that?" Spike asked with startled eyes. Just then Rarity trotted below decks.

"Nothing to worry about." Rarity said brightly, "They're just shooting at us again."

"Again?" I demanded, "But now they seem to be hitting us, were they doing that before?"

"Oh, forgive me, I thought you knew. They were shooting at us with their cannon all morning, but Twilight's been shielding us. Now they're back in crossbow range again, but Twilight's not bothering to block any arrows that fall below the deck line, they don't do any real harm." She gestured to the aft of the ship, "I'm afraid they've made a pincushion of the ship's rear end. In different circumstances it would be quite comical."

"They're gaining on us?" Spike asked in alarm, "I can keep the boiler hotter, we can still outrun them!"

"They are gaining on us, yes, but more steam pressure isn't going to help." Rarity said, "We're already at the edge of what the steam lines and engines will take and we simply can't reinforce them all. But we should be within sight of land by within a day or so, then Rainbow Dash can go for help. With luck we'll have reinforcements before quarters become too close and circumstances too desperate."

Without a word her magic flared to life along side my own and took over the shielding spell, announcing that my shift was over. "Thanks, I'm going to head up and get something to eat. Holler when you need me."

She nodded cordially and as I passed her by I saw that she had a tray heaped with a hearty griffon style dinner in tin bowls on it for Spike. There were a few gem stones mixed in with the stew. I recognized them as the stones that were sewn into the collar of her formal gown previously.

Long ago a volcanic island's volcano had become active again after centuries of dormancy. It had forced the many thousands of zebras who'd settled on it's fertile shoulders to abandon their homes and a rag tag fleet of Equestrian merchant vessels had gone to evacuate them. Several of those ships passed by the lighthouse, decks crowded with hollow eyed refugees and their meager possessions.

That's what the deck of the ship reminded me of. It was packed rail to rail with griffons, some working or interacting, just as many sleeping. Even with the stiff breeze the musk of their massed bodies permeated the air. There was a particular scent carnivores seemed to exude and it was densely overpowering here.

I came upon Applejack who had seized a square yard of precious deck where she had one of the griffon's steam powered guns apart and was tinkering with it's innards. "There's nobody below in the berths, why don't a few of these birds go below decks?"

"Heya, Sea Swirl." She greeted me more cheerfully than I had expected, given my joke from the morning and that I'd expected Rarity to have gossiped about my magical shortcomings, "I reckon they're a bit skittish to be down there with the Morningstar on our tail. It makes sense if'n you think about it."

"They're afraid to be trapped below decks in case they manage to sink the ship." I guessed.

"Yep, they kin just fly off so long as they're up here. I don't blame them none, either. Half of 'em already had a ship shot from under 'em and we've been taking fire off and on all day." She pointed back to where Twilight sat on the fantail.

She sat reading a book whilst Pinkie Pie danced around her, intermittently calling out numbers whereupon Twilight Sparkle would create a small shield long enough for the projectile to shatter against it, then let it dissipate. I walked back to see what was going on, "Hey Sea Swirl, ooh, Twilight, nine and seven!"

"Hey Pinkie." I said as two projectiles splintered against a pink shield at the nine and seven o'clock position. Aside from the glow of her horn Twilight Sparkle didn't so much as move. I was uncertain how Pinkie Pie was spotting for her as she wasn't even looking through the binoculars that hung around her neck, "Can I see those?" I asked and she hoofed the binoculars to me.

Despite being a steamship our craft didn't have a proper stack. It vented it's steam from a duct pointed rearward, leaving a contrail that the Morningstar was crashing through with the starboard cheek of it's bow. It's fight with the Griffons must have done some damage to the rigging as the hull was pointed several degrees off the axis of their travel, out of line with the balloon.

Several cannon were on deck but we were being sporadically fired at by a few archers. Either way, having that grinning white leviathan gunning for us was disconcerting. It trailed lines from the griffon harpoons that had been driven into it and the mutilated stern streamed fluttering bits of it's broken structure which occasionally whipped into view.

If not for the few ponies on deck it would seem a ghost ship was on our tail, inexorably gaining on us, intent to drag us down with it to a dire blue grave.

I looked over the railing at the rear of our ship. As Rarity had said, it had collected a good number of crossbow bolts, mostly with their tails raised, indicating they were quite near the limits of their range.

"They're gaining on us?" I asked and Twilight grunted in the affirmative, "Why can't we go any faster?"

"We've reached our aerodynamic limits." Twilight stated, closing her book and giving her full attention to one of her favorite methods of discourse, the lecture full of esoteric tidbits. There was little enough I could do to dissuade her from it, "The airscrews can only turn so fast before the fluid dynamics of the air become a problem. They move the air rearward at a faster rate than it can flow in, meaning that past a certain speed it's churning a partial vacuum."

"Aside from that the forces affecting the blades at that speed are tremendous. It builds up a pressure wave much like a sonic rainboom..."

I handed Pinkie her binoculars back and kept nodding as if I were listening, but I wasn't. I was really just waiting for her to stop talking so I could speak, when she paused for a moment I quickly interjected, "How long before they catch up with us?"

"Just a little ways before we hit land, if we make it that far. I think we'll have lost buoyancy by then the way we're losing helium." Twilight said, "Before you ask, we don't know where the leak is. Several of the crew have been crawling all over the envelope with soap and water and haven't found any holes. It's just inexplicable!"

"Six, seven and center." Pinkie Pie shouted and Twilight again erected several minimal shields which were impacted and then left to dissipate, "I got to climb around the balloon too, since I'm the ship's foremost balloonologist, and I couldn't find anything either. It's very fishy if you ask me."

"These arrows, they're not meant to be effective, are they?" I pondered, "They're just meant to keep you occupied and tire you out, because if they really meant it they'd be firing their cannons."

"That's what I thought too," Twilight admitted, "Keep in mind, they've got the same problem we have. We can't shoot them down because they have Fluttershy and they can't shoot us down because we have something or somepony they want. Aside from that, I'd rather not engage the reservists if we can help it. They might be loyal to Sea Breeze, but they could be under a spell for all we know. It all adds a lot of credibility to the theory that it's you they're after, though."

"Eight, three, five, throw that shield to stay alive!" Pinkie rhymed and Twilight did so.

I blushed, I'll admit. I'm not used to anypony being interested in me enough to back it up with martial force. It felt shameful, but just a bit gratifying. Would I have offered to give myself up in trade for Fluttershy? With Rarity's example to follow, how could I not? Fortunately I was pretty certain that even that wouldn't save the rest of us so I didn't have to make that offer.

Pinkie Pie yelled out another set of numbers, one must have been mistaken because an arrow got through and plunged into the deck barely missing my hoof, "Oopsie! That's my bad!" Pinkie said as I yelped and drew my hoof up towards me in panic.

"Pinkie! This isn't going to work if you start missing your calls!" Twilight called down Pinkie Pie.

"Sorry Twilight, I don't know what happened! I had the right number in my head but it just came out wrong! I'll be more careful, I promise!" Pinkie said, never ceasing her circuitous dancing. I took this minor failure as an omen of things to come.

A new voice joined in, "Don'tcha worry none Pinkie Pie. I got this here pea shooter all rigged up and rarin' to go."

Applejack fitted the steam gun she'd been working on to the rail and hooked it up to the steam line. It's was a longer barreled gun than it's brothers, with it's top feeding magazine discarded for a single shot trapdoor looking mechanism. Across it's top it bore a smallish telescope fitted on a crudely made wooden cradle.

Applejack's first rounds were a simple dowel with a lump of red lead for a tip. She carefully aimed and fired, looked through the scope, then fiddled with the front mount. She fired again, fiddled again and twisted the rear of the telescope sideways. By the third time she seemed satisfied with the aim and wrapped the precarious contraption with plaster impregnated bandages of the sort one might use to set a limb and left it alone to cure.

"So you're going to shoot the archers or the engines or what?" I asked.

"Nah, I ain't a killer and we cain't shoot the engines, they's too tough 'less we used them explosive slugs and if we do that we may just blow Fluttershy and the crew to smithereens. I just mean to lay down a bit of steady fire so they hav'ta go below decks where they cain't shoot at us." Applejack smirked, arraying pressed steel containers full of projectiles for me to see. Rock salt in a paper tube, hundreds of wooden pegs liberated from the rigging supplies and a very few steel slugs.

Soon enough she deemed the plaster to be dry and started to put forth a steady stream of projectiles. It quickly had the desired effect, causing the deck to be abandoned for the safety of the lower decks and bridge. They tried to fire from the bridge, but the sun at their backs shone straight through and silhouetted them all too clearly. Every time they rose a bolt would strike nearby to warn them off. With everypony crouched down below the windows of the bridge all that was visible was the top half of the ship's wheel.

"Watch this." Applejack said, then shot the spindles out of the wheel, one after another. Actually I only know that's what happened because of Pinkie's running commentary, but I was still duly impressed.

They lacked a position to fire from and it looked like Twilight would finally be getting a chance to rest but it wasn't to be.

Their ship lurched in a worrisome manner as all the engines on one side reversed, quickly spinning the whole craft one hundred and eighty degrees and then the other engines reversed as well. The hull and balloon all danced and swung to and fro in dangerous looking arcs but when it steadied they seemed to have only lost a hundred yards or so and were coming at us ass first.

The stern of the ship had been obliterated by the earlier griffon onslaught and left wide open. Now in the gaping chasm of the ruined ship eight cannon set wheel to wheel on the gun deck, another six on the deck below.

In unison they all fired.

"Gah!" Twilight screamed and put up a full dome shield around the ship as their steady salvos burst against the pink energy wall. Their fire was all over the place, I'm not sure if they were even aiming but the volume made up for it's erratic direction, "Think fast, girls! I'm not Shining Armor over here, I can't keep this up for long!"

"Hey look! In the head!" Pinkie pointed and put the binoculars to Twilight's eyes, "See? It's Fluttershy! They didn't capture her at all! She's been on the toilet this whole time! How embarrassing!"

Sure enough, a yellow speck was shivering in the wreckage of a battered lavatory that had been at the rear of the ship. Spun around we could see her clearly enough, but the partition walls kept her hidden from the rest of the ship even with the roaring cannons mere inches away on the other side of a thin lumber wall.

It looked for all the world like a madmare's dollhouse.

"It figgers' that she'd go run and hide in the john as soon as trouble started." Applejack snickered and then yelled for her pegasus friend, "Rainbow Dash! Get up here! Y'all got a rescue mission to fly if'n you can get through all this flak!"

Rainbow angrily streaked over, "Hey, I'm not getting shot to pieces in that mess! What kind of...oh...Is that Fluttershy? No way! Hang on a minute." With that she bounded off the ship. Twilight let her shield flicker for just long enough for her to pass through, allowing a shell to impact our own stern and rip away a small chunk of timber.

Rainbow spiraled through the cannonfire, weaving around the screaming rounds to nearly crash down beside Fluttershy. She hoisted the frightened pegasus and took off before anypony could move to investigate.

It took three times longer for Rainbow Dash to fight her way back with Fluttershy in her arms, but the cannoneers seemed not to have enough time to reorient their guns before Rainbow Dash was safely back aboard.

It was really just as simple as that.

"Hey guys, look who I found!" Rainbow Dash exclaimed as she lit on the deck with her precious cargo, a cargo who was fawned over by Applejack and Pinkie Pie which seemed to do her a great deal of good.

Once she was coaxed into telling it, her story was as simple as it seemed. When fighting broke out she was in the head, ill from motion sickness, and even with the rear of the ship torn off right beside her she was too scared to move.

By the time she regained her courage she'd already overheard the crew preparing to overtake and capture her friends. On her own she had no confidence that she'd make it from one ship to the other without being spotted and fired upon so she'd just hunkered down and hoped for the best.

"Well, now that we have her back, what do we do?" Rainbow Dash asked over the noise of the barrage that was, as yet, unabated.

An answer came across the deck from Captain Grizelda who'd emerged from the bridge to see our rescued comrade, "Well, ponies, we've already tried flight and they're steadily running us into the ground. Since you've got your friend back our talons are finally unshackled. I believe this is the point where we finally turn and fight."

Author's Note:

Sea Swirl is casting spells in DC when when should be using AC, but she wasn't well taught and doesn't know the difference.
I'm actually not sure if anyone besides me will think that's funny or sympathize with her, but there it is.
Also I wanted to get the shamepiphany in there. I have a hard time thinking of good examples, but it's like trying to be all erudite and using "thusly" for years and finding out it was the 19th century's "irregardless".