- - -
- - -
Fluttershy inhaled the clean, clear, intoxicatingly dragon-free air of the Canterlot gardens. Every visit to the Palace retreat rewarded her with something new to smell, hear and see. Gliding, just a few inches off the ground, her nose twitched as the rich aroma of nearby flowers tickled her senses. She had first seen the gardens at night and late afternoon, during the Grand Galloping Gala, but the grounds were so much nicer during the light of the day.
Carefully cultivated flowers, dappled blue and yellow, leapt out from a canopy of ivy and hedges. Fountains and a babbling brook sang, a background chorus for the choir of birds that made the gardens their home. Fluttershy held out a hoof and a Mazarine Blue butterfly alighted gently on her leg. It remained for only a moment, and then it was off again.
This was so-oo much nicer than going to see scary dragons!
The Prince and Princess had been kind enough to give her a room for a few days so she could wait out the whole frightful migration in the safety and seclusion of Canterlot. It was also a chance to catch up with her animal friends outside Ponyville. The garden's exotic fauna were still skittish and wary, vestiges of their old instinct as wild creatures, but Fluttershy was determined to be patient and give them time to accept and embrace her.
Finding a wood and iron bench, the shy pegasus sat down to rest her wings. It really was nice to be able to visit the gardens again and to see Green Thumb and even pamper herself a little at the palace. It was. But...
But she also felt a little guilty.
Rainbow Dash had a point. She had gone with Fluttershy to see a butterfly migration, though she clearly hadn't enjoyed it much. It had been nice to have the company. Fluttershy knew she probably should've reciprocated and at least tried to watch the dragons with her friends. It was just so... so scary! Just the thought of the sky darkening with massive, reptilian shapes, their huge leathery wings beating as they soared menacingly through the air...!
"Eep!" Fluttershy had to hide her head under her hooves.
No: it was just too much! She just hoped her friends understood and forgave her for 'bailing on them’ as Dash would say. If it had only been anything but dragons! Maybe she could get them something from Canterlot? Rarity always loved things from the city, and she could get Twilight a book and Rainbow Dash and Pinkie some music records. Applejack was harder to shop for, but there was sure to be something that caught her eye.
"I really need to apologize for kicking Rainbow Dash, too," she reminded herself, her ears perking up as she caught sight of something in the gardens nearby. It was a dash of off-color. An animal, maybe? One she hadn't met before?
Away from the bench and over a long, narrow pond thick with water lilies in full bloom, Fluttershy ducked behind one of the many crenelated arches that decorated Celestia's royal gardens. Beyond was a secluded grove with low stone walls covered in ivy. White oak trees framed the weald, and a small company of Neighponese Blue Jays were gathered around a marble bath, chirping and singing.
The birds weren't the color and shape she had seen through the bushes, however.
That distinction belonged to a pony, a unicorn mare sitting at the edge of the grove with an easel and paints. Her coat was a shade of pink, like Pinkie's but a more a dark rose than bright pastel, while her mane was a deep, ruby red bundled up in a prim and elaborate bun. To Fluttershy's surprise, she was painting with her mouth and hoof, instead of with magic, dipping a tiny brush the size of a quill in a well of watercolor before putting it to canvas.
The unicorn's cutie mark appeared to be a golden cage with a black bird inside.
Not wanting to disturb her or get in the way, Fluttershy backed up and resumed her tour of the gardens. She even found the resident kangaroo that had first caught her eye, back in the Gala. She knew from Blueblood and Green Thumb that it was still considered dangerous to approach the nervous creature. Kangaroos had a famously powerful kick, but a little emboldened, Fluttershy slowly managed to get close enough to stroke its coat without prompting it into flight. It was all a matter of acclimation. Already, many of the critters in the gardens were as used to her as they were to the groundskeepers who had worked here for years.
"You can always come back, I promise."
The Prince had been true to his word, always extending every courtesy to her when she wanted to visit. Friendship couldn't be rushed, and just as she counted many of the birds and animals of Celestia's gardens among her friends, she considered His Grace to be the same. Blueblood was a bit strange at times, but he was nice. Fluttershy smiled to herself; maybe Rarity would pick her as Best Mare for the royal wedding? She figured it was likely between her and Twilight. Then again, being up in front of so many ponies at such a big event...?
"Eep!” Maybe - maybe it would be best to let Twilight have that honor.
But her little gasp had been enough to startle the kangaroo. It hopped away a few paces and resumed foraging. Fluttershy didn't press it, knowing that it was skittish. More skittish than she was, even! Instead, she moved along, quietly finding some of her other friends away from home. The birds in particular were out in force today, and Fluttershy indulged herself by singing along with them.
Curiosity brought her back to the grove from before, along with a little embarrassment that another pony may have overheard her singing. Sure enough, the pink unicorn was still there, painting. A little bolder than normal, inspired by how absorbed the other pony was, Fluttershy crept a little closer. What was she painting? A landscape? The castle?
It was the Neighponese Blue Jays.
All five of them, around the water bath. One had its wings spread as it splashed, two were singing, their beaks open and raised to the heavens. A forth was landing and a fifth was drinking. The artist had saved the backgrounds not adjacent to the characters for last, filling in and painting over faint lines of pencil with strokes of contrast and color. For a few moments, Fluttershy just watched her.
"Hello." The unicorn mare's voice was soft and shy. She didn't turn around.
"Hi," Fluttershy replied, shrinking away a bit in recrimination. "S-sorry. I didn't mean to disturb you."
"You weren't," the other mare said, touching up a patch of light blue sky.
Normally, Fluttershy would have muttered 'okay' or some other platitude before excusing herself. She really didn't want to bother anypony, especially since this one - like herself - must have come to the gardens for some solitude. With how focused this pony was on her artwork, though, Fluttershy couldn't help but feel at ease. She didn't even have to try and be unobtrusive, and there was a sort of calmness in watching the unicorn mare paint.
Settling down on her stomach, Fluttershy watched her and relaxed in the mottled shade of the trees. This time of the year there were always a few acorns on the ground... poisonous to ponies and uncomfortable to lay on. Fishing one out from under her, however, it was easy to settle into a cozy spot. Pleasantly, unlike most ponies, this mare didn't try and make conversation just because she had company. The two just enjoyed the gardens in silence.
At one point, a large hare hopped over, having found Fluttershy and knowing to associate her with an easy meal. She was much larger than Angel Bunny, as most jackrabbits would be, with a smaller head and larger body and ears. Fluttershy retrieved a bit of a lettuce from her saddlebag, soon attracting a couple more of the garden's smaller and more opportunistic eaters.
The animals here, even the ones that knew her, still didn't "talk" like Angel Bunny or the ones in Ponyville did. They hadn't been infused with the magic that came from being exposed to and raised by ponies over long periods of time. Most were still half-wild. It made for a bit of a challenge in getting to know them and even made her appreciate how pony-ified things were back home. She really did hope that Rarity used her new power as Baroness to help protect Ponyville's non-pony populations, as well. It was so easy for ponies to forget the animals that brightened their world.
A garden like this one, but maybe a little more wild - requiring only one or two groundskeepers - would be just wonderful back in Ponyville! Nicer than some musty old mage tower or eyesore reservoir.
Stroke by stroke, dab by dab, bit by bit, Fluttershy's unnamed companion finished her watercolor. Coming together, it was quite beautiful, a mixture of detail and emotional impression as the color drew one's eyes to the playful birds. Who, she only now noticed, had departed. The marble bird bath was unoccupied and the sun had set noticeably lower. Finally, the artist put her brush down, staring critically at her creation.
"It looks nice," Fluttershy broke the silence.
"It does?" The unicorn asked, glancing back at her for the first time. She had dull violet eyes, like Twilight's almost, but missing something intangible. She returned to her painting without another word.
"I especially like the bird you have landing. The wings are so detailed, and... um... well, you can't have caught a bird in that pose for long, so it looks really nice considering you didn't have a model. For it, I mean." Realizing she was rambling, Fluttershy pressed her mouth against her front legs.
"Thank you," the mare said in a soft voice. "If you like it, I'd be happy to give it to you."
"That's very nice of you, but..." Fluttershy raised her head, checking the painting to see if there was a name or anything on it. "I don't even know your name, Miss...?"
The other mare scooted around and inclined her head in courtly greeting.
"Chalice," she introduced herself.
"Fluttershy," the element of kindness did the same and returned the gesture.
"Ah." The other mare made a little sound, one of recognition. She didn't say as much, however. "Fluttershy. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance."
"The pleasure is mine," Fluttershy bowed her head a little more deeply and then, formalities over with, she nervously shuffled her hooves a little.
"You are staying at the Palace, I expect?"
"Oh. Um. ... Yes."
"Will you be in Canterlot for long?"
"Just... a few days," Fluttershy muttered. "What about you?"
"I will be here as long as my brother has need of me. At least a week, I believe." Chalice ducked her head and smiled weakly. "I would enjoy it if we could meet again tomorrow in the gardens. It was nice to have some company."
"Yes," Fluttershy agreed. "It was nice."
- - -
"My dear sister, do you know you have leaves in your hair?"
Chalice shrunk at the sound of her older brother's voice. Her horn glowed, rippling through her mane and removing a few of the offending blades. It was dark out, the night sky bright with Luna's moon and the glittering expanse of heavenly lights. Some ponies loved the night sky. Most unicorns revered it. They didn't know; they didn't understand. Having touched the forbidden beyond, having felt starlight burn her skin, Chalice could not see the constellations overhead without an involuntary shiver of dread.
It was just one of the many reasons why she was weak.
It was why she was little more than a backup for her sister Antimony.
She stared up at her brother, Alpha Brass. The stallion was dressed in his golden finery, adding a sparkle to his perfect aurulent coat and flaxen mane. Her brother had few of Father's solid features; fitting given his preferences in magic. Alpha Brass lowered his mouth to nip the stem of a leaf from behind her ear, his breath tickling her.
"Much better," he complimented, letting the leaf fall from his lips. "How was your day, dear sister?"
"I merely went to the gardens to paint," Chalice answered, closing her eyes.
"Ah. Curious," he observed, running a hoof down her back and over her saddlebags. "For you return with empty easel and no canvas to speak of."
"My painting was not to my standards," she said, stiffening slightly. "So I discarded it."
"Hmm." He mused, and she couldn't tell if he believed her or not.
"Did you find what you wanted?" she asked instead, the better to divert his attention.
"I did, in fact." He turned away with a single motion to lead her to their family estate and hall in Canterlot. Hocksbach Hall. "I found it and more."
"You have a name?" she inquired.
"Heartstrings," he answered her, a soft chuckle in his throat. "Lyra Heartstrings. I do not yet know how, but she has acquired one of our torcs." Alpha Brass licked his lower lip in eager anticipation. "I can't wait to meet her."
- - -
"Uh, Twilight? Did you know Spike was fire-proof?" Rainbow Dash asked from the center of their three-pony dragon costume.
"Or lava-proof?" Rarity's muffled voice came from the rear.
"I had an educated guess, but there was never any lava in Ponyville to test my hypothesis!" Twilight's enthusiastic response was paired with some hasty note taking in the cramped space of the goofy costume. The dragon's head, wide googly-eyed and mouth agape, rocked back and forth as the scholarly unicorn recorded her latest findings. "I wonder what the ratio of iron and magnesium to aluminium and silica is in that pool of lava..."
"Yeah, me too! Maybe we should fly down there and take a sample?" Dash asked, and looked up in time to see a growing, slightly unhinged grin on her friend’s face. This was Twilight Sparkle she was talking to, after all. "That was a joke, by the way! A joke!"
"Are you sure Spike isn't hurt?" Rarity asked from the back. "I can't see a thing from here! Twilight, switch places with me."
"What? No! We can't switch now!"
"I think the ass is the right place for you, Rarity - hey, ow! Watch it!"
"Oh, was that your tail, darling? I can't see anything in the dark."
"Girls, please!" Twilight pleaded from the 'head' of the dragon. "This is not the time or place!"
"HEY! Crackle's Cousin! What was that guy's name again? You coming or what?"
"Quick, Twilight, play dumb!"
Shuffling over to a patch of basalt, the three ponies draped themselves over the rough volcanic rock pretending to be asleep. Or just passed out. Unfortunately, their dragon costume couldn't close it's eyes. Twilight crouched and hunkered deep in the throat of the costume as the red teenage dragon of the pack stuck his arm out to hang from the edge of the rocky high dive. He glared at the supposed eight-legged dragon, rolled his eyes, and returned to the magma below with a splash.
"Forget that guy!" he called out, loud enough for the girls to overhear. "I think he's having a personal time out or something."
"You know this isn't going to work forever," Dash whispered.
"And can you be a little more gentle with this costume?" Rarity asked, craning her neck to try and see past Rainbow Dash's rump.
"Why does our dragon have a big pink bow, anyway?"
"Because it matches her gems, of course."
"Except this dragon is supposed to be a HE."
"Then it matches his gems, of course."
While the middle and rear of the dragon jockeyed for position at one of the eye-holes cut into the chest, Twilight angled the head to get another look down at the magma pit. Spike seemed to be not only safe in the pool of lava; he actually seemed to be enjoying himself. He was splashing around, and even joining in throwing balls of liquid rock at the other young dragons.
It was intellectually fascinating - Twilight had always known Spike was amazingly resilient - but it was also a little troubling. Spike was having fun; he was happy, Twilight had to remind herself. That could only be a good thing. He was learning about being a dragon, too. Another good thing. So why was she secretly growing a little worried?
"Hey! Hey Twilight! Check it out!"
Dash's hoof jabbed into her flank, and Twilight ducked her head down to the lower eye holes.
Rarity had her face plastered right up against one of the view ports, dabbing at her forehead. "Oh my. We really shouldn't be watching this."
"Then don't watch it!" Dash declared, trying to pry her away.
"Of - of course I don't want to watch it...!"
"Watch what?" Twilight inverted herself to hang upside down. Painfully twisting her neck upright, she saw what Dash had meant. At the far side of the caldera, some of the adult dragons had paired up and...
"Oh," she breathed. "Huh."
Dash coughed into her hoof. "Twilight, when you take notes on this, I think you should call that one out there 'Big Mac.'"
"He certainly seems popular with the ladies," Rarity observed. "Is it hot in here?"
"Dear Princess Celestia, tonight I played voyeur at a dragon orgy-"
"Don't you dare tell the Princess that!" Twilight objected, grabbing the colorful pegasus by the cheeks to try and quash her goofy grin. "These are majestic creatures, and we are here on a scientific expedition! Of learning. And knowledge. And understanding!"
"So we’re not searching for Dragon balls," Dash said between her mashed cheeks.
"At least none of the younger dragons seem to be doing... that," Twilight continued, taking another look from next to Rarity before moving back to the head of the costume.
"Which begs the question: where are all the younger girl dragons?" Rarity inquired, finally tearing herself away from the view.
"If I had to make an educated guess, I'd say that all the dragons here are segregated by age and sex. Notice the smaller dragons are sleeping near the bottom of the crater and the bigger ones are at the top. The bigger ones... the females it looks like... would also naturally be the first to, you know. Um. Breed. The female dragons too young to do that are probably in another crater."
"Huh? You noticed all that?" Rainbow Dash looked up at Twilight, impressed.
"I also noticed that the mature dragons would watch whenever Spike's new friends did something competitive, like when they were belching fire or tail wrestling." Twilight Sparkle pursed her lips and 'hmmed.'
"I think they're establishing a mock pecking order," she speculated. "Just like the adult males in the sky. I wonder if dragons act like this outside of the migration? None of the other ones we ran into seemed very social..."
"Except Spike," Rarity corrected her.
"So what?" Dash asked. "He doesn't act like a dragon! We already knew that."
"Hold on. Something's happening."
Emerging from the lava pool, the group of teenagers began to binge on gems from the hoard they had been mock-fighting over before. Twilight wasn't a hippologist or sociologist by any stretch, but it did seem as though Spike had passed some sort of initiation rite or rite of passage. He had been accepted into the clique. Primitive societies often relied on such things to -
"You know, this reminds me of Flight School! See, what we used to do to newbies is we blindfold 'em and duck 'em in a cloudbank..."
"...to the surface and then back up to the camp with a mouth full of water without swallowing!" Dash finished her description, much to the shock of the two unicorns in the costume with her. The cyan pegasus looked back at Rarity and then up at Twilight, blinking in confusion. "What? You guys didn't do that kinda stuff?"
"Unicorns are apprenticed after primary education," Twilight reminded her.
"Honestly, Rainbow Dash, hazing? How positively barbaric!"
Dash defiantly stuck out her tongue. "Look, whatever!"
"Anyway, Spike seems to have become part of this social group."
"Which is a good thing, right? Right, Twilight?"
"I guess... maybe."
- - -
The sky reflected the ruddy red of the volcanic pits below, tinted by sulfur-yellow and hues of pale green. It was like nowhere in Equestria, and Spike loved it. Claws behind his head and a belly full of gemstones, he sighed contentedly. Picking a sliver of emerald out from between his teeth he stretched, languidly, like a well fed and pampered cat.
This was the life.
All around him, his new friends were similarly half asleep, digesting their gluttonous meal of gems. Spike had no idea whose hoard they had pillaged. None of the adult dragons seemed to care to claim it, so he supposed it was free game for anydragon who wanted it. Cracking an eye open, the baby dragon snorted.
The adults! Ha! They clearly had other concerns aside from finding gems. But then, dragon eggs had to come from somewhere, didn't they? Most everydragon seemed spent in one way or another. Huge slumbering forms were listlessly strewn around the volcano, arms or legs dangling off the edges of sheer cliffs and outcroppings. The smell of base elements tickled Spike's nostrils and the distant bubbling of lava and viscous mud relaxed him like the sweetest strumming of a lyre.
"Man, now that was a great party," he said aloud, angling his shoulders to get comfortable in the volcanic dirt.
"Great? Pffh!" Garble rumbled, a trail of smoke escaping his flared nostrils. "Maybe by Ponyville standards." He reached over to bump his fist against Spike's shoulder, a friendly gesture so similar to what ponies did, it was hard to chalk it up to coincidence. "Stick with us, Spike! You've still got plenty to learn about being a dragon."
Spike turned to the older drake with more than a little admiration. Garble was basically the leader of the group here, even though he wasn't the biggest or the strongest. The red dragon just seemed to have a certain something that helped him stand out. Watching him, it reminded Spike of Rainbow Dash. Garble always seemed to be the one not just with ideas of what to do, but the drive to get others to do them. It was that latter trait that earned him the role of top diamond dog and King of the Hoard.
Like Rainbow Dash, he was kind of a jerk, but he was cool.
Spike could imagine that if Garble wanted a girl, even a pony girl (not that he would since he seemed to hate ponies), that he would just go and get her. Like Dash. Maybe he'd think about it a little, but mostly he'd just get where he needed to go just by wanting it hard enough and never doubting himself.
Finally, he had another guy he could look up to. A fellow dragon! A... a big brother almost.
"I'm not going anywhere," he said with a contented smile, staring up at the ash-laden sky. "The way I feel right now, I could hang out with you guys forever."
For a few more minutes, they all just lay there in bliss. Then, gradually, other dragons began to stir and stretch. It was still light out, after all. Though, while all the other dragons were still getting on their feet... there was a question Spike wanted to ask. Something only another dragon could answer.
"Yeah?" The older dragon rocked back and flipped into his feet, shaking the dust from his spines.
"How'd you get your wings?" Spike asked, eyeing the red and gold limbs on Garble's back. Every dragon here had them. Every dragon except him.
He remembered one joking that he had 'flown in on his mother's back.'
Did dragons do that?
"My wings?" Garble asked and laughed. "Really? You don't know?"
"No, I don't," Spike replied, disappointment and a bit of anger in his voice. This was not the best topic to mock him about. Why? Why didn't he have wings?!
Garble seemed to notice this, but rolled his eyes and snorted ash.
"You know, your mommy should have told you this, not me," he said with an unhappy growl. "But look: you get your wings when you prove you're a real dragon."
Spike raised an eyebrow at that. "I thought I was a real dragon?"
"You're a dragon in training, little guy!" Garble patted him playfully on the head, ruffling his spines. "I mean, ya gotta find out what kind of aspect of being a dragon you're best at! You gotta find that thing that makes you, you."
Spike took a second or two to process that.
"So," he said, getting back on his feet. "It's like a cutie mark? Great. Just great."
"What's a cutie mark?" Garble shook his hand. "On second thought, I don't wanna know. Probably some prissy baby pony thing." His hand became a fist, and he pointed at Spike. "Forget that stuff! You want your wings, ya gotta prove you're a dragon! You ready for a raid?"
"Sure I am!" Spike enthusiastically replied, just as the others pumped their fists and cheered in excitement. Only to deflate a bit. "Uh, wait, what?"
"A raid, man!" Garble bonked Spike on the head at forcing him to explain. "There's a nest full of phoenix eggs nearby. We're gonna swipe 'em!"
Spike's mouth hung open, an impairment Garble quickly remedied with a free claw and another bop on the head.
"Aren't you totally psyched to go on this raid!" Chunk planted Spike's face in the ground with a slap of his coarse knobby tail . "YEAH! Let's do it!"
"Alright!" Garble announced, turning around and already flapping his wings. "Follow me!"
Chunk and Spear, a wiry purple drake, followed close behind. Even with the former's stubby wings and chubby body, they were soon in the air. Spike felt a brief pang of jealousy, but then realized this was also an easy out. He didn't have wings!
Besides which, he wasn't really... keen on the whole egg-napping scheme. Why phoenix eggs? Were they going to eat them? True, there probably weren't many chickens around, and even ponies enjoyed the occasional scrambled egg for breakfast, but they had just eaten. Gems even! Plus, wasn't nabbing a phoenix egg kinda dangerous? Was it even right? They were just birds, but... still...
The thought of eating a phoenix egg, even beaten and fried with a little ham, maybe some sparkling sapphire, a pinch of cream and chopped herbs... aw, and a little rosemary and a pinch of salt?
Okay, that sounded good.
Curse his culinary talents! It was a true curse to be able to make anything taste good. Baked Bads, even? Those were delicious!
"Guys, I don't have wings, so... maybe I should just sit this out and, aaa!"
And they could carry him just as easily.
- - -
Rarity's dragon costume was clearly not designed for mobility, much to the growing annoyance and impatience of the team’s only pegasus. Galloping even at full sprint wasn't even in the ballpark of a good cruise when it came to getting from point A to point B (unless you were dealing with Pinkie Pie, but that was a special case). Having to basically stumble blindly forward in the equivalent of a seven legged race with the added burden of a unicorn on her back and another behind her was torture, especially when time was of the essence.
Rainbow Dash was tempted to just throw off the stupid costume and head off solo.
Of course, then she remembered the hundred dragons circling overhead or sleeping within shouting distance, not to mention the fact that she'd be abandoning two friends to help one. That was what really got her goat: either she stayed with Twilight and Rarity, resulting in all three ending up too late to help Spike, or she left Rarity and Twilight to fend for themselves for a while with the assurance that she could find Spike with time to spare. There just didn't seem to be any middle ground.
'Just hold on, Spike! We'll get there!'
Of course, Rarity took that opportunity to bump into her from behind while Twilight lost her balance, legs flailing within the confines of the costume. The result was a millipede-like collision of legs that took more than a little time, and a few creative invectives, to sort out. Wings flapping, Dash had to fight her instincts to take to the air. Lifting up the middle part of the dragon had only made things worse, since it left Rarity to try and gallop on two legs and caused Twilight to lean far forward.
"This is like the worst parade float ever!"
"The costume is perfectly fine! It just isn't meant for such rough handling!"
"We're almost there!" Twilight said, calling down from the 'head.' "You should probably watch out for-"
"Aw! AWW!" Dash recoiled, tears in her eyes. "What the heck?"
"Twilight. Please. Please tell me we didn't step what I think we stepped in."
Twilight urged them onward, after a slight detour. "Don't worry, because it definitely wasn't dragon guano. ... It was probably some other type of guano."
"Not helping!" the two locomotive ponies yelled in unison.
- - -
"Smash it! Smash it!" the three dragons were chanting. "Smash it! Smash it!"
Spike had already decided not to go through with it.
It wasn't that hard a decision, really. Maybe he would have gone through with it if they were going to eat the egg. Maybe. But just smashing it for no reason? Why? Why would they want him to do that? That was what he didn't understand. That was what left him paralyzed, eyes moving from his new friends to the defenseless egg in his hands. It was so big, so lustrous, the shell patterned flame on gold. Holding it in his arms, he could imagine another egg that must have been this same size or maybe just a little bigger.
Everything else he could see the fun in it. The lava diving had been awesome; the tail wrestling was scary, but pretty fun, too (even if he had gotten flattened that one time). King of the Hoard - he wanted to try it again! Everything today had been so much fun! Scary sometimes, but fun. It felt right.
But this? This didn't feel right at all.
And Spike knew what his friends, his pony friends, would expect of him.
"No," he whispered, not looking up from the egg.
"What?" Garble asked, leaning in. "What did you say?"
"No," Spike repeated, holding the egg out of the older dragon's reach. "It's just a defenseless egg. Like I used to be."
The three dragons exchanged confused looks that quickly transmuted, in one case, to anger.
"No one says 'no' to me!" Garble growled, advancing and leveling an accusing claw at the wingless Spike. "You're a dragon, aren't you? So act like it!"
Spike backed away a step, and then another. His eyes screwed shut, and he forced his legs to stop shaking. He had made his decision and that was that. There was no doubt in this. Not like with destroying the letter. Not like dealing with Blueblood taking Rarity away. He had questioned himself, he had waffled, he had been unsure. Not this time.
This time, he had seen what a dragon was supposed to be.
"NO!" he yelled, bearing his tiny teeth. "What does breaking this egg have to do with being a dragon? Huh! What?"
"It's what we do." Garble towered over him. He pointed down at the gold and crimson egg. "Break that egg, little Spike. Or you'll never be a dragon. You'll never get your wings. Is that what you want?"
Spike cringed, not out of fear, but because for a split second he believed it. Dragons were fierce. Dragons were formidable. Dragons were scary. Wasn't that what his own friends had said in that trench, watching the migration? Would breaking the egg give him wings? Would breaking it make him a dragon? A real dragon?
Spike shook his head, stepping up to Garble glaring defiantly up at the older drake.
"You're wrong!" he repeated, more loudly. "Breaking this egg isn't fierce! It isn't scary! It isn't impressive! It's just... stupid... and cruel... so I won't do it."
"Fine! I'll do it!" Garble swiped at the egg, but Spike sheltered it with his body. "Come on! Give it!"
A red claw found the top of the shell, fingers about to tense and claw -
"Argh!" Garble recoiled, his wrist bearing a small bite mark. "What the hell!"
"I told you I won't let you break this egg!"
"It's dead anyway!" The older dragon gestured back at the broken nest and the family of Phoenixes that had just fled.
"That doesn't have anything to do with it!" Spike yelled, taking a step forward. "This is stupid! This isn't FUN! Do you think smashing this egg will really be fun?!"
Garble snorted, a line of fire escaping his nostrils. Behind him, Chunk and Spear were watching intently. They turned to their leader for what to do next. Garble balled his fists and crossed his arms.
"You know I'm right," Spike drove home.
"It's a raid, Spike," was all the argument he could muster.
"So?" the little dragon snapped. "So what?"
"So it... it's just what we do," Garble replied, still eyeing the egg dangerously. But not hatefully. "You're thinking like a pony-"
"I was raised by ponies," Spike cut him off.
"Then why don't you go BE a damn pony if you love them so much?" Garble hissed, his temper flaring up, directed not at the egg but at the defiant little dragon with no wings. He pushed Spike at the shoulder, forcing the little dragon backwards.
"Yeah! Go be a pony!" He sniffed in disgust. "Go live in a house with one. Go mate with one! If you don't have the balls to be a dragon, go be a stupid..." He punctuated each insult with a push. "Lame! Sissy! Little! Pony!"
The last push nearly knocked Spike off his feet.
"I'm not a pony." He glared up at Garble with bright green eyes. "I... Am. A. Dragon!"
"Raised by a pony and friends with ponies and proud of it!"
White hot pain lanced Spike in the back and he groaned, mind racing. Had one of the others snuck up behind him? Forget tail wrestling. There was no way he could actually fight any of these... former friends. They had to be twice his age or more. They had grown, not just with time, but by accumulating hoards of their own. Small ones, but still hoards. Had one of them slashed him?
Whirling around, snarling, Spike only saw that weird eight legged dragon... emerging from the bushes...
No: not him.
He spun back around, keeping his front to Garble and the others. He had to protect the egg. They probably wouldn't kill him, no matter how much he annoyed them or pissed them off. Probably. But they would smash the egg. Spike couldn't understand why, but they would.
"Dude," Garble whispered.
"What?" Spike demanded, expecting a one-way fight to come down on him any minute.
"Spike," the voice, so familiar, came from the weird dragon the others had called 'Crackle's cousin.' But he knew that voice.
"Twilight?" Spike turned, blinking hard. Yes: that was Twilight. Her face in the darkness of the dragon's mouth. He felt lightheaded. Twilight... was...?
He felt something move on his back, and looked over his shoulder.
Small, wet, wings.
"You were supposed to break that stupid egg," Garble said, still glaring at him. He scoffed. "I guess you got your wings anyway. Somehow."
"Dragons are fierce," Spike whispered, laughed, and raised his voice. "Short tempered. Scary. But they don't have to be cruel."
Garble huffed in disdain but lowered his arms to his sides. He turned away, took a breath, and spat a ball of fire well over Spike's head. It arced down and right into the weird eight legged dragon, the one with Twilight's face in it's mouth. Almost immediately it caught fire and ended up tossed into the air. Three shapes darted out from under it before the flames could reach them.
"Ponies," Garble growled. "Spike, you know these three... things?"
To the little dragon's surprise, he saw not just Twilight, but Rainbow Dash and... and Rarity. His heart skipped a beat. How much had she seen? She could have been hurt!
"I..." he waffled for a second before nodding, unabashedly. "Yeah. I do. They're my friends. From Ponyville."
"They're ponies," Garble stated the obvious, sniffing and making a disgusted face. "Smelly ones."
"Yeah. We kinda stepped in something on the way over-"
"Rainbow!" Rarity elbowed the pegasus in the ribs.
For a few long seconds, the three dragons and the three ponies exchanged icy stares. Each seemed to find another to zero in on for one inexplicable reason or another. Chunk picked his ear with a claw, flicking the wax towards Rarity, causing her to whinny in disgust. Twilight was peering closely at the silent, similarly purple Spear, his face hidden behind a mat of yellow hair-like scales. She was probably trying to get a read on him, which Spike considered impossible since his face was constantly covered up. For his part, Spear had been hanging around 'Crackle's Cousin' all day and hadn't noticed the deception. Maybe he couldn't even see that well?
Garble and Dash, of course, were shooting daggers in midair.
"Rainbow Dash," Spike said, pointing at her.
"That's her name," he explained, and made the rounds. "That's Twilight Sparkle and that's Rarity." The whole rounds. "Guys, this is Garble, Chunk and Spear."
"Who cares what these namby pamby ponies call themselves?" Garble muttered.
"Hey, you got a problem with ponies, pal?" Dash fearlessly and probably thoughtlessly flew over to poke the dragon in the chest.
"Do you have a problem with ponies?" Spike asked, sounding genuinely and simply curious.
"What a stupid question," Garble grumbled after a second or two of not finding a good answer.
"Says the guy who couldn't tell three ponies in a dragon costume have been spying on him all-lll day!" Dash just had to chime in.
Garble snorted smoke the pegasus's way, causing Dash to sputter and shake her head. "This one has stones in him, that's for sure."
"I'm a girl, idiot!"
"They all are," Spike explained. "You can't tell?"
"Uh, excuse me," Twilight spoke up, raising a hoof to get the attention of the three dragons. "I couldn't help but overhear some of what happened before, but sociologically, where you attacking that phoenix family as part of a territorial display or as an extension of the initiation rite?"
That, typically, left the entire group speechless.
"Huh?" Chunk answered as well as anyone.
"Let's get outta here," Garble broke the awkwardness that hung over the group. His wings started to beat in preparation to take off.
"Wait!" Spike's voice prompted the three to pause, if only for a second. "I... I still want to know more about being a dragon."
"Spike!" Twilight objected.
"Really, darling, you don't have to-"
"I do!" Spike told them, and looked up at Garble. He was still the first dragon he had ever met who he could look up to. Who he could learn from.
"Why?" The red drake asked, not getting it. "Those ponies..."
"Are my friends," Spike said, nodding. "Just like I want you guys to be. I'm a dragon, but I have pony friends. So what?"
For a few seconds, Garble looked like he was going to take off. Chunk's little wings were already flapping hard, and Spear likewise seemed ready to go. They were all watching the young red.
"You know, I'd bet Rainbow Dash here is twice as fast as either of those Phoenixes," Spike added with a grin.
"This little pony?" Garble spun around to stare at the cyan pegasus.
"No one's faster than me!" Dash promptly boasted.
Grinding his sizeable teeth together, the older dragon seemed to come to a painful decision.
"Fine," he relented with a loud, put-out sigh. "I can't let a little squirt learn to fly from some feathery blue fairy. You'll give all us dragons a bad name. I guess I have to help out at least a little."
"Better to fly like a blue fairy than a big red brick!"
"Don't you have a cloud to hide in?"
"At least all my teeth point in the right direction!"
Begun, the clash of egos has.
Still cradling the phoenix egg in his hands, the danger passed, Spike was left with one last question. "What to do with you?"
Maybe two questions.
He glanced over at Rarity and saw her watching him with some concern, and maybe a little pride. Twilight, in contrast, was beaming. And no doubt eager to inspect his new wings and make sure he was okay. But Rarity... she led to that other tricky question.
What to do next, when he went home?
- - -
Blueblood Manor. Ponyville.
Prince Blueblood knew that the faint tap-tap scratch-scratch sound at his study window meant. Rising from behind his desk, the Duke of Canterlot adjusted his mane and straightened his tail to give his honored guest a proper presentation. High on the third floor of his new home, this late at night, his visitor was either an amorous pegasus who had clearly lost her way (as that wall eyed mare had somehow done more than once), a certain unwanted and potentially hostile visitor, or...
No sooner had the shutters opened wide than a dozen bats swept into the room, chirping and flapping. Blueblood stepped away, giving them room. With an audible snap, they turned to blackened, living shadow and magic, swirling and colliding and melting into a bubble of onyx. The shifting shadows quickly took on a pony's form, initially crude and indistinct, and then with increasing detail. A sapphire blue mane and tail appeared, darkened, and twinkled with tiny stars. Slits grew into round turquoise eyes.
"Auntie Luna," he greeted her with a cordial bow of his head.
"Nephew," she returned, looking up at him.
She was small. A normal-pony sized miniature version of herself.
"I see you only sent one of your spare bodies," he observed, ushering her to a seat in his study. "Please sit. I would offer you coffee, but..."
"Our... my... real body must remain in Canterlot at court, at least for tonight," she explained, sitting primly on a soft cushion. She had substance, weight, and form. But this was not the entirety of her. It was only a third of her full self. "Business, as you can no doubt imagine."
"The succession crisis in Manehattan."
"I wouldst not call it a 'crisis,' Nephew."
"The 'dispute' then," Blueblood corrected himself, but did not resume his seat behind his desk. Only one-third of Luna was present, but she was still a Princess. He sat opposite on another floor pillow.
"I expect you are being asked to support new elections?" he continued. A faint magical aura reached out to pour a cup of Marabian coffee into a fine demitasse cup with a silver metal frame. "New elections that will favor the city's social conservatives."
"You would be correct in that," Princess Luna confirmed, looking around the room and mentally comparing it to the Prince's study in Canterlot. She saw a small dart board, just like the one he had in the palace-city, and smiled. She was growing more and more adept at the strange commoner game, largely thanks to time spent with her new nephew.
"They are petitioning us as we speak," she finished, mind returning to the present.
"If new elections are held, the social conservatives will carry Manehattan."
"This is true," Luna conceded. "If we-" and here she really meant the full royal we. "-ask that elections be put off, we fear it will be seen as an imposition on the domestic affairs of a major city."
Blueblood let out a breath to cover an inaudible sigh. He didn't say as much, but the leaking of Mayor Sky Scraper's corruption could not be a coincidence. The Prince only knew of it due to the Grand Galloping Gala time loops. Sky Scraper had covered his tracks carefully. It would have been much better for Equestria if he had been convinced to quietly resign. He could then be replaced by another moderate or social democrat.
Which was a true irony. Manehattan's democratic fringe was no friend of the aristocracy in Equestria, but by all accounts, the social conservative candidate for the new election was in bed with the Terre Rare. Blueblood privately suspected they had leaked details on the previous Mayor when it became advantageous to push a candidate who was more firmly in their pocket.
"Elections can not be held until the vote of no-confidence forces Sky Scraper and his cabinet to resign. We can't protect Sky Scraper, nor should we. What he did was criminal."
"We are in agreement in this," Luna replied, tapping her silver-gilded hoof. "Corruption must not be tolerated in Our Realm, no matter how advantageous it may be to turn a blind eye to it."
It was typical Luna. Uncompromising. Idealistic, in her own way. A thousand years removed from the ways and means Equestria had developed, she still had an unblemished and pure vision of the country that harkened back to an earlier time. Blueblood wondered if the Princess of the Night was the most chivalrous pony in Canterlot. He also wondered how long she could stick to those beliefs in the modern world.
"Regardless of the morality of it, his political career is over. There is nothing to gain by chaining an anchor to our necks." Blueblood saw a flash of disappointment in her at his pragmatism. He felt a little bad about it, too. Though she didn't know it, Luna had taught him much over the Gala loops. She had come to respect and even be at ease around him since then and he did not want to offend her.
"By which I mean, we should focus on containing the situation and let the legal process take care of law breakers," he explained, and she nodded in agreement. "Auntie Luna, the way I see it, the way I believe we both see it... is that removing Sky Scraper is not the problem, it is his replacement. We thus need to find one who better suits us."
"Yes, an astute observation, nephew!"
Luna beamed at him, but her smile soon faded. Manehattan had not existed before her exile. No city had any form of real democratic system unless one counted the odd 'first come first vote' the pegasi practiced at the time or the chancellery of the earth ponies, which was basically a one-pony dictatorship. Meddling in an election left her a little out of the loop, far more so than dealing with nobles who were - at least - a familiar fixture in society.
"How would we manage this?" she asked.
"Rising up a popular pony is hard," Blueblood advised. "Tearing down a popular pony is easier."
Luna narrowed her eyes in thought. "A rather callous assessment of the situation."
"Time is of the essence and we do not want Manehattan to elect a pony allied to Lord Cruciger." Blueblood pointed back at the window, and to Ponyville. "Fillydelphia and Cloudsdale aside, it will leave Canterlot all but surrounded."
Of course, by 'Canterlot' he meant himself, and House Blueblood. What little there was of the family anymore. All ponies in Equestria, even the most adamantly feuding noble families, were still Equestrian. They all still bowed and swore fealty to the Diarchy of Celestia and, more recently, Luna.
Canterlot and Ponyville being surrounded by Terre Rare aligned lands would probably go completely un-noticed by most ponies. To them, the guards on the roads and in the towns would change color, a few flags would look different, but otherwise things would be basically the same. Few noble families wanted their affairs to spill over into the realm of the common pony. Those who went too far, disturbing the peaceful order of Equestria, also invited censure and rebuke. The threat was to Blueblood personally, to his vassals and dependants, and now, to Lady Rarity as well.
"We would not be inventing faults, only unearthing them," he assured the rigidly ethical Princess.
"We have been told that, if the current Manehattan government calls for new elections, a stallion by the name of Broad Way will be elected Mayor." Luna raised an inquisitive eyebrow as Blueblood picked a file off his desk. "You have something on this pony?"
"Not yet." The Prince replied with a sniff. "He wasn't at the Gala and I don't have many contacts in Manehattan."
"The Gala?" Luna asked.
"Nevermind that. This is the pony I want to push for in the city."
Blueblood floated over the dossier, and Luna's own magic opened it for her to read. Despite having seen her do this many times, it still amazed Blueblood that Luna could multi-task several bodies at once. Not just physically, either. Each one was capable of emulating normal pegasus or unicorn or even earth pony magic. As far as he knew, she was the only one in Equestria with an ability like that. Even Auntie Celestia couldn't.
'Multiple bodies... probably Old Kingdom magic,' he thought, watching her as she read. 'But even we don't have records of that kind of spell.'
"Ticker Tape," she said. It was Blueblood's choice in Manehattan's next Mayor.
"His wife is the head of the Orange Clan..."
"And the Oranges are related to the Apples."
"Who value family ties above all else," Blueblood finished for her.
"There is no guarantee they'll work with you," Luna warned.
"No. But I don't want them to be vassals or clients." He smirked, leaning one arm against his desk. "I'll use that power of friendship I'm constantly reminded of."
The Princess flipped through the last two pages of the dossier before making her decision.
"Very well," she declared, floating the papers back to him. "We approve, and shall see it put in motion. We leave it to you, nephew, to find some assurance that Broad Way will not prevail in this new election."
"Gladly," Blueblood told her, heading around to the back of his desk.
"There is another matter we... I... wished to discuss with you, nephew." Luna's spare body flexed its wings before folding them back in place.
"Something besides this?" Blueblood still didn't take his seat, but he did put his papers away, busying himself. "Is there some other problem in Canterlot?"
"The problem lies in the heart of the Palace itself," the Princess replied, but Blueblood remembered she had amended her last 'we' to 'I.' The implication was that it was a personal matter. He emerged from around his desk and sat before her.
"However I may be of assistance, Auntie."
"You and Tia have not been speaking. Nor have you shared meals with us of late. We, and I mean both my sister and myself, have missed your company." Luna sighed and gave him a worried, concerned look. "Is there some dispute between yourself and my sister?"
Blueblood stiffened, enough for her to notice right away.
"Ah!" she exclaimed. "That is it, then!"
"I apologize for my absence from the household," he stiffly replied. "Surely Cadenza can provide company in my stead."
"She is not, how should we put it?" Luna groused and shot him a teasing grin. "She is not 'entertaining' as you can be. Nor is she versed enough to discretely assist us at court."
'Neither was I, until the Gala. On both counts.'
"I also do not entirely trust her relatives in Bitaly," the Princess continued, fortunately unable to read his thoughts regarding the bizarre time loops and the effect they had had on him. "In my time, the Reinetians and the other Imperials did terrible things in service to Star Caller."
"That was a thousand years ago, Auntie," Blueblood reminded her, though it was perhaps a little improper to do so, given the lingering soreness of her imprisonment. "Cadenza is a sweet girl and I doubt she even knows who Star Caller is. Or was."
"As I said, it is her scheming and opportunistic relatives I distrust."
"And what are we doing, if not scheming?" he asked, carefully pointing his frown away from his guest and aunt. "I would not even recognize a Canterlot bereft of schemes and plots."
Luna seemed to see something - read something - in his response.
"Is this why you and my sister have been..." she paused to find a word. "Recently estranged?"
Blueblood paused to carefully word and weigh his answer.
"There are few things more vexing than being a pawn, knowing this, and still advancing mindlessly forward," the Prince explained. "Auntie... Celestia has... she had good intentions, I understand this, but recently her machinations have become grating. Now that I can actually see them begin to play out. Now that I can see the honey-trap for what it is."
"Sister has always been fond of schemes and pranks, this much rings true."
Luna closed her eyes as she recalled more than a few at her expense. Still, she smiled. She knew as he did that Celestia's pranks were always harmless beyond, possibly, some good natured embarrassment. Her schemes, too, were always aimed to end in some net gain. If Celestia had a vice, it was her kindness and forgiveness.
"You object to some machination of hers?" Luna asked, wanting to mend the fences between her two closest relatives.
"I wish I could object to it! No. She explained to me in detail just what she wants to happen, and how she expects it to happen," Blueblood told her, his brows knitting into a frown without his even wanting it. "With no better alternatives of my own, I agreed to go along. I suppose I'm honored in a way to be in on it. It may show that she believes in me... but I also can't help but worry... especially about Rarity..."
He lowered his head as the caffeine and energy seemed to drain out of him.
"Lady Antimony could have hurt her. As it was, she escaped with bruises, but it could have been so much worse. So much worse." He wiped a strand of mane away from his face, staring outside the open window with skin-deep stoicism. Luna could see he was far more troubled than he let on.
"I have not cared for much in my life, Auntie... but I care for Rarity. And her friends, believe it or not. Auntie wants me to stand by and let them... risk their lives."
"Is it truly that dire?" Luna asked, tilting her head to the side and walking over to stand next to him. "Nephew?"
"Well, first there's the normal lunacy they seem to pull off every damn day!" He clopped a hoof against the wall in frustration. "Do you know where she is now? Off chasing the dragon migration! How can I ever guarantee her safety when she takes such risks? I can't!"
"She is an Element of Harmony," the Princess reminded him. "She will risk her life. It is her choice. It is her fate."
"I can't control that," the Prince relented, at least when it came to the destiny of the element bearers. "But I can try to control or contain the danger posed by other ponies. Yet here I am being asked, by my Auntie, by my Princess, not to."
He took a short breath and tapped his hoof anxiously against the window pane.
"Lady Ritterkreuz recently tenured her resignation from the Wonderbolts. To be specific, she punctuated her resignation by blowing up a building and sending the Captain of the squad to the hospital." Blueblood shuddered. "To think that madmare is on her way here... she's more vicious than a griffin in heat. Of course, her father has used his influence in Cloudsdale to cover for her, and Celestia knows we can't do anything upset the city that manufactures weather for the entire country. They claim they will handle her 'quietly' but I rather doubt it. I have seen what she can do."
"And that isn't even all of it!" Blueblood turned to give Luna a plaintive look. "The Garland Princess is in Ponyville even now, traveling in disguise. Ostensibly, she and her retinue are here as tourists to watch the migration. Knowing her, she'll make her move the minute-to-the-hour the Free Company protection in Ponyville expires."
"Lady Sand Dune left Reinice four days ago, and my spies don't know where she is. Probably laying low and waiting to strike. The insane Mosaic Twins are easy to track and I know they're headed to Ponyville. And then there's the Rares! Chalice is in Canterlot even now, tagging along with her brother the Marquis and his troupe of Amazons."
The Prince touched his horn to the window panes, inhaling the cool night air. A fly landed on his nose for his trouble, forcing him to bat it away.
"This is like the perfect storm of insane, power hungry, star-struck mares," he lamented. "And to top it off, I can't marry Rarity because suddenly Cadenza - Cadenza just has to have her wedding of the year. And we can't have the Prince just elope. It has to be pomp and ceremony!"
Luna brushed up alongside him, prompting nervous, ranting stallion to catch his breath.
"Nephew," she said, jabbing him with a wing. "I have seen Rarity fight. I have seen the Element of Harmony in action. Tia wishes them to handle this on their own? Trust in her judgment, and trust in their ability."
"Maybe," he conceded, eyes narrowed as his frown slowly turned up into a tight smile. "But I've noticed Auntie never let faith keep her from skewing things just a little in her favor. The good thing about a spotlight is that it keeps everypony else in the dark. So I will make my moves in the dark."
"The darkness is as fine a place as any," Luna agreed with a cheerful titter. A flap of her graceful wings and she jumped out the window. "I will be in the dark as well. Watching for you."
Nopony noticed the flock of bats circle the manor outside town on its way back to Canterlot.
- - -
"Are you sure about this, Spike?"
"Yeah. I'm sure." The little dragon reached over his shoulder to gently poke one of the small wings that had emerged from out of his back. Twilight batted his claws away.
"Don't pick at them," she chided.
"Maybe I'm supposed to pick at them?" Spike asked, but realized she was probably right. He laughed and fell into a hug. To his secret delight, Twilight's purple coat was almost the same shade as his new wings.
"I'll only be gone for a few more days," he assured her. "You'll find a way to survive without me."
"Just be careful," she insisted, smiling down at him.
"I will." His own smile slipped slightly. "...Take care of the egg."
"Did you have a name for it?" Twilight asked, having packed the phoenix egg in one of her bags. "You did save her life... or his life."
"I'll think of something when I get back. The chicks looked pretty small, so maybe... Peewee? If it's a guy?" Spike shrugged. "Right now, I'm still cramming for Introductory Dragon Studies."
Twilight reached out a leg to hug him again, just briefly.
"And what about...?" Twilight lowered her voice.
Spike shook his head. "I can't... I can't talk to Rarity just yet. Tell her I'm sorry. I'm sorry for a couple things, but, I guess I have to say that myself."
"Hey, Spike!" Rainbow Dash took that moment to zip over, landing on three legs, one bashfully tucked behind her neck. "Look - I just wanted to say... about what I said before..."
"Don't worry about it!" Spike saw her sigh with relief in not having to apologize.
"Right!" she said instead. "When you get back to Ponyville, we'll hit up any place you want. My treat!"
"Yes, Spike, earning one's wings is worth a celebration, I think!" Rarity walked up, smiling softly at him. He felt his heart jump in his chest. "Oh, and a new suit to show them off!"
One last round of goodbyes, another reminder that it would only be a few days, and then they were gone. Leaving behind a burned dragon costume, but actually gone. Spike stayed at the base of the caldera to see them off - there was no guarantee the adult dragons would accept ponies in their midst. He jumped as he heard and felt something heavy land behind him.
"They're gone," he said, glancing back out of the corner of his eye.
"Yeah. I can smell as much," Garble replied, elbows resting on his knees. "Come on. I figure we've got about four days to clear out four years of sissy pony junk."
"And I've got four days to show you ponies aren't as lame as you think," Spike replied, testing his still soft winglets.
"Don't hold yer breath." The teenage dragon snorted, fire and smoke. "We'll get you started on a hoard and go from there." A toothy grin preceded a laugh. "You should know: since you whined so much today, I picked a new target for tomorrow's raid: the girl dragons the crater over."
That girl Spike's attention. "The... girl dragons?"
"Yeah! No more defenseless eggs. Girl dragons." Garble slapped Spike hard on the back, knocking him to the ground. "I hear if ya get caught... they'll eat ya! So try not to mess up, little Spike!"