All The Pretty Little Sparks
The tension in the locker-room was suffocating. Each of the three pegasi inside were radiating with nervousness and stress. The powerful echo of the cheer outside didn’t help – with each explosion of noise from an excited crowd, a new wave of panic hit the awaiting Wonderbolts like a tide assaulting a coastal cliff. They still had at least ten minutes to go, as Team Beta was in charge of the intro in today’s show.
Each of the trio fought against their nervousness differently. Soarin, for example, mumbled feverish prayers to Celestia under his muzzle for a safe flight and clear sky. Spitfire always thought of this as a silly quirk of Soarin’s personality, but she never commented on it. If something was good enough to let you defeat the fear that dwelled inside before each take-off - if something made you find courage to fly with lightning chasing behind - then it’s simply good enough.
Her train of thoughts derailed as she heard the familiar buzz of the lightning trail: a signature of the Wonderbolts team and one of the hardest skills necessary to acquire. Few ponies knew that it was the most dangerous piece in their shows. No trick, no matter how acrobatically insane, brought such danger as forming and controlling the lightning rolling just behind you, always only a fraction of second before it reached your body and made you pay for the tiniest of mistakes. When she heard the crackling buzz of raw electricity, a familiar voice from the past spoke in her head from the depths of her memories.
Spitfire blinked as a particular memory from her past unrevealed itself before her eyes. She was in her first class of Weathercrafting, led by the old, rugged and mangled pegasus stallion, Professor Still Storm – a true legend in his prime: ex-member of the Wonderbolts, fantastic flyer and even an Equestrian Royal Guard for over a decade. He was feared in the school as one of the most ruthless and tyrannical lecturers in the entire teaching cadre. She recalled now his words, the very first he spoke to them in his harsh, growling tone.
“Welcome to your first lesson in Weathercrafting. Fun fact – as I speak now at least one pegasus somewhere in our beloved Equestria is currently falling from the sky to meet his or her death.”
The entire class went silent instantly and became as rigid as a painting. Still Storm nodded with a serious grimace and continued.
“Do any of you youngsters know why?”
No one raised a hoof. Nopony even blinked, still under the effect of such a warm welcome to the class.
“You don’t. Good. That is why we are here, colts and fillies. For we pegasi have a terrifying enemy in the skies. One that cannot be outrun. That cannot be defeated. That cannot be reasoned with. That knows no pity. That will kill without intent. Do you know what enemy I’m speaking of?” he asked, with the tiniest of smiles.
Silence was the only response. The old pegasus laughed briefly and wryly.
“Even better! I think you have a solid chance to be my favorite class so far. Would you believe that group before you named dragons, rocs, griffons and other predators of the blue sky? Ha!”
He shook his head, then sighed heavily and locked them in the stern gaze of his ferrite eyes.
“Dragons can be outrun. Rocs can be defeated. Griffons can be reasoned with. No. I do not fear any of the heavens’ dwellers, for they and we have the same, common enemy. Rain. Snow. Ice. Wind. Storm. Lightning.”
He smiled when he saw their reaction: quizzical looks, slight confusion, quiet discussions. Somepony even chuckled aloud. Bad move. The professor quickly spied the giggler, a young, brownish colt and with a thundering voice he boomed “Funny! Isn’t it, young foal? Of course! We are the pegasi, we control and shape the weather for our own liking! Why should we be afraid of something that we mastered?”
The entire class went silent again as the poor victim of Still Storm’s outburst was practically melting under his gaze. The professor slowly trotted towards the unfortunate student while he began to vibrate his wings with impossible frequency. Air around him slowly condensed, became moist and heavy. A coppery scent invaded the nostrils of everypony around. He was speaking as he trotted with a lazy pace.
“You are in the middle of a massive cloud cluster. Everything is fine. Calm. Almost serene. Winds effortlessly reshape white cumulus into phantasmagorical shapes. You can feel the winds on your feathers. A single gust - and the skyscape turns into a nightmare practically on the spot. Two masses collide. The smell of copper hangs in the air as pure ozone makes it hard to catch a solid breath. Air becomes dank and heavy. It’s pulling you down. It makes you fight to even stay airborne...”
Spitfire - and pretty much everypony - watched in awe and heart-sinking terror as tiny electric arcs began to crawl around Still Storm’s coat, buzzing quietly with raw power. As if that weren’t strong enough, all the clouds that made the hall darkened and growled lightly.
“And it’s just the beginning - don’t mind the strong winds and lashing rain. Don’t mind the ice freezing your wings and cutting your eyes. You can deal with them. You will be taught to do so. But then... then time will slow down, every second, every heartbeat you will make will be focused on that moment. That moment when you’ll sense that you are in the middle of an electromagnetic tunnel that within a blink connects the ground with the storm cloud - and you are in the way. And finally you will see a light so bright that it sears through your eyelids. There will be no roar - no sound at all. There will be no pain either. Your heart will simply stop. As you can imagine, falling will not be even a concern anymore.”
Still Storm finished standing snout to snout with the brownish colt who was on a verge of crying and possibly a mental breakdown.
“And you laughed.” said the professor, now with a calm, sad tone in his voice. “Didn’t you listen? Couldn’t you hear the crash? It’s been a few moments since I mentioned the poor pegasus that was falling to its death somewhere, right? Well - he or she is dead now for sure. Stay here, all of you, for a minute of silence. Class dismissed.”
And he simply walked away.
Spitfire shuddered at the memory. Still Storm was a fantastic teacher - his lessons were intense and always interesting - but he was a hard realist with not a single soft string to pull on. He turned them all into great weathercrafters but his biggest success, as he himself claimed, was planting fear and respect deep inside each one of his students.
“Fearless? Only fools say that they have no fear. You should be afraid, for there is much to be feared out there. But only by facing and overcoming your fears will you become great.”
She remembered well as the class giggled at the sheer cheesiness of the line. Still Storm himself smiled and added then “Yeah, it sounds terrible, I’m sorry to say. Simple truths tend to sound poor when spoken aloud. That doesn’t make them any less true, nevertheless.”
Spitfire smiled to herself as she recalled the one time she had gathered enough courage to ask the rugged pegasus a question: When I will be able to make lightning? He gave her a soft, gentle look and replied:
“If you survive your first, then you know that you are ready”.
Spitfire shed a tear. Only two months after they had finished his class he had died in a monstrous thunderstorm, one of the biggest in centuries. He had tried to tame it, to change its course. He wasn’t alone, of course - entire brigades of excellent weathercrafters had fought the cataclysmic event. It was he who had gotten caught by the lightning, though. Some said that it was ironic. Others believed it was the way he would liked to have died. For her it was the final piece; the last brick laid; the end of his perfect creation. No lesson about the danger of their day-to-day life could ever have been more effective.
“You all right, cap’n? We’re on in five minutes.”
“Wha- What? Oh! Yes! Yes, I’m fine, just... I’m OK, thank you, Thunder.”
She managed to shoot him a cheery smile and quickly looked away from his serious face to tend to her suit and gear, trying to look busy and eager. Thunder nodded after a second and trotted away toward a sofa. He sat down on it and went completely still, now a statue that could be easily named “The Calm Colt”. That was a clear sign of his stress: he was normally an extremely hyperactive pony with a constant smile on his face and cheer radiating from his entire form. However, when the pressure come, he tended to get serious and silent, almost unnervingly so to the friends who know him well.
He was, Spitife sadly noted, the worst flier in the entire team. Of course, that didn’t mean he was a bad flier overall, oh no. To became a Wonderbolt you must present a level of skill unattainable by just any pegasus. Still, in comparison to the swiftness of Cirrus or her own maneuverability, he was rather clumsy and had a hard time keeping up with their most radical stunts. She kept him in Alpha brigade because he possessed skill with weathercrafting beyond imagination - he was the only pegasus she had ever known to play with thunder like he wasn’t constantly juggling with life-threatening danger but rather a silly play with a little, sweet kitten that try to bite and claw away happily. She envied him this knack with the craft. She wasn’t half bad, she could make rainclouds, snowstorms and strong winds in a jiffy without breaking a sweat, but the dark, growling nimbuses with their astonishing power always made her shudder.
She gulped as she remembered why. She had passed all her exams with excellent marks and was praised in the school as a prodigy; a natural born talent that would have a bright career ahead of her. She was quickly sent with fantastic recommendations to the Wonderbolts’ training camp where they trained each new generation of future master fliers. At first she was horrified by the very vision of flying in front of her personal heroes, but after a few sessions she received only more praise. Until that single day that her group began real practice in a wild environment.
They were standing outside the camp in clouds, observing the monstrous Grazing Mountains in the distance. The sky above the sharp teeth of the snow-covered peaks was almost black as a massive storm approached, slowly rolling over the summits and flowing down like a stampede of shapeless, dark creatures, growling audibly even from such distance. There were eight of them: eight of the best students in their classes and they were getting nervous, mostly because their teacher and team captain was late and nowhere to be seen.
As they began to discuss the possibility of leaving, a cheery yet tired voice came from above. As they turned their heads upwards they spotted an onyx black stallion pegasus that was approaching them with extreme speed. He came to a halt with a spectacular Immelmann maneuver and slowly descended to join them with a wide smile. He looked pretty happy but his eyes and wrinkles betrayed his exhaustion.
“Good morning dear students! Oh, I know it’s noon, but I tend to get up late - or not get up at all if I don’t lay down earlier! My name is Wind Edge and I will be your instructor! Let’s see what we have here...”
As he said so, he trotted around them, regarding each of them intently with a scrutinizing glare. When he came to Spitfire, she blushed as he gave a long whistle.
“Well, well, well, I am lucky, am I not? Not only the best in their classes with fantastic recommendations, but also very pleasant to the tired eye! Excuse me for such personal a question at the very beginning, but have you, by any chance, found your beau yet?” he asked with a smirk.
The question took Spitfire by surprise and, with hot cheeks, she replied sheepishly.
Wind Edge closed his eyes and shook his head with a heavy sigh. He then flashed her a grin and turned towards the colts in the group - all five of them.
“I am so very disappointed, gentlecolts! To leave such a pretty filly alone for more than a minute is atrocious!” He stomped the cloud with a hoof to emphasize his faux outburst. “If none of you would ask miss Spitfire here out for a date before nightfall, I am afraid I am going to do just that and will steal her right before your eyes!”
He suddenly turned his head towards her once again with a sheepish grimace and a sad look.
“You do not find me repulsive I hope?” he asked her.
She was to shocked to even think of a coherent, witty response. Instead, she simply blinked and shook her head with a quiet “Not at all”.
Wind Edge smiled widely and gently, then chuckled.
“Fantastic! Well, since we’ve made introductions and you’ve cheered me up a bit, we can begin our practice. Up we go!”
Without further explanation he shot in the air. The entire group - still slightly confused - jumped after him though sheer instinct.
As they joined them in flight, one of the colts - Feather Gust, Spitfire recalled - asked what exactly they were going to practice. The black stallion pointed towards the terrifying mass of black cloud that poured down the mountain and said nothing. Neither did the class. He couldn’t be serious - to throw them into such a monstrous thunderstorm at the very first lesson. But he didn't change course and slowly but surely they got closer to the nightmarish cloudscape shaped from massive nimbuses. Edge Wing stopped in midair, hovering as he waved a hoof towards them indicating that they should gather around him.
“So, you should probably know what we are going to do. I assume that you are good. You must be - you are the best of your flying school; the elite; the crème-de-crème. You followed me effortlessly and I wasn’t on a slow pace there. You see, sweet fillies and brave colts, I am a great believer in the learn-on-the-way method of teaching. And this thunderstorm will aid me in this. The task that I have for you is probably the hardest you ever done in your life! So cheer up!” he said with a giggle. They weren’t so cheery as they began to get the idea of what they would be doing here.
“Well, nothing to add from me here. This stuff is simple!” he flew slowly away from them with a huge grin on his face.
“You just have to...” he sped off with astonishing speed in the direction of the raging elements. “CATCH ME!” His yell was barely audible above the roar of the storm and his own velocity.
Before they could realize what he meant, he was engulfed by the dark clouds. For a couple of seconds they didn’t move from the spot, looking at each other and facing the turmoiling cloud mass just a few paces in front of them. The wind was strong, humidity was high and the storm rumbled with quick flashes of brightness somewhere inside it. It was hardly inviting.
Spitfire was the last to jump into the clouds, she recalled bitterly. She had, as probably all of them had, flown into a storm before. They all had made clouds, brought rain and tamed snow during classes. They should be ready and they believed that they were, but this storm was different. It was bigger; darker; angrier. As she entered the dark clouds her vision was dimmed not only by darkness, but by the mist on her flight goggles in the heavy humid air. Strong winds tossed her off-course. Cold turned to freezing as crystals of ice began to slowly encrust the edges of her wings and her visor. She kept calm and make her wings vibrate as she was taught to do. It was exhausting but made the ice break off her feathers.
After just a few minutes of flying she realized that she didn’t even know what direction she was flying. Upwards? Towards the ground? In the shape-shifting plane of swirling clouds it was impossible to tell. She began to feel a soreness in her flight muscles. It usually took longer for her to felt tired from the flight, but inside the storm she fought with every muscle against the wind to stay airborne. She gulped when she saw a flash of light followed by the ear-shattering roar of a rolling thunder just a few lengths away from her. She yelped in panic as she noticed tiny arcs of electricity crawling around her suit.
Through the corner of her eyes she caught a glimpse of a flying shadow. It may have been Wind Edge; it was hard to tell through the darkness and the thin layer of ice covering her goggles. Whoever it was, the sight of another pegasus made her find her second wind as she focused on chasing the moving shadow with adrenaline flowing through her veins. Yes! It must be Wind Edge; he was the only one without a suit and she could see that the blackness of the pony in front of her was a natural color and not simply an effect of the surrounding darkness. A low rumble reminded her where she was as another surge of light blinded her for a fraction of a second. It was long enough for another strong gust to hit her side and throw her off, flying now into the glowing cloud, ablaze with the electrical current that coursed through it. She bit her lip and tried her best to change direction, but the wind was against her, making it impossible to turn back. She flapped her wings hard to slow down the flight as she felt it: a strange sensation, like she was being covered in something tingly, soft and mellow. She watched as all the tiny little sparks from her suit dispersed in two directions. Her eyes widened in terror - she was going to be struck by a bolt of lightning.
She closed her eyes and accepted the inevitable. Through her eyelids she could see a radiant light. She felt the hair on her coat rising quickly - her mane and tail too. But after a second she felt nothing, no change. And she was still breathing and flying, she was sure of it. After another second she heard a buzz, a terrible crackle of raw, savage power - so different from normal roar of a bolt striking the ground. She opened her eyes to see Wind Edge flying around her, making a trail of dark clouds filled with arcs of angry lightning rolling inside, chasing him to no avail. As he flew away from her he turned his head back and, with a smile, saluted.
She was too amazed and dumbstruck to follow him. After a half an hour of turmoil she flew again through the clouds, concentrating not on catching him but rather on staying alive. Of course she didn’t win - she was one of the last that joined the group on the mountain peak in the silent and threateningly calm eye of the storm, surrounded by whirling elements and droplets of rain. Wind Edge was still smirking when she landed, feeling exhausted throughout every bone in her body.
All of them were panting heavily, sweat thickly covering their brows. Wind Edge, despite his tired, wrinkled face, wasn’t even breathing faster than he had been at the start of the course. He congratulated each of them, he said how happy he is that all of them had managed to breach the storm. Then he dismissed them. Spitfire was stricken by terror when she realized that she needed to fly through this nightmarish storm again to return to her room, but she caught Wind Edge alone and thanked him for saving her life. He just guffawed with big tears of laughter in his eyes. She recalled his reply well:
“My dear, it was nothing. You will be saving lives in no time, just you wait and see.”
Spitfire sighed as she wriggled inside her second layer of costume, the one with blue fabric crossed by strips of yellow patches shaped as lightning. Her Wonderbolt uniform; her second skin. If only Wind Edge knew how soon his words had come true. She had the costume for only three months before she managed to became a true Wonderbolt, or so she had heard in their Cloudsdale HQ. Suiting up, passing the tests, drilling the moves… that was all needed, yes, but it didn’t mean that you were one of “them” yet. The Wonderbolts were like any enclosed group she ever had been in – there was a clear line setting apart old veterans and green ones. There was always some additional unwritten test to pass, something that proved to the old seasoned fliers that you were really one of them. She had managed to do that quickly and out of the blue.
It was a routine flight: a short route from Cloudsdale to Phillydelphia; a little practice run for endurance and scouting for any of the wild storms that sometimes occurred around Equestria. Spitfire was still eager and could barely contain thr pride in her chest. She was a Wonderbolt: the real thing. Her uniform of blue and yellow was still a little stiff but as shiny as she ever imagined it. Her dreams has come true. Her parents had cried at the initiation ceremony and she cried with them as well. She was flying in team Gamma – a traditional place for every newcomer, green and reeking of freshness. She didn’t care back then that the others were making fun of them and using them somewhat as personal stewards, sending them off to fetch stuff or making them do any boring work they didn’t want to do themselves. She was still excited to even be there with her heroes.
One of the “boring jobs” was the scouting missions and her team had been making a lot of them lately. This time, however, it was far from boring, as on their way back they noticed a rumbling storm, quietly but rapidly approaching a small village beneath them; a village without any name she knew, since she had never bothered to learn it. They panicked briefly but their captain, a young brown filly with an exceptionally short mane known only as Racket quickly barked orders. She sent one of them to fly as fast as possible to their base for reinforcements and, without wasting time, made them dash toward the storm in well-executed formation. Within a minute or two they were in the middle of the storm, fighting it with efficiency. The clouds weren’t as massive as others that Spitfire had faced in her life. The storm itself was hardly anything fierce or really dangerous. It was actually easy to play with, and under their bucking and careful control it slowly dissipated, still rumbling forebodingly. While Spitfire was working on another cluster she could see small dots on the ground: a group of ponies running from the rain and thunder to the safety of their cottages.
And then she heard Racket scream a loud “Stop!” that wasn’t quick enough to prevent one of her teammates - a colt named Featherclear, as she recalled - forcefully bucking a small, dark cloud. Spitfire felt it on the spot as terror overtook her body. For second time in her life she felt the strange tingling in her body: her hair slowly spreading from her skin; electric arcs jumping from her suit as she was in the path of a bolt of lightning. Seconds were melting away rapidly, and she realized - faster than the blink of an eye - the route of the lightning. She didn’t know how, she just knew it. It was more like a discovery than a skill. Lightning was going to hit a running pony below - the slowest of the bunch. If it did, he or she would have no chance at all.
Spitfire’s brain practically ceased all functions except the basic and something took over her. At least, that’s how she recalled it later. Spitfire made an extremely fast corkscrew, graceful and fleet. Her wings began to buzz with rapid frequency and the electricity that arced over her body began to quickly form just behind her tail into a… lightning bolt of her own.
Then it struck her.
Light, brighter than the brightest of days engulfed her, but not completely. It was circling her, following her moves. She wasn’t faster than lightning - nopony was and that was a fact – but she could guide it. With each graceful move, fluid as if it were second nature to her, she let the buzzing streak of light dance around her, making circles and spirals, never to touch her and never to leave her. Spitfire was ecstatic, she never felt so alive as she did in that very moment, entwined with the murderous yet beautiful element. There was nothing else but her and the thunder. And then in a roaring blast the perfect moment shattered as the lighting left her and shot with a cracking boom into the ground, hitting a tree and turning it into a fiery torch on the spot. Silence covered everypony like a blanket. Even Racket stared at her with awe and amazement. It was her moment of glory and she would never forget it.
She smiled to herself as she double-checked her zippers and the tightness of her costume; her goggles already resting on her forehead. Overhead, she heard another great boom of cheering and applause – Team Beta was done with their spectacle. Within a few seconds, the other trio joined them in their lodgings, tired and sore but happy. She grabbed Cirrus by his neck and took him aside. He was a small colt, quite feminine in his slim form. To be honest a lot of ponies mistook him for a filly and it was hard to blame them since he really looked like one. Even his voice was quite squeaky for the stallion that he ought to be. He shot her a prideful smile.
“How was it?” she asked him quietly.
He gave her a stare brimming with confidence as he spoke.
“Can’t you hear, ‘Fire? The crowds are ecstatic and that’s all I require after our show.” He smiled as he nudged her softly. “It’s your turn Spitfire, try to stay focused out there and don’t fly into your memories like you always do.”
Spitfire frowned and snorted.
“I never do that!”
“Your defensiveness only proves it!” he proclaimed with a smirk and nuzzled her. She blushed slightly as he continued in a softer tone “Take care and give ’em a blast, captain.”
Spitfire just nodded as she began to move her wings, making them vibrate fiercely as black clouds began to form behind her and blue streaks of small, raw lightning slowly crawled around her suit. She smiled to herself and gave the command.
And the trio took off with the shrieking buzz of lightning rolling behind them.