Chapter 10: Fangs and Scales
The journey to the Western Barrier Land had been long and arduous for Spike even if he did spend most of it on the back of a pegasus legionnaire. His escort, Cirrus Wing, was far from the chatty sort and the long periods of silence sapped his energy more than any physical exertion involved. They stopped only for meals and brief periods of rest in order to get to the Western Barrier Lands as quickly as possible. Spike had wondered why Prince Terrato had not simply teleported him, but could not work up the courage actually ask. The prince had noticed nonetheless.
“Take the scenic route, Spike. It’s not what you’re used to, but you might appreciate my realm’s landscape.”
That was what Prince Terrato said anyway. There were other reasons for sure, but Spike didn’t know what they were. The landscape was beautiful, especially with the view he had. The vast, rolling, snow-covered plains of the Northern Barrier Land gave way to steadily steeper hills, then to the forested mountains of the Western Barrier Land. Winter had also arrived to this place, covering the tall pines and firs with white.
After hours of flying since their last stop, Spike finally spotted a city sprawled across the side of one mountain. This must be Wallforge City. A lot of the trees around the place had been cut down. He could spot a lot of bare, rocky areas that looked like they had been quarried. Just like the previous city he had been flown over, the buildings were mostly stone and close to the ground. As he came closer, he spotted the multitude of stairs that led up and down the city streets. With the mountain’s form, the city was as much vertical as it was horizontal, a trend he had observed in pretty much all of the Western Barrier Land he had seen so far.
Soon, Spike noticed a squad of around six pegasi fly up from one of the many watchtowers around the city and towards him and his escort. They were barded like legionnaires and armed with large crossbows and spears, each nearly twice as long as a pony, strapped across their backs.
“Halt! Who are you and what’s your business here, pegasus pony?” the lead pegasus asked.
“Flight Sergeant Cirrus Wing of the Northern Equestrian Legion,” Cirrus Wing replied with a salute. “Under the prince’s direct orders, I am escorting this dragon to Seethe Scale for training.”
After some scrutiny, the lead pegasus nodded, then ordered his ponies to fly by Cirrus Wing’s side. “We've been expecting you,” he said. “I’m Patrol Leader Shale Skin. Land by the northern gates, we’ll have an escort to take you to her lair by ground.”
“What’s wrong with flying?” Cirrus Wing asked.
“Seethe Scale won’t like catching a whiff of dragon flying close to her lair. She’ll put a dozen of her arrows through you before you can come close enough to tell her you mean no harm.”
With a nod, Cirrus Wing banked towards the northern gates along with the other pegasi.
“Doesn't Seethe Scale live in the city?” Spike asked.
“Thank the prince, no,” Shale Skin replied. “She’s scary enough from a distance. Besides, she hates crowds.” He paused, then took a better look at Spike. “Not as much as she hates dragons, though. Are you sure about this? Even a squad of pegasi won’t be enough to stop her if she decides she’d rather eat you than train you.”
Spike quivered, and it wasn't just because of the winter air. For all his talk about wanting to do this so he could be of a greater help to his friends, he was terrified of being separated from them and undertaking this long journey without a single friendly face for miles. He had desperately hoped that this Seethe Scale was a friendly, personable sort who would help ease his loneliness and fears, but Prince Terrato said that the kirin tended to brood a lot. Now, the pegasus’s words confirmed that his “teacher” was a dangerous one. He clenched his fists, as if his resolve lay in his claws and he refused to let go. “Let’s do this,” he said.
They landed just outside the northern gates. At ground level, Spike looked past the open gates and into the city. It was late morning when he got to this place and everypony was out working. The ponies outside were mostly earth ponies with a few pegasi and an occasional unicorn. Nearly all of them were involved in hard, physical labor. He had guessed right about the quarries. In addition to the paved streets, long, winding rails crisscrossed the place so train carts of stone can be wheeled about with ease. Even though it was winter, ponies still worked the quarries, pounding away at rocks or hauling about loads of them. At a distance, he spotted mine entrances as well as work areas to turn the broken stone into bricks. Smoke rose from well over hundreds of chimneys, whether it was from the workshops or the residences. The most prominent feature in the city, however, was the giant stone statue of Prince Terrato at its center, visible even from where Spike was.
“Taking in the sights?” Shale Skin asked. A hint of pride tinged his voice. “Wallforge is one of our prince’s favorite cities. It's a city of hard labor surrounded by the things he governs. We supply building stone to all corners of the Barrier Lands. We've also got a few gem mines so there’s no shortage of greed or gluttony dragons looking for an easy meal if they’re not going after ponies.” He looked towards the mountain’s peak. “The city may not show it very much, but we’re glad to have Seethe Scale around.”
After a few minutes of waiting, a green-coated earth pony stallion approached the squad. He was pulling a large wagon full of assorted sacks behind him .
“That’s Mudslide over there," Shale Skin said. "He does deliveries to Seethe Scale’s lair. He’ll escort you for the rest of the way. Take care, Spike." He and the rest of his patrol departed.
When the wagon came close enough, Cirrus Wing helped Spike climb inside, then explained to Mudslide all the necessary details. He then nodded at Spike. “I’ve done my duty here,” he said. “Good luck, dragon.” He flew towards the city. Spike waved a claw after him before fixing his attention on Mudslide.
“Looks like I got an interesting package to deliver to ol’Seethe,” Mudslide said with a grin. He chewed on a long blade of grass as he spoke. “You just sit tight back there, little dragon. Oh, and don’t touch the small sack of gems. She won’t appreciate it.”
Mudslide expertly navigated the wagon through the stony, sloping path while Spike sat on an unoccupied space inside it. Around him, the sacks jingled and clanked. He was sitting next to the aforementioned sack of gems, the baubles glinting temptingly at him. He did as Mudslide told him, though. He needed to make a good impression on Seethe Scale and eating what was likely her food was not the way to do it. To control himself, he looked at the other sacks. The one behind him contained a dozen or so metal spears. Each one had a broad and wickedly barbed head. “Why does she need so many spears?” he asked. “Does she break them often?”
"Those aren't spears, little dragon,” Mudslide replied. “They’re arrows. My sister has the honor of forging them for her. A couple of those in the right spot will bleed a dragon out.”
With a shudder, Spike inched away from the sack of “arrows”. He looked at another sack which didn't contain such ominous tools. This one contained various grasses, flowers and herbs. “What about this one?” he asked. “More food?”
“Whoah! Careful with those. They’re poisonous. She uses them for her arrows.”
Surrounded by poison, dragon-slaying arrows, and gems that he shouldn't touch, Spike hugged his knees and stayed at the farthest corner of the wagon. As the trip went on, the slope began to steepen and the air began to get colder. They were really out in the wilderness now. The path they were following was barely a dirt trail and the tall trees had given way to scraggly bushes and grass. Despite the rugged terrain, all Spike had to contend with were a couple of bumps. After a couple of hours of travel, they finally stopped in front of a large entrance to a cave.
“We’re here, little dragon,” Mudslide said.
Spike was more than happy to jump off the wagon to take a look around. The first thing that he noticed was the smell. An unfamiliar but incredibly wonderful aroma wafted from deep inside the cave, making his mouth water and his nose tingly.
“What is that smell?” he asked. The odor had left him in a daze.
Mudslide sniffed at the air and then wrinkled his nose. “She must be cooking up something again,” he said in a huff. He unfastened the wagon from his back and then stood at the entrance. “Seethe Scale?” he called out. “It’s me. I've got your deliveries here!”
“Leave them at the usual spot, Mudslide,” somepony answered from within. Spike listened carefully, trying to gauge what Seethe Scale was like from the way she spoke. She had a powerful and deep voice tinged with huskiness and a hint of feminine softness. Though her words were loud, she sounded like she was subduing herself.
“I also have a little dragon here with me,” Mudslide added. “A Wallforge patrol said that he’s here to train under you.”
A few moments of silence passed before Seethe Scale spoke again. “Leave them at the usual spot, Mudslide.”
With a shrug, Mudslide dragged the wagon to a niche by the cave entrance and left it there. “Just stand there with the wagon, little dragon. I’m off to Wallforge. See you around…I hope.”
Mudslide trotted down the trail, leaving Spike by himself. Nervously, he tried to peer deeper into the cave, but it was too dark to see anything save for what appeared to be a small fire farther in. Minutes passed while he just stood there, slowly being tortured by the delicious smell and his own apprehension over his first meeting with the kirin.
“Come inside,” Seethe Scale finally said.
Spike wasn't sure if he should be relieved or be frightened some more. He walked towards the fire, expecting a pony with dragon scales to jump out of the shadows and eat him. He followed the aroma to a strange lump of…something attached to a metal bar and placed over the fire. As he came closer, he noticed some movement from the shadows past the flames. He squinted, but still couldn't see anything clear. “Um…hello?” he called out.
“You must be hungry after your trip. Go ahead.”
Spike stared at the thing that was cooking by the fire. It did smell delicious, but he had never eaten something so strange. He looked around some more and spotted a pile of gold coins and jewelry by the edges of the fire’s light. “Um…can I have some gems instead? I’m also fine with some vegetables, even hay.”
Seethe Scale didn't reply, leaving Spike to deal with his rumbling stomach. He considered just picking up one of the gems scattered nearby, but he was afraid that the kirin would jump him if he so much as made the attempt. Finally, he gave in to his curiosity. The thing stuck by the fire did smell delicious and there really wasn't any reason for Seethe Scale to poison him. He tore off a hank of the stuff, ignoring the heat from the flame. The stuff was blackened and crispy on the outside, but still tender and pinkish on the inside. It bubbled with some sort of oil and came apart in strips when he tore it up a bit. After one more moment of hesitation, he popped a strip into his mouth and chewed.
The sudden burst of flavor nearly made him choke. Whatever this stuff was, it was one of the tastiest things he had ever eaten. He bit into the rest of the hank he had taken, then dug into the lump. Oily juices covered his claws and ran down his chin while he ate. With a slurp and a smack of his lips, he licked himself dry before sitting down to let his stomach settle. That was the best meal he had had in a while.
“Full?” Seethe Scale asked from the shadows.
“Yes,” Spike replied. “What is this stuff? It’s so delicious! Is it some kind of special dragon food?”
Spike stopped and then looked at where Seethe Scale’s voice came from in confusion. “Excuse me?” he asked. “Did you just say-?”
“Boar. I picked a young one so you can chew easily…you’re welcome.”
Spike slowly turned his attention back to the thing roasting over the fire. Horror and nausea began to creep up on him. Boar! He had been eating with so much gusto and calling it delicious! He stepped forward and pointed towards Seethe Scale’s voice. “You tricked me!” he cried out.
“I wouldn't have touched this thing if you told me it was boar!”
“I didn't say it was vegetables either. Your nose and your tongue told you it was good food and you believed them.”
Spike pulled his tongue out and wrung it like a filthy washcloth. He felt betrayed by his own body. That he had enjoyed it so much left him mortified. He had been better off eating poison.
“Are you done?”
Spike could hear something big sliding against the stone floor. Instinctively, he stepped back just as a stream of fire burst from the shadows. He ducked in a panic, falling flat on his belly. Even though the flames didn't even come close to touching him, he could feel the heat of their passing. When he looked up, the cave was much brighter. The flames had lit several torches ensconced along the walls.
From where he was, Spike felt the ground vibrate slightly as Seethe Scale began to move. He did as he was told quickly. With the cave now properly lit, he could finally get a good look at his host and likely companion for the next six months. At the sight of her, he fell on his tail in shock.
Spike had spent his entire life being around other creatures bigger than he was. Looking up to ponies was nothing new, but he could not have expected this. Seethe Scale towered above him, easily four or five times the size of an average pony. Her head and neck were that of a pony’s with a slightly more pronounced and reptilian snout compared to the mares he knew. Her long, straight mane was a very pale lavender color, almost white near the roots. Three horns sprouted from her head, two curved gracefully to the sides of her skull while a third one pointed upward from her forehead.
Despite the name, Seethe Scale was mostly covered with fur. She had a luxurious, long, white coat that gave way to equally white scales past her knees and on her long, dragon tail. Her forelegs ended in a pair of claws while her hind legs ended in hooves. A pair of dragon wings were carefully folded to her sides. “Introductions,” she said, her tail flicking about lazily. “My name is Seethe Scale.”
The kirin stared at Spike quietly and expectantly. It took a minute of him just staring in awe before he finally realized that he should answer with his own introduction. “It’s…uh…what was it?” He cast about his mind until he found what he was looking for. “It’s Spike! That’s right, my name is Spike.”
Seethe Scale lowered her head so that her snout was only a few inches from Spike. He heard her sniff before she pulled back. “You smell correct,” she said. “I see the wisdom in our prince’s decision now. Dragon in body and pony everywhere else…you’re just as much a hybrid as I am.” She walked farther into the back of the cave. Despite her enormous size, she moved quietly and gracefully.
To a citizen of the glorious empire, the ophidite city of Ervain Reis could not be further from an ideal home. As the northernmost of Ophidus’s settlements, it was more an outpost and a launching point for an invasion rather than a proper home. The streets were a chaotic mass of soldiers slithering about, vendors selling their wares, and slave traders herding their ponies to the nearest bidding stall. It was only to be expected given that it was so close to the pandemonium that was Equestria and so far from the emperor’s abode.
Hassyth surveyed it all from his manor’s balcony with an impatient sneer. Despite the time he had already spent here, he was never going to get used to the rabble or the smell of so many unwashed ponies milling about in the open. Ervain Reis was no home to a noble of the Coatl tribe and it never will be.
Of course, whenever Hassyth’s thoughts strayed towards that subject, he only needed to glance back to the sad state of his manor to remember that he was barely a coatl noble at the moment. He was down to this one manor at the borders of the empire, a dozen servants, a couple dozen pony slaves, and two concubines. It was a far cry from his time in the capital where he was among the very elite of the emperor’s tribe. That was long ago, even a mere decade of misery in this city could make the best of times seem a mere dream.
So deep was Hassyth in his reminiscing that he barely noticed the sudden draft and whistle of something flying past mere inches from his face. With an angry hiss, he unfurled his wings and unleashed his magic, covering himself with a crackling barrier of protective force. He looked behind him to find a quivering arrow stuck to the wooden floor. ‘Sniper,’ he thought. He cast another spell and the arrow began to glow as a thin trail of light began to extend from its fletched end, tracing its path through the air. His gaze followed the trail only to find it go on and on to the late noon sky. He squinted at the distance and noticed something. It looked like a pegasus, but it was so far away that it was barely more than a dot. A second later and it was already gone.
‘So Equestria has decided to send assassins after me?’ Hassyth thought. It didn’t make sense. He had lost his place of importance a long time ago. Equestria had little to gain with his death. He looked back to the arrow that had been shot at him and noticed the twist of paper tied to the shaft. A pair of cards were attached next to it. Telekinetically, he separated the paper from the shaft and took a look.
Hassyth of the Coatl tribe,
Greetings. I apologize for the rather rude method of message delivery. I would meet you myself, but I am pressed with important matters. I hope you understand.
I have done a bit of research lately and came upon your name. You have a past as colorful as your wings and I understand that you have gone down in the world these past years. Attached to this message are a couple of photographs that you are certain to find very interesting. If you wish to pursue this matter, signal my agent in your area through a flare spell. Longstride will coordinate with your plans.
Hassyth crumpled the note and tossed it aside. He didn’t recognize the name. The offer was a bit intriguing, though. He took the photographs and looked. “Scarlet Rabbit!” he hissed. The red coat and the darker red mane were unmistakable, as were the facial features and the wings. Despite the barding, he knew who it was. It was his prize racer, still alive and healthy. He trembled with excitement. The loss of Scarlet Rabbit was the highlight of that disastrous pony raid on his holdings. He had lost a great deal of resources and the greatest source of his income. To think that the Equestrian Legion now benefited from his most valuable racer! They had likely messed with his conditioning. Already, he imagined reacquiring the pegasus and resetting the proper training. He will corner the races once more and his fortune will return.
“And so the brave hunter Nasihihyth ignored the warnings of his fellows and chased after the strange scarlet rabbit. Through brushes, woods and rivers he pursued the creature, firing his poisoned arrows upon it. For days he could not stop in his chase until he finally ran it down and slew it. With a loud hiss of joy he raised the animal in a triumphant grip. It was then that Nasihihyth looked around and discovered that the creature had led him far away from any known trails. He was tired, hungry, without supplies and lost. The hunter cursed at his folly and was never seen again.”
Hassyth laughed inwardly as he remembered the old bedtime story of his grandmother. He was no foolish hunter, he was a determined noble who was merely reacquiring his possessions. He put the first photograph aside and looked at the other one. Acquiring Scarlet Rabbit was more than enough for him to consider working with this “Longstride”. What else could be there?
He found himself looking at the picture of another pegasus. This one was a light blue mare. He could tell from her sleek build and well-developed wings that this one would be a good flyer as well. She was still young and easily trainable if he could get her to a proper racing stable. It was her mane that quickly grabbed his attention, however. This pegasus had the most fascinating mane he had seen among pegasi. “Coatl coloration!” he exclaimed. He looked to his own rainbow-colored wings. then back to the photograph. This was a valuable find indeed. Never mind her potential as a racer, if he could present a fine pegasus specimen with the colors of the Coatl tribe before Emperor Sesyth's court, he would surely be rewarded with a fortune that not even Scarlet Rabbit could acquire after a lifetime of winning races. He imagined bringing her to the palace on that day and having her bow obediently before their mighty emperor. Better yet, if he could train her to dance to “Pride of the Ophidites”, his fortune was assured.
“Hashymissa!” Hassyth called out. At once, a female vipren slithered into his chambers. Hashymissa had been his chief servant even before he had been forced to stay in this wretched city. She was Scarlet Rabbit’s trainer and was responsible for all his pony slaves.
“You called, master?” Hashymissa hissed.
“I have an important mission for you, something that may take you to Equestria itself.”
“That is a truly perilous mission indeed, master.”
Hassyth nodded. Equestria was a dangerous place filled with vigilant pony legionnaires who would be more than happy to kill any ophidite who dared to trespass. “I have heard the scouts,” he said. “Equestria is dealing with matters by its other borders. If there was ever a time to infiltrate it, now will be the time.” He looked down his balcony again. Ervain Reis was marshaling its own troops for a raid on Equestria itself. If it wasn’t for the growing crisis of the Crocodilian Rebellions closer to the capital, Ophidus would be launching an all-out assault on its northern neighbor. “Bring eight of our best slaves with you. You are to capture these ponies alive.” He tossed the photographs at Hashymissa, who grabbed it with her hands.
With that, Hasyth looked up to the steadily darkening sky and fired a flare spell.