As night fell, Trixie's airship floated lazily toward the mountain range at Unicornia's northern border. They rose sharply into the sky, their peaks obscured by an ominous gray nimbus.
Although Pegasopolis lay just on the other side, not even the most daring pegasus would attempt to surmount them, so the long journey around the mountains and over the wild Everfree Forest was really all that maintained the shaky peace between the two pony nations.
"Look here!" Trixie called, waving a hoof towards the gloomy gap in the mountains for which their course was set. "We're now entering the Ghastly Gorge, the sole pass through these mountains and across the border."
Mist swirled specter-like in the Gorge and the high winds threatened to buffet them upon jagged pillars of rock that rose from the dark depths. Perhaps worse, the sheer walls were pitted with great yawning pits of inky blackness and Rainbow Dash swore she saw movement inside them.
Dash felt a wave of fear wash over her. The Ghastly Gorge was a place of horror and nightmare for her kind. "Are you sure about this, Trixie? There's a reason this gorge is so ghastly."
"The Great and Powerful Trixie is always certain, you cretin. No old pony tales are going to scare Trixie away! Besides, if we detoured around these mountains to follow the trade routes, we could easily be overtaken by the Prince's fleet. Time is of the essence!"
"Speakin' of being overtaken," Big Macintosh began. "I'm pretty sure somethin's followin' us."
Trixie brushed if off. "That would be inconceivable."
All the same, the big red stallion was leaning over the port side of the little airship and peering aft, his bulk making the boxy wagon-ship list noticeably.
"I found a hole in your plan, Trixie," Dash said, trying to distract herself from the spooky surroundings. "That little dragon got a good look at you. You even introduced yourself! What's to stop the Prince from having you thrown in a dungeon too?"
"Ha!" Trixie replied, flipping back a lock of her silvery mane. "Trixie is no simple con-mare, she is a consummate professional. A little thing like changing my identity is foal's play. I could easily become 'The Mighty and Amazing Lulamoon' and canter right through the royal court."
Rarity had woken up some time ago, but kept silent, glaring daggers at her captors. "Despite what you think, you will be caught," she huffed aloud. "And when you are, the Prince will have you all drawn and quartered."
"The only pony on this ship who should worry about being torn limb from limb is yourself, Highness," Trixie countered, grinning evilly. "There are many ravenous beasts in the wild lands between Unicornia and Pegasopolis, and not a few that would turn down a delectable morsel such as yourself. A pity it would be if the Prince should find your body thoroughly gnawed upon."
Rarity stiffened at the threat, but refused to give these brigands the satisfaction of appearing frightened.
The airship rocked again as Macintosh shuffled over to starboard. Trixie rolled her eyes in exasperation.
"Will you stop doing that, you bloody great buffoon?"
"I'm tellin' ya, somethin's right behind us. An' it's gettin' closer!"
"As Trixie told you," the unicorn said with the mock-patience one might use on a fussy foal, "it would be absolutely, totally, and in all other ways inconceivable. Nopony in Pegasopolis knows what we've done and nopony in Unicornia could have gotten here so fast." Trixie leaned back to relax... then sat up at attention. "But out of idle curiosity, what is it you think you're seeing?"
The giant stallion shook his head. "I dunno. First I thought it was a bat, but it's sure too big."
Now both Trixie and Dash looked over the stern of the ship as well, seeing a strange shape soar over the mist behind them, barely visible in the moonlight. It seemed to have great webbed appendages, but was gliding more than flapping like a bat would.
"Maybe that baby dragon sprouted some wings and decided to follow us?" Dash suggested.
"Don't be ridiculous," sneered Trixie, but she didn't sound so sure anymore. The little airship rocked violently. "Trixie said stop doing that!" the unicorn shot at Macintosh.
Big Mac blinked back at her in surprise, still at the starboard side. "Weren't me."
Trixie looked around, counting the passengers. One, two, three-- "Where's the princess?" she shrieked.
All three brigands shuffled to the port side and the ship tilted dangerously. They could now see that Rarity had taken the risk to leap onto a flat-topped pillar of rock.
"Uhg!" she exclaimed, slipping a bit on loose gravel. "I'm going to chip a hoof, I just know it!" Despite Rarity's complaining, she did not hesitate long on the precarious perch. Not all of the spires seemed stable enough to stand upon and it was slow going, but she was definitely getting away.
"What are you waiting for?" Trixie shouted at Rainbow Dash. "Go after her!"
The pegasus shook her head furiously. "I'm not stepping one hoof off this ship 'til we're out of the Gorge. I may be good, but I'm not crazy!"
"Dun look at me," Macintosh resisted.
Trixie groaned and directed the useless lackeys back to their stations. A hot air balloon wasn't very nimble and every precious moment it wasted trying to navigate back around allowed Princess Rarity another step on her way to freedom, however uncertain.
But suddenly, Rarity noticed a strange warbling cry coming from all around her. She paused, perched precariously on a pillar of rock. There was movement in the shadows of the canyon walls; movement and ghostly yellow lights...
"Do you know what that sound is, Highness?" Trixie shouted from the airship. "Those are the shrieks of the Quarray Eels! If you don't believe me, just wait. They always grow louder when they're about to feed on pony flesh!"
The tooth-filled maw of an enormous serpent poked out of a tunnel in the rock face, hungry luminescent eyes tracing lines in the gloom. Rarity froze. The eel was easily large enough to consume her whole, and judging by the multitude of lights now winking in the darkness, there was a whole colony!
"If you climb back now, The Great and Powerful Trixie promises no harm will come to you," she offered with feigned generosity. "Trixie doubts you'll get such an offer from the eels."
The shrieking rose in pitch. Rarity's mane stood on end. Already weary and dressed in a flimsy gown, she was keenly aware of being unprepared for this danger.
One of the eels finally grew impatient and lunged for the white unicorn, but luckily came up short. Razor sharp teeth snapped shut just inches from Rarity's face and that near-miss finally spurred her to action. She leapt from rock to rock, dodging the feeding frenzy as the entire colony of Quarray Eels chomped after her.
Desperate, Rarity snapped a kick at the snout of one that got too close, stunning it more with surprise than pain. This boldness came at the cost of loosing her traction and the unicorn slipped. She felt herself falling into darkness. Falling into the waiting jaws below...
"She doesn't get eaten by the eels," Applebloom said.
Scootaloo blinked. "What?"
"The eels don't get her," the yellow filly repeated. On the little earth pony's other side, Sweetie Belle giggled into her hooves. "You were lookin' kinda nervous there, Scoots."
The orange pegasus ruffled her wings indignantly. "I-I wasn't nervous!" Applebloom's disbelieving smirk just made her dig her hooves in stubbornly. "Maybe I was a little bit concerned, but that's not the same thing!"
"Should we stop now?" Granny Smith asked. At this break in the narrative, she leaned back in the rocking chair and gave an enormous yawn, though not in the manner of someone merely acting bored. "If you girls need a nap, that would be fine with me."
"No, you go ahead without us, Granny," Applebloom responded, reaching out to take the book from the old green mare. "We're gonna keep reading."
"You sure do love that story, don't you, dearie? Well, you know where to find me if you need anythin'." And with that, Granny Smith swiftly dozed off.
"Now where were we?" Applebloom wondered aloud, flipping pages.
"Do you know what that sound is, Highness?" Trixie shouted from the airship. "Those are the shrieks of the Quarray Eels!"
"We're past that already, Applebloom!" complained Scootaloo.
"Oh right!" the earth pony smirked. "My mistake! Let's see... The princess is on the rocks. The eels are all around her. She kicks one, then slips off the rock. She's falling and then..."
A rope snaked down after the falling pony and magically wrapped around Rarity's body.
"Now pull!" Trixie shouted from the airship hovering just above. "Pull, you louts!"
The reluctant princess was hauled back into the ship, but her gratitude was short-lived. Trixie's horn flared and the rope retied itself around Rarity's hooves, sealing magically.
"That whatever-it-is is gettin' closer!" Big Macintosh noted. Even in the deepening gloom of before dawn's first light, he and Rainbow Dash could see the strange winged creature on their tail as it banked and dove around the confused Quarray Eels, driving them mad with hunger.
"It's no concern of ours! Just get us back on course," Trixie demanded. She leveled her gaze at the melancholy princess. "You must think yourself very brave, Highness."
Somehow, Rarity maintained her composure. "Only compared to some."