"Hoo-ee!" Applejack called as she shook the snow from her hat. A blizzard was raging across Ponyville, forcing the friends to take shelter in Twilight's library. Behind the clouds, the sun was retreating behind the mountains in the late afternoon - mid-winter in Equestria. The earth pony shoved Rainbow Dash lightly as they crowded inside. "Ya'll weatherponies sure did a number with that there storm. Ah think we'll be stuck here for the night!"
"The blizzard wasn't my idea!" The pegasus snapped back, while Pinkie Pie bounced in past them.
"Does this mean we're having a SLUMBER PARTY?" She squealed, hopping from one hoof to another.
"NO!" Applejack and Rarity yelled in unison. Fluttershy, bringing up the rear, closed the door gently behind her. Twilight was already putting away her scarf and saddle.
"Blegh, makeovers," Rainbow added, fluttering up to Twilight's bed and disappearing behind the banister. "But I am up for... pillow fights!" A pillow shot from the upper level, hitting Pinkie Pie square in the face and knocking her to the floor.
"Guys..." Twilight tried to intervene, but to no avail, another one whizzing past her head. Pinkie responded by hurling the first pillow back up, but Dash was too quick - all it hit was ceiling. The pegasus swept around like a bomber, raining down a volley of three more cushions. With her focus on aiming her missiles, she collided with a bookshelf, violently relieving it of its contents.
"Rainbow! Now look what yer gone done." Applejack barked while she kicked away some of the fallen books. Pinkie pulled over the tome on top of the pegasus' head and examined the cover.
"The Birth of Celestia..." she puzzled for a moment, before a twitch-a-twitch of excitement bit her, and her eyes glazed over. "Ooh! Ooh! Is this the story of... how Equestria was made?" Twilight trotted over to inspect it further. With a firm puff, she blew off the layer of caked-on dust and inspected the volume.
"I don't remember when this got here... there's no blurb either. It might be!" She flicked through a few pages, skimming the odd line; some phrases pertaining to quests, adventure, battles, and so on. "Looks about right. I could read it if you like, and we could all find out together!"
"OHBOYOHBOYOHBOY!" Pinkie squealed, and parked herself right in front of Twilight.
"Well it ain't gonna trash the place like a pillow fight," Applejack chimed in, casting a smug look over her shoulder. Rainbow Dash was still pulling herself free from the mess of books.
"Agreed." Rarity chuckled, laying down on one of the pillows strewn across the floor.
"I-I'd like a story..." Fluttershy added with a meek little smile.
"Pfft! Can't we do something fun?"
"Well, you can go outside and play in the snow if you really want to, Dash."
"Y'know what? Maybe I wi-" as the pegasus unlatched the door, it threw itself wide open. The icy wind blasted her in the face, like a dog riding with its head out of a car window. With some strain, she promptly shut the door again. "... maybe a story isn't such a bad idea." she chuckled. Twilight fiddled around with the book and began to read while Rainbow drifted over to one of the vacant shelves and settled down.
"Our story begins over a thousand years ago, before the birth of the Princesses Celestia and Luna. All the land was as the Everfree Forest; plants grew wild, animals took care of themselves, and the weather cared not for the whims of ponies..."
The ancient ponies that built Canterlot were not the same as modern ponies. They walked upright on their hind hooves, and in place of their front hooves they had features called hands; appendages like bony spiders mounted on the forearms, that let them hold and grasp with ease. This was just as well, for if, like today's ponies, they walked on four hooves, the fledgling nation of Equestria would have had little chance of survival against its more savage and violent neighbours. The most voracious of these tribes were the gryphons - beasts with the hindquarters of lions and the heads, wings and talons of eagles. These barbarians would, without a shred of warning, ransack those settlements they deemed too close to their territory, plunder their riches and burn them to the ground. Every few decades, their numbers would allow them form a horde, and plunder the pony settlements of the north. It was one such horde that acquired a particular taste for the treasures of these towns, and their chief a distaste for its previous owners. With a common desire for gold drenched in pony blood, their avarice and her bloodlust formed a brutal alliance. Her name was Aurum. With the Gryphon King's blessing, she began her campaign for Canterlot.
Word spread quickly of the marauding gryphons. As ruthless and efficient as Aurum was, she was also proud. From every town she razed to the ground, she made sure to leave a single survivor to send a message to their compatriots: that Chieftain Aurum is coming, and she wants to see the best you've got. As soon as these troubling words reached the ears of the High Sun Priestess of Canterlot, she knew she had to act fast. She selected two of her finest magic students - neophytes Venus Dawn and Bree Hornblende - as messengers to Cloudsdale, to retrieve Captain Bolt Spectra, the most accomplished flier in all of Equestria, and one of the High Priestess' most trusted military advisors.
Unfortunately, the move was short-sighted on the Priestess' part; the two neophytes were associates on a purely official level, and their rivalry ran deep. Dawn was by far the more gifted mage, and her talent was of a level rarely seen before, but she was timid and reluctant to display her abilities. Were it not for a chance encounter, she may have gone unnoticed, and never inducted into the Priestess' academy of magic. Hornblende on the other hoof was greatly boastful of her abilities, and could brag for hours on end about her skills without so much as casting a single spell. The two incensed each other by their very presence: Bree was deeply envious of Dawn's superior talent, and Dawn was enraged by (if unwilling to vocalise on) Bree's hyperbole.
They made the journey to Cloudsdale by balloon. To pass the time, Bree proposed a contest: tossing a bit into the air and using the balloon's basket to catch it. Dawn reluctantly agreed to the reckless wager, seeing little else to do. With each round, one pony would fling the coin vertically into the air, and the other would psychically swing the balloon around to catch it. Cloudsdale loomed in the distance as their game escalated, flinging the bit higher and swerving the balloon around more violently every time. Eventually, Dawn swung the balloon around, only for it to unexpectedly curl completely upside down. Unprepared, she fell from the basket. Bewildered as much as terrified, she looked back up. Hornblende was braced against the sides of the cradle, waving, a sly grin painted across her face. The balloon self-righted, and Bree left her rival to accelerate to her doom.
Dawn watched her life disappear with the balloon into the clouds. Her panic overwhelmed any focus she might be able to spare for magic to cushion the fall. Tears began to whip from her face as the wind whistling by intensified. Soon, though, something else interrupted the cavalcade of stressing sensations. A firm, but far from fatal, impact to her flank, and the jolt of a sudden change of direction. Winded, she looked around, to find herself not cratered in the ground, but caught by a pegasus! Due to the awkward position of the catch, she couldn't identify her rescuer beyond a pair of furiously beating cyan wings; nonetheless, relief washed over her as they came in to land.
"Aah!" Dawn was flung from the pegasus' arms upon setting down, and she skidded in the dirt. She struggled to her hooves, rubbing her head. "So to whom do I... ugh... owe my thanks?"
"Only Equestria's finest!" a smug, female voice replied. When Dawn opened her eyes, her rescuer was standing proud in front of her, arms crossed, wings flared out. Her multicoloured mane and tail, every colour of the rainbow, accented her sky blue coat. She wore the polished bronze armour of a guardspony - a breastplate, shinguards, shoulder guards and gauntlets over a white tunic. Grinning confidently, she extended her hand to the unicorn to help her up. "Captain Bolt Spectra." Dawn quirked an eyebrow as she took the hand. Bolt hauled her up roughly, making her squeal a little in surprise.
"Hm, just who I was looking for." she said, brushed herself off. "I am Neophyte Venus Dawn. I was carrying a message for you from the High Priestess... until I got thrown from my balloon."
"Wait, thrown?" An incredulous gawp replaced Spectra's aloof smile.
"Yeah, if you're quick you migh-" Bolt was off before Dawn had even finished her sentence. "...t be able to catch it." She was back before Dawn even had time to figure out which way she went.
"Are you quite sure?"
"You weren't gone for very long."
"Have you seen how fast I am?" Spectra leapt into the air and somersaulted, before assuming a hover.
"Well, I guess you were pretty quick catching me..."
"I could clear all these clouds from the sky in ten seconds flat." Bolt's boast caught Dawn off guard. Her eye twitched a little.
"Aren't you a little grown up for those kind of gam-" Mid-sentence, an idea struck. "-es... wait, no, do it." Not needing another word's encouragement, Spectra shot off into the sky.
A pegasus' wings alone aren't enough to power their flight, but rather, they have a kind of subconscious magic that makes their wings drag against water vapour, letting them effectively swim in the air. This has the side effect of making clouds and puffs of steam semi-solid to them. It was this that allowed them to build a city in the sky from clouds, and if they so desire, permits them to alter the weather. True to her word, Bolt scrubbed the sky of all clouds within at least a hundred feet, leaving just a view of Cloudsdale hanging in the distant haze. She returned as quickly as she departed, bringing a rush of wind and drizzle after her. When she halted, the spray created a small rainbow as it washed past her head.
"Told ya!" the pegasus gloated. It took her a moment to realise that Dawn wasn't looking at her obvious greatness, but staring at the horizon. She looked back to see what was so interesting. "Uhm... there's nothing there." The unicorn glared at the phantom in the distance.
"Captain, this is going to sound crazy, but I think we have treason on our hands. That way is north, correct?" She pointed out to the distance, directly in the direction she had been looking.
"I think so, why?" Spectra tilted her head, while Dawn sighed.
"The message I was sent with was about a gryphon horde to the north, under Chieftain Aurum. She's making strong progress to Canterlot, and the Priestess wanted to consult you for tactical advice. But, I wasn't sent alone. I was sent with another student of the Sun, Neophyte Bree Hornblende, and just now, she tossed me from the balloon, and it would appear she's retreating north." Spectra's eyes widened.
"We're going to Canterlot. Now."
The High Sun Priestess' hall doors burst open. Two mares charged in, and threw themselves to a kneel at the foot of her altar.
"Your holiness," Dawn began in the most urgent of tones. "We bring terrible word of treason!"
"Do you? Before you continue, tell me, Neophyte; where is your comrade?"
"Escaped, your holiness," Bolt interrupted, answering for her companion. "We have reason to believe Hornblende is worki-" before she could finish, the Priestess raised a hand to her, demanding silence.
"When I wish to hear from you, Captain, I will ask. Now. Neophyte Dawn, where is Neophyte Hornblende?"
"She threw me from our balloon and disappeared, your holiness!" The Priestess frowned. This was most unexpected. In her mind, unicorns, who made up the gentry and clergy, were above this ugly business of treachery. But pegasi and earth ponies - the military, middle and working classes - were not. She paced pensively, staring down the two ponies before her.
"Tell me, what proof have you that the foul play is not on the other hoof?" Dawn was taken aback at the very notion. "That you have not conspired with this pegasus..." she scowled at Spectra. Bolt fumed. "... to dispose of Hornblende? Or feign such notions so as to villify her? Do not think I am blind to your rivalry."
"But your holiness!"
"I have heard enough! I will hear no more until Neophyte Hornblende or the balloon are found." At this insult, Spectra snapped. Who does she think we are? She rose to her hooves and marched right up to her, barking out her piece.
"I can assure you, Priestess, that when you find Hornblende she'll be riding under the banners of gryphons, and you won't know it until they're pounding on the gates of Canterlot!" The Priestess, indignant, tossed the Captain to the floor with a mere flash of her horn.
"I said I have heard enough! I will not have this infighting and insolence in my court. Guards, remove these two conspirators from my sight!" The guards were a little stunned by the command. After all, these were allegedly the Priestess' most favoured and their own superior. They hesitated a moment before advancing on them. This moment, however, was all that Spectra needed to recover from the fall, grab Dawn and take off. Once airborne, she accelerated to the stained glass window at the back of the hall. She tucked her wings in and stretched out both hooves, to pierce the window and minimise damage from the shattered glass. The Priestess was furious; even burdened with a passenger, Spectra was still fast enough to escape the slew of binding spells she fired off. She barked to her guards, too livid to even check that an officer was among them: "I want it known to every stallion, mare and foal from here to the Everfree Forest that Neophyte Venus Dawn and Captain Bolt Spectra are to be slain on sight, and that anypony giving them so much as an apple in aid will be slain with them!"