My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic
Warbirds Book One: Out of the Dark
It wasn't until the funnel cloud was halfway formed that Moonbow found the presence of mind to move, grabbing everything important with her magic and fleeing. Fritz didn't even protest as she snatched him up and set him on her back, merely holding tight as she took flight. Together they flew southward, away from the descending tornado, eyes squinting against the wind now whipping past them, tugging at their bodies. A whistling noise filled the air, loud, high, filled with a want for destruction.
Moonbow struggled to believe what was happening. Tornadoes were nearly unheard of that far north, where few pegasi lived to make them and the air rarely grew warm enough for them to form naturally. A glance behind, just in time to see the tornado touch down and obliterate a grove of trees, put speed to her wings. "How is this happening!? What's going on!?"
"It's the Hegemony!" shouted Fritz, voice shaking. "Their leader is powerful in weather magic! Fly! Faster!"
Another glance back to see the tornado tearing a wide trench through the ground as it followed after them, dirt and rock and wood billowing into the air in a nimbus of destruction, and Moonbow didn't need telling. She turned ahead and put all her strength into her wings, not caring how much they ached as she flew faster than she ever had before. The world around her sped past in a blur, the chill air stinging her lungs with each desperate breath. Behind them the whistling of the tornado grew louder, grew into a beastly roar pounding through her head. She felt the tornado gaining on them, felt the wind turn from insistent tugging to greedy, grasping claws, grabbing and tearing, nearly stealing away each breath she took.
A whole tree, roots and all, flew past Moonbow as if thrown at her, forcing her to swerve to avoid a branch. Her heart skipped a beat as Fritz's grip on her coat loosened. The diamond dog lifted from her back, his scream reaching her ears as frantic claws scrabbled at her back for purchase.
Then his weight disappeared. Moonbow flipped over, grabbing his paw in her talons just before he slipped out of reach and holding on to him for his dear life. Yet Moonbow, try as she did, could not fly as fast in such a position. She slowed, the wind battering them about as they were dragged slowly backwards towards the roaring tornado, half a mile wide by this point and mere hundreds of feet away.
Moonbow and Fritz locked eyes. He screamed something, the words disappearing into the wind the moment they left his mouth, but Moonbow knew what he yelled all the same.
"LET ME GO! SAVE YOURSELF!"
Moonbow shook her head and kept on, though her wings felt ready to fall off and the tornado whirled a scant 100 feet away.
70 feet and Moonbow felt like the wind was on the verge of tearing her apart.
Salvation came in a rainbow. It blasted past Moonbow, the seconds-late BOOM sending her tumbling and Fritz nearly slipping from her grip. With a grunt of effort she pulled him back to her with her magic, before righting herself and turning to look at the tornado once more. Her jaw dropped, Fritz gasping beside her as the rainbow streaked around the tornado once, twice, soon going too fast to keep track of. With each revolution the tornado slowed, losing form and speed as its winds were first countered, then overpowered.
Realizing their lives were no longer in danger, Moonbow landed atop a hill to give her screaming wings a rest. Fritz flopped onto the grass beside her and groaned. "That was too close…"
Moonbow, too out of breath to manage a word, merely nodded as she let her wings fall lifeless to her sides. Too close indeed.
After half a minute passed the last of the tornado had faded away, the unnatural storm clouds above dissipating with what seemed to Moonbow's tired mind a rumble of impotent fury. She had almost managed to catch her breath once more when the rainbow blur, now no more than a sky-blue pegasus with a wild rainbow mane and tail, landed in front of her and Fritz. "Wow! That was waaay too scary to be awesome! Just a few seconds later on my part and you two would be goners! So, I guess I might be a little awesome, heh."
Moonbow stared, body feeling wobbly and thoughts going fuzzy as she recognized the mare standing before her. "You… you… y-you…"
"But hey," said the mare, smiling and holding a hoof out to shake. "That was some pretty slick flying from you too. Not many ponies I know who can fly that long against a tornado. 'specially not while carrying all these packs and a… diamond dog? Huh. Though, I guess the gryphon half of ya would have better endurance there, yeah?"
It took three tries before Moonbow managed to grab the pegasus mare's hoof and shook it. "Th-thanks…"
"Oh, by the way," said the mare, "the name's Dash, Rainbow Dash. Neat to meet ya. What's your name, and what's a diamond dog and a unicorn-gryphon thing doing way out here?"
"I'm Fritz," said the diamond dog, smiling and shaking Rainbow Dash's hoof. "And my star-struck friend here is the fine hippogryph Moonbow. It is an absolute pleasure meeting such a legendary hero of Equestria. Actually, considering our circumstances for being here, meeting you was more than we could have hoped for."
"Well, I can't say it's anything good that brought me here," said Rainbow Dash, smile dropping. "One of Shining Armor and Princess Cadance's soldiers, Flash Sentry, is way late on a mission. All sorts of favors are being called in to help find him and his unicorn partners."
This snapped Moonbow from her stupor. “Flash! Oh my gosh, yes, Flash Sentry! He needs help immediately! We’ve got to get to the Crystal Empire as fast as possible!”
Rainbow Dash blinked and stared at Moonbow. “You’ve met… no, never mind, I’ve hung around the princesses enough to know some things just can’t be coincidences.
“And friend,” she said, donning a grin so full of confidence and swagger that Moonbow felt confident by proxy, “if it’s getting places ‘fast as possible’ that you need, you’ve run into the right pony! Come on, give me some of those packs and let’s get going! Next stop, the Crystal Empire!”
The roar of rage resounded throughout the Hegemony cloud fortress, shaking its very foundations with the fury contained within and giving every soldier pause.
"THAT SUN-DAMNED MARE! I WILL KILL HER! CRUSH HER, MUTILATE HER, TEAR HER APART LIMB FROM LIMB!"
Flash Sentry ducked under a thrown easel, wincing as it still managed to clip his forehead. Ignoring the pain, he watched with morbid fascination as the once-calm and collected Imperatrix Sinistra utterly wrecked the room. She blasted cloud chunks out of the walls with bursts of wind from her wings, ripping the paintings apart with her talons, and throwing every piece if furniture that got in her way at one of the room's other occupants. It was like watching a toddler throwing a tantrum, Flash thought. Only, toddlers didn't often have the power to kill with a snap.
Crouched next to him, Lightning Dust looked as terrified as Flash felt. From the look on her face he guessed that such outbursts only rarely happened.
Once there was no more furniture to throw or artwork to destroy, Sinistra calmed down. She stood panting at the room's center, gaze sweeping over the destruction. Her left eye had developed a twitch. "Rainbow Dash has foiled me. The Equestrian hero escorts my prey to the Crystal Empire as we speak."
Lightning Dust, who Flash noticed had growled at Rainbow Dash's name, stamped a hoof. "They're too close now to intercept before reaching the capitol."
"Yes," said Sinistra, looking first at Lightning Dust and then at Flash. "But we could get there soon after them. We can no longer keep ourselves secret from the Equestrians, but now that the time has come, we can let ourselves be known in our own devastating way."
"Ready my guard, commander," said Sinistra. She turned away, talons glowing with that dark magic once more as she began filling in the holes torn through the room. "Recharge the weapon for another attack. We have an empire to-"
"We don't need to be enemies!" Before Lightning Dust could silence or stop him Flash went to Sinistra's side, dropping down into the closest he could get to a begging gesture. "Us, our peoples, we don't need to be enemies! We never did! You've shown your strength, you don't need to do anything else!"
The smile the hippogryph turned on him then made Flash recoil as if struck. "Oh, naive Equestrian, but I WANT to be foes!"
The remaining journey to the Crystal Empire was not long, promised Rainbow Dash. No more than half an hour at most, even going at a slower than top speed to allow Moonbow to rest. Though the hippogryph objected to this, not wanting to be a burden when they were so close to the end, it was hard to argue against someone like Rainbow Dash. And so on they flew, Fritz riding on Rainbow Dash's back now, as Moonbow told her story once more.
"Wow," said Rainbow Dash once this was finished, gaze lost in the horizon ahead where, if Moonbow squinted, she could see a tower or castle rising up. "This Hege-something sounds like a bad crowd all around. And Lightning Dust… blast it all…"
Moonbow looked over, surprised by the bitterness suddenly in the older mare's voice. "Did you know her? Um, ma'am?"
Rainbow Dash grimaced here. "Ugh, don't call me that, it makes me feel my age. And yeah, yeah, I knew her. It was a long time ago. We were both cadets for the Wonderbolts, but she got thrown out for being a murderously uncaring little… well, that's the past.
"But what about you though?" she asked, looking over at Moonbow. "You look like you've got questions. And you sure weren't able to talk earlier, heh."
Moonbow blushed at the jab, light as it was. "Yeah, I… my parents, they told me stories about you and your friends, impossible stories of adventures I couldn't believe. The Elements of Harmony. The changeling invasion of Canterlot. Tirek. I grew up on those stories, but I never believed…"
"They're true," said Rainbow Dash, grinning at her now. "All of them. And now, heh, it looks like you might be in a new one of those stories."
Before Moonbow could think of anything to say to that, Fritz stood up on Rainbow Dash's back and pointed ahead. "We've made it!"
Moonbow looked ahead and nearly stopped flying at the sight now before her, once more unlike anything from home. She had no words at first for the vast crystal city they had begun flying, nor the tower-like castle at the center, as large as some of the mountains of her home. Everything dazzled with the light of the sun, the streets below filled with laughter and mirth as the crystal ponies went about their lives with peaceful bliss.
"Yeesh," said Moonbow, her neck starting to hurt as she craned her head every which way to see everything she could. "You could fit the whole city in that castle."
"It actually can," said Rainbow Dash with a laugh, returning a wave from a passing pegasus before angling her flight downward and putting on a burst of speed. "I've seen it done, long story. Come on, time's wasting!"
Moonbow matched Rainbow's speed, following her down to the balcony toward the center of the crystal palace. She landed seconds after the elder pegasus and found her already dispatching the crystal pony guards posted there. "Where are they going?"
"To get some ponies I'd rather not try to find myself," said Rainbow Dash. To Moonbow's concern her expression was carefully neutral as she prodded Fritz off her back with a wing. "Like you said, it's a big castle. Prince Shining Armor and Princess Cadance would have been alerted the moment we touched down through some kind of complex spell thingy, but that still leaves-"
To Moonbow's continued amazement a purple alicorn came trotting onto the balcony from the hall beyond, sparkling mane and tail shifting in an unfelt breeze. Her wings twitched at her sides as she began circling the frowning pegasus, checking her all over. "Cadance and my brother called us out here to help organize and lead the search efforts, not to go flying off on our own at the slightest hint of a direction!"
"And don't think we didn't notice that light show you put on either!" The purple alicorn had finished circling Rainbow Dash and seemed content to yell from in front of her. "Honestly Dash, a sonic rainboom at your age? One of these days you're going to go too far and hurt yourself or, or-"
Moonbow tried to interject at this point, hoping to have at least a somewhat pleasant first meeting with who could only be the legendary Princess Twilight Sparkle, but Rainbow Dash let out a hard and humorless laugh before she could say anything. “This speech again? Listen egghead, if I’m ABLE to perform the sonic rainboom, then I’m GOING to perform the sonic rainboom, and I don’t see how any of that’s any of your business anyway!
“And as for going off on my own,” she continued, speaking over Fritz this time as the diamond dog tried to make introductions, “surely a princess can appreciate the value of leading by example! It’s not my fault that nobody else was fast enough to keep up! And besides, look here, two people I saved from certain doom by rushing off, so bleh, I’m right!”
Seeming to only then notice them, the purple alicorn turned to look at Moonbow and Fritz. Moonbow took a step back as anger turned to curiosity and the princess slid past Rainbow Dash to see her up close. “Oh, a hippogryph! Fascinating! And a… diamond dog? Huh. Hello! I am Twilight Sparkle, Equestria’s Princess of Friendship! It is very nice to meet you, uh…”
“Moonbow,” she said, beak hurting as she tried to twist it into a not-nervous-to-Tartarus smile, unsure if offering a handshake to someone of such higher class would be a social mistake or if not offering one would be seen as unfriendly.
“Fritz,” said the diamond dog, showing no such worries as he offered a paw that the princess gladly shook. “It is an immense honor to meet such an esteemed character of Equestria. Two of them, in fact,” he added, turning his smile to Rainbow Dash, who puffed up at the attention. “Truly, I beg you not to be too hard on Lady Dash here, for it’s true. Were it not for her, my companion and I would be tornado-torn tatters on the ground.”
Moonbow, for the first time, had to give Fritz props for his silver tongue. That was something she could admit to never having a chance or need to learn among the yaks. And so it was to her embarrassment when, Twilight Sparkle turning to her to confirm this, the best she could muster was “Uh, yeah, that’s… pretty much true, ma’am. Your highness.”
Rainbow Dash chuckled. “Careful, Twi, we have a bit of a fan on our hooves here.”
Moonbow’s cheeks flushed red. Twilight shot Rainbow Dash a glare, before smiling and putting a hoof on Moonbow’s shoulder. “Don’t worry about that, I look forward to making fast friends with you. Unfortunately, we’re going through a little bit of a crisis right now, so that might have to wait.”
“But it won’t,” said Moonbow, forcing herself to speak in complete sentences and to not stutter or mumble. “That crisis is why I’m here, why Rainbow Dash had to save us. It’s Flash Sentry! I met him several days ago, up where I live in Yakyakistan! He’s in danger!”
And just like that, all joviality fled the scene and kidding around was forgotten. Twilight Sparkle frowned and turned to Rainbow Dash, who for the first time since Moonbow had met her assumed the posture of a military mare awaiting the command of a leader. “Dash, find out what’s taking the others so long and meet us in the throne room. I have the feeling there’s about to be some long conversations ahead.”
Moonbow could have cried. Sobbed. Downright, funeral-attendance sobbed. Everywhere she looked as Twilight led them to the throne room and barraged them with an impromptu history lesson of the Crystal Empire, every room they passed and hallway they traversed, all Moonbow saw was crystal. Red crystal, blue crystal, purple crystal, clear crystal, yellow crystal, crystal in colors she couldn't even name. So much crystal, so much the ponies there could make buildings and furniture out of it. It left her, who had struggled day after day for years mining and grinding up enough crystal from the mountains to simply survive, feeling uncomfortably resentful of the crystal ponies, something she knew she shouldn't be. They had nothing to do with her life or the harsh conditions she grew up in. Yet, as with all else in life, it felt poisonously easy to blame someone else for hardships.
The throne room, when they came to it, was every bit as opulent as Twilight had described it on the way there, as well as filled with more ponies than Moonbow had ever seen in one place. There were guards, court officials, military commanders, common citizens coming to court to air grievances and hear judgments, as well as numberless and nameless servants seeing to the needs of all the rest. With the clamor they made, Moonbow felt pity for the blue-maned unicorn stallion sitting at the throne.
"Oh dear," said Twilight, grimacing at the masses. She turned to Moonbow and Fritz with an apologetic smile. "There’s been a lot of strange weather throughout the Crystal Empire the last several weeks and it’s been hard to deal with, what with the small number of native pegasi. Add that to a leader’s normal duties and…”
At that moment Prince Shining Armor noticed them standing there, or at least noticed Twilight. He stood, silencing those who noticed. A glow surrounded his horn and when he spoke, to Moonbow’s surprise, it sounded as if he spoke through a megaphone. “Attention, everyone! EVERYONE!” The crowds stilled and quieted. The co-ruler of the Crystal Empire continued. “Important matters have come up and I’m afraid I must request all of you to leave the throne room at once. The clerks will deal with any immediate issues in their offices, but for now, court has been closed.”
Moonbow thought it a testament to how beloved Shining Armor and Princess Cadance were in how the crowds departed without a fuss, though more glanced over at her and Fritz in open curiosity than she felt comfortable with. She breathed a sigh of relief when the last pony had departed and the guards closed the doors, only to jump when the doors flew open once more. Rather than the crowds she feared however, it was only Rainbow Dash, this time accompanied by—
“Rarity! Fluttershy! Pinkie Pie! Applejack!”
Rarity struck a pose. Fluttershy eeped and stepped halfway behind the posing unicorn. Applejack gave a smile and a tip of the hat in greeting. Pinkie Pie squeed and bounced up into Moonbow’s face, making her dizzy with that wild poof of a mane. “Ooh wow, you’re good at the Guess My Name game, miss pony gryphon ma’am! Let me try, let me try!”
Just as quickly as she started bouncing she stopped and put a hoof to her chin. “Uh, lemme think, is it Galaxy? Black Snooty? Silver Quill? Ooh, ooh, do some funny analysi—”
To Moonbow’s unending relief Rarity shut Pinkie Pie’s mouth with her magic and gave her an admonishing glare. “Pinkie, darling, Rainbow Dash told us all her name on the way over here!”
“Not to mention all the troubles she ran into on her way here,” said Applejack. The farmer trotted up to Moonbow and offered a hoof to shake. “Might I say that it’s mighty fine meeting you after everything Rainbow’s told us. Good work getting here, I gotta say.”
More easily than she did with Twilight, Moonbow shook the hoof and smiled. “The honor’s all mine to meet you. All of you,” she said, letting go of the hoof to look at Rainbow Dash and Rarity, Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy, Twilight Sparkle and Shining Armor. “Meeting all of you… my childhood heroes… it’s just a dream come true.”
“She has a way of making you feel old, doesn’t she,” Rainbow Dash stage-whispered to Rarity, to which there were chuckles all around. Moonbow’s cheeks warmed, but she joined in with the laughter. Around them, friendship felt possible.
Once the laughter had quieted Shining Armor stepped forward, all business. “Well, now that introductions have all been made, I have the feeling you can help us with my good soldier, Flash Sentry?”
“Wait a moment,” said Applejack, looking around at all those gathered. “Wait about Princess Cadance? I reckon this sort of thing is important enough for the Princess of the Crystal Empire to get involved in.”
“She’s off visiting Gryphonstone,” said Shining Armor, flashing into Moonbow’s mind images of windswept mountains covered in snow. “Since so few pegasi lived here, we thought an alliance with the gryphons might be good. I sent word to her once this problem started, but she won’t be back here for a while yet.
“And now,” the prince said again, turning to Moonbow once more. “Your news?”
Moonbow nodded and, feeling the eyes of all those present on her like a physical weight, retrieved the memory crystal from her saddlebags with her magic. “It was… I’m not even sure how many days it was now. I was coming back home from the yak village I trade the crystal I mine when I found your Flash Sentry collapsed against my door. I brought him in, tended his wounds. When he woke he told me that he’d been on a mission to find a magical drone um, thing, that’d gone down in the wastes.”
Shining Armor nodded, shaking loose the layer of falling snow collecting there. “I can confirm that much. I’m… guessing that the unicorns I sent with him were nowhere to be seen.”
Moonbow shook her head, wishing more than anything that she had good news for her heroes. “I’m sorry, no. They were attacked by the Feather Hegemony, the descendants of those pegasi who stayed behind in the pony homelands when the rest formed Equestria. He was only able to get away with this.” She held up the memory crystal, garnering an “ooh” from Rarity. “Your drone apparently saw something the Hegemony didn’t want getting back to you, and they were willing to get lethal over it.”
Fluttershy took a step forward, ears folded back against her head. “A-and Flash Sentry?”
“I’m sorry,” said Moonbow, holding the memory crystal out to Shining Armor. “Hegemony soldiers led by a Lightning Dust captured him the next day. The most he could do was entrust this to me and hope you all could use it.”
Shining Armor took the memory crystal, looking it over a moment before holding it out to Twilight. "You were involved in the experiments. Do you think you can get this thing's memories out?"
"Definitely," said Twilight as she took the crystal with her magic. Motioning for the rest of them to follow, the purple princess waded through the knee-deep snow to an open window. "I just need to check the crystal for any damage."
At this last word something strange happened. The world around Moonbow shimmered, rippling like the surface of a disturbed pond. She spun around, looking at this and how none of the others seemed to notice, then gasped as the scene changed to a balcony near-identical to the one she and Rainbow Dash had landed on, though made of darker crystal.
“THE TIME HAS COME FOR VICTORY!”
Moonbow whirled to the far end of the balcony, gaping at the sight before her. Flash Sentry, guarded by Lightning Dust and the hulking gryphon Bruno to his left and right, while ahead of him stood a hippogryph far larger than her and all-black. Past the balcony, the snowy field beyond was covered by thousands and thousands of figures, ponies and gryphons glinting in the sunlight in what must have been steel armor.
“THE TIME HAS COME FOR WAR!” the other hippogryph continued, earning her a roar of approval from the crowds below that shook the balcony and all who stood on it. “WAR AND BLOODSHED AND THE UTTER DESTRUCTION OF OUR ENEMIES! FOR TOO LONG HAS EQUESTRIA ENJOYED ITS PEACE AND HARMONY, BLIND TO THE HARSH REALITY THAT WE BRAVE DAY TO DAY! IT IS TIME FOR US TO SHATTER THAT END THAT DREAM! THAT DYING DREAM! DYING DREAM! DYING, DYING, DYING, DREAM—”
Like a record skipping, the world around Moonbow reverted back to the Crystal Empire throne room. She stumbled from the sudden sense of vertigo twisting her stomach into knots, while a stabbing pain flared to life in her left flank.
Before she could begin to make heads or tails of what had just happened, Twilight let loose a whoop of triumph. “Yes! The crystal is in perfect shape! Gather around, everypony. Let’s see what those Hegemony folks were hiding.”
A moment passed as Twilight loosed a stream of magic into the crystal floating in front of her, before with a flash a beam of light shot from the crystal to the floor between Moonbow’s front legs. She eeped and danced back, just in time for a flickering, ghostly-blue image to rise into being.
They all gaped at the sight revealed before them. Rarity broke the silence first, posh voice hesitant and unsure. “Um, girls, are my poor eyes fooling me or is that… well…”
"The crystal castle!?" Moonbow had never before imagined angry bouncing to even be possible, but Pinkie Pie did it then as she glared up at the magical hologram. "Get some original ideas, you big meanie-heads!"
"I don't get it," said Rainbow Dash, flying around the hologram to see it from all sides. As far as any of them could see, it was a perfect replica they all stood in. "I mean, why do this? It's a great castle, nice and… towery, but why copy it like this? Kind of lame."
Twilight and Shining Armor shared a look. Moonbow, noticing this, felt a knot form in her gut at the worry in their eyes. "Doooo either of you have an idea?”
Shining Armor spoke first, his pacing taking him back to his throne. "It's not just a tower. Cadance knows esoteric magic better than me, she could explain this better if she were here, but this castle is more than it seems. The configuration of the crystal it's constructed from allows the light of the Crystal Heart down below to spread across all of Equestria."
"Without it," said Twilight, taking over, "the Heart would only be able to cover the city."
“Okay,” said Applejack, looking around, “so these Hegemony folk are able to cast magic all over their nation. Why all the secrecy and war stuff?”
At that moment, Moonbow remembered two things. First, she remembered the vision from moments before, of Flash Sentry and Lightning Dust and who she guessed to be the Hegemony leader promising the destruction of Equestria. Second, she remembered the roar of the tornado chasing her and xcldugrd;lhvcg down, ruining the land with its passing. That knot in her belly grew cold and twisted tighter. In contrast to that a charge seemed to fill the air, prickling skin and causing coats to stand on end. “What if… what if they used their tower to cast magic at us? Like… pegasi weather magic?”
As if summoned by this terrified guess, the charge in the air spiked, and then came a flash and crash of lightning and a boom of thunder, and the entire throne room shook. Chandeliers fell from the ceiling and shattered, while a deep crack split down the length of the room, from throne to doorway. Afterward came the stench of ozone.
“Twilight, hurry!” Shining Armor staggered for the closest window, Moonbow following for reasons she couldn’t explain. “We’ve got to put up a shield around the castle before another attack hits!”
Moonbow had a moment to puzzle over how the prince of the Crystal Empire would know another of whatever had just happened would come again, before another flash, crash, boom, and this time the most ear-aching CRUNCH of shattering crystal. Moonbow screamed as the floor gave out beneath her.