Part 35 - Riding Thermals
Deep in the wilder corners of the San Palomino desert, where there was little but stretches of yellow sand and hot, empty air, the red sky and glowering sun of the morning had been taken as a sign, and interpreted by minds ancient and rapacious as a call to action. A flicker of movement appeared in the eye socket of a bleached buffalo skull staring a lonesome and long forgotten vigil toward the east. A smoke like trail arose from the bony hollow, gaining a tenuous hint of substance that resolved into a phantom figure of an emaciated horse flaring a pair of buzzard like wings. It reared with a rattling hiss and took to the sky, bearing a cloud of dust in its wake with a beat of its ragged pinions.
Similar trails mounted to the sky as other ghostly forms arose, whinnying a keening chorus as they swirled and gathered their momentum into a storm.
Professor Destiny and Doctor Insanity cut twin lines of black smoke across the glaring sky as they crossed over the Palomino Grande River.
The mustachioed stallion pumped a hoof in triumph as a gloating laugh escaped his throat. "A HAH hah hah! We've taken the lead with miles to spare! There's no way anypony can catch us now! It's clear sailing from here on out, brother!"
He scowled in annoyance as his brother called back with an acerbic tone of voice. "I do wish you'd stop jabbing irony in the flank with your horn, brother! Look ahead! At ten o' clock on the horizon!"
Destiny looked where his sibling was pointing. He sparked his horn to live and drew a set of binoculars from his belt pouch, raising them to his goggled eyes. After a moment's peering through them, he gave a toss of his head. "Bah! Hardly an obstacle for our phlogiston rockets, brother! We'll simply power through those clouds and be none the worse for wear!"
His face fell as he lost his magical grip on the binoculars, watching with a dismayed expression as they plummeted to the sand dunes below. Doctor Insanity let out a weary sigh and rubbed his temple with a hoof, then fixed his brother with a glare. "All right, I'll go along with this, but if this winds up as a repeat of that night over Horseshoe Bay I am going to be exceedingly cross with you."
The Professor recovered his wits and gave a dismissive wave of his hoof. "Perish the thought, brother. We will prevail against all challenges as long as we're together. You fly with me, and you fly with Destiny!"
The self proclaimed Doctor muttered under his breath as he closed up formation with his elder sibling. "Why does it feel like I'm the one flying with Insanity then..."
The carefully irrigated apple trees of Appleloosa had given way to expanses of sun baked sandstone and gravel dotted with patches of scrub and cacti. Pip and Soarin rode high on the thermals rising from the arid landscape, the young earth pony aptly following the veteran pegasus' lead as he made his way forward in an effort conserving glide, allowing the upward draft of hot air to keep him aloft as he made deft course corrections with his wings. Pip had no need to conserve energy, his wings were magically powered and tireless, but because of this he'd been loaded with the greater portion of the water that he and his partner carried for the desert crossing, and thus sought to spare the flight harness any undue strain.
Soarin smiled at his young comrade. "That's the way, kid! Just like a knife buttering bread! Smooth and easy!"
Pip returned his grin with a glimmer of the bright sun overhead on his teeth. "Quite so, old bean. Quite so. I do think I'll get the hang of this yet."
He reached up a hoof to shade his eyes, peering through his smoked goggles toward the mesas rising majestically to the north. "I say, incoming at four o' clock. Looks like that buffalo chap and his friend."
The sky blue pegasus turned to look where his wingpony was pointing, and saw a large, hump backed shape with huge wings, soaring toward them with a blue grey pegasus in a denim jacket and black goggles in tow. The massive flying bull had been coated from horns to hooves in red ochre, which trailed off of him in slight billows of ruddy powder as he flew.
Soarin hailed them as they came up along side. "Hey! How's it going? I'd have thought you guys would have been a lot further ahead. You didn't get thrown in the slammer like the rest of us."
Long Range gave his partner a sympathetic look as a haunted expression settled on Flies Like Thunder's face. He edged closer to the Harmony Aeronautics team and called back to them, jerking his head toward his companion. "Gettin' tossed in th' hoosegow woulda been preferable. We just spent th' whole night gettin' lectured by his uncle 'bout the whole Tatanka business."
He pursed his lips and gave Flies Like Thunder a sidelong glance as the buffalo shaman let out a long, bass toned shudder. "Great Chief Thunderhooves has become even more long winded as he piles up summers and winters."
The rangy pegasus nodded ruefully. "Ayep. The ol' bull sure can filibuster, gotta hoof it to him."
He turned back toward the Harmony Aeronautics team. "Speakin' o gettin' the word, the whole camp was buzzin' with news o' how th' jailhouse done burnt down on account o' them lowdown sidewinders with the black smoke. I'm powerful glad everypony made it t' safety."
Pip flashed him a grin. "Too right, mate. And it was Soarin here who took charge and led them out."
At this the sky blue pegasus blushed. "Aw, I didn't do anything that anypony else wouldn't have done. And anyway, it was the bat ponies who really saved our hides."
Long Range nodded. "Yeah, I heard 'bout that too. Shame them fellers had t' drop out. Seemed like good folk once ya got past how spooky they looked in them getups o' theirs."
He reached up and tipped his white stetson to the veteran stunt flyer. "And as fer helpin' all th' folks outta th' fire, well, I wouldn'ta expected any less from a Wonderbolt, Mister Soarin. It's been an honor t' fly with y'all so far. Yer welcome at me n' Flies Like Thunder's campfire anytime."
A thoughtful expression crossed the buffalo shaman's red dusted face, as he peered toward the western horizon. A note of concern sounded on his voice as he pointed a hoof ahead of them. "We may all be camping together soon, kemosabe. Look there, past the distant river, do you see?"
Both pegasi trained their hawk like eyes on the distant point he was indicating, squinting against the glare coming from the desert below. A long smudge of brown rose up over the far off plains, a roiling battlement of billowing, dun colored clouds with sparks of lightning arcing through its depths.
Soarin's brow furrowed as what he was looking at sank in. "Is... is that a..."
Long Range nodded grimly. "Ayep. If'n that ain't th' grandpappy o' dust storms 'comin our way I'll eat my hat."
He gave a nod to Flies Like Thunder. "My compadre here's got th' right idea. We'd better grab some ground once we pass th' Palomino Grande way up yonder."
Pip cocked an eyebrow. "Who would put up a dust storm in the path of the Pegathalon?" He glanced at Soarin. "That hardly seems like responsible weather management."
Long Range shook his head. "Dust storms in th' San Palomino don't happen 'cos of any pegasus. It's th' dust devils' hoofwork if'n it's anypony."
The young earth pony lowered one eyebrow and cocked the other. "Dust devils?"
The blue grey pegasus gave a shudder and nodded. "Yeah. They're kinda like them windigo critters from th' Hearth's Warmin' pageant."
Flies Like Thunder intoned in a solemn voice. "Indeed. They are like those bleak spirits of the cold wastes, but instead of hatred and bitterness, they feed on desperation and despair. Those who become hopelessly lost in the desert are their prey, and so they create blinding storms to lead travelers astray."
Pip cast a glance at Soarin, then favored the buffalo and his companion with a sparkling grin. "Well, I'm not afraid. Just like the Hearth's Warming pageant teaches us that goodwill towards our fellow ponies drives the windigos away, I'd wager their warm weather cousins wouldn't stick around for long if we all just keep calm and carry on. I say we try to go as far as we can manage before we go to ground."
His wingpony gave a bark of laughter and grinned with determination. "Hah! That's the stuff, kid! I'm with ya."
A smile spread across Long Range's face, and he shared a nod with Flies Like Thunder. "I like yer brass, young fella. Lets fly on n' show 'em who's boss."
With that, the quartet of flyers pumped their wings to pick up some speed, facing the ominous maelstrom head on.
Diamond Tiara had heard the term "world of hurt". She'd even used it frequently in her business dealings, social interactions, and private exchanges, but she'd never dreamed she would be experiencing it firsthoof. Her hooves did indeed hurt, as did her hocks, cannons, knees, forelegs and flanks, rump and withers, neck and tail and head. Her eyes hurt from an accumulation of grit carried on the insistent wind she'd been walking into headlong, adding to the crust of filth that coated her from nose to tail and cracked faintly as she shambled forward. Her lungs hurt with each rattling breath of dry air and dust. Her throat hurt all the way down to her stomach and beyond as hunger gnawed and thirst clawed away at her insides.
Only one small comfort had come to her as the freezing night had given way to stark, smothering day, and that was finding herself on a trail. Not much of one, more a winding path of trampled dirt with fewer fetlock twisting rocks, but that was enough to ease her way as she stumbled through the Badlands.
All through the morning she'd pressed on, as the sun glared through the haze above. She was unsure if she was hallucinating the ghostly, vaguely equine shapes that circled on ragged wings among the pall of clouds overhanging the blasted landscape. As it reached its height, the heat waves shimmering off of rocks the color of baked bricks, she came to the red stone cliffs that bordered Equestria.
The drab, parched scarecrow of a mare stood and stared through her raw, encrusted eyes at the height of the barrier that now faced her. The edge of the surly clouds that overhung her private Tartarus was visible, with a pale yellow expanse of desert sky over the crags that formed a natural battlement against the wasteland.
She weaved on her trembling legs, feeling like a bundle of sticks ready to blow over with the next strong wind. How was she going to climb over it? She was barely able to keep moving on relatively level ground. It was impossible. This was it. She was done. A faint cackling could barely be heard drifting down from the clouds, as more gauzy, intangible creatures glided along the edges like shadows cast by pegasi flying overhead.
Then the thought occurred to her that Apple Bloom had built a pair of fake wings that would let her fly over the stony barrier with ease. Which was the whole reason Diamond Tiara now found herself in these dire straits to begin with.
Unable to muster much more than a low, ragged growl, she lurched forward and began to drag herself up onto the jagged rocks with a look of glazed determination on her face. The winged silhouettes overhead wheeled, faintly nickering in disgust and disappointment as they fled for the western horizon.
Spitfire scowled at the wall of dust on the horizon as she maintained formation with Shootin' Star and Rainbow Dash. "I'm not likin' the look of those clouds one little bit."
The young stallion spoke up. "I heard 'bout storms like that from th' old cloud tenders in Appleloosa. Ain't like no normal storm made o' water, it's a big mess o' dirt drug up offa th' desert by bad winds. Nothin' a pegasus can do against it."
His chromatic maned senior team mate chimed in. "Well, why don't we go around it then? We could cut north at the river."
Their blaze yellow captain cocked a dubious eyebrow. "What, through Ghastly Gorge?"
Dash nodded with a confident grin. "Yeah, I used to fly it all the time when I lived in Ponyville. Nothin' to worry about."
Spitfire gave her star flyer a deadpan stare. "Except for the vicious crosswinds."
Shootin' Star shared his leader's wan expression. "And th' rockslides."
Spitfire flicked an ear. "And the impenetrable thorn tangles."
Shootin' Star pursed his lips. "And th' giant cliff dwellin' eel monsters."
Rainbow Dash chuckled and gave a breezy toss of her multicolored mane. "Yeah! Easy peasy! Come on, guys, I'll race ya, and on the way I'll tell you the story about when I adopted Tank."
Her two team mates shared a wary look, shrugged, and dropped into formation beside her with a beat of their wings.
About a half league behind the Wonderbolts, Baron Redtail and his retainers watched the trio of blue and yellow clad pegasi wheel northward. With little more than a glance between them, the disciplined griffins angled their flight path to follow them.
A bit further back, Air Hammer and Ice Tongs looked at one another, gave a nod, and flew in close to bump hooves, then veered to follow the other two teams toward Ghastly Gorge.
They braked in midair with flaring wings and looked inquiringly over their shoulders as a voice called out to them. "Dudes! Do NOT go that way!"
The two burly pegasi hovered in place as Golden and Granola Bay glided up to parley distance and dropped into an easy hover themselves. Air Hammer regarded the couple warily. "Oh yeah? Why not?"
The tawny pegasus stallion shook his head and bobbed it toward the north. "That's, like, Ghastly Gorge, brah. Far too gnar. Like, total rashville. "
The Cloudsdale team looked at each other uncertainly. Ice Tongs scratched his head with a hoof and shrugged to his partner. "Uhhh. I tink he means it's bad."
Granola gave a toss of her long, flowing mane. "Oh wow, like totally, y'know? Fer sure."
Air Hammer pursed his lips and crossed his forelegs in front of him. "Ya got a better idea then?"
Golden Bay nodded and pointed south with a white toothed grin. "Yeah, it's a little longer, but if you follow the river south you can totally hook it under cover of the mountains and be like totally sandstorm free. Then you just ride on out to the coast then up to Lo Peg like you're ridin' a sweet curl to sunset, brah."
The burly weatherworkers traded a thoughtful glance, and then Air Hammer shrugged. "Okay, youse guys know da area better'n me 'n Tongs here."
His beetled brow furrowed as he fixed the mellow pegasus with a sharp glare. "But ya better not be tryin' t' steer us wrong."
Golden Bay raised his hooves. "Woah, no way. There's been enough gnarly shenanigans in this race. We're totally on the level, brah."
The burly stallion gave him an appraising if mildly confused look, glanced at his partner, then nodded. "Yeh, okay."
The Los Pegasus pegasus rocked his hoof back and forth in a casual pegashaka. "Crescent fresh, dudes. Lets wing it out."
With that, the quartet of pegasi set out south, as the two stallions from Cloudsdale traded one another the first of many bemused looks.
The world was a roaring void of choking dust for the two unicorn brothers as they plowed through the storm. Only the insistent power of their phlogiston rocket motors kept them moving forward against the rasping, blinding gales, their trails of black smoke rapidly dissipating in the tan billows.
Professor Destiny flicked an ear as he thought he heard his sibling call out to him, his voice muffled by the howling wind and the gasmask strapped over his muzzle. He turned his head and bellowed in return, the fine powder sifting through the filter of his own mask making his throat burn as he raised his voice. "WHAT? SPEAK UP, CONFOUND YOU!"
His eyes widened in horror behind the abraded lenses of his goggles as he looked and saw no sign of Doctor Insanity. He called out, straining his lungs. "DOCTOR! WHERE ARE YOU!? D-DOCTOR!?"
Panic began to grip his heart, as he cast about wildly, seeing nothing but brown and tan in whirls and eddies of impenetrable thickness. "DOCTOR IN... INSANI... Doc... tor..."
He reared back his head and screamed out as hard as he could. "FLIM! FLIIIIMmmm!"
His next scream was far more incoherent, as he looked ahead to see the windblown crests of dunes rapidly coming up to meet him. He cut off with a squawk as he plowed into a mound of sand, sending a tuft of billowing cloud skyward to join the dun colored maelstrom.
Rainbow Dash crested the western ridge of the infamous gorge with her fore hooves wrapped around Spitfire's middle, blithely recounting the story of her pet tortoise to Shootin' Star as if they were flying casually over Ponyville Park. "... and so the brave little guy carried me all the rest of the way, and we finally crossed the finish line about a half hour later. I tell ya, rook, I was never so glad to come in last in a race, just 'cos it was lookin' like I wasn't gonna come in at all. And that's when I knew who the winner of the whole "Find Dash A Pet" competition I put those poor critters through had to be."
The young pegasus stallion nodded dazedly as he flew an erratic trail through the air and struggled to keep up, his uniform tattered and covered in rock dust. Spitfire was curled into a little catatonic ball and staring into space, the flame like tresses of her blaze orange tail snapped off to half their original length.
She muttered under her breath in a shaky voice. "Buh... teeth... BIG teeth... in... hole..."
Dash shifted her grip on her team captain and grinned at Shootin' Star. "And ya see, the moral of the story, is that when you're squaddies with somepony, you don't just ride the highs, you hit the lows with 'em too, and you stay there with 'em when they're goin' thru it and help 'em out of it, 'cos they're just as bound to drag your tail outta the tornado when it's your turn to taste the turf. That's why, for better or worse, we stuck with Soarin while he was goin' through his slow motion tailspin. He was a 'Bolt, and that's for life."
A numbly thoughtful look settled on Shootin' Star's features. Spitfire trembled in the rainbow maned mare's hooves. "L-life... flashing... before... eyes..."
Dash gave her a shake. "Oh suck it up, Cap. It only got a little bit of your tail."
A short time later, a trio of griffins arose from the treacherous canyon in a similar state, with Baron Redtail flying resolutely forward with his maidservant cradled in his claws, her right wing bandaged and held awkwardly to her side. Gunther flew behind them, a bandage neatly bound around his forehead and countless scratches and bruises along his tawny flanks, as he stared at his master and fellow servant with goggling eyes and a wide open mouth.
The red crested aristocrat glanced back at his batsgriffin, a look of reproach furrowing his brow. "Oh, close your beak Gunther. The last thing I need is you choking on a bug or something."
The burly griffon's jaws snapped shut as he gave a flustered salute. "Y-yes, your excellency!"
The Baron's cast a sharp look at the griffonette in his forelegs. "And as for you, Miss VonBeakstein, I expect you to dodge falling rocks when I tell you to."
She nodded, meeting his gaze with shining eyes. "I vill, Ger... your excellency."
He let out a small sigh as his expression softened slightly. "I... I hope you're not... too uncomfortable."
She nestled against him, nearly purring in response. "I'm fine, your excellency." She wrapped her arms around his neck, interlacing her talons over his withers with a breathy sigh of her own. "Just fine."
The Baron swallowed hard and dragged his eyes off her sweetly smiling face, staring ahead with a blush tinging the redness of his plumage. "G-good. Ve vill stop and rest in a few more miles."
One cracked hoof gripped the rocky ledge marking the northern boundary of the Badlands, then another, hauling over the gasping figure of a mare with bloodshot lavender eyes staring out of a haggard face caked with brown grit and dust. A thousand cuts, scrapes, and bruises marred the coating of grime that covered her. Diamond Tiara flopped forward onto her belly, staring at the scrubland that stretched before her with a look of bitter triumph pulling her features into a rictus grin.
Her voice came out as a barely audible croak. "hhHahhh. Who needs stupid wings anyway?"
With that, she slowly worked her way to her hooves and stumbled back onto the trail, a look of dogged determination in her eyes.
Behind her, the wind howled through the jagged formations jutting from the red cliffs, as if the Badlands themselves were bellowing in frustration like a great beast that had let its prey escape.
Sheriff Silver Star stood on the porch of his office, having finally gotten back home to shave and get properly dressed after last night's catastrophe and seeing off the Pegathalon flyers and making sure both Judge Bean and Mayor Braeburn got packed off home to get some rest.
When he'd gotten in to the office, his secretary had started in right away pestering him about an arrest warrant that had come in over the wire for some hifalutin' mare on the Ambrosia. Seeing how the big airship had just cleared the town's airspace a couple hours ago, and also seeing how they didn't have anyplace to keep a prisoner anyway, he just managed to keep his voice level as he told him to pass the word along to the city guards in Los Pegasus. The sheriff just wasn't in the mood to bawl anypony out, and since hanging around where they were guaranteed to start hassling him about every little thing, he poured himself a cup of joe and stepped outside to get a little fresh air.
He cast a wan look down the street at the blackened skeleton of the jailhouse, and took a sip from his "Equestria's Best Dad" coffee mug. It was brewed just how he liked it, strong enough for a spoon to stand up in it, which he kind of needed to help him stand up after the last couple days.
He winced and let out a sigh as a frantic voice called out over the streets of Appleloosa. "SHERIFF! SHERIFF!"
The grizzled lawpony rubbed his faintly throbbing temple with a hoof as Fluke the pegasus came fluttering up with his hat clenched to his chest. He gave the colt a wan look. "What now, Fluke? Th' dust just settled, why ya gotta stir it all up again?"
Fluke pointed skyward with a shaky hoof. "Just look!"
With another weary sigh, he stepped down from beneath the shade of his office's porch and turned to look up where the young pegasus was pointing. A deadpan expression settled on his face as he raised the coffee cup to his lips to take a long pull. "Huh... Don't see that everyday..."
A wave of shadow swept across the rooftops of Appleloosa, casting the sheriff and the young town crier into shade. Row after row of snowy winged pegasi in gleaming gold armor filled the desert sky, their V shaped formations mirroring the sharp points of their lances.
A pair of burly stallions from the front line detached from their squad and spiraled down toward the sheriff's office, coming in for a brisk landing with the thud of eight hooves on the dusty street. The one with Lieutenant's bars adorning his armor saluted. "Sheriff Silver Star, I presume?"
The sheriff gave them a wary nod. "Yeah. Ya presume correctly. What can I do fer y'all?"
The Lieutenant's comrade reached under his folded wing and pulled out a photograph of two scrawny unicorns in black frock coats and cravats, one with a mustache and one with a close cropped mane and dark spectacles. "Have you seen these two stallions?"
Sheriff Silver Star pursed his lips and took another sip of coffee. He pointed a hoof toward the west. "I reckon they went thataway."
Compared to the blasted wastelands she'd found herself stranded in when the Changelings had cast her out, the dry plains Diamond Tiara found herself traversing were like the gardens around her manor in Canterlot, but to the young mare's exhausted mind, she couldn't be in a more alien environment if she'd been banished to the face of the moon.
To a pony who'd had her every want catered to with brisk alacrity and often a degree of fearful deference since infancy, it was an utterly unfamiliar situation. She needed water, she needed food, she needed shelter, she needed rest, but there was nopony around to give them to her. Nopony to whom she could snap orders, or yell at, or even manipulate or bribe.
Even the flames of envy that burned in her heart for Apple Bloom were beginning to ebb, dying down to blackened branches and ash. What was the point of hating the little bumpkin if she wasn't around to browbeat into getting her a glass of apple juice?
Diamond Tiara could feel her strength waning, whatever reserves she'd unlocked through her resentment of her old enemy faltering before the palpable downward drag of physical exhaustion and a withering thirst. As the world began to go dark around her, she numbly wondered if she was finally succumbing, or if it was just the sun going down.
A flicker of hope came with a flicker of light, as cheery squares of golden illumination flared to life in the darkened, angular shapes of a cluster of buildings in the distance. Lights in windows meant a town, full of ponies who might have water, and food.
She quickened her pace from a trudge to a stumbling, heavy limbed trot, as the trail became a wagon rutted road beneath her ragged, chipped hooves, drawing her closer and closer to the promise of civilization.
The sound of the breeze rustling through leaves came to her, along with the heady scent of ripe cherries. As the sun finally receded over the horizon to make way for the moon, she raised her head as high as she could and let her sense of smell be her guide. Cherries were full of juice, and sweet. If Diamond Tiara had any moisture to spare, she would have cried like a foal and drooled like a dog all at once. As it was, only the growling of her stomach and the throbbing of her swollen tongue signaled her dire need for sustenance. Her rasping breath came faster and harder, as she tried and failed to up her pace to a gallop, or even a canter. As dearly as every cell in her body wished for life giving food and water, it had no reserves left for a burst of speed.
Which in the end was another small blessing, as she ran straight into a chain link fence with a clang and jingle and was knocked back onto her rump, with only a fresh bruise on the end of her snout to show for it.
She stared dumbly at the light of the nearly full moon glinting off of the links, her lower lip trembling as beyond she could make out the rustling fruit trees, laden with fat cherries that shone like rubies and topaz in the moonlight.
The exhausted mare gave a start as a further gleam of a lantern washed across the fence. A drawling, female voice called out in the darkness behind her. "Who'all's there? Y'all better skedaddle, th' ponyfolk who run that orchard don't take kindly t' cherry thieves!"
Diamond Tiara let out a rattling sob as the lantern's light illuminated a sign hanging from the chain links. She'd seen it before, in a small corner of her mind she even vaguely remembered approving it. It bore a logo of a bushel of red and yellow cherries surmounted by a design that resembled her own cutie mark, and bore the following message in stark black letters on the pink background: PINK PRINCESS CONSOLIDATED FRUIT GROWERS (A RichCo. Enterprise) NO TRESPASSERS.
She dimly flashed back to when she'd used the leverage of her father's retail empire to buy out some of their suppliers, targeting fruit growers in hopes of making things difficult for a certain family of apple farmers in Ponyville by cornering the produce market. It didn't pan out, the Apple family as a whole was too well organized and closer than pickets on a fence, and apples were just that much more popular than cherries, or plums, or kumquats, and thus she'd abandoned the enterprise in favor of being crowned a princess through a strategic marriage and a sizable investment in airships.
She let out a strangled, cackling laugh at the hideous, punitive irony of it all, and passed out.
Prince Blueblood huffed indignantly and stomped a hoof on the plushly carpeted floor. "We insist that you come out from under there at once!"
A muffled screech came from underneath the luxurious princess sized bed in the royal stateroom of the tiny palace that adorned the upper curve of the Ambrosia's vast, silvery cylinder. "No! Go suck on a teat, mammal!"
The dissolute white unicorn crouched down and peered into the dark space beneath the mattress, his slightly bloodshot eyes meeting the baleful glare of green, faintly glowing eyes from an angular form huddling in the darkness. He lashed his tail in growing umbrage. "Cease this ridiculous spectacle! We need them to think our wife is of sound mind when she signs the papers! We don't know or care how you do things under the rock where you came from, but around here crawling about on one's belly and hiding under furniture isn't considered sane behavior!"
She replied with a venomous hiss. With a growl of frustration, Blueblood flopped onto his side and sparked his horn to life, the golden glow illuminating the sharp edges of Chrysalis' scowling, chitinous face. "Come out of there, you minx, or we'll drag your bony carcass out with our magic!"
A sound a like a ragged, phlegm choked cough split the air, and something acrid, slimy, and stinging splatted in the unicorn prince's face, causing him to give a cry of rage, disgust, and pain. He rolled onto his back, furiously kicking his legs and cursing vehemently as bitter laughter sounded from under the bed.
Blueblood lurched to his hooves with a snarl, jabbed his horn into the box spring, and flipped the bed aside with a surge of enraged strength. "GAH! If you've stained my coat I'll stomp you into a coaster!"
He let out a strangled squeak of shock and alarm as a diminutive black blur darted across the carpet and lifted him bodily off of the floor with a pair of hole riddled fore hooves. Chrysalis' wings buzzed angrily as she held him aloft by his throat with her ant like, insectoid strength. "You try it, and I'll crawl down your throat and burst out of your chest. Understand, pony boy?"
His glazed eyes widened, going crossed at the point of the jagged blade of chitin leveled at his face. "W... we... we should talk about this c-calmly..."
Before Chrysalis could reply, a soft "ding" sound heralded the arrival of the elevator to their suite. In a burst of green sorcery she assumed the appearance of Diamond Tiara, dropping lightly to her hooves with the disappearance of her tattered wings as Blueblood thudded to the floor like a sack of potatoes and let out a feeble wheeze.
She caught herself before calling out politely, and stepped up to the doorway into the lounge with a scowl and a more in character response. "What is it?"
The liveried unicorn maid bobbed her horn in a curtsey. "I'm just here to inform your highnesses that storm conditions over the San Palomino desert have made it necessary to divert our course southward to avoid any complications. The crew humbly apologizes for any inconvenience."
The image of the pink princess pursed her lips. "Thank y... er... Fine. Whatever. Dismissed!" She gave an impatient wave of her hoof, then wheeled as the maid curtseyed again and ducked back into the elevator, the gilded doors sliding softly shut just before burst of sickly green light flared from the door to the bedroom.
Blueblood felt a whoosh of wings and winced at the slamming of the bathroom door as he pulled himself painfully to his hooves. He cast a wan stare over his shoulder, then met his bloodshot gaze in one of the ornate mirrors with a sigh, noting the dark greenish brown blotch across the bridge of his aquiline nose and wrinkled brow.
He hung his head and levered his ears back as he trudged out of the bedroom and headed toward the wet bar to dig up some club soda. "We are beginning to wonder if you're much of an improvement over our wife after all."
The sensations Diamond Tiara awoke to were so pleasant they were almost painful.
Cool, refreshing liquid was being dribbled gently past her lips and down her throat, cooling the ragged burning of thirst and forming a serene pool of comfort in her belly. It tasted like tears, a little sweet, a little salty, and had she any of her own to spare she would have begun to cry right there.
She tried to surge up from the soft, clean bed she found herself sprawled on, feebly reaching for the source of the life giving draught with both hooves so that she could gulp it down. A gentle hoof pushed her back with minimal effort, as a soothing voice with a sweet twang spoke to her. "Easy now, sugar. If'n it goes down too fast it'll come right back up again. Just let me spoon it to ya for a while 'til yer strong enough to drink it yerself."
The young mare found she didn't have the strength to do much else beside comply. Her sluggish thoughts stirred as she took stock. She'd been bathed, dried off, brushed, and laid out beneath a quilt that smelled faintly of mothballs and cherries with her forelegs and chin propped up on a feather pillow. Her eyes fluttered open, and beheld the kindly lined face of a middle aged, ivory coated earth pony mare with white streaks striping the magenta red of a frayed bouffant hairdo. A large beauty mark on her left cheek moved up toward her sparkling eyes as she smiled, the handle of a a brimming tablespoon held between her teeth. She cooed out of the side of her mouth as she leaned in to spoon feed her dazed guest more of the cool, refreshing liquid. "Just relax now, honeychild. Seems like ya been havin' a rough time of it."
As the spoonful poured another soothing stream down her throat, an unaccustomed feeling bloomed in Diamond Tiara's heart, a feeling most ponies were acquainted with as gratitude. All she knew was right now, the mare who was giving her something to drink was the best pony in the whole world.
As her savior turned to scoop another spoonful out of the bowl, she managed to croak a question. "Wh... who are you?"
The older mare cocked an eyebrow at her, then shook her head with a chuckle. "Well, I suppose I ain't surprised ya don't remember me, darlin'. Th' name's Cherry Jubilee, but y'can call me Jubilee, or even 'Lee if'n ya like."
The bedraggled young earth pony's brow furrowed in sluggish thought. "Do... do I know you?"
Jubilee gave a shrug as she brought the spoonful of liquid around with a steady turn of her head. "Not personally, no. Ya bought out my orchard n' processin' operation a few years back n'..."
She trailed off as a low moan came from the bedridden mare. A look of consternation spread across her face as Diamond Tiara feebly recoiled, her bloodshot eyes going wide and her limbs trembling piteously. "D-don't... don't... don't k-kill me. P-p-please..."
The spoon went slack in Jubilee's teeth, spilling its contents on the linen sheets. She turned and dropped it in the bowl, then looked at her foundling guest incredulously. "Now why in tarnation would ya think I was gonna do anythin' o' th' sort?"
Diamond Tiara began to whimper, clutching the pillow in her forelegs as a pathetic sort of shield. "I've done b-b-business with you. That... that means you probably hh-hate my guts, and... and you have me r-right where you want me."
She glanced at the bowl. "That... that's p-poison, isn't it? You poisoned me! Oh merciful sky s-sisterss, I'm t-too young to die..."
Jubilee pursed her lips, a wan expression settling on her face as she looked over th' young mare groveling on her guest bed. She turned and picked up the bowl, and raised it to her mouth, and took a sip from it, then turned and met the pastel pink earth pony's gaze. "Nothin' in this bowl but fresh water, some sugar, a li'l bit o salt, and a li'l cherry juice."
She set the bowl down and gave her guest a searching look that caused Diamond Tiara to hunker down further behind the pillow. "I'm hopin' yer just addled a bit in th' head from th' desert sun, 'cos if'n ya really think everypony's out t' git ya like that then yer a lot more pitiful than I thought."
The young mare's face clouded up, a rattling sob escaping her throat as she found it hard to speak. "But... but... why? Why help me?"
Jubilee looked at her incredulously. "What kind of pony would I be if'n I didn't? Not much o' one, that's fer sure."
With that, she turned and gripped the spoon in her teeth and took up another spoonful. "Now if'n yer done bein' a silly filly lets get some more o' this water in ya, missy. And just you put all this hooey t' rest, frettin' 'bout gettin' murdered when ya just survived gettin' lost in th' Badlands."
Diamond Tiara settled uneasily on the soft mattress and pillow, her sunken eyes blinking owlishly at the older mare. "H... how did you..." She was cut off by a cool taste of liquid raised to her lips, which she warily swallowed, sighing at its smooth progress down her throat in spite of herself.
Jubilee chuckled as she turned to reload the spoon. "I know what color o' dirt we washed off o' ya, darlin'. And all th' cuts n' bruises, and th' state o' yer poor hooves, I knew as soon as I saw ya that you'd gone through a mess o' toil n' tribulation."
The young mare stirred fitfully, and noticed for the first time that her hooves were wrapped in clean bandages, and a patchwork of sticking plasters were dotting her forelegs, gleaming an eggshell white against the pink of her freshly scrubbed coat in the low, soft light of the firefly lantern at her bedside. A gentle hoof under her chin drew her face around to accept another spoonful.
The faintest trickle of tears began to form at the corner of her eyes. The older mare paused, set the spoon in the bowl, and plucked a washcloth off of the bedside table and dabbed them away while she shushed her. "Shhhh. Don't cry, sugar. Them tears'll serve ya better on th' inside fer now."
With a gentle smile, she resumed feeding her stricken guest the sweet, salty solution from the bowl. With each spoonful, Diamond Tiara became more and more relaxed, every tablespoon a hoofstep taking her away from an early grave and oblivion. Presently, Jubilee set aside the spoon, and carefully tipped the remainder of the precious liquid down the young mare's throat, and then stood as she gathered her utensils on a tray which she balanced on her back. "That's all fer that bowl, darlin'. I'll bring ya more in a li'l bit, and I'm heatin' up some vegetable broth for ya so y'can get some nourishment. I'll bring some crackers t' see if'n y'can keep 'em down."
Diamond Tiara licked her lips and gazed at her with heavily lidded eyes, her brow furrowed as she spoke words she knew, but rarely if ever used sincerely. "J-jubilee? Th... thank you."
The red and white haired older mare paused at the door and waved a hoof. "Aw shucks, ain't nothin' I wouldn't do for anypony. If'n I were you I'd just thank my lucky stars for whatever it was gave ya th' gumption t' find yer way outta that desolation."
The pink pony princess' eyes snapped wide open, with the faintest sound like glass or porcelain shattering coming from inside her head as her hostess' words sank in, and she realized just what, or more accurately just who had given her the will to escape her doom.
Doom... Which rhymed with... Oh no no no no no no no no no. No. Please, no. Anything but that. Anypony but her.
Jubilee pulled the door closed behind her with her tail, filling the room with stillness. "Just you rest easy 'til I get back, sugar."
Diamond Tiara clutched the pillow to her face, her teeth clenching on the linen pillowcase to keep from screaming herself hoarse as a thousand mile stare glazed her eyes.
In a tenuous corner of her crumbling psyche, she found herself wishing that Cherry Jubilee had just gone ahead and poisoned her.
Mild sunlight streamed gently through the crystal glass windows of the Royal Guard infirmary, painting the warm blue walls with colors from the stained glass unit crests that adorned the center of each pane.
Sir Champion let out a huff, petulantly clutching a pillow in his pink frizzy forehooves as he sprawled across a hospital bed that was cloudlike in its softness and whiteness. "I still think I look ridiculous."
Silk Ribbon, the pouting guardspony's devoted wife and soon to be mother of his firstborn foal paused from meticulously preening his wings and let out a chuckle. "Well I think you look adorable."
She shifted a little to get closer to her husband and craned her neck to nuzzle the small of his back, eliciting a heady purr from the prostrate pegasus. "I can't wait to finally get you home so I can just snuggle you all day long."
The petite pegasus mare let out a little squeak as she flinched, a look of surprise flitting across her face that shifted to a fond smile as she looked back at her rounded sides. "Oh, the baby just kicked! She wants to hug her daddy too!"
She turned her attention back to grooming the feathers on his wings. "You'll look just perfect in the playroom with all the other dollies."
A half heartedly cross expression settled on Champion's features. "You're making fun of me..." He only received a musical giggle in reply as she gently ran her teeth along another of his pinions,
The pegasus couple looked up curiously as a stallion's head poked in through the curtains. He was completely bald, save for a faint down of white stubble just beginning to manifest on his smooth pinkish skin. A flush of red appeared on his cheeks as he coughed and gave husband and wife an apologetic smile. "Hey Champ, Silky. Sorry to intrude, but Pal and me brought you a visitor."
Champion cocked his head at his comrade. "Oh yeah? Who might that be, Parry?"
A smile spread across the shaven pegasus' face as he gripped the curtain in his teeth and pulled it open. Two pegasi in wheelchairs were revealed as the drapery was drawn aside, one shrouded in bandages with all six limbs in casts or splints, the other sitting awkwardly straight in his hospital gown, an ashen grey color tinging his pale coat.
The bandage swaddled stallion drew himself up and waved his forelegs in the air, making a muffled shout through the gauze binding his muzzle. "Murrprze!"
Champion's jaw dropped. "Ch... Charger..."
Paragon smiled as he walked around behind Paladin's wheelchair and reared up to lean on the handles, his featherless wings flexing over a thick blue flannel robe. "The De-petrify spell still has a couple days to run its course, but as soon as his mouth started working he asked to see you."
A grin slowly spread across the reanimated pony's face with a faint crackling sound, and he lurched out of the wheelchair, his hooves hitting the carpeted floor with a clunk. He made his stiff legged way over to his stunned comrade's bed, rearing up to take the fluffy pink stallion in a hug. "They... told... me... all... a... bout... what... you... did... Want... ed... to... thank... you... bud... dy... You're... my... he... ro... It's... an... hon... or... to... call... you... my... com... rade... and... my... best... friend..."
A sob rose from Champion's throat as he hugged his wingpony back, tears squeezing from the corners of his eyes and slicking the pink fluff down as they streamed across his cheeks. "S-shut up, Charger."
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.