"And I thought it smelled bad on the outside!" Pinkie Pie said.
"That was funny the first time you said it." Rainbow Dash grumbled. "But now..."
"It's even funnier, right! I just love a good running gag!"
"Quiet!" Twilight Sparkle hissed, her voice echoing from the acid-etched walls of the wyvern-cavern (the term 'wavern' had been offered by Pinkie Pie, and summarily rejected by the rest of the group) "What if that wyvern's still home? We don't want to give ourselves away, and lose the element of surprise-"
"Surprise? You mean the white pegasus pony with the blonde hair that looks kinda like mine?" Pinkie Pie said. "I know her!"
"Not her, Pinkie." Twilight rubbed at her face through her mask. "I'm just referring to the tactical advantage which we won't have if we keep making all this noise."
"Oh, am I too loud?" Fluttershy squeaked. "I'm sorry. I'll try to be sneakier."
"Psh!" Rainbow Dash tilted her helmet back. "If you ask me, I say we make MORE noise! Let that jerk wyvern guy know we're coming, and then he'll just want to run away because he's going up against the one and only Rainbow Dash! And, uh, you guys, too."
"Remember," Twilight Sparkle said, "this is a rescue mission. Which means our primary objective is to get in, find Captain Cloudsdale, and get out. Now c'mon-" Twilight Sparkle narrowed her eyes and gave her spell another pulse. "We're almost there..."
A faint, translucent thread of etheric energy snaked out from the end of Twilight Sparkle's horn and curled around a bend in the tunnel. Twilight Sparkle smiled to herself, nearly giddy to see the success of her spell. The tunnel emerged out into a tall, cavernous chamber. Phosphorescent fungus grew on the many stone columns throughout the room, giving it an otherworldly ambience. The floor of the cave was strewn with bones from at least a half dozen different creatures.
"See?" Twilight said, "there's no problem that can't be solved with the proper application of magic-"
She stopped talking as soon as she saw the skull.
Somewhere, at the back of her head, Twilight Sparkle told herself it was just a regular pony skull, the sort of thing she'd seen over and over again in her anatomy textbooks. On the other hoof, the sight of the bare, yellowed bone was nothing more than a horrible reminder of her own mortality and insignificance.
She almost didn't notice the faded red fabric hanging from the skeleton until she stopped screaming.
Wide eyed, Fluttershy looked over Twilight's shoulder. "Is that-" Fluttershy said.
"Captain Cloudsdale!" Rainbow Dash said as she peered over Twilight's other shoulder. "We're too late!"
"No, not that." Twilight breathed in deeply. "Look at the dust, the level of decomposition- whoever this pony is, they've been dead for a long, long time."
"Oh my gosh! I was right!" Pinkie Pie peered over the top of Twilight's head. "Captain Cloudsdale is a zombie!"
"Not that either!" Twilight said. "Obviously, whoever this pony is, it's not Captain Clousdale-"
"Then why is he wearing the costume?" Pinkie Pie poked at a scrap of crimson fabric. "Wasn't your spell supposed to find him?"
"I don't know!" Twilight squeezed her eyes shut. "I'm sure there's a rational explanation for all this- we just need more information."
"Um, Twilight?" Fluttershy said. "Not to doubt you or anything, but, uh, you keep on saying that, and things keep on getting more confusing."
"Psh! I'm not confused!" Rainbow Dash said. "I know exactly what we need to do! Let's just go find that jerk dragon-"
"Wyvern-" Twilight said.
"Whatever. We find that guy, and we kick his face in until he tells us what's going on!"
"What makes you think he knows what's going on?" said Fluttershy.
"I dunno." Pinkie Pie took off her purple hat and revealed a pair of furiously twitching ears. "But I think we're gonna find out really soon!"
The wyvern's snarl echoed from the stone walls of the chamber, loud enough to rattle the very bones Twilight and her friends were staring at.
"Hide!" Twilight hissed, and shut her spell off. They all scattered in different directions, taking cover behind the pillars piles of stone rubble.
The wyvern prowled into the cavern, occasionally curling around one pillar or another with easy familiarity.
The wyvern looked down to something in its claw. "Tiny pony." it hissed. "Who do you think you are?" The wyvern made a sound akin to a laugh, and threw something white and red across the room. A battered, ragged, but still notably alive white pegasus landed next to Twilight Sparkle's hiding place.
"More like, who the hell do you think I am?" Rainbow Dash's voice echoed off of the cavern walls. In the dim light, her multicolored blur was nearly blinding. Rainbow Dash smashed into the wyvern, hard. The reptile reeled into a pillar, hitting hard enough to shake stalactites loose from the ceiling.
Acting on instinct, Twilight Sparkle yanked Captain Clousdale out of the way of a plummeting shard of stone, and threw up a brief shielding spell to protect them both from the spray of razor-sharp rocks when it shattered on the stone floor.
"Mare do Well!" Captain Cloudsdale said. "Can't say I was expecting to see you here, but- look out!" the costumed pegasus grabbed Twilight around the middle and beat his wings, pulling them both away from the path of the wyvern's sweeping tail.
The two ponies tumbled over each other and landed in a graceless heap. Twilight shook her head and opened her eyes- only to see two Captain Clousdales, even if one was far more alive than the other..
"Aha! I knew it!" Twilight Sparkle said as the realization hit her. "You're a phony!"
Captain Cloudsale (the living one, that is) splayed his ears in dismay. "You're right-" he reached up and pulled off his mask, tossing it to the side. "My name's Four Color. The real Captain Clousdale was my grandfather. I just wanted to find out what'd happened to him-" the white furred pegasus winced as the wyvern roared in the chamber behind him. "I didn't mean for anyone to get hurt, I promise."
"That...actually explains a lot." Twilight Sparkle said.
"And, uh- one more thing." Captain Cloudsdale took to the air again and scratched at the back of his neck. "Seeing as of how we might die here and all-"
"What?" Twilight said. "Nobody's going to-"
She didn't get the chance to finish before Four Color did a quick somersault and pulled her into a fleeting (if awkward, given his upside-down position, not to mention Twilight's mask) kiss.
"Bwuh?" Twilight managed.
"Sorry, I've just always wanted to do that." Four Color looked over his shoulder, where Rainbow Dash still flew circles around the raging wyvern. "Now c'mon! We've got to help your friend!" The white pegasus turned and shot off into the fray.
Pinkie Pie and Fluttershy had joined the brawl as well, harrying the wyvern from one direction or another. But in the cramped cavern, it was hard to see more than one pony at a time amidst the coils and wings of the mighty wyvern.
"You know, I should be thanking you!" the wyvern snarled, "I never thought I'd get the chance to kill Captain Clousdale twice! I just hope you fight half as hard as the first one did!" It spat another stream of green acid, but Four Color banked out of the way just in time. "Your little friends will just be bonus skulls for my...collection." The wyvern lashed its tail around again and smacked Four Color out of the air.
"Wow, he's tough!" Pinkie Pie said as she popped up beside Twilight Sparkle.
"He is, isn't he?" Twilight said, "I mean, he may not be the real Captain Cloudsdale, but-"
"I was talking about the big lizard."
"Wyvern." Twilight Sparkle said by reflex.
"Right, that guy!" Pinkie Pie pushed the brim of her hat back. "It's too bad we didn't bring Rarity and Applejack along, as then we could've been all like 'Elements of harmony, BZZZOW!' Not that I'm saying that's the solution to every problem, but it's always really pretty and nifty and maybe this guy's just cursed to be a big meanie and then we can fix him and he'll be cute and stuff and there can be hugs like the time we turned Nightmare Moon into Princess Luna!"
"That's it!" Twilight said.
"Hugs?" Pinkie Pie tilted her head.
"No time to explain!" Twilight Sparkle pulled her mask off and threw it to the side. She concentrated, aligning the proper energies for her teleportation spell. Her magic flashed, and Twilight landed upon a large stone ledge- one at eye-level with the hissing wyvern.
"Hey!" Twilight Sparkle said, "Stop that!"
"Hm?" The wyvern licked acidic spittle from its lips and turned to peer at the unicorn. "Shouldn't you be futilely trying to hurt me? Or, better yet, fleeing in terror? I love it when little ponies flee in terror. It never does them any good."
"I'm not fighting you, and I'm not running!" Twilight Sparkle said. "I'm doing something that I should have done way earlier."
"And that is?"
"I'm going to lecture you!"
"What." The wyvern tilted its head to the side, confused at the audacity of a prey animal to lecture him.
"Given the fact we're actually having this conversation, I can assume you have at least some degree of sapience, which means I should introduce myself."
"Huh?" the Wyvern finally said.
"My name is Twilight Sparkle." The unicorn drew herself up taller, and her cape and mane began to flutter in an unseen breeze. "I'm proficient in twenty five forms of magic, I've uncovered the Elements of Harmony to save Equestria...twice, and I'm Princess Celestia's favorite student."
"So?" The Wyvern said, growling.
"I'm not finished!" Twilight's horn glowed, ominously. "As now I've got to introduce my friends! That's Rainbow Dash over there- she's the fastest thing in all of Equestria- did you know she's pulled off a sonic rainboom? Twice? You've got wings, you can appreciate that sort of thing, right?"
"Er-" the wyvern said.
"And that," Twilight went on, "is my friend Fluttershy. She may be quiet, but, well, you know what they say about the quiet ones, right? Especially since I've seen her stare down bigger dragons than you...you heard about that, right? You do not want to get on her bad side. And over there is Pinkie Pie, who...well, she's Pinkie Pie, that's the best way I can describe it."
"And...why should I care?"
"The reason you should care is because my friends and I are used to dealing with big bullies like you! That, and I just remembered that the Second Wyvern War ended with the Trottingham Treaty, which set very specific terms for the repatriation of casualty remains- which, given the original Captain Cloudsdale's rank, most certainly applies! So really, we're entirely within our rights in coming to claim the Captain's remains. Unless you'd prefer to break the treaty. I mean, you might even be able to kill all of us right now, but what happens when my OTHER friends start looking for us? I imagine Princess Celestia herself might get involved, and she'd bring the whole force of the Equestrian Army with her...the army hasn't had a lot to do in awhile, y'know. And, not to brag or anything, but if something were to happen to me, Princess Celestia's favorite student, she might take it...badly. As in, say, 'start studying your lunar geography' badly. Seems a lot for just one lonely wyvern to deal with, from a mathematical perspective."
"Um." The wyvern somehow managed to sound like Fluttershy.
"Right!" Twilight smiled, "Now, if you'll excuse us, we'll gather up Captain Cloudsdale's remains, and we'll just be on our way, and leave you to your, uh...wyvern-ing."
"I knew you'd see it that way!" Twilight teleported back to the cavern floor, and glanced around. "So! Let's all just get everything together, and we can be on our merry way."
"Wait, that's it?" Rainbow Dash said.
"Just keep smiling and pick up the pegasus guy." Twilight said through her forced grin.
"Ouch." Four Color said as soon as he regained some semblance of consciousness. It was not a pleasant process, given the beating he'd just endured.
"He's awake, yay!" Pinkie Pie said.
"Mare do Well?" Four Color squinted his eyes against the harsh light of day.
"Oh, we probably should've taken our masks off, shouldn't we?" Fluttershy said.
"Mare do Well?" Four Color rubbed at his head. "Guess I'm seeing double-"
"Back off, you guys! Give him some air!" Twilight Sparkle said.
"-or triple." Four Color mused. With some effort, he focused his attention on the unmasked Twilight. "Huh. You're not nearly as ugly as Rainbow Dash said you were."
"HA HA FUNNY STORY." Rainbow Dash said. She paused, then peered at Four Color. "Hey, think if he ACCIDENTALLY got hit in the head again, he'd forget all of this?"
"No." Twilight said, flatly. She turned back to Four Color and helped him back to his hooves. "Don't worry, you don't have a concussion, there's actually more than one Mare do Well- it's a long story."
"Oh. Okay." The battered white pegasus glanced from one filly to another, and a faint blush began to color his cheeks. "So wait, which one of you did I-"
"ANYWAY." Twilight Sparkle didn't let him finish. "You're not concussed right now, but you took a heck of a beating back there, so everything's probably just a blur, right?"
"I guess?" Four Color said. "...how did we get out here, anyway? Last thing I remember is getting whacked by that wyvern's tail. Again."
"You should've seen it!" Pinkie Pie leaned in, "Twilight just went 'BAMF' and teleported up on this ledge and totally stared down the giant lizard-"
"Wyvern." Twilight said.
"-yeah, that guy! And usually it's Fluttershy who's best at getting all scary looking and making the bad guys go away, because they always say you've got to watch out for the quiet ones, which I guess is true because this one time I was going along and singing a song to myself and I wasn't looking where I was going and then I tripped over Fluttershy because she was crouching down and talking to some ferrets or something-"
At a nod from Twilight, Rainbow Dash dragged Pinkie Pie back and stuffed a hoof in her mouth.
"I just did a little bit of...tactical negotiation, that's all." Twilight said. "The important part is, that wyvern let us go. Er, all of us." Twilight stepped to the side and showed Four Color a bundle wrapped up in a ragged gold cape. "You wanted to find out what happened to your grandfather, didn't you? I'm...I'm sorry it turned out this way."
Four Color stared at the bundle for a long time. "No, it's alright." He finally said, very quietly. "He went down fighting- that's what he would've wanted. I'm just glad we can close the book on it, y'know?"
"I'm sure your grandfather would be very proud of you." Twilight said. "I mean, from what I saw, you really did live up to the name of Captain Cloudsdale."
"Uh, thanks?" Four Color rubbed at the back of his neck again. "But I nearly got you all killed trying to help me-"
"Psh. We do this kind of thing all the time." Rainbow Dash puffed her wings out. "Seriously. Like, every other Saturday something tries to kill us."
"It's true!" Pinkie Pie said. "It's just we're usually not wearing costumes then."
"So this Mare do Well thing...?" Four color trailed off.
"It's complicated." Fluttershy said.
"Actually, that's a really good point." Twilight said. "I mean, you don't need a mask or a cape to be a hero- I wasn't able to talk that wyvern down until I told him exactly who I was. Sometimes, it's best if you just be yourself, and deal with your problems that way." She paused, and then looked around. "Shoot, I didn't bring a pen. That would make a perfect Friendship Report!"
Four Color tilted his head to the side. "Friendship report?"
"It's complicated." Fluttershy said.
Twilight shook her head. "I'll worry about it when we get back to Ponyville. But honestly, I wouldn't worry about it too much, if I were you."
"Why not?" Four Color said.
Twilight smiled and patted the white pegasus on the shoulder. "You're braver and tougher than you think, Four Color-"
"Even if you're not as rad as me!" Rainbow Dash added.
Twilight Sparkle glared at the blue pegasus, to little avail. "And it wasn't the mask that made you that way, remember that. I hope you keep on helping other ponies once we get this all settled. Besides!" Twilight Sparkle smiled. "You look good in red."
"And here I thought Rarity was the designer!" Pinkie Pie giggled.
"Who?" Four Color said.
"It's complicated." Fluttershy said.