The velvet curtain of night lifted and the first ruddy beams of dawn penetrated the thick mists of Ghastly Gorge. The little airship of the brigands neared its final destination at an old castle ruin on the other side of the mountain. Trixie instructed her subordinates that they would continue to the Pegasopolis frontier on-hoof, so as not to give away their presence to any long-range patrols.
"Uh... bad news, boss!" Rainbow Dash yelped. "That thing following us? I can see what it is now."
The four ponies -- Princess Rarity included -- stared out over the mountainside. It was no dragon pursuing them; it was a pony! Swathed all in black was he, with a matching mask to hide his face. He was slung by leather harness beneath a bizarre contraption of papery hide stretched taut over wooden frame.
Airships weren't entirely uncommon outside Unicornia, but none present had ever before seen something so nimble and expertly crafted. They couldn't decide what was more astounding: that such a thing actually flew or that a lone pony had tailed them all night through the Ghastly Gorge.
"Don't just stand there, gaping like slack-jawed foals!" Trixie shrieked. "Do something! Anything!"
Using her magic, the unicorn began launching rocks and bits of broken masonry at their pursuer. Rainbow Dash swept up a pile and pitched them fastball-style. Big Macintosh reluctantly kicked stones over the cliff edge, but even the most halfhearted kick from the giant stallion's massively muscled legs sent them whistling through the air like deadly missiles.
The Pony-in-Black tried to avoid the sudden hailstorm without success. His contraption was battered and shot full of holes, finally losing altitude and crashing into the mountainside. Its shredded remains clattered and spun into the rocks below.
Rainbow Dash peered over the edge. She blinked, then looked again.
Trixie sighed. "Don't tell me--"
"He's climbing," Dash confirmed.
Apparently not a pegasus himself, the Pony-in-Black was clinging to the cliff as if by sheer will alone. His movements were tentative, one hoof placed before the other, tested and then trusted, slowly crawling up the sheer rock wall.
"Color me impressed," Macintosh drawled.
"Inconceivable!" Trixie raged.
"You keep using that word," the big red stallion noted. "I dun think it means what you think it means."
"Shut up, you... you... YOU! Dash, fly down there and stab him! Stab him with your sword! Or is that just for show?"
The pegasus glanced at the rapier strapped to her hip. She was no swordmaster, but had trained with one theatrically and was quickly becoming accustomed to the 'finer points' of its use, given her new profession. However, it was not cowardice that stayed her hoof from acting this time.
"I won't do it," Dash refused without shame. "Even I won't sink that low. I'll wait until he reaches the top and we'll go at it in fair combat, pony to pony."
"Have it your way!" Trixie finally relented. "Macintosh, you carry the princess. We'll be taking the caverns down to the foothills. Don't worry," she sneered, seeing his expression. "There's nothing living in these. Dash, catch up with us when he's dead. And make absolutely, positively, one-hundred-percent sure of it!"
Trixie grabbed a sack of provisions from her wagon and stomped off into the ruins, looking for the caves.
Macintosh nudged Rainbow Dash. "You be careful, Ms. Dash. Ponies in masks can't be trusted."
The pegasus smiled and waved him off, but said nothing. Dash had to psyche herself up for what was to come. Taking a life was never easy and she had mostly been able to avoid it -- no mean feat in this line of work -- but she had a feeling this Pony-in-Black would be an implacable opponent.
Dash curled her hoof around the basket-handle of her rapier and drew the long, narrow blade. She practiced a few moves and its razor tip sliced through the air with ease.
The wind had mostly died down now. There was no other sound in the castle ruins around her, so she heard every scrape and chip of stone that echoed up from below as the Pony-in-Black climbed, but it was too maddeningly slow for her tastes. Peeking over the side, Dash saw that the Pony-in-Black had made little progress and was still a long way from the top.
"Hey there!" she called. "Slow going?"
The Pony-in-Black paused and looked up from the rock wall inches in front of his face.
"I don't mean to be rude, but this is not as easy as it looks," he said, voice remarkably calm and cultured, considering the circumstances. "I'd appreciate it if you wouldn't distract me."
Dash apologized and stepped away from the ledge, then impatiently turned back. "Any chance you could hurry it up, pal? I'm kinda on the clock, you know?"
"If you're in such a hurry, you could lower a rope or a tree branch or find something useful to do."
"I could do that," Dash considered. "I've got some rope up here, but I don't think you'd accept my help, since I'm only waiting around to kill you."
"That does put a damper on our relationship," the Pony-in-Black replied with dry wit.
"But I promise not to kill you until you reach the top. Cross my heart and hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye," Dash swore, making the appropriate gestures.
"That's very comforting, but I'm afraid you'll just have to wait."
"I hate waiting," Dash groused. "I could give you my word as a pegasus?"
"No good," the Pony-in-Black said with a grunt of exertion. "I've known too many pegasi."
"Is there any way you'll trust me?"
"Nothing comes to mind."
Rainbow Dash looked down on the determined stallion below her and felt a sudden surge of chivalry. "I swear under the eyes of Celestia, may my feathers be scorched by the Sun if I lie: You will reach the top alive."
The Pony-in-Black regarded the pegasus as if seeing her more clearly. "Throw me the rope."
Dash retrieved a coil of rigging from Trixie's wagon, tied it securely to an axle, and tossed the other end over the cliff. The Pony-in-Black caught it in his teeth, then wrapped his forehooves around it. With Dash pulling and him walking up the wall, they finally hauled his weary form to the relative safety of the ruins.
"Thank you," the Pony-in-Black sighed. He dragged himself away from the edge, then rose and started to draw a sword of his own that hung behind his back.
"Whoa! Wait until you're ready," the pegasus offered.
"Again, thank you," the stallion nodded. He sat and caught his breath, then pulled off one boot at a time to shake out some pebbles that had been troubling him.
Dash took the opportunity to examine her soon-to-be foe. What she could see of his dull brown coat was not particularly distinctive, aside from a pencil thin mustache adorning his upper lip. She could also see that he wasn't a unicorn either, so likely not an agent of Unicornia. He was lean and fit, but otherwise a completely ordinary earth pony.
"You look well-traveled," she said, trying to break the ice.
"I'll take that as a compliment, thank you. Piracy does necessitate staying on the move, after all."
The pegasus nodded, understanding a bit more. Perhaps he was a poacher, looking to claim the princess for himself to ransom.
"I don't suppose you've ever met a griffon in your travels?" she asked. "A griffoness, specifically, with white and purple plumage?"
The Pony-in-Black gave her a flat look. "Can't say that I have. Why do you ask?"
"I had a friend once who was a griffon, named Gilda. Knew her since fillyhood, on the mean streets of Cloudsdale. Gilda was the only one who could ever keep up with me; and had a wicked sense of humor to boot. We ran scams on the adults to earn coin, one performing tricks while the other picked pockets. When we were old enough, we decided to go legit and try out for the Wonderbolts."
"I've seen their act. I hear they only take the best."
"We were the best!" Rainbow Dash insisted. "But they only had room for one. I thought Gilda and me were going to be cool about it, but she totally stabbed me in the back. Laced my costume with itching powder, lit a hothoof to trip me up. All those practical jokes we used to play on the adults seemed harmless, until she was using them to make me look like a foal. I was laughed off the stage."
"Truly, a tale of woe."
"And you know what the worst part was? When the Wonderbolts offered the job to Gilda, she turned it down! Damn featherbrain just wanted to see me fail! Some friend, huh? I couldn't forgive her after that. Left Pegasopolis and never looked back. Only, there's not much work for a small-timer like me. I did some rotten things to keep from going hungry and now I'm just a merc for that hornhead Trixie. If I ever see Gilda again, I'm gonna introduce her to my pointy new friend here," she growled, patting the hilt of her rapier.
"You have my sympathies. Sounds like you've led a troubled life."
Rainbow Dash shrugged, trying to play it off. Why did she pour her heart out to this stranger? Still, it felt good to get all that off her chest, even if her audience was about to die. "You do what you hafta to survive, right?"
"I feel much the same." The Pony-in-Black clopped his hooves together and rose to standing.
"You ready, then?"
"Whether I am or not, you've been more than fair."
"You're a pretty cool dude. I hate to kill you."
"You're pretty cool yourself. I hate to die."
Rainbow Dash drew steel and assumed a classic fencing stance. The Pony-in-Black followed suit. Dash tipped her head in a small salute. "Let's do this."