Part 25 - And They're Off !
A jangling of brass bells shattered the silence in the darkened stateroom, prompting a low moan and a half mumbled protest from its occupant. "Mmmnnhh. Opal put down that xylophone, mommy still has the frogs to let out..."
The bells rang again, seemingly more insistently, drawing forth another moan, then a rustling of silk bed sheets as Rarity lurched half upright and shoved her sleep mask up off of one eye with a hoof. Her horn glimmered with a corona of blueish white magic, floating the gilded alarm clock off of the shelf to squint at the time. She let out a low growl as the bells jangled again.
With a huff of irritation she flopped out of bed, her violet mane tightly bound in curlers and a scowl on her face, and slumped across the room to the ornate phone set. Her magic flickered as she yanked the gold plated cone off of its receiver arm, wincing as it bounced off of her forehead and swung loose on its cord.
She centered herself with a sigh and tried again, carefully settling it on the tip of her horn. "This is Rarity... Do you know what time it is?"
Her frown deepened as the inside of the cone flickered and pulsed with a purple glow. "What? Slow down Twilight, you're giving me a horn ache."
Rarity shoved the other side of her sleep mask up, her sapphire eyes widening as she listened. "What? What? They what? She what? HE WHAT?"
She let out a ragged breath as she slid her hoof down her cheek and let it flop onto the floor. "Well how is she... a whole bottle?"
Her eyes widened further. "FIVE gallons?"
She grimaced in disgust. "Yes, of course we'll hoof the cleaning bill. And then we shall never speak of it again... ever..."
Rarity's shoulders sagged as she rubbed her temple with a hoof. "No, I'm sure Scootaloo is doing her best. We'll have to think of some way to thank her for her help. For tonight, see that they put anything she wants from room service on our tab."
She let out a strained chuckle. "Well no, I daresay she won't want any more ice cream."
The alabaster mare shut her eyes, an edge of dread creeping into her voice. "So what about the rest of them?"
Her brow furrowed and her ears sagged as she listened. "A black eye? Well is it on the side with the spot or..."
She let out an exasperated breath. "Great... No covering THAT up with makeup. So much for the public face of Harmony Aeronautics."
A look of puzzlement settled on her face. "So what if he came back to the hotel smelling like ozone? I don't imagine that's an unusual thing for a pegasus to..."
Her sapphire eyes widened. "Well was he actually struck by lightning or..."
She slumped to a seated position on the thickly carpeted floor. "Thank Luna and Celestia. But you tell him if he ever tries anything like that again I will be ever so cross with him. Well, yes, I'm sure Applejack would be upset with him too, but what does that have to..."
She let out an exasperated breath and rolled her eyes. "Whatever he means, I don't care. As long as he remembers that he's supposed to be keeping them both safe out on the race course."
Her pale face contorted in a scowl as she muttered under her breath. "Somepony's got to behave like a responsible adult down there while I'm stuck up here on..."
She trailed off, a look of sick realization dawning on her face as her eyes flicked rapidly back and forth. "No... NO darling, I didn't mean to imply..."
Rarity let out a long, shuddering breath as she flopped back onto the carpet with her hooves covering her eyes. "Please, Twilight, please don't cry. Darling... Darling, don't..."
She propped herself up on her elbows, a weary look of resignation on her face as the pale blue flickering on her forehead matched her gentle, cooing tones. "Listen to me, Twilight. Listen. You're not to blame. You're NOT. Sometimes things happen that are just beyond our control. That's business. That's life. It's not your fault."
The alabaster unicorn let out a rueful sigh. "If anything it's probably my fault for nudging the two of them toward one another. Romance between coworkers can be fraught with... complications. I should have known better. I'm just sorry it turned out this complicated."
She shook her head, careful to not dislodge the cone on her horn. "Well it will be what it will be. We'll just have to deal with it the best we can manage. As the old fashionistas say you hit the runway with the ensembles you have."
Rarity pursed her lips and furrowed her brow as the faint purple light flickered across it. Her voice took on a gentle, soothing tone. "No. My suggestion to you, my brilliant, level headed, ever so wonderful partner, is to call room service, have them send up some herbal tea with honey, and then drink it while you have a soak in a nice hot bath, then go to bed. No point in staying up all night worrying."
She gave another shake of her head. "No. No... It will be all right. You'll see. Tomorrow's a new day. Tomorrow's a big day. Lets meet it with horns aloft, all right?"
The cone rocked gently back and forth on the tip of her horn as she shifted to nodding. "Yes. Good. That's right. I'll speak to you first thing in the morning when we're all bright eyed and brushed and ready to go. All right. Kiss kiss, darling. Don't worry! It'll all sort itself out, you'll see. Yes. Good night."
The pale unicorn sent the gilded cone flying off of her horn with a surge of magic and flopped back onto the carpet with her legs splayed like she was trying to make a snow princess in the deep shag of the carpet. She stared at the dimly visible ceiling above her with haunted, sapphire blue eyes, then intoned a stream of invectives the likes of which any proper lady would never admit to keeping in store for just such an occasion.
Bright, insistent sunlight flooded the balloon hangar as Spike threw a winged shoulder into shoving open the huge, rumbling doors, revealing the haze shrouded buildings of Manehattan beneath the clear morning sky.
Three of the four ponies gathered in the building's cavernous interior screwed their eyes half shut, wincing and blinking and looking more than a bit wan and strung out. Only Soarin seemed to vibrate with flighty, nervous energy as he carefully stretched his wings in the standard sky cavalry warmup routine, counting softly to himself in a steady cadence. Pip stood passively with a glumly pensive look on his coltish face, as Apple Bloom checked over the Luna Moth with a socket wrench clamped in her teeth.
The young mare looked like Tartarus warmed over, with sunken cheeks and dark bags under her smoldering amber eyes. Her mane and tail were bound in tight braids, with frayed strands sticking out all along their length like crackling red static. Her demeanor was all the more grim for the black, skull patterned bandanna she wore in place of her usual cheery pink one.
Apple Bloom shoved the wrench back into her tool belt and grabbed one of the straps around his hind legs in her teeth, giving it a savage tug that caused Pip to let out a slightly higher pitched than normal exclamation of surprise. He softly cleared his throat and spoke up in a level tone of voice. "Do be a bit gentler, if you please, Miss Apple."
She let out a snarl as she tugged the strap again. "Gotta make sure everythin's tight. Don't want nothin'... comin'... loose."
His ears drooped as he replied. "I assure you, it's tight enough. Thank you. I'll be fine."
The young mare jabbed a hoof at his cutie mark as she replied in a wavering growl. "YOU are a stupid hunk o' horse meat that I'm sorry t' say is integral t' th' function of my flight harness, and I won't have it gettin' busted up 'cos yer sorry carcass dropped out of it like a goldurned sack o' fertilizer. Now shut yer trap or so help me Luna I will add a strap for yer consarned blabberin' mouth."
The spotted stallion gave a slightly indignant snort through his nostrils then drew himself up, staring straight ahead with his mouth a thin, hard line with a stiff upper lip.
Twilight ran a hoof through her own frazzled mane as she crushed a freshly drained cup from Donut Joe's coffee shop in her telekinesis and pitched it into the garbage can with a clang. She rounded on her employees with a twitch in her right eye. "Apple Doom..." She blinked and shook her head fitfully. "I mean... Apple Bloom, is the flight harness ready for launch?"
The young handymare craned her neck to grab the strap and give it one more tug, relenting as Pip shied away with a reproachful glare furrowing his brow over his swollen eye. She spat on the floor with a scowl and gave a terse nod to the lavender unicorn. "Yeah, can't speak fer its contents but th' harness is good t' go."
The scholarly mare flicked her horn toward the waiting balloon. "Good. Now get aboard the Friend Ship and get to work on preflight..." She met her chief engineer's gaze with a pleading look on her face. "Please?"
Apple Bloom gave another sullen nod and called out to the adolescent dragon stretching his wings in the warm sunlight of the doorway. "Yo Spike! C'mon n' help me get the burner stoked up."
With that, she turned with a final simmering glare at Pip and climbed into the balloon's gondola.
Twilight stopped him as he passed. "Spike, did you send our report from last night's..." She let out a sigh. "... festivities up to Rarity?"
The young drake nodded. "Yeah, first thing, green light special delivery."
She cocked an eyebrow with a curious tilt of her head. "So... with everything going on last night, I never got to hear what you found out about this dragoness."
A smile spread across Spike's face. "Quilly? I mean, Quillina? Yeah, she's really sweet. I think she and Rarity would really like each other."
Twilight pawed at the ground, summoning what shreds of patience she could with effort. "Okay, noted. But what's her story? Why's she in the race?"
The purple dragon smoothed back his crest, his emerald green eyes sparkling as he thought back on the prior night's conversation. "She's Quarrag the Delve Ender's great, great, granddaughter and she just inherited her grandpa's hoard. When he realized that his pilot light was goin' out, he pulled her egg out of his creche vault and had it dweomerhatched, just like me."
A grin crossed his face before he continued in a more businesslike fashion. "She's spent most of her life cooped up in his cave complex, and now that she's ruler of the roost she wants to get out and see some of the sights. So she locked up the family fortune and hired some pegasi to be her escorts. I forget their names at the moment but I wrote 'em down."
He gave his guardian a shy smile. "Y'know, I think you'd like her too, Twilight. She loves to read, and she's crazy smart. She told me that her grandpa's library was one of her favorite caves to spend time in growing up, and it had a ton of books plundered from the royal library in Everfree. That's how she taught herself pony language and etiquette, and how she found out about the Pegathalon."
His grin widened. "She really wants to meet the princesses someday. You should have seen the look in her eyes when I told her I could maybe make that happen. I think she kinda likes m..."
Both dragon and unicorn flinched at Apple Bloom's harsh edged voice sounding from inside the Friend Ship's gondola. "SPIKE! Burner ain't gonna light by itself. Shake yer tail!"
Twilight gave her number one assistant a fond smile and patted him on the knee. "Good job, Spike. You can tell me more once we're on the way. Plenty of time to talk while we travel. Go help Apple Bloom."
The adolescent dragon gave her a nod and snapped off a salute, then crossed over to the gondola and climbed in, causing the whole craft to bob up and down slightly from his added weight.
Twilight crossed over to where Pip and Soarin stood, looking them over with a searching gaze. "So, you colts ready to make some history today?" She found herself wishing she didn't sound so uncertain.
The sky blue pegasus gave her a lopsided grin. "A wise pony, and I don't know who it was, said 'You can't make history, all you can do is be there when it happens.'" He flexed his wings and gave a nod toward his youthful team mate. "I plan on making sure that me and Pip get there."
The spotted stallion gravely met her gaze. "I won't disappoint you, Doctor Sparkle." A beat later he gave her a smile that didn't quite seem to reach his eyes, his teeth a dull greyish white in the cool daylight filling the hangar.
She extended a hoof, which Pip haltingly accepted. "I know you won't. Just do your best."
He drew himself up and gave her a solemn salute as she turned to Soarin and took his hoof. "It's an honor to have you flying with us, Lieutenant. Be careful out there, okay?"
The veteran flyer nodded, shifting his withers to settle the pack on his back. "You got it, chief. There are too many ponies back home in Ponyville who'd wanna buck my rump if I did otherwise."
She smiled back with a bob of her horn. "Okay. Lets get going. Flag us if you need anything last minute at the starting line, otherwise we'll meet you at the first rendezvous point."
Soarin pulled his goggles down with a final nod. "Gotcha. Clear skies, Doc."
He gave Pip a nudge as she trotted away. "You okay, kid?"
The spotted stallion tightened the strap on his flight helmet and gingerly settled his goggles over his bruised eye. "Yes, quite."
The pegasus gave the young earth pony a searching look, then reached back and tugged one of the secondaries from his right wing, and proffered it to him in his teeth. "Here, hold on to this for me, will ya?"
Pip peered at it quizzically. "What is this for?"
Soarin ruffled his plumage with a grin. "For luck. It's an old pegasi thing. It says I know you've got my wing."
The young stallion's eyes glistened with a hint of moisture as he accepted the token and reverently tucked it in the lapel of his jacket. He met the older pegasus' smiling gaze with an awkward clearing of his throat. "Er... I'm... I'm honored, sir. I... I don't..." He let out a sigh with a faint tremor in his voice as he looked back at the folded wings on his harness. "I'd gladly recip... reciprocate but... er..."
Soarin let out a laugh and gave Pip a playful shove with a fore hoof. "Don't worry about it, kid. Don't want to damage company property."
He subsided to a chuckle as he reached back and plucked a second feather from his other wing. "Here, I'll lend you one of mine."
The older stallion gave the young earth pony a wink as he tucked the sky blue feather into his own lapel. "There, now we're both even."
Before Pip could reply, Twilight's voice called out to them from the Friend Ship. They turned to see her with her fore hooves hooked over the rail, a bakelite cone flickering a pale blue on her forehead. "Hey guys, I've got Rarity on the horn! She wishes you the best of luck, and wants you to know that almost everypony she's talked to on the Ambrosia is rooting for you!"
A grin passed over her tired features. "Oh, and she says these are for you too. Mwah!" With that, she brought her hooves to her lips and blew them kisses.
Twilight gave a nod, the glow around her horn shifting back to purple beneath the cone as she spoke. She jabbed a hoof skyward. "All right. Off we go!"
An eager crowd of high class ponies gathered at the western railing of the Ambrosia's forward observation deck, chattering among themselves with barely contained excitement as they looked out the large, faceted glass windows upon the sweeping vista of Manehattan in the morning. Celestia's sun washed across the skyscrapers outside and made the bricks gleam golden in the vanishing haze as it cast long shadows from the legs and trailing tails of the spectators across the tiled ballroom floor.
Rarity stood anxiously among them, biting back a bit of vertigo along with the butterflies in her stomach. The alabaster mare was immaculately groomed and turned out, resplendent in a dress of her own design made for this very occasion, complete with a hat of midnight blue with a white crescent curving along its wide brim in tribute to Princess Luna's cutie mark.
Beneath the shadow of the huge airship, the stands of Madison Mare Gardens were packed with spectators. A broad terrace on the upper tiers of the stadium held the VIP boxes, which flanked a large area where the Pegathalon racers now gathered in colorful panoply, awaiting the starting signal. A motley range of balloons, light dirigibles, and pegasus drawn wagons comprising the support craft for the assorted teams hovered over the field, ready to set out after their charges when the race was begun.
An ornate pair of opera glasses levitated out of Rarity's hoofbag in a pale cloud of blue magic and floated before her eyes as she scanned the scene, easily spotting the pink and purple bulb shape of the Friend Ship, and picking out the purple wings of the Luna Moth with a bit more difficulty. Her gaze was drawn to the royal box as the flight harness' namesake and her resplendently gleaming elder sister touched down with their honor guard, waving benevolently to the cheers of their subjects.
From across the room, Prince Blueblood watched her with a guarded look on his slightly puffy face, half of a mimosa in a tall, tapered flute hovering in his magic. He let out a sigh, and then cast a bitter glance at the foremost tip of the airship gondola's prow, were a special private chamber beyond the leading end of the observation deck lay. Beyond the ornate glass and brass doors, he could see the dark silhouette of his wife, peering down at the proceedings through a railing mounted binocular viewer as the sunlight glittered coldly on her namesake tiara.
The racers stood ready, jostling with wings and adjusting straps on saddlebags and backpacks, having exchanged the finery of last night's revel for flight suits, jackets, helmets, and goggles.
The pegasi teams generally wore their native cities' colors: Air Hammer and Ice Tongs in Cloudsdale's sky blue and greyish white with a broad rainbow stripe, the Zenith Sporting Society in metallic gold and purple with their deep blue crest prominently displayed, the Los Pegasus team in a sunset red accented with a groovy mix of tie dyed patterns, and the Wonderbolts in their distinctive yellow and electric blue, with the lesser ranked teams adopting a wide range of distinctive heraldry from across the spectrum. The winged ponies' spared little energy for trash talk and psyching one another out, as their attention was directed warily at the non-pony competitors, who presented a much more eclectic mix of flight gear.
Quillina the dragoness had set aside her jeweled finery and cut a sleek, gleaming figure in just her golden scales, while her pegasi escort were decked out in pink flight suits adorned with her dynastic rune in rhinestones on their flanks. What the two stallions felt about these ensembles their stoic faces didn't betray.
Fliedermaus and his son resembled animate gargoyles, their glossy grey bodysuits covering them from wingtip to wingtip and snout to tail with only a small opening for their mouths and nostrils and holes in their peaked skullcaps for their tufted, bat-like ears. Their sensitive eyes were hidden behind staring, almost opaque black goggles.
The two griffin teams were a study in contrasts, with Baron Redtail and his servants in severe military tunics of red and black with crested steel helmets, while the the LaFish brothers' showed up in what appeared to be ragged, patched worker's gear, with the only common feature being their plaid bandannas and whale tooth necklaces.
Flies Like Thunder was adorned exactly as he'd been at last night's gathering, with the addition of turquoise war paint across his face. His sidekick Long Range wore a heavy denim jacket, with strong ties securing his cowpony hat to his head over a pair of black goggles.
Lulong the kirin hovered placidly toward the rear of the cluster of racers, sporting a large knit cap with dangling, tasseled ear flaps and a quartet of holes for his ears and antlers. Pheng the phoenix had been equipped with a collar adorned with a large, greenish white pearl, and sat perched on his companion's back surveying the scene with a bird's rapid, sudden head movements.
Professor Destiny and Doctor Insanity stood proudly in pinstriped black body suits bearing their skull and bats combined symbol, eyeing the competition with disdain through the heavy goggles of their dark canvas flight helmets. On their backs, each wore a harness supporting a single pair of rigid black bat wings, both marked with a gaudy gold sunburst and mounted with phlogiston rocket motors painted with spiraling red and black stripes and sharp toothed, leering dragon faces at the conical tips. Sir Paragon stood behind them in a blue and gold flight suit adorned with a white sunburst, regarding the brothers with suspiciously narrowed eyes through the goggles of his helmet.
Soarin pawed at the ground, feeling the static in the air through the tips of his wings, feeling the planks of the platform beneath his hooves, knowing soon they would drop away and vanish as the wind rushed to take their place, exchanging solidity for motion.
He glanced at Pip, his formation flyer's instincts gauging the young stallion's state of mind and filing some notes of concern at the hints of strain at the edges of the earth pony's cheerful smile, the slight measure of extra white at the edge of his eyes. He reached out and flicked the test pony's ear with the tip of a wing, getting his attention, giving him a nod and a smile. Pip's smile wavered but held firm, as he gave a jaunty bob of his head and patted at his lapel with a fore hoof.
The sky blue pegasus flinched, letting out a sigh of exasperation as a taunting voice called out from the other side. "Yo chuck wagon! Don't fly too hard or ya might have a heart attack."
He turned to glare at Shootin' Star just as Spitfire reached up to cuff the young stallion across the back of his head. Rainbow Dash stepped forward on the rookie Wonderbolt's other side with a scowl and did the same, and turned her colorfully maned head to call out to her former team mate. "I think Shootin' Mouth here meant to say 'Good luck, Lieutenant!'"
He smiled back at her and threw a salute. "Same to you! Clear skies, squad!"
Soarin's attention was drawn with all others to the sound of the public address system crackling to life. "Racers, take your marks!"
The sound on the platform dampened down to a tense hush, somehow remote from the tumult of the crowds below, as the flyers set their hooves or claws, retreating into their own mental spaces as they recalled past training, took stock of their current physical state, or visualized the trials ahead.
The loudspeaker echoed overhead. "Get set."
Princess Celestia and Princess Luna exchanged a glance, and the eternal regent of the sun gave a wave of her tapering horn.
A blast of pealing trumpets split the air, releasing the tension like a bowstring and setting off an explosion of beating wings as the racers took to the sky in a wave while the spectators above and below roared their approval.
In moments, the platform was clear, save for the dark shapes of Destiny and Insanity, who grinned smugly at one another while the other racers receded in the distance. Sir Paragon hovered overhead, scowling at them as he waved in exasperation toward the race course. "Well? Aren't you jokers planning on taking off? Or should I just haul your tails to the slammer right now?"
The mustachioed stallion looked over at his brother. "Ready Doctor?"
The sallow unicorn nodded to his sibling. "Ready Professor?"
A grin spread across Destiny's face as both sharp yellow horns sparked with green magic. "Let's bing bang zam!"
The pholgiston rockets hissed, sputtered, and then flared with angry green flame and a gushing torrent of black smoke, launching the unicorn brothers skyward with a triumphant cackle. They hurtled toward the pack of racers like screaming meteors, vomiting thick columns of black smoke in their wake in ever widening clouds.
They shot past Sir Paragon so quickly they left him spinning in midair like a miniature white, gold, and blue tornado. He stopped himself with a grunt of effort, taking an extra moment to get his eyes to stop spiraling. Shaking it off with a ragged cough, he gritted his teeth and squinted through the smoke after them, spitting a curse as he launched into a pursuit.
High above in the Ambrosia, Rarity's sapphire blue eyes widened as she watched the thick column of black vapor wind through the artificial canyons of Manehattan, rapidly closing the distance with the other flyers then overtaking them. The bright, flashing wings of the flock of racers vanished in the roiling, impenetrable smoke as it completely obscured the course and oozed like the legs of a huge, monstrous caterpillar down side streets in the tiny bat winged shapes' wake.
The elegant unicorn flicked an ear and cocked a quizzical eyebrow at the faint sound of cackling laughter coming from the forward viewing deck over the murmurs of confusion and dismay rising from the ponies around her.
Her alabaster brow furrowed as she raised her opera glasses. "Gracious! That can't be legal."
Sir Paragon growled as he poured on the speed, his white wings beating fiercely as his vision filled with featureless black smoke. "You're not gonna get away from me you miserable scumbags."
His chisled features contorted in frustration as he flew blindly forward. "Do you hear me? You're not gonna shake ME off! I'm gonna stick to you like... GLUE!"
His eyes went wide with horror as a billboard loomed ahead of him through the smoke, bearing a large white bottle with an orange cap, adorned with an orange triangle with a smiling white bear's face in the center, beneath large blue letters spelling the word KRASTOS (A RichCo. Enterprise) in a cheerful, cursive font.
Kicking his legs frantically, he wheeled to evade with a full throated shriek. He sailed past the billboard, smashing through a rooftop storage tank in a splattering shower of mucilage.
Fleidermaus Junior called out in his rough, grunting voice. "Father! Vhat is happening, Father!?"
The elder negasus called back with a triumphant laugh. "Ah ah ah ah! An opportunity, son! Use your ears to guide you, and ve vill leave these sunsiders in ze lurch!"
The bat winged ponies of the deep caves cackled with glee as they unerringly dodged and looped around the tumbling, colliding forms of their competition.
Soarin gritted his teeth and flew through the smoke, his ears laying back at the sounds of screams and crashes and bodies colliding all around him. He heard Pip's voice to his right, a note of panic in the young pony's tone. "I can't ruddy see! Soarin! Where are you!? Help!"
The pegasus stallion banked toward his comrade's voice, easing over the flying earth pony and giving him a gentle tap on the back with a hoof. "I got ya, kid. Just keep on your current heading."
He winced at the sound of something crashing through a window with a startled cry. He adjusted away from the sound, dragging Pip by the harness straps and hoping he was taking them into empty space.
The pegasus stallion squinted through the roiling vapors at a glimpse of rainbow, his eyebrows shooting up as an idea formed in his head. He shouted into the smoky void. "DASH! Position!"
He let out a breath as he heard a sandy voice reply. "Ten O Clock and rising. That you Soarin?"
He nudged Pip a little further over. "Yeah, I got a plan! You used to take point on cloud clearing for Winter Wrap Up in Ponyville, right?"
A bright note of understanding sounded in her voice. "The Spring Sky Drill? I can do that in my sleep!"
Soarin's face set in a fierce grin. "Then say good night, Dash, and lets punch a hole in this nightmare!"
She called back with a laugh. "Sweet dreams, Soarin. On my vector, formation twenty three! Cap! Shootin' Star! Form up and gimme a counterspin! GO!"
The sky blue pegasus banked to the left as he felt the sudden expansion of a cone of air pressure lancing through the smoke screen. He gave Pip's harness a tug. "Okay, I got you kid, let me steer ya until you see a set of sweet flanks trailing a rainbow, and lock in on that on a tight following flight path. The belly of this air worm will be the safest place for ya. Got it?"
The young stallion replied in a shaky voice. "Er... Yes, got it!"
Soarin raised his voice and bellowed into the boiling darkness. "Hey! We're spinning up a sideclone and diggin' to daylight over here! Any sorry skybucker wants to make it out of this mess without biting bricks, match vector and skate in the tube! Mark on my voice and chase the rainbow!"
He burst through the wall of the drill vortex, grinning as he saw Rainbow Dash's multicolored contrail ahead of him with Spitfire and Shootin' Star flying in a tight double helix path around her. He guided Pip and the Luna Moth into formation behind the cyan mare, and then peeled off to strengthen the horizontal cyclone's air walls.
Soarin cocked an ear as a grateful voice called out to him. "Bodacious tube, brah! Super rad!"
He glanced over his shoulder to see three members of the Los Pegasus team emerge into the tunnel, canting their wings to settle into formation. He gave them a grin and a salute, as more winged shapes punched through the spinning cone of air and joined them.
Soarin noted a mixture of pegasi, griffins, and the large, shaggy shape of Flies Like Thunder, the mystic buffalo weaving a bit from an apparent collision with a building, judging by the dusting of powdered brick and the detached, half splintered window frame that dangled from his thick neck. His partner Long Range was clinging tenaciously to Flies Like Thunder's tail with his teeth, his wings half folded and his eyes tightly closed, his forehooves clamping his battered stetson to his head.
The sky blue pegasus' ears perked up as he heard Dash's sandy voiced cry of triumph from ahead. "Daylight ahead! Grab yer hocks and brace for the pop!"
The sideways cyclone punched through into hazy daylight over the open waters of Manehattan Harbor, with the low, cultivated hills of farmlands beyond the shoreline. The thick vapors dispersed harmlessly in the the crosswind now that there were no tall buildings to contain them. The racers broke formation with a cheer, their temporary truce ending in triumph as the thrill of competition took hold once more.
Dash and Spitfire leveled out and grinned back at Soarin, throwing him a salute as Shootin' Star continued to trace a haphazard, corkscrew path through the air around them. The female Wonderbolts exchanged a high hoof, and rocketed ahead with a beat of their wings, the rainbow pegasus mare leaving a multicolored contrail in her wake as their junior squad member struggled to realign and catch up.
Soarin flew up alongside Pip and gave a whistle, causing the young stallion to look in his direction with a faint glimmer in his grin as relief washed across his coltish face. The veteran stunt flyer edged over with a hoof extended, and gave the spotted earth pony a hoof bump. He shouted over to him. "Good goin', kid! It's clear skies from here!"
He glanced back over his shoulder at the wall of dispersing black vapors. The sinuous golden shape of Quillina knifed through the air high overhead, her pegasi escort shivering in each other's terrified embrace as they trailed from her clawed forelegs. Soarin gave a nod. "Clever girl."
His attention was diverted by a crackling sphere of force emerging from another point in the smoke wall, dispersing around the serenely coasting form of Lulong, his phoenix companion following faithfully at his tail.
Another fierce grin spread across Soarin's face as he looked ahead. In the far distance, two grey shapes and two black shapes trailing thick, inky contrails could be seen soaring over the countryside. He urged Pip on with a jerk of his head. "Come on, kid. This race is just gonna keep gettin' more interesting!"
The young earth pony swallowed hard, and urged his magically animated artificial wings to pick up speed.
Later that morning, Princess Celestia hurried through the halls of Manehattan Mercy Hospital, following a primly efficient earth pony nurse while her snowy winged pegasi honor guards trailed in her shimmering wake. Several bandaged pegasi were being wheeled past by teams of paramedic ponies in the background.
The medical mare gave her sovereign a rueful look as her hooves click clacked briskly on the linoleum. "I have to warn you, your highness, it's not a pretty sight."
The princess of the sun replied in a level tone. "I have seen much over the years that would turn your stomach, Nurse Balm. Please lead on."
The nurse led them through a quiet, sunlit ward, past the heavily splinted and bandaged form of Sir Paladin, lying immobile on a hospital bed with his hooves and wings suspended by slings from a framework over his bed. He let out a low moan and rolled his eyes as his solar mistress passed, giving him a look of boundless sorrow and compassion before steeling herself at the next curtained partition.
Nurse Balm called out in a soft voice. "Sir Paragon, her highness Princess Celestia is here to see you."
A mournful, shuddering sigh sounded from inside. The princess' horn gleamed with magic as she assumed a cheerful tone. "Oh come now, my heroic, loyal guardian. They tell me you were fortunate enough to come down in a mattress factory. It cant be... that... bad..."
She trailed off as she lifted aside the curtain and laid eyes on her stricken guard. He laid on his belly on the bed with his legs and wings splayed, completely covered in a layer of goose down, save for a raw, pink, stubbly stretch of bare flank that was being plucked by a pair of earth pony orderlies. The burly medical interns stood aside and bowed deeply while trying to surreptitiously spit out stray bits of fluff.
Paragon look a glance back at his immortal sovereign, then rolled his eyes heavenward and clenched them tightly shut as another sigh escaped him, sending up a puff of loose down out of his nostrils.
The princess allowed the curtain to fall closed, her face a rigid, impassive mask save for a spastic twitch in her left eye. A faint hissing sound could be heard in the hushed stillness of the hospital ward as thin trails of black smoke rose from her tapering ears. Her armored guard ponies exchanged a meaningful glance as the sunlight streaming through the windows seemed to flicker a bit redder.
One of the burly white pegasi took a step forward and clicked his hooves on the tiles. "I guess it's my turn next. By your leave I'll go get ready, your highness."
Celestia brought a gold shod hoof to her face and let out a wearier, more miserable sounding sigh then Sir Paragon could ever hope to muster.
The characters depicted in this fiction are copyright and trademarks of Hasbro, Inc. This is a work of fan fiction, and the author makes no claim on Hasbro's copyright or trademarks.