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Featherflit's narrow escape

by shaslan

Featherflit’s outstretched claws closed on the dragonfruit. The squishy flesh gave beneath her talons, and she sucked in a breath. It was perfectly ripe. Saliva flooded her mouth as she looked at the pink and green rind, and her pale tongue touched the outside of her beak just once. Once she plucked it, there was no going back. She narrowed her eyes for a moment in thought, then shut her eyes and sucked in a breath. No. There was no way she was giving up now. She needed this dragonfruit.

Keeping one clawed hand on the fruit, Featherflit widened her stance. She bunched her hind legs and tensed her hooves so she would be ready to leap. She spread her wings as wide and as high as she could, all her power focused in her shoulder blades. She was as ready as she’d ever be. Time to pull the plug.

In one fast motion, Featherflit snatched the dragonfruit from its stalk. She shoved down as hard as she could with her hind legs, propelling herself into the air, and at the same moment she snapped her wings down. She was up! She beat her wings frantically, trying to push herself away from the earth beneath her as quickly as she could.

For a moment it seemed that everything was going well, that nopony had noticed. The dragonfruit was safe in her claws, she was gaining altitude rapidly — might she actually get away with this?
A tremor ran across the ground where Featherflit had stood a heartbeat before. The soil split and the earth groaned.

Featherflit was high enough now to see the whole island beneath her; not a large island, but grassy and round, with boulders scattered on the turf and a profusion of dragonfruit trees spreading their feathery fronds everywhere she looked. The water to the north of the island heaved and then a huge head smashed through the surface. The creature blinked its small black eyes for half a second. Then that monstrous head tipped back, its blunt muzzle was cracked almost in two by its gaping jaws, and it began to bellow.

Featherflit flinched at the sound and began to flap faster. “Oh, horseapples.

The screaming roar of the monster below nearly knocked her sideways with its force, but worse still was the reaction it produced on the island. The trees began to shiver. Featherflit bit her lower beak and flapped with all her might. One glance down showed her all she needed to know. Those graceful palm-like fronds were unfolding to reveal the scaly little beasts sleeping beneath, hideous dragon-insect hybrids with sharp little teeth that Featherflit knew were much stronger than hippogriff feathers. As one, the dragonflies spread their translucent green wings. Featherflit felt the stinging glare of dozens of slitted green eyes and then the air filled with the dreadful buzz of their wings.

Featherflit threw herself westwards, praying that her head start would be enough to save her. But the bugle of the earth monster was still ringing out below her, and to her horror, she heard the crunching sound of rock on rock. That could only mean one thing. The earth dragon was getting up.

She tried to increase her speed again, but the wind was roaring in her face and tears were beginning to sting her eyes. There were limits to how fast even fear could make you.
The drone of the dragonflies grew louder behind her, and Featherflit’s breath hitched in her throat. She clamped the dragonfruit to her chest and tried to make her body a straight line. Aerodynamics would make her faster, right? Right? Something had to!

The earth dragon below her finally paused for breath, and Featherflit clearly heard the drag of it inhaling. Her mind racing, her eyes widened in recognition of the beast’s intentions, and she flung herself to the left. Not a second later, a blast of blue-green fire screamed past her, close enough to scorch the tips of her primary feathers. Featherflit’s jaw gaped as she watched the stream of fire die away. She hadn’t known they could breath fire! That wasn’t fair play at all — they lived underwater, for Nova’s sake!

The hum of dragonfly wings grew closer than ever. Featherflit risked a glance over one shoulder and immediately wished she hadn’t. The first of the repulsive brown creatures was almost upon her, its clawed forepaw reaching for her tail. With a small cry of alarm, she whisked it away from the outstretched talons and banked hard to the right to try and shake it. But she lost precious meters of her lead and then the others were surrounding her.

Desperately, she kicked the grasping claws away from her. She clamped her wings to her sides and tried to barrel roll, but the dreadful sight of the horizon spiralling in front of her filled her throat with the acrid tang of vomit and she hastily flattened out again. “Leave me alone!” she howled, plunging to avoid another one as it came in for the kill. “It was just one fruit! Surely you can’t need every single one?”

The dragonfly’s only response was a howl, a shrill counterpoint to the receding roars of the earth dragon behind them. The other beasts behind it took up the cry, and the hum of their wings was almost deafening.

Featherflit tightened her fist around the dragonfruit and tried to focus. Think, Featherflit, think! She had been planning for weeks, just skulking around the islands trying to learn anything that might help her in her theft. There had to be something that she had picked up.

She tried to list her knowledge rationally. The earth dragons dwelt together in the shallow sandbanks where the water was warm, feeding on the tropical fish that dwelt there. After seeing them sun themselves every day, moving when the sky was overcast, she was pretty sure they also fed on the sunlight picked up by all those leaves. She had not known they could breathe fire, but that was useful knowledge; file it away for later, Featherflit.

And the other factor: the dragonflies. They were the islands’ only inhabitants. Featherflit had seen a few ungainly teenage earth dragons with the gauzy remnants of gossamer wings hanging in tattered strips from their calcifying scales. If they were anything to judge by, it seemed that if the dragonflies would become earth dragons themselves if they survived long enough.

They seemed to feed on the dragonfruits, which seemed to grow almost indefinitely, turning from pink to green to black, and then when they were almost the size of Featherflit herself, would fall from the tree and break open on the soil, full of crunchy seeds. The dragonflies would swarm and eat the seeds, each one as big as a fist, but Featherflit had never seen the dragonflies show interest in any of the smaller, ripe ones that she had recognised from the illustration the librarian had shown her.

“The dragonfruit,” he had announced in that papery voice of his, white beard swinging underneath his beak with ever word. “Very rare, extremely valuable, found in only one place on the planet. But I believe that would achieve the intensity of colour that you say you’re looking for.”

Featherflit’s mind turned to her painting; her beautiful, indescribable masterpiece. Featherflit had been painting since she was a hatchling, and she almost exclusively painted her one great love; the sky. The sky was the perfect subject, Featherflit believed; it had so many faces, one could never get bored of it. Hippogriffs were dull in comparison — each had only one hue in their coats. But the sky had hundreds; every day it would show her a different palette, and every day she would strive to capture its beauty. Sometimes she would give her paintings accents, little touches to further emphasise the beauty of the sky. Mount Aris, the sea, a soaring hippogriff; each were only details designed to set off the glory of her beloved stratosphere. Her home was stuffed to the brim with hundreds upon hundreds of her paintings, each showing a different variant of the sky’s endlessly variable expressions. There were stormy paintings filled with heavy grey clouds and wind-tossed rain. There were blazing orange sunsets and glorious blue afternoons, moody purple twilights and gentle yellow mornings. Hippogriffs often came to buy her work, and she nearly always let them choose the ones they wanted.

But Featherflit’s current project was different. She still remembered the morning she had seen it. She had gotten up extra early, before anyone else in the city was awake. She had gathered her brushes and paints, and settled herself on a particularly comfortable cloud facing the east. There she had waited for almost an hour, shivering and sipping from her flask, but when the light broke over the eastern horizon, she knew at once that every second had been worth it. The dawn spread gentle rosy talons over the mountains of the ocean, an orange glow spread across the sky, and Featherflit had readied her palette. But then the sun had risen a little more, and the most wonderful unearthly pink had flooded the sky, a hundred shades of it colouring the air and the clouds, and Featherflit had stared in horror at her inadequate paints. She had nothing that could make the colours she saw! The beautiful pink sky only lasted a few minutes, but Featherflit had remained transfixed, staring in mute anger at her paltry collection of colours. They would not do. She had to commit the beauty of that morning to canvas, she knew it. Even if it cost her thousands of bits, even if it took her whole life, she had to do it. And once she had done it, she would put the painting on the wall in her own bedroom, safely away from the art gallery where buyers came to browse, and she would never sell it, even if she lived to be a thousand.

Another claw gouging across her flank snapped Featherflit uncomfortably back to the present and she gritted her teeth and upped her pace again. “Oh, go get the dragonfruit,” she rasped, trying to mimic the librarian’s aged voice. “Young thing like you, it shouldn’t be too hard.”

The dragonfly behind her sank its teeth into her tail hair and Featherflit hissed in frustration. “It shouldn’t be too hard. Yeah, right.”

She snapped her wings inward and plunged towards the ocean. She had to narrow her eyes until they were almost entirely closed against the howling wind, and she heard the scream of the dragonflies as they tore after her.

Featherflit’s heart thudded in her chest as the sea loomed larger, larger, until it entirely filled her vision, but she held her nerve. Just a little longer, just a little more.

Then at last, finally, when she was within claw’s reach of the surface, she flared her wings out as wide as they would go. The force nearly pulled her bones from their sockets, but she stayed aloft and just managing to level out. Her hooves skimmed the surface of the water and she held her breath and tried to get herself a little higher.

Behind her, she heard the garbled shrieks of the dragonflies as they tried to pull up, but chitin is less dextrous than chitin, and just as Featherflit had hoped, the dragonflies weren’t able to pull out of the dive in time. She heard the wet plops as they hit the water, and her grin was wide and fierce. She looked back once more, to see them paddling miserably in the choppy water, their wings too heavy for flight. In the distance, their parent earth dragon began its ponderous way across the ocean to collect them.

Featherflit beamed and turned her beak towards home. She could hardly believe it, but she had done it!

****************************************************************************************************************************

There it was. Almost black against the blue sky, Mount Aris loomed tall and forbidding before her. But Featherflit’s heart sang within her and gave her wings fresh strength. She beat faster, and a breeze seemed to spring up from nowhere to help speed her home.

When she landed she wasted no time in hurrying to her studio. There were more hippogriffs than usual out and about, many of them clutching bundles of belongings. A few of them called out to her, but Featherflit wasted no thought on it. There was time enough for friends and family later, after her painting was complete.

Once home, she peeled the fruit, allowed herself a small nibble of its moist flesh — absolutely delicious — and then she began to grind the pink rind into paste. Finally, she mashed the flesh, mixed the juice into the paste, and voila! All was ready. Holding the shell she used as a palette, she turned eagerly to the canvas, dipped her brush into that exquisitely pink paint, and held it ready over the orangey sky. She was just lowering her brush for that wonderful first stroke —

When the door to her studio slammed open and a terrified pink hippogriff burst into the room. “Featherflit, Featherflit, thank the stars you’re alive! We all thought you were dead, we all thought he’d gotten you—”

Featherflit just barely managed to protect her paint as her sister cannoned into her, tears streaming down her face. “Woah, Flylight! Watch the shell, watch the shell!”

Her sister finally stopped, panting, and looked her in the face. “Where have you been? You’ve been gone for over a month!”

“I told you I was going to the earth dragon islands,” Featherflit said defensively. “You knew I’d be away a while.”

“Yes, but there’s been so much happening since then,” Flylight sniffed. “There’s someone coming — to take our magic, to enslave us—”

Featherflit looked at her sister properly for the first time. ”What?”

“— the Cloud King — the Storm King — something like that — I don’t know, Featherflit, but we’re all meant to be evacuating! I waited as long as I could, tomorrow is the last day — I didn’t know if you were going to be back in time, and I was so scared for you!”

Featherflit hesitantly set her paint down and tried to think. “Evacuating? Where are we going?” She cast around her, trying to calculate how long it would take her to gather her paints and roll up her favourite works. She found a bag and started scooping brushes into it, but Flylight placed a claw on her shoulder.

“There’s no time, Featherflit. We have to go now. We flooded the catacombs — Queen Nova is going to use the Pearl on everypony. We’re going underwater.”

Featherflit set down her bag and followed her sister to the door of the studio. “Underwater?” she asked. “What do you mean underwater?”

Flylight hustled her down the stairs and out of the door. Featherflit looked up at the sky, beautiful as always. Cerulean and aqua blue today. Tears pricked at her eyes. To go underwater? Away from her beautiful sky, away from her paintings and her studio?

She looked back over her shoulder at that friendly grey stone building, at its sky-blue shutters and door. “Flylight, wait, I—”

“—There’s no time,” her sister said, dragging her by the claw after the crowd of hippogriffs headed for the castle. “There’s no time, we’re almost too late as it is.”

Helpless and numb, Featherflit let herself be towed. As the doors of the castle gaped to receive them, she turned for one last look at the blue firmament, her oldest and most beloved friend, and then followed her sister into the darkness.