Notes: This is a sequel to It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia, but don't think this is another romantic comedy. The genre here is action/adventure, with some comedy, romance, drama and the like along for the ride. Also, being a sequel, I strongly recommend reading that one first. It can be found in my account or under the author name Bobcat at Equestria Daily.
As always, thanks to everyone who helped me out with this story over the last couple of months; I started writing this within a week of the publication of It's Always Sunny in Fillydelphia and it's been a long road to get here. I hope you all enjoy it.
Civium in Moribu Rei Publiae Salus
Forty-seven days. It had been forty-seven days since Soarin's day with Applejack in Fillydelphia. He'd felt every last minute of those forty-seven days; KP duty had a way of doing that. If he never saw another potato as long as he lived, it would be too soon. No wait. If he never saw a raw potato again, it'd be too soon. French fries and baked potatoes and potato salad were still fine. Oh, and mashed potatoes! How could he forget mashed potatoes?
Nuts. Now he was hungry.
Oh well. He'd be at Sweet Apple Acres soon, and then he'd get all the apples he could want. And while he craved potatoes, he liked apples better anyway.
Also he'd have Applejack. He forgot he was hungry when he thought about her. He could measure the time in days, but it was more pleasant if he measured it by the letters they'd exchanged. It had been three letters since he'd last seen Applejack and he'd felt every last one of them. They'd been a lifeline to the world beyond the Wonderbolts' cafeteria and proof that Applejack was worth forty-seven days of KP duty. He couldn't think of another mare he'd dated who would have bothered to send him one, even under these circumstances.
And now he got to see her again! He was also going meet her family. Soarin was a little less enthused about that. He hoped they were as nice as she'd made them sound in the letters. He'd also feel less nervous if she was exaggerating about how big her brother was. Meeting big brothers was awkward enough, but Applejack made Big Macintosh sound even bigger than his squad mate Hermes, and Hermes had the biggest uniform in Wonderbolts history.
Finally, after flying over a veritable sea of apple trees (how did two ponies take care of so many trees? It was like Applejack lived on permanent KP duty!), he saw a cozy looking farm house. He hoped it was the right one this time; he'd rather forget his encounter with the lemon folk. As he got closer, Soarin spied a pony working in front of the barn. Nuts; his fears were well founded. The red stallion loading apples into an apple cart was somehow even bigger than he'd imagined. Oh well, it was too late to back out now.
Soarin figured he might as well make a splashy entrance; it's what everypony expected from him. So, he cut a wide arc around the farmhouse, looped upwards above Big Macintosh, braked hard, and floated straight down, letting his wings act as a parachute. "Howdy!" He extended his hoof to his audience.
... his thoroughly unimpressed audience. His face passive, Big Macintosh laconically shifted the hay stalk he was chewing on from one side of his mouth to the other before accepting Soarin's hoof. Where Applejack's shake had been vigorous, Macintosh's was subdued, though Soarin got the impression of a great strength carefully controlled. "You're Soarin, right? Ah've heard a lot about you."
Soarin saluted smartly, trying to ignore the non-reaction from Big Macintosh. "Yup, Wing Sergeant Soarin von Richthofen, at your service. You must be Big Mac... intosh." He caught himself; Applejack mentioned that he hated being called Big Mac. Soarin kicked himself mentally. He had to step up his game! He wanted to make a good first impression! Hey wait... "You've heard a lot about me?"
Big Macintosh's face was unreadable. "Sufficed to say, y'all were a favorite topic of conversation this month. Though Applejack didn't say nothin' about you wearin' a cowpony hat."
Soarin adjusted the white Stetson on his head, noting that the long flight had robbed it of its new hat smell. "When in Canterlot, do as the Canterlotians do, am I right?"
Big Macintosh's short laugh caught Soarin by surprise, considering his blank expression a moment before. The red giant must have noticed Soarin's confusion, because he said, "Maybe if we lived out in Appleoosa that'd help you blend in, but we apple folk ain't exactly typical out here."
Soarin shrugged. "Ah well. At least it's a good looking hat, if I do say so myself. Speaking of ponies who wear cowpony hats, where's Applejack?" He tried not to sound too enthusiastic. It wouldn't be proper.
Apparently he'd failed, because Big Macintosh's expression hardened ever so slightly. "She ain't here right now. In fact, ah'd like to talk to you about that, but first, y'all must be hungry after your trip." He gestured towards the farmhouse.
Soarin's stomach somehow managed to be empty and full of butterflies at the same time. "Is something wrong?"
Big Macintosh's expression became completely unreadable again. "Might be. Might not be. Either way, no sense listenin' to it on an empty stomach."
Finally, something they had in common.
Big Macintosh whistled appreciatively. "Applejack wasn't kiddin'. You can really put it away." The two sat in the dining room, which was tastefully decorated in antiques that had obviously seen a lot of use.
Soarin polished off his third apple pie and washed it down with his fourth glass of apple cider. "It isn't hard when the food's this good. My compliments to the chef!" As he finished, a little yellow filly (probably the Apple Bloom he'd heard so much about) ran in. A slightly disapproving look from Big Macintosh slowed her pace, but didn't put a damper on her obvious excitement. She hopped into a chair next to her brother and looked at Soarin intently.
Big Macintosh cupped his mouth with a hoof and raised his voice. "Granny Smith, you're gettin' complimented on your cooking!"
Soarin guessed Granny Smith was the wrinkled pony dozing in her rocking chair. She looked up, smiled pleasantly at Soarin and dozed off again.
Soarin decided to address the little pony; he was worried she'd explode from bottled-up excitement if he didn't acknowledge her soon. "Well hey, sport. You're Apple Bloom, right?" He offered her his hoof.
Apple Bloom practically leapt from her seat and grabbed his hoof, shaking it wildly. "Yup! Howdy Mr. Soarin! Ah've wanted to meet you all month! Applejack talks about you all the time. It's so romantic!" She released his hoof and got a wistful look on her face. "Are you two gonna get married? Can ah be the..."
Big Macintosh didn't put any force behind his voice, because he didn't need to. The little filly shrank in her chair. "S-sorry Big Macintosh. Ah just got carried away."
Soarin was glad Big Macintosh had intervened. Hopefully the color would leave his face soon and Big Macintosh would stop that understated little glare he'd been shooting Soarin ever since the word marriage came up. "Well, um, I'm still getting to know her, so I can't say."
Apple Bloom blinked. "Really? She knows a lot about you."
Soarin gave her a quizzical look. "What do you mean?"
"Well, one night, Rainbow Dash came over with a whole bunch of flying magazines and stuff and they just talked about you all night and giggled. Though ah don't think they were gigglin' for the same reason." Soarin's face burned again. Seemingly oblivious, Apple Bloom rubbed her chin thoughtfully. "Why're you dating Applejack anyway? You said in Pony Beat that y'all like red-furred fillies."
Soarin drank more apple cider. That seemed to be the safest use of his mouth. Big Macintosh gave Apple Bloom a firm look. Soarin was glad he wasn't on the receiving end; it reminded him of his old drill sergeant, Blood 'n Guts. Oh nuts, now it was his turn. Soarin felt an odd urge to start doing pushups.
After a long moment of silence, Apple Bloom looked up nervously at Big Macintosh, then back at Soarin. "Mr. Soarin, do y'all mind if ah ask you a question?"
Big Macintosh said, "Apple Bloom, simmer down. You can't just ask every guest about their cutie marks. It's too personal."
She looked up at her brother pleadingly. "But how am ah supposed to get mine if ah don't get information? Ah'm sure he don't mind, right Mr. Soarin?"
Those big doe eyes were hard to resist. "Uh, sure, it's not a problem. There's not a lot of action to it, though." He stood up and pointed at his flank, which was marked with a gold, two winged insignia set against a red circle. "Though I'm not sure how much good my story is to you. I have kind of a weird mark."
"Is that writin' on the edge of the circle?" Soarin nodded. "Cool! Ah ain't never seen a cutie mark with writin' on it before!" Apple Bloom squinted. "S-semp..."
Big Macintosh corrected her, his tone like a patient teacher's. "Semper fidelis. It's old Equestrian, but ah forget what it means."
Soarin nodded proudly. "It means always faithful; it's my family's motto. See, I'm a von Richthofen. We're technically nobles, but nopony in the family's had a real title or any land for centuries. But we still have a family crest and that's what my mark is."
Apple Bloom raised an eyebrow. "Um, if y'all don't mind me askin', does that mean your talent is... bein' in your family?"
Soarin chuckled. "A little, actually. See, I was late getting my mark. Really late; I had to wait until I was thirteen."
Apple Bloom's jaw dropped. "You mean ah might have to wait four whole years to get mah mark? B-but ah..."
"You asked for a story, Apple Bloom, let him tell it." He didn't sound mad, but his tone allowed for no argument.
Apple Bloom nodded shamefacedly. "Yes Big Macintosh. Sorry to interrupt, Mr. Soarin."
Soarin waved away the apology with a smile. "It's fine. Anyway, Apple Bloom, I have a family business I was born into, just like you. The main difference is that mine is war. Sure, there hasn't been a war in 700 years, but we Wonderbolts train hard to make sure we're ready in case we're needed."
Apple Bloom produced a writing pad and a pencil. "Could y'all slow down for a second?" Without waiting for confirmation, she started taking notes. Was this part of that crusading business Applejack had mentioned? She finished after a moment. "So war, huh? Sounds exciting!"
Soarin frowned and made a "sort of" gesture. "That was sort of the problem. You ever heard the expression that war is long periods of boredom punctuated by brief moments of terror?" Both ponies shook their heads. Soarin rubbed the back of his head embarrassedly. "Oh. Well, remember it, 'cause it's a good line. But yeah... if actual war is boring, practicing and practicing when you know it'll never come up isn't much better. I was good at my drills and maneuvers, but I didn't understand what they were for. Then one night, my grandfather was telling me the story of the first von Richtofen in the air force, the Red Baron, and it all just clicked." He leaned in intently, and Apple Bloom copied him. "I realized I was part of something that goes back more than a thousand years and I wasn't about to give it up. I wanted to add to the family glory somehow. And then my grandfather stopped the story and pointed at my flank, and there it was."
Apple Bloom's eyes lit up. "You can get yer cutie mark from a story? Big Macintosh! What's our family done?"
"We bucked apples. Then we moved here from the South. Then we bucked more apples."
Apple Bloom checked her flank expectantly. Predictably, there was nothing. "Nuts." She sat down and crossed her forelegs petulantly.
Soarin snickered. "You remind me of my little brother, Chandelle. Just the other day..."
Big Macintosh coughed into his hoof. "Ah don't want to cut you off, but if y'all're done eatin', ah think it's time we got down to business. " Not waiting for Soarin's response, he looked down at Apple Bloom with a small grin. "And it's time for you to go play. The big ponies need to talk."
Apple Bloom muttered, "Ah am a big pony," but gave no other sign of resistance as she marched out of the dining room.
Soarin's smile faded. He'd almost forgotten what he was here for, what with the awkwardness. "So, um, Big Macintosh. How are you not sure if something's wrong or not?"
The red pony said, "Well, that's the problem in a nutshell. Ah just don't know. Mah sister went with her friends on a mission for Princess Celestia last week and we ain't heard from them since."
Soarin blinked. "Applejack runs missions for Princess Celestia? I guess that explains how a farmer got into the Grand Galloping Gala." He paused. "No offense."
Big Macintosh shrugged. "'Tain't normal, ah'll grant you that. Anyway, she said she'd send word as soon as she got there. Now, ah ain't an expert in the workings of the Equestrian Postal Service, but it seems to me a letter from Del Mare would have gotten here by now."
Soarin nodded slowly as he imagined a map of Equestria. "Yeah, I did a show there a few years back; it's about four hours away by wing, tops." That niggling worry settled in the pit of his stomach again. "Any idea what they were there for?"
The red stallion shook his head. "Nope. Ah usually don't hear about what they do 'til they're done. She ain't never been gone this long before, not even when they had to chase out that dragon."
Soarin's jaw went slack. "D-dragon?"
Big Macintosh gave Soarin a very subtle grin. "Guess mah sis didn't tell you that one yet. Ah won't steal her thunder." His expression grew serious again. "Sufficed to say, though, we're all gettin' a mite worried, and some of us Ponyvillians're gettin' ready to head on out there to see what's what."
Soarin got up from his chair and started stretching his wings, seeing what was coming. "Of course I'll help."
Big Macintosh raised an eyebrow. "Y'all jumped the arrow a bit there, seein' as you don't know what you're volunteering for yet."
Soarin gestured at his flank. "Semper fidelis, remember? If AJ needs me, I'm there."
Big Macintosh nodded. "Glad to have you on board. It's pretty lucky y'all showed up when you did, really. See, ah've been gettin' together a posse of concerned citizens, but me an' the others are gonna need some time to get everything ready for a trip. Seems to me you ain't tied down like us. You could go on ahead and if they're safe, come on back, let us know an' save us all a trip. And if they ain't safe, you can put that war trainin' to work and scout it out for us."
"Sounds like a plan." Satisfied that his wings were ready for another cross country flight, Soarin went to collect his saddlebag. He got out his Wonderbolts uniform and started putting it on. He saw that Big Macintosh was giving him a quizzical look. Soarin realized it looked a little strange to have a strange colt putting on a blue and yellow jumpsuit in the middle of your living room. "The suit cuts down air resistance, so it'll make the flight over a lot easier. And if there is a fight, that little bit of speed could be all the difference. Don't worry, I'm ready for battle."
Soarin realized he'd said that a little too eagerly when Big Macintosh frowned ever so slightly. "Y'all almost sound like you hope there is one." His bass voice rumbled with disapproval.
Soarin paused, trying to put it in words. "Well, I mean, I don't want Applejack to be in danger, obviously. Or anypony else, for that matter. It's just my cutie mark, y'know? I've never gotten to really do my talent outside of practice and shows. Some days it's like an itch I can't scratch."
Big Macintosh nodded. "Ah hadn't thought of it like that. Ah know ah'd go stir crazy if ah couldn't buck apples for real."
Had he just made a little connection with the stallion? He hoped so, he didn't feel like getting another drill sergeant look anytime soon.
Big Macintosh excused himself for a moment; he ducked into the kitchen and returned with a bushel of green apples, which soon had Soarin's saddlebags straining to hold them all. "Just in case there's an emergency, or y'all just get hungry normal-like."
If they hadn't made a connection, at least Big Macintosh understood him. Soarin nodded gratefully. "Much obliged. So, let's agree that if you don't hear from me by tomorrow, something's wrong?"
Big Macintosh gave a nod. "You take care, now." And with that, Big Macintosh walked back into the dining room to clean up Soarin's snack.
Soarin trotted out to the front yard and crouched down, ready to launch himself into the air.
"Mr. Soarin, wait!" There was the clip-clop of little hooves and Soarin straightened back up. Apple Bloom, who had apparently been sitting near the dining room window, was dashing over as fast as she could. When she was close, she said, "Did you mean what y'all said?"
"About what? And were you spying?" He knew the answer, of course. She really was just like Chandelle. If there ever was a war again, Equestria could build a new spy corps from scratch just by getting everypony's little siblings under one roof.
Apple Bloom's eyes shifted nervously. "No. Maybe. Well, yes." She locked eyes with him, her momentary embarrassment completely forgotten. "But y'all gotta understand, Big Macintosh ain't been tellin' me nothin', and ah thought Applejack was just on vacation like Granny Smith said and ah didn't know it was a mission and ah'm sick of everypony actin' like ah can't take the truth and ah just wanna know if mah big sister's okay!" How Apple Bloom could manage to sob without interrupting her rapid talking, Soarin didn't know, but she did. The little filly's tear filled eyes made him want to cry too, but he restrained himself. "S-so," she said between sobs, "did you mean what you said? 'Bout promising you'd find her?"
Soarin thought hard about what to say. He didn't want to make promises he couldn't keep... but she needed somepony to reassure her. Of course, it'd be nice to have somepony to reassure him, but that didn't seem likely. Finally, he said, "I'll find her, and if she's in trouble, I'll bring her back. Don't worry; I promised two ponies now, and a von Richthofen always keeps his promises."
Apple Bloom hugged him, much to the colt's surprise. He saw Big Macintosh's face in the window, watching them. Soarin's heart rate shot up as he feared being taken the wrong way; he didn't return the hug, instead patting her head comfortingly.
"Applejack said that's what she likes about you." Soarin's worries about Big Macintosh were forgotten as Apple Bloom blurted out, "Well, that and yer muscles; you do feel pretty strong."
Soarin's eyes shot open. "Wait what?"
Apple Bloom looked up at him with a sly smirk, which contrasted oddly with her still-puffy eyes. "It was in one of the letters she threw out. Ah got it out of the trash. Ah never knew she could be so mushy. She also said..."
Soarin shot his hoof out, covering her mouth. "Th-that's okay, I need to get going anyway. See you later, squirt."
He flew away as fast as he could, but not fast enough to avoid the words, "She said yer cute! Like twenty times!"
Soarin made a mental note to never write a letter within a mile of Chandelle ever again.
The flight to Del Mare took Soarin several hours. It was much warmer than when Soarin had left Ponyville, a consequence of travelling hundreds of miles to the south. He looked forward to the chance to ditch his uniform; it was aerodynamic, but it wasn't made for this kind of heat and humidity.
The sleepy seaside town was mostly as he remembered it. It lay a few miles from a dense forest only interrupted by a simple dirt road. The orange light of the setting sun danced on the picturesque harbor, illuminating homes and shops built in a simple but tasteful style.
However, Soarin didn't remember any smashed buildings, deep gouges in the earth or a complete lack of ponies. He angled his wings and, resisting the urge to just dive into the middle of town and start his search immediately, landed just on the outskirts. He was nervous, for more reasons than the obvious; he really wished he had some backup.
He'd chosen his landing place carefully, downwind of the whole town. He'd be able to scout ahead with his sense of smell and unless the wind shifted, he wouldn't be detectable. He flared his nostrils and pricked his ears, taking in as much as he could.
Silence. Not complete silence, of course. He heard the soft breeze and the softer lapping of the harbor's waves. It took him a moment to realize that there should have been the constant cawing of seagulls, but nope. He didn't see or hear a single living thing. His sense of smell was more informative. There was the smell of a whole town's worth of ponies jumbled together, but it was very faint. Fainter yet was that of smoke, which was strange, considering none of the buildings looked to have been burned down.
Stronger than the others, though, were two smells that filled him with hope and dread respectively. One was a scent he remembered well; he sniffed again to confirm. It smelled of apples, hay and honest sweat. Definitely Applejack. The other was one he didn't recognize, but it set his hair on end, whatever it was. His instincts told him to fly as fast as he could away from that smell.
As far as Soarin was concerned, though, his instincts could go jump in the harbor. Applejack had been in the town more recently than anypony else and that warranted a closer look... even if the smell of whatever-it-was was stronger and fresher. He took a deep breath, steeled himself, and slunk in. He kept to the wall of the nearest building, every sense on high alert. They took in...
Nothing. While some of the houses were smashed, those that weren't were completely intact. He passed a bakery and saw that the bread and cakes in the window had turned green from mold. "Waste of perfectly good food," he muttered to himself. The tale was the same with every building he passed. Fruit sat rotting in stalls in the market, except for the half of the market that had been leveled. Their fetid stench overpowered his handle on the smells of Applejack or the mystery scent.
But whatever else was going on, there weren't ponies hiding in the buildings like he'd hoped. There were no living things bigger than the rat dragging a rotted mango from a shop called Mangos and Cufflinks. Of course, that meant he could relax. It also meant that he was wasting his time with this... but he might as well try. "Hello? Anypony? Applejack? I'm here to..."
Soarin trailed off. Pitch black clouds blanketed the sky from horizon to horizon. He had no idea where they came from; he simply blinked and there they were. They looked too black to be anything natural; it was dark as twilight, so thankfully he could still see.
Soarin let out a startled yelp as two shapes emerged from the clouds. Strike being thankful he could see. They were giants, he could see that even from a distance. Both were black as midnight, save for their grey stomachs and eyes that burned like coals. Long necks, long tails, leathery wings... oh horse apples. He'd studied his flight cards too well to think they were anything but dragons.
He stood transfixed by the sight; before it occurred to Soarin that he should beat a hasty retreat, they had already landed in the town square. Their impact almost knocked him off his hooves.
"G-good afternoon." He'd read that dragons were smart. Maybe they were reasonable dragons? "Nice to meet you, I'm..."
"Bah!" Any hope of reasoning with the monsters left Soarin's mind as soon as he saw... it. It had ridden in on one of the dragons, but now hopped off and landed on the ground in front of its mount.
"It" was the only word Soarin had for the monstrosity before him. The brown-furred being stood on its hind legs like a monkey and its front (top?) legs ended in hands that looked like those of the dragons, only without their claws. A supple tail twisted and turned behind it, betraying its annoyance. Large, bat-like wings extended from its back, though it tucked them into a resting position after it landed. Its face was what really made Soarin's heart race. Its bald, pig-like face extended from a thick, leonine mane around its neck, and the horns of a ram extended from the sides of its head. Its expression showed nothing but rage and malice.
With a voice that sounded like somepony gargling rocks, it declared, "It is not the pony we came for. Another false alarm!" It snarled from frustration and kicked a stone, sending it through the window of the bakery.
"What are you?" It was a dumb question, but Soarin couldn't help himself.
The monster's smile was more terrifying than its scowl, somehow. "What am I? What is that to you, horse?" The word "horse" just dripped with condescension. "If you must address me by name, you will call me Scorpan... not that slaves need speak." He (Soarin could tell it was male now) snapped his fingers, and the two dragons instantly focused on Scorpan. "Capture him and bring him back to Midnight Castle. One pegasus is not worth the time of Scorpan."
Before he was aware of what he was doing, Soarin was flying at Scorpan at full speed, leaving a trail of black cloud in his wake. "Not so fast! You're... eep!" The dragons had already interposed themselves between Soarin and the demon. Soarin had to stop his attack as he desperately dodged the grasping claws and snapping jaws of the black dragons.
Scorpan was already airborne, winging away, but he looked over his shoulder and gurgled, "Take him intact, you fools! He's no good to us crippled!"
Soarin didn't know where Scorpan went after that; he just didn't have the focus to spare. He tried to pull up and away from them, but they were relentless. After what seemed like an eternity of high speed maneuvers, he realized he couldn't keep up this pace forever. He flew a quick loop above the larger dragon's head, leaving a ring of sparking, black cloud above its head. With a tap from his front hoof, the cloud discharged all of its energy in a bright flash of light right in its eyes. The dragon bellowed with surprised pain and thrashed blindly. Seeing his opening, Soarin zipped up and kicked it straight in the jaw.
He regretted it immediately; it was like kicking a brick wall. He uttered a curse as he ducked under a blind retaliatory swipe from the dragon. He'd almost broken something and the dragon hadn't even noticed. "Great, so direct attacks are off the table." He glanced up and allowed himself a cocky smirk. "Or maybe I just need more cloud."
Soarin put on another burst of speed and flew up towards the clouds as fast as he could manage, the dragons in hot pursuit. Very hot pursuit; one of them released a gout of dark blue flame from its mouth, despite Scorpan's instructions. He narrowly dodged it, but he swore he smelled burnt mane.
Soarin reached the clouds, which hovered over Del Mare much lower than they should have; just another sign that they weren't natural. He tried to hit one to summon a lightning bolt; if he could set off a lightning storm, that would give him the cover he needed to hightail it out of town. However, instead of the normal, solid sensation of a cloud, his hoof passed through it like it wasn't there. Caught off balance by his failed kick, he barely managed to dive out of the way before the dragons could grab a hold of him. Much faster than he would have preferred, though, they swung around and continued to pursue him.
Soarin was panting hard now; he'd flown most of the day, and this dogfight had his wings burning. His store of magical energy was almost completely depleted. At this rate, he only had a few minutes of hard flying before he'd have to land, and that wasn't exactly an option with two dragons on his tail. "Do or die time, Soarin." He increased his speed yet further, the wind whipping his exposed muzzle mercilessly. He couldn't imagine doing this without his goggles.
He also noted that his cowpony hat was still there... somehow. That chin strap was worth the extra five bits. Wait, he still had the hat on? That thing must have been slowing him down, even if he hadn't noticed yet. He should have ditched it the instant the dragons showed up!
... this was what he was focusing on in a crisis?
Blood 'n Guts was right, your mind did go strange places under stress.
As he dove, he started shaping his magic energy in a small pocket behind him. It occurred to him that his signature move, the Whistling Immelman, hadn't been used in anger since the War of the Tulips nine hundred years earlier. He hoped it worked; after this, he'd be completely spent.
Right above the ground he pulled up rapidly, leaving a pocket of air behind him as he straightened out and flew the way he came. Strengthened by the small package of magic energy, the air bubble kept its shape for several seconds. When it popped, the air was split by a high pitch squeal that made Soarin grimace. He'd done the maneuver a thousand times in practice and shows, but he still wasn't completely used to the sound.
The dragons, caught completely off guard, shut their eyes and tried to shield their sensitive ears from the cacophony. The fact that Soarin could see this made him realize his mistake. He'd turned right at his attackers and was rocketing towards them. This was what the textbook, show version of the Whistling Immelman called for; in combat, he was supposed to immediately veer off to the side.
It was too late; at this speed, Soarin had to keep going straight and fly right between the dragons or risk a head on collision. He thought he'd cleared the danger when one of the dragons' thrashing tails smacked him in the side of the head. Soarin crashed to the ground in a daze, going end over end before skidding to a halt.
Before fainting, Soarin was aware of hooves lifting him up in a firepony's carry and taking him... somewhere. He didn't know where.
It smelled like apples, hay and honest sweat, wherever it was.
End of Chapter 1