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A Night on the Town
An MLP:FiM Fanfiction by Midnight Shadow
Chip wandered down well-paved streets, which slowly gave way to dingier, cobbled alleyways. By now it was well and truly dark. Luna's moon shone brightly somewhere in the sky, but it wasn't visible from ground level. From street-level the soft silvery light was all but non-existent. Stalliongrad was a city of industry, a city of shift workers and factory mules, of long hours and short pay. This left a visible pall that hung over the more industrial and often poorer areas.
Uncle Pyrite lived on a hill; from his mansion, almost the whole of Stalliongrad was visible when the smog was thin enough. Down here in the gloom, lit only by wan firefly lanterns, it was a whole other story. Still, something pulled Chip onwards. He was a restless soul, called onwards by the siren song of the new city. Maybe he was just in need of proving his independence from his uncle, in however clandestine a manner, but Chip felt something calling to him, and that call he obeyed.
The houses here were smaller, thinner and taller than those he remembered in Neighvada. In Neighvada, apartment buildings were tall and brightly lit. The poorer homes were gaudy and tacky, the richer homes gaudier. Here, they were worn and cramped and mostly dark, stained with soot and dirt. Strange shapes flitted about above the streets, from their raucous cries a good deal of them were griffons. Chip could only wander what they were hunting, there didn't appear to be much wildlife. Other shapes, though - other shapes told a different story. He could feel it now, deep in his bones. A kind of thrum, like he was a plucked guitar string. Dragons.
It was this strange feeling, and his nose for the peculiarly unique draconic scent, than led him to his final destination, many blocks from his new home. The draconic quarter spread out before him, distinct in architecture from the upper crust pony quarter, or the lower class working-class quarter and differing once again from the griffon quarter. The latter two had wider doorways and lower windows. The Griffons had tall eyries built for winged access, or underground homes marked with crude yet efficient animal-fat torches for those that preferred a dig to a perch.
Dragons, on the other hoof, had no windows or doors, not as such. They had basking rocks, large ledges for sunning on, and winding stone-clad hallways that spun into magefire-lit cavern-like rooms. One such building appeared to be somehow raised out of a small mountain, by either improbable magic or surprisingly handy natural formation. Chip doubted that it could be called something as mundane as a 'building', but he lacked the proper vocabulary. It rose into the sky, lit by torches and belches of flame from dragons both arriving and leaving. Music could be heard from within, and the hum and chatter of voices.
Chip stood for a moment, eyes closed, just drinking in the new sensations that flooded his body and mind. He had never felt this before, not even with his parents or friends, not like this. It was like the unspoken bond of a herd, but subtly different and - in this place, with hundreds of dragons within - far more powerful.
A hiss that snapped him out of his reverie. Looking up, Chip saw three pairs of eyes watching him from a first floor ledge. Two of the pairs of eyes, attached to one dragon each, leaped to the ground on either side of him.
"Hello there, you lost?" came the voice, soft and syrupy yet possessing a granite hardness that suggested he had better know exactly what he wanted.
Chip shook his head, looking up at the silvery-white dragon without fear, "I've been looking for you, kinda."
"Looking for dragons? That's begging for trouble, little pony."
There was another hiss from his left, "Nnnooo, Pig Iron, thisss... sssomething elssse."
Pig Iron, apparently the name of the silvery white dragon, spread his wings and almost flowed through the air down to street level. "Oh, ohhh, that's interesting, little one. I don't recognize your clan, but I do recognize your training spikes. Are you fit to wear such an honourable weapon? Or did you steal it from your master?"
Chip flicked his tail and the bolas that adorned it menacingly, "I have more armour, Pig Iron, and if you want I can show you how well I can use it."
"Feisty. I like that. You interest me, little one. You're something I've not seen before, though I have heard legends. Amethyst, fetch the boy a snack. It's a cold night, he's come a long way to Pig Iron's Palace. Bauxite, I'll send you out something."
"Yesss, boss." Bauxite, a red dragon that was little larger than Chip himself, scrambled up the side of the rock-face to the ledge he had sat on before, where he curled up and put his head on his tail, eyes scanning the darkness. Amethyst scuttled inside ahead of Pig Iron and Chip.
"You must be new around these parts, kid. I know every dragon around here, but I don't know you. You, I have to say, I would know. Name your clan."
"I am Chiphoof Irontail Leatherback, of the Diamond Expanse. Friends call me Chip."
"Leatherback, hmm? How is old Sharptooth then, you must have met him." Pig Iron's eyes gleamed in the darkness, draconic senses telling him one thing, eyes another.
"Sharptooth is my father." said Chip, after a few seconds, "he sent me to live with my uncle."
"Sharptooth has no brother, not in Stalliongrad." growled Pig Iron.
"It's complicated." Chip nodded. Pig Iron hissed appreciatively.
The silvery-white dragon put a claw on Chip's withers as they entered the main interior hall, waving the other around expansively as he presented his demesnes. "This is Pig Iron's Palace, Chip. Welcome to the best dragon bar in Stalliongrad. Every dragon comes here, every dragon is welcome, as long as you obey my rules. This is an Enclave, young... dragon," Pig Iron barely hesitated, to his credit, "a sanctuary. All feuds are left or dealt with outside, and everybody and everything inside is under my protection."
"I didn't come here to fight." Chip stated, as hundreds of pairs of eyes momentarily fastened on him, and then looked away, uninterested.
"Though you can if need be, I understand. Fire in the blood is hot in one so young, even for you I bet. I smell blood on you, Chip. How many?"
"One." Chip answered softly, "A diamond dog."
Pig Iron hissed angrily, "Mongrels. We don't tolerate their sort up here. Our workers of choice are the gem-eyed ponies from the Under Deeps. Loyal, hard-working. I don't own any though I sometimes wish I did."
Chip blinked, and was once again reminded how different dragons were. Amethyst ran up then, forestalling further speech. The small, light purple dragon had a tray with a selection of rocks, meat and gems in neat piles, held in his claws. It was a snack, of sorts, and it set Chip's mouth watering.
"On the house, Chip." Pig Iron said, as the tray was placed on a table. Chip's stomach growled, and Pig Iron laughed.
"Diamonds! They're my favourite." Chip bent and took a couple in his muzzle, chewing happily. He savoured their odd flavour - these were spicier than back home, subtly different. It still surprised him that what would have been mere decoration a few weeks ago was now a treat.
"You live up to your clan then, young dragon." Pig Iron said, relaxing.
Chip nodded, oblivious that he had passed some test, as he sampled the different snacks on offer. Emeralds tasted like fruity mints, sapphires somehow tasted like berries, coal was an interesting mixture of bread and apples and there was some sort of greyish powdery rock that tasted for all the world like baked scones. He wondered, idly, if it was his unique heritage that somehow translated flavours - or if it was this way for all dragons. He thought about it, and decided it would be as pointless as discussing colour vision.
Looking around the stone-clad multi-level room, Chip got a sense of age. Whenever dragons were involved, things were so rarely new. This tavern, inn, bar - whatever it was - was no exception. Thick smoke wafted high up where dark shapes flitted to and fro, some serving drinks or snacks, others just on the move. Hookahs were lit and re-lit with dragonfire and magelight, deep voices conversing in a lilting tongue that made his mane stand on end. Music wafted from whirling thaumatic machines, the resulting cacophony not entirely drowned out by the chattering hum of draconic speech that melted together into an audible melange. Companion creatures waited on their masters and mistresses, some were ponies, others were imp-like trolls with wings or without. Others still looked like oddly malformed miniature dragons. Some were bright-eyed and obedient, others fearful, still others were slovenly and sullen, stealing what scraps they could to feed themselves. There was the occasional screech and chattering as an errant servant was chastised, followed by heavy laughter or fierce muttering. There were griffons, too, pecking at plates of raw or at least barely-cooked meat from thankfully unidentifiable sources as they spoke in hushed squawks with other griffons or dragons. Of pony customers, there appeared to be none.
"So what brings you to Stalliongrad, so far from Lord Diamond?" Pig Iron asked, finally.
"I'm... I don't know. There was trouble, but Sharptooth hasn't told me everything." Chip said, between mouthfuls. "I want to go home, I'm a dragon, I can look after myself."
"That's the spirit." Pig Iron sat on his haunches and watched the strangely equine dragon eating. "Your story intrigues me, young Chip. I would hear more."
"What do you want to know?"
"I ask," Pig Iron said, gesticulating at his chest with a wave of his claw, "for my hoard. Do you have a hoard yet?"
Chip thought for a moment, glancing around the large cavernous room. Dragons lay all around; some sat on their haunches, others perched on spikes, others lounged in depressions similar to Sharptooth's weir.
"I do, but it is small."
Pig Iron nodded slowly, "Do you see all this? Do you know who owns it?"
"I thought you did," Chip said. "Don't you?"
"Listen to me, young dragon, because I am going to tell you something important, a story for a story, is that fair? The biggest hoard a dragon should have is not measured in floor space, it is measured in the amount of pages it would fill. You seem like a dragon who can appreciate my viewpoint, so I share it, in the manner of my clan, the Iron Hall Clan."
"You mean knowledge, don't you." Chip said, ears perking up.
"Indeed. These dragons, some of them my good friends, most don't appreciate it. They explore, fight, dig, collect - and then they come to my Enclave. They give me their baubles and their time and chatter. I don't have to fight, I give freely, and in return I collect so much more. My hoard grows without my intervention. Do you understand?"
Chip nodded, "Sharptooth's hoard has a lot less gold and jewels than I would have expected, a lot more... paintings and models and stuff."
Pig Iron's eyes narrowed, "Go on, tell me how a dragon such as yourself came to be."
Chip looked at Pig Iron carefully, considering, "My... father, my pony father, would have told me to watch my mane with you, because I'd find it missing if I gave you half a chance."
Pig Iron laughed, "Indeed you would! There is no pressure here, but I offer you something in return - your appearance has piqued my interest, young Chip. Indulge me, you may find my lesson rewarding."
"Okay." Chip took a bite of the meat, he wasn't sure what animal it was from, but he knew meat by now. It was foreign again to gems and rocks, but... it had something that grabbed his tongue and wouldn't let go. He chewed, thoughtfully. Whatever it was, was dead. It had been killed, skinned, stripped, blooded, sliced up and cooked. Wasting such a gift, even one taken not given, didn't sit well with Chip. He wasn't sure he liked it, but... he could eat it.
"I was born Chiphoof Irontail, from Neighvada. My parents died, in a mining accident. A diamond dog mine collapsed on them and the trolls they were with. Celestia sent me to live with Sharptooth, and he adopted me, said something about keeping me safe. I didn't know it would... do this, but it did. Now," Chip stopped, swallowing another chunk of meat, "now Sharptooth sent me here, to my uncle Pyrite."
"Pyrite, huh? Young dragon, what do you think of Stalliongrad?"
"I'm not supposed to be out, my uncle locks me in. It's dirty, big, busy... and it has dragons and griffons and ponies and it's really cool, and I can take care of myself. Pyrite doesn't know that."
"I bet you haven't tried to explain your... situation either, have you?"
Chip shook his head.
Pig Iron sat, silently regarding the strange dragon before him, as around the pair, the Enclave thrummed with life. "Chip, as a friend, do not tell Pyrite what you are. He couldn't understand anyway, little one, and it is far more than eating rocks and flesh."
"I know, I think," Chip said. "Sharptooth was teaching me all about being a dragon. He started with the training spikes, and breathing fire, and roaring."
"Then let me continue your training. I want to show you something. Oak Keg! Oak, come!" Pig Iron turned to the bar, where an earth pony was tending to customers, serving them drinks that bubbled, smoked, steamed or just plain burst into flames. He was a large red stallion, with dark brown-and-green flecked mane and tail. His fetlocks were long and creamy white and a wooden cask adorned his flank as a cutie mark.
Chip watched as the large, red pony bent down on his knees until his belly was on the floor. Oak then lay his head on the ground, and rolled over onto his side, upper fore and hind legs raised to expose his belly, head angled upwards in relation to his back so his neck was similarly open. The pony trembled, fearfully.
"Look around, Chip, tell me what you see."
"I said look around, not at my pet."
"Nopo- nobody is watching? They're all... mostly at least, just... drinking, eating, talking."
"And yet here lies a pony, in front of me. I could kill him now, you understand? I could spill his blood on my floor, rend and tear his flesh, and do you know what would happen?"
"N-no." Chip shook, slightly, looking down at the pony before him. Chip could hear a soft whimper from the creature.
"Nothing. I'd have to clean the floor myself, that's what would happen." Pig Iron placed a claw on the pony's withers, "Be at peace, Oak my pet, I love you far too much to ever make such an example of you. Relax, relax, you're needed here a while, okay?"
Chip watched, visibly disturbed, as the strange white dragon with the red eyes comforted the scared pony until Oak visibly went slack, lowering his fore and hind legs until they were on the ground, folded up as if he were sleeping, breathing easier. The pony's eyes remained closed, he was resting.
"I saved his grandsire, long ago, from certain death. In return, his life became mine. I owned him, body and soul. I didn't own his mares, but I did own their foals, and their foals' foals, and so on. Most I release from direct bondship, I am not a harsh owner, but some I keep. Oak Keg, here, is one such. He technically owns Pig Iron's Palace, and I own him. See his cutie mark? Look again."
Chip wandered closer, and looked carefully at the cask on the pony's flank. On the cask was a stylized iron bar, the bar itself had various lines and markings that reminded him of... Chip looked up, "That's your clan sign, isn't it?"
"Indeed, young dragon. I own him, from tip to tail, and his cutie mark displays his status. This is what it means to be a dragon, Chip. When we take others into the darkness beyond twilight, it is not a mere formality. I have had Celestia herself petition for the release of my 'slaves', but she will not have them, not without my say so, because I am a dragon. I am beyond her commands, and I am at liberty to keep what pets are rightfully mine. There was no trick, no duplicity. A pony would have died, I saved that pony's life, and in return, his life was mine. I treasured him as I treasured his foals, as I treasure their foals' foals."
Pig Iron stroked the pony, making soft and gentle noises. He looked back up at Chip from where he crouched, "I dislike the term slaves, though that is what other dragons may call them. They are pets, Chip. Pets are part of the family, they work for the family. A slave is not, a slave toils for a master. From one pony, little Chip, grew a small herd. In time, that herd may rival Equestria itself. My lifetime as a dragon will be a long one, and I invest my time and power where I see fit. This is another lesson you must learn, young one. Gold does not multiply itself, but deeds and knowledge does. In every deed, see to it that you do as a dragon would do, and do not bring shame to our kind."
Chip looked down at the pony on the floor, a pet of the dragon that stroked his mane idly and cooed softly. Chip looked at himself. He could never be like that pony on the floor, not anymore; he was beyond it, changed by everything. He wore a body of hooves, mane and tail, but his heart was that of a dragon, his mind had to be too.
"Your pet does your clan proud," Chip said, lamely. He didn't know the proper words, but he thought he understood how it should work. "He is a fine specimen."
"I thank you, Chiphoof, young lord of the Diamond Expanse." Pig Iron nodded, pleased with both the wording and the understanding, "As a gesture of my thanks, allow me to open you a tab at the bar. Spend within reason, and pay up within a century or so, and we shall remain in good graces with each other."
"Why do you keep... pets, though?" Chip asked, "If it brings you trouble with Celestia?"
"You can answer that one yourself, can't you?"
Chip nodded slowly, he cleared his throat before answering. "It's because... they're under your protection. You help keep the peace in Stalliongrad, between dragons and ponies. Your... pets live and work all over the city, even the ones that you don't keep like this one." Chip pointed to the 'animal' on the floor, realising where he stood in relation to it.
"The peace between us dragons and ponies like my pet here is fragile at times, seeing as dragons are carnivores as well as lithovores. No dragon may harm my property, so touching any pony becomes a possible matter of draconic honour. I serve the Equestrian Crown even as I defy it. And in return, Celestia owes me, and my hoard grows in importance again. You're learning. Now, what would you like to drink?"
Chip licked his lips as Pig Iron bid Oak Keg rise and tend the bar once more, "What would you suggest?"
Pig Iron smiled as he led the way to the bar, stepping behind it himself and gesturing for Chip to take a seat. "Well, there's a flaming sulfur screwball, a diamond glitter snowball, or whizbang if you're uncouth enough. I detest the stuff, but there are a few regulars who can handle it."
"What's 'Whizbang'?" Chip asked, raising an eyebrow.
Pig Iron snorted, "Something you'd best forget about. It gets popular every few years before the hatchlings grow up enough to get over it or the clan lords around here stamp it out. You can either inhale it powdered or drink it mixed, if you must know. For those unable to control their baser natures it can easily become a habit. It's not truly addictive, and its effects are mildly enjoyable, when taken in moderation. It's utterly fatal to almost every other form of life in Equestria, with no known cure and has rightly been made illegal almost everywhere. Which is the only real reason to stock it. Even having seen you make short work of that snack-tray, I can't recommend it. A youngster like you, it'd likely just cause you a bellyache, put out your fire and make you sick for the night."
"If it doesn't?"
"I'm told it's fantastic," Pig Iron rolled his eyes as he made something that hissed and bubbled, smelling rather strongly of fire and brimstone. He pushed the goblet to Chip, who sipped at it gingerly. The mixture warmed him all the way down, and caused him to hiccup. A small burst of flame shot out his nose and he grinned like an idiot as the glow seemed to spread.
"Personally, I'd stick to this stuff. A good healthy mix of sulfur and arsenic."
Chip hiccupped again, sending a gout of flame spewing across the bar. Pig Iron laughed, "See? Good for what ails you."