Over the course of the following days, they arrived at Canterlot castle: a near parade of dignitaries from around the world, from the panda empire of Qinling to the sultanate of the nomadic winged dragons; from the noble zebras of Zebrababwe to the gryphons of Grifonica; from the polar bears of Arctica to the foxes of Inari and so many other of the civilized species and nations. The main courtyard of the castle complex began to take on a festive, carnival atmosphere, but there was little levity as even the most unsophisticated pony in Canterlot City knew the reason for the visiting luminaries: a council of war was to be convened, and by the end of the council, it was all but certain that Canterlot would declare war against the Black Ponies.
In her private chambers, Celestia prepared for the meeting. The meeting was important enough to warrant formal attire, and so Rarity had worked overnight to create a gown for the sun princess. Now she wore a gown of royal blue silk, the deep color contrasting with her coat, giving it a more alabaster look. Her usual gorget and tiara had been cast aside in favor of her formal coronet, and to top it off, Rarity was currently braiding Celestia’s mane, interspersing it with flowers at the princess’ request.
Sitting across from the fashion construction, Luna smirked as she drank from a huge mug of coffee inscribed with WORLD’S GREATEST MOON PRINCESS. “Oh, am I glad I don’t have to sit in this one. Believe me, Tia, I’m very grateful that during my absence you restructured the sovereignty to demote me to heir instead of diarch.”
Celestia, however, was in a pensive mood. “Luna, I think it’d be good for your growth as a princess if you attended this council – preferably if you dealt with it instead of me.”
“Couldn’t talk me into it if you tried, sis. Besides, this is the first time in a while that you’ve had close dealings with some of these nations, and so that diplomatic dance has to start from scratch. But just as bad, too many of them still think of me as Nightmare Moon, and that would only make the meeting more difficult. And for the record, I’m not getting off scot-free; Twilight, Pumpkin and I have to head around the realm for the next few days, inspecting the troops for morale’s sake.”
Celestia sighed, then threw her forehooves up in resignation. “I’d really like to avoid this. Meetings with other nations, especially the ones we don’t have regular relations with, tend to be very messy affairs. I can guarantee the Alaxsaqi and Canistralian delegations will bicker, and the Qinlingese will try to lord their rising economic status over everypony…er, everyone,” Celestia corrected herself to use the rare species-neutral version.
“Celestia, please!” Rarity gave the princess’ mane a slight tug. “It’s difficult enough braiding your mane since it’s so long, but when you’re moving around it makes it nigh impossible! Besides, I’ll be right there with you in Luna’s place.” It suddenly sank in as to what that meant. “Oh dear, I need to throw something presentable together!”
“Sorry, Rarity,” Celestia said. “I’m guessing it’s not going to be an easy day for any of us.”
“Not in the least, not for any of us. Birdbrain…sorry, Blueblood will be inspecting the national emergency system to prepare for catastrophic urgencies, Moondancer’s inspecting the same thing on the west coast, and Fancypants is in a meeting with many of our diplomats on how we’ll be working with the other nations. Rainbow Dash, Fluttershy and Spitfire went with Upper Reaches to start planning fleet warfare strategy—”
“Fluttershy’s in a war planning session?” Rarity gasped.
“She is a knight, like you, and thus technically senior military personnel. One of a knight’s duties is military, so technic ally she does need to have some involvement in this. She wasn’t too happy about it, however.” A thoughtful look crossed the night alicorn’s face as she added, “I’m glad, too: Upper Reaches can be a do-or-die military type, so having her there might temper that.”
“Fluttershy’s a delicate sort, and I worry about her being exposed to the harshness of a soldier’s life.”
“Rarity, no offense, but Tia and I have to worry about everypony. To continue, Applejack went home for personal reasons, but she’ll be back again in a couple of days. That’s our major players; I’ve got a full list here if you want to read the thirty volumes’ worth of assignments.”
“Done!” Rarity said, racing for the door. “I’ll meet you by the entrance to the ballroom in ten minutes, Celestia!”
“I wouldn't have minded if she’d decided to skip this,” the sun princess said once Rarity was out of earshot. “She doesn’t deserve the punishment of dealing with this crowd.”
“She’s there because I can’t be.”
“You know what I mean. Just because I deal with other dignitaries doesn’t always mean I want to; and some of those represented out there will be the nastiest ones. I’d rather spare her that headache.”
“Tia, she’ll be there physically because of her oaths to the realm and its ruler. But in her heart, she’s there for you. A knight protects and aids her princess, but Rarity would do anything for her friend Celestia.”
The white alicorn flashed a brief smile. “When did you grow so wise?”
Luna nuzzled her sister, responding with “When I had a wonderful older sister willing to do anything for me, including putting up with a millennia-long temper tantrum.” Walking with her sister towards the ballroom, she said, “Now get in there and be all princessy. Twi, Pumpkin and I will be back soonest.”
“Okay, here we are,” Rainbow Dash said as she and Fluttershy, accompanied by Bamboo Grove, arrived at the fleet main base, forty miles north of Canterlot, in a mountain pass called Saddleback Ridge. The base was huge, as many of the airships used by the fleet’s east coast flotilla were maintained here. Arcing their way down, they headed straight for the main building at the far side of the base, pausing only to land by the entry gate to be cleared by the base guards.
As they approached the door, Spitfire was already there. “Hey, Dash, was wondering when you were gonna get here. The Admiral’s wanting to get the show on the road, so he ain’t going to wait much longer,” the Wonderbolts’ commanding officer said.
“Heya yourself, Spitfire. Got here as soon as we could – hey, is that the new flight gear?” Rainbow Dash walked around Spitfire while the latter just stood there. “Looks kinda lame, if you ask me.”
“It’s supposed to – you don’t want something that the enemy can spot you with a dozen miles out,” Spitfire replied. “These new suits are supposed to magically shift between pale blue and haze gray to mimic the types of sky we’ll be flying in. The areas near the vital points are actually armored—” She thumped her chest to make a point, “—and the weapons pods on the forelegs are modular, so we can swap them if they run outta juice. There’s also a helmet that goes with this suit; there’s a multi-channel chatterbox gem built in so we can actually talk during flight. The lone weak point of the whole thing is the wings; those can’t be armored since we need them for flight, but they’re at least covered. Tail also has to be tucked in, though that decreases drag. So, whadda ya think?”
Rainbow Dash eyed the flight suit critically before looking at Fluttershy. “Looks like a retread of that Mare Do Well idea you guys cooked up years ago.”
“Oh, hi, Fluttershy! Didn’t expect to see you here.”
“Um, well, I didn’t want to be here, but Princess Luna said I had to be…because of my duties as a Knight.” She looked around the whole of the complex and added, “Military bases make me nervous.”
Bamboo Grove sighed. “Everything makes you nervous, Fluttershy.”
Spitfire looked at the newcomer. “Who’s she?”
“Oh, been meaning to talk to you about her,” Rainbow replied. “She’s Bamboo Grove. Very good flier, too good for the regular pegasus guard squadrons, but not good enough for our specialized teams – yet. She’s been training with my folks and I thought I’d intro you to her.”
“Well, spots on my team will be opening up real soon,” Spitfire said as she extended a hoof to the newcomer. “In case you hadn’t heard, they took almost all of my senior members and are making them COs and XOs of their own units. Soarin’ has wanted a shot at command for the longest time and now he’s got one.”
“Well, good for him,” Dash replied before adding, “Well, the meeting will probably be starting up soon, so we’d best get there. Lead the way, Spitfire.”
“What? That’s a first.”
Spitfire grinned. “You actually want to follow. Usually you complain that I’m always in the lead.” When the blue pegasus shook her head, acknowledging the joke, she then added, “C’mon. Upper Reaches won’t wait forever.”
“From the Qinling Empire, Minister Liang Bufen,” Spike, dressed in formal attire and acting as the page, announced as a portly panda, dressed in resplendent silk attire, bowed before Celestia.
“It is my nation’s greatest honor to work with the great sun divinity, and I am humbled that her beauty outshines the great star itself,” the panda said. Celestia nodded in turn, already sensing the panda was going to be problematic to deal with; in her long experience, diplomats who spoke with honeyed tongues cared more about looking good than getting things done.
“From the Kingdom of Zebrababwe, Ambassador Zecora.”
Zecora bowed before Celestia, whispering, “This meeting may be vexed, ‘tis true, but know your friends are here for you.”
“Thanks, Zecora,” Celestia whispered in turn, glad to have at least one ally present.
Spike went through a litany of names, each introducing themselves (or saying hello again, in some cases) to Celestia: Chief Thunderhooves, representing the protectorate buffalo tribes in Equestria; Rex, the alpha of the protectorate diamond dog tribes in Equestria; Spot, the alpha of the independent diamond dog nation of Canistralia; Aspenclaw, the wolf king of Alaxsaqa; Queen Isabella, representing Grifonica; Tsar Sneg-Kogot of Arctica; Ambassador Moonlight Serenade, representing Caballus; Generalissimo Sharphorns, the minotaur leader of the Democratic Republic of Beasts; Sultan Al-Anbar, representing the nomadic winged dragons; Princess Haruka of the Inari fox kingdom; Prince Odanuki, of the tanuki of Ezo; Ambassador Fastfoot of the gazelle nation; and second to last, Lord Bauxite, representing his mother Lady Anyolite of the magic dragon dominion. Celestia sighed; there were fifteen more nations not represented, which means either they had no intention of getting involved…or they were already involved in ways worse than Caballus’ situation.
As the last one arrived, Spike had to read more than once to make sure he was getting it right. “Rarity,” he whispered, showing her the papers, “is this right?”
Rarity, standing in a simple blue dress as honor guard, giggled. “It is. He’s an old friend, but he can give Pinkie a run for her money in the oddness department.” She winced inwardly at the absence of her friend; Pinkie had been gone on her desperate mission for nearly a month now and there was no word nor sign of her, almost as if she’d never existed. She could be dead now and we’d never know, she mused. She looked at Spike and saw the brief look of sadness on his face; he’d thought the same thing when her name came up. “Spike, go ahead and announce him.”
“Okay….” Spike took a breath and said, “Lastly, representing the Commune of Sea Creatures, Ambassador Steven Magnet.”
Slithering into the room in such a way that it was unclear if he was moving normally or dancing, a long purple sea serpent undulated in. “Heeellllllo Princess!” he intoned, sidling up in front of her, before taking one of her hooves and laying a kiss upon it. Under most circumstances, the serpent would have looked ridiculous: a dragon-like creature, with a huge mane of hair in a pompadour and Fu-Manchu mustache, also currently wearing what was apparently formal attire for him: a long red paisley open-chested shirt and a huge silver chain ending in a pendant that was about the size of a disco ball – which, in fact, it was. Despite herself, Celestia giggled; if the effect was meant to lighten what would normally be a dour and dry summit, it certainly succeeded.
Spike was definitely confused. “Well, at least the Princess likes him. Who is he, anyway?”
“A dear friend of mine,” Rarity murmured. “I helped him out shortly after I met you and Twilight and we’ve been friends since.” As if to underline that statement, the moment he reached his seat, he excitedly waved hello at Rarity, who meekly waved back. “If we have any allies here, it’ll be the griffons, the Caballans, the zebras, and Steven’s nation – they’re like the Republic of Beasts in that there are several species involved in government.”
As all the dignitaries were seated, Celestia began. “Fellow dignitaries, I’d like to thank you for coming. I have called all our nations together because right now we face a grave peril; one so ancient, it dates back to when I was a filly.” At those words, all present became rapt; of all the other nations at the table, only the dragons and foxes were long-lived, and neither as old as the alicorns. “Thousands of years ago, my mother exiled a group of dangerous ponies – gypsies, earth ponies with magical abilities greater than those of unicorns – to another reality as punishment for a lengthy war which almost tore the world apart. For thousands of years, they remained trapped in that other realm, a place where they would slowly lose their powers and revert back to regular earth ponies.
“As you well know, three weeks ago there were initial attacks on several cities around the world, as well as our base in the Everfree Forest. At the time, we all felt that these were isolated incidents by a small group or group of malfeasants. But what has not been revealed until today was that they weren't. Shortly after that attack, a secure vault here at the castle was destroyed and the Elements of Harmony were stolen.”
All in the room gasped now that the news was being made public; after an extended period of shocked silence, Queen Isabella spoke, her feathers ruffled from the shock. “Your Holiness,” she asked, “do you mean to tell me that the most powerful weapon in the world is missing, or worse, in the control of our enemies?”
Celestia took heart at the gryphon’s words; Isabella had revealed her nation’s position on the Black Ponies. “The Elements cannot be used by the gypsies; my mother created them so that only those in tune with the gems can use their power. As of current, the only ones who can are my Knights Elemental.”
“Weapons can be reconfigured or copied,” Al-Anbar snarled, rubbing his scaly chest, “and new doctrines of warfare developed. I would know more on the position of these…gypsy ponies…before we take action.”
“Quite simple, really. They intend nothing less than the complete conquest of the world and all its inhabitants. Back thousands of years ago in the days of Queen Bright Eyes, it was a few hundred thousand civilized beings on our world. If the census from last year is true, we have close to 12 billion on this planet, and all of them a potential slave for their current leader, who calls herself the Queen of Magic.”
“I’m nowolf's slave,” Aspenclaw snarled, raking his claws across the desk. “I bring death to those who dare.” Pausing to adjust his tunic, he looked at Celestia, an irritated look on his face. “So let me see if I understand this, whelpling. Th—”
“You’re out of line, Aspenclaw,” Bauxite said. “I will not stand for Princess Celestia to be insulted, especially in her own home.” Spike saw the dragon give a dark look to the wolf king, and in that look, it was somehow…familiar. The young dragon couldn’t put a finger on it, but he’d seen that look somewhere before.
“That’s King Aspenclaw to you, cur!” The wolf king hopped to his feet, hot-blooded and ready to attack the dragon in a heartbeat.
“You fancy yourself a king, yet you dare to insult the regent of another nation – one that is ostensibly your ally?” Bauxite bent down and looked Aspenclaw right in the eyes.
“She is a princess. I am a king. I do not bow before lessers,” the wolf king seethed.
Bauxite thrust a claw towards Celestia, though no malice was intended…well, none for her, in any case. “She is a goddess. I think that’s just a bit higher up the priority chain than you. Unless you care to have the sun permanently parked in your front yard, barbecuing the place, I strongly suggest you apologize to her.”
“Um, I’m not really a goddess, just a divinity. From an academic standpoint, there has to be a separa—”
Aspenclaw raised his paw; his claws sharp and ready. “You have one last warning to step away, dragonwhelp, or I’ll adorn your snout with scars.” His tone changed from arrogant to menacing, a sign he was about to attack.
“Please do; it’s been a while since I’ve had Baked Dog for lunch,” the dragon said, coolly. “Tell me: would you rather be flash-fried or slow-roasted?”
The attention taken off her for the moment, Celestia sighed. Wow. Five minutes in before the first fight. I think that’s a new record. Looking out the corner of her eye, she could see the sympathetic looks of Spike and Rarity; though she didn’t look in the opposite direction, it wouldn’t surprise her if Zecora gave one as well. This council is definitely going to be a lot longer than expected.
“I just had a shiver go through my spine,” Luna said, as she tried to get some shuteye while in the carriage. It was the middle of the day, and the Princess of the Night was usually fast asleep during this time, usually cuddled with one of her royal plushies or the rare occasion when Celestia took a nap at her side. She wasn’t one to admit it, but in many ways the immortal, ageless princess was still a filly; in terms of development she was probably more a peer of Apple Bloom, Sweetie Belle or Scootaloo than her usual clique. It was probably the reason she was taking a liking to Pumpkin Tart, as technically the “mare” was in truth just barely old enough to start school and the magic that had boosted her to adulthood still stood fast – Luna herself was somewhat acquainted with that, as when she was freed from Nightmare Moon’s control she’d been retarded in her growth and it took a year to recover from that.
“Something wrong?” Pumpkin asked.
“Nothing, but thanks for asking,” Luna replied, shifting on the makeshift bed to hope for some success. After all, even she couldn't live on coffee forever. She managed to close her eyes for a few seconds before she felt something standing over her. “What now?”
Luna looked up to see Pumpkin, standing there, looking at her as though she was a filly in a candy shop. “She’s sooooooo cute! Twilight! C’mere and look! Can I keep her?” Now that she’d become a part of the circle, she was letting her metaphorical mane down and everypony found that while Pinkie was weird and the alicorns were impish, Pumpkin was as much a sarcasm queen as Twilight. Since Pinkie’s departure, the gypsy pony had become a very welcome presence; she’d never be a replacement for the pink gypsy pony but was an addition to their little ad hoc family.
Most of the time.
Twilight, currently sitting at the table across the way, didn’t even bother to look up from her paperwork as she replied, “Pumpkin, I think you might want to let her sleep.” With a slight smile, she then added, “Luna, don’t put Pumpkin in orbit around Ganymede. We might need her later.”
“What’s Ganymede?” the orange pony asked.
Twilight answered, “It’s one of the moons of Jupiter, roughly 724 million miles out in space, give or take.” Pumpkin furrowed her brows at that comment before looking down at her princess, who simply flashed her famous faux-innocent grin. The gypsy pony took that as a sign to leave her employer alone lest she get launched beyond Earth orbit.
Luna tried a couple more times to sleep, only to finally give up. “So what’s on the agenda?” she half-mumbled through the pillow.
“Well, my plan was to let you sleep and I could handle everything myself or with Pumpkin’s help. I was guessing your plan was to imagine how you were going to get some sleep.”
“Twi, as much as I appreciate it, I should be doing something.” Willing a cup of coffee into existence, the indigo alicorn rose walked over to the table. “So what’s the agenda?” she repeated.
“Today, we’re headed to the earth pony guard training center outside of Fillydelphia to inspect the facilities at the request of Goldengrape. Tomorrow, we head to Mountreal, where Soarin’ will be establishing a new squadron and he wanted to have us attend the commissioning ceremony for the….” Twilight flipped through the papers for the new squadron’s name. “Ah, here it is – the Stormrunners.”
Luna took the report in hoof and quickly read through the whole thing. “That should be interesting for Spitfire – most of her senior squadron members are being reassigned as new COs or XOs of new squadrons.” A thought suddenly crossed Luna’s mind. “It just occurred to me that everything I know about pegasus military tactics is very out of date. A thousand years ago, we were using them mostly for scouting missions and spear bombardment.”
“About three hundred years ago, there was a radical change in tactics when a pegasus named Sirius had an idea. He spoke with Star Swirl the XXIVth….”
“Star Swirl had twenty-four descendants with the same name?”
“Remind me sometime to introduce you to the current Star Swirl, the thirty-seventh in her line. She’s apparently the first mare in her family strong enough to merit the name – she’ll have to explain how that works. Anyway, Equestria was at war with Grifonica back then, and pegasi were unable to stop gryphon attacks because spears were too slow to stop the gryphons, which were tearing apart the pegasi. Right about that time, there was the news that mages were able to keep the diamond dogs at bay, as the diamond dogs were using the chaos of the war to start raiding small villages. Star Swirl 24 had created an innovative version of the standard magic blasts unicorns use – the new one was smaller and while not as strong, could still do a lot of damage due to its higher speed, like a crossbow quarrel. The new blast was easier to take down fast opponents with.
“Sirius saw the new attack and had an idea: if there was a way for pegasi to use the smaller weapon, they could shoot the gryphons, or at least stun them enough to airbuck them out of the sky. Star Swirl worked for months to create something, and after a several attempts, he created what he called a ‘magic missile launcher.’ Sirius immediately put the weapons on – at the time, pegasi wore them on their barding armor, like packs – and single-hoofedly fought off a pack of gryphons. The tactic was so successful that all pegasi adopted it, and eventually winged dragons and gryphons did as well. The tactic ended up being named after Sirius, in a fashion: since he was named after the Dog Star, and his enemies nicknamed him ‘Celestia’s Dog’, the style of warfare became known as dogfighting.”
“My, that is interesting,” Pumpkin said, completely rapt at the story – a side-effect of her rather unusual growth – she was an assassin by training and used any opportunity to learn new skills. “Does Celestia know about it? The nickname, that is.”
“She doesn’t like talking about it, to be honest: she told me once that he lost his life in a huge air battle towards the end of that war and that Sirius’ wife Forest Fern blamed her for his death every day until her own time came. But even today, the fleet uses dogfighting, or air superiority as it’s often called nowadays, as a major part of its warfare doctrine. The weapons have been modernized to the point that they now fit on modular bracers on forelegs, so that they can be aimed better; they can also be as a ground weapon if the pegasus needs to go groundside
A dark look crossed Luna’s face. “Modernized weapons? I’m not sure I like that.”
“Nopony can get away with rocks and spears forever, so the weapons mages still maintain them and the fleet still trains with them, but they’re really only brought out in times of war…but let’s be honest: we’re getting ready for a state of war, and while I’d rather that nopony be injured by them, we’re going to start seeing casualty reports in the near future.”
“So then what’s the difference between, say, the Wonderbolts and the regular pegasus units?”
“Good question. Gimme a sec.” Twilight opened up a book sitting beside her, looking it up. “Regular Pegasus Squadrons, or PEGRONs, for short, serve a variety of missions, from guard duty to search and rescue to general aerial bombardment. An example of that is PEGRON 355, the Night Guard, which is the designation for the pegasi in your specific guard detachment. However, a Pegasus Dogfighting Squadron – PEGFITRON – almost exclusively trains in dogfighting and attack bombardment, and during peacetime serves as the public face of the pegasus fleet by doing demonstration shows and the like. The book’s example is PEGFITRON 001, the Wonderbolts, who were the only standing squadron until you created Rainbow’s unit.”
“But I’d only created the Starbolts as a gift to her; I never thought they’d serve as an instrument of war.” Luna bit her lip; since her return, she’d never taken the time to look up any of this; warfare had substantially changed since she disappeared, and what she thought was battle-ready soldiers as her daily guard were now largely ceremonial functions. Furthermore, what she knew as “the Guard” was actually a joint unit composed of various personnel from the military, which had been broken into three distinct services. Lastly, there was also the fact that they’d only been discussing pegasus forces; earth pony and unicorn military tactics had probably changed by far more. Her belief that nothing had changed was turning out to be a massive Achilles’ fetlock; Celestia may have known about all of this and might have even organized it that way herself, but even Celestia admitted she couldn’t do everything alone.
Using her magic, Luna split each book into three exact copies; Twilight’s originals, a set for herself and a set for Pumpkin. “Looks like we’ve got a lot of catching up to do. If we’re really going into this, we’re going to be as prepared as we possibly can. And Pumpkin, I know that I told you earlier that I wanted you to have a life away from this, but that may be out of my hooves now.”
Pumpkin favored her with a smile. “Luna, the fact that you want me to have a life without war is better than what I had before. And if I have to ever pick up a weapon again, I’d rather do it as a protector of life than a destroyer of one.”
Luna winked at Twilight. “Yup, you’re right, we can’t afford to put her around Ganymede if she screws up. Phobos would be more practical.”
“Bauxite, as much as I appreciate the assistance, I don’t think it’s in our best interests to irritate potential allies,” Celestia said to the dragon in her private offices. The negotiations had somehow amazingly continued beyond the initial arguments and something close to progress was nearly achieved in the three hours before the lunch break occurred. While the break was in theory to all the delegations to eat, in truth, this was where the first stages of backroom agreements took place.
The deep brown dragon smiled. “Oh, please, Celestia – Aspenclaw needs us more than we need him. He just survived a coup attempt recently, or whatever barbaric succession rites the wolf tribes have, so he’s desperate to look good in front of his fellow rulers, or the else folks back home will start packing his funeral pyre. Trust me, Draconia has watched its borders for quite some time, and there’s a reason why we have an open border policy with your nation and a heavily-patrolled border with theirs.” Bauxite paused for a second before adding, “But he does bring up a point.”
“With Bauxite’s thoughts I must agree: Equestria’s queen you must now be,” Zecora answered as she sat on the sofa, teacup in hoof. “Some mindsets are easy to guess; they’ll not follow a mere princess.”
“Celestia, you’ve told me numerous times why you’ve chosen to remain a princess instead of a queen,” Isabella added, “and I respect that. But the problem is, Aspenclaw certainly doesn't, and he’s not the only one. If I had to hazard a guess, Al-Anbar, Sneg-Kogot, and Sharphorns probably think that way as well.”
“Sadly, you can count my ruler in that as well, your majesty,” a deep blue pegasus sitting next to Zecora added; she was Moonlight Serenade, the ambassador from Caballus. “She confided in me that while she very much understands why you won’t ascend the Throne of Eternity, she feels if there is any ruler on this world that deserves the title of queen, it is you – no offense, Queen Isabella. In truth, I was supposed to request an audience with you so that I might relay my liegelady’s concerns.”
“So noted,” the sun princess said. She took a sip of her own tea before asking, “Curiously, no one seemed to have a problem when I was addressed from the divine point of view.”
“That won’t hold out for long. Neither you nor your sister can withhold the sun or the moon from the countries that oppose you without affecting other ones, and they know that,” Bauxite answered. “Please forgive my impudence, but from everything I’ve read, I suspect that’s why your mother chose to be a goddess rather than a divinity – as you so mentioned earlier, gods are remote from their followers and thus a mystery; divinities are everpresent and thus knowable. In this case, your lack of a question mark puts you at a decided disadvantage.”
“That’s ironic, because it was my mother’s remoteness and mystery that caused much of these issues; plus, you’d be surprised how even being as ‘close and knowable’ to my subjects as I am still makes me much more remote than I’d like.”
“A ruler’s duty’s much too large – I thank the stars I’m not in charge,” Zecora said with a smile.
At that point, the door to the office opened, and Spike popped in. “My lord and ladies, five minutes until we start again,” he said, bowing with a flourish.
“Thank you, Spike. We’ll be there shortly.”
Bauxite looked at the young dragon. “Is this one of the Unborn?”
Celestia merely added, “And somepony I consider a part of my family. He’s a stallion amongst stallions and such a wise and gentle soul for his age.”
Spike tried not to blush from Celestia’s compliment, instead focusing on the larger dragon’s word. “Unborn?”
“Were you Trueborn or Halfborn, you’d not be here.” The giant dragon instead lumbered up to Spike, before leaning forward and sniffing. “Ah, I see. Spike, is it? Who’s your family?”
“Well, I was raised by Twilight Sparkle, who hatched me – she’s my big sister,” the young dragon answered. “But if you mean who laid my egg, I don’t know who my parents are.”
“There is no shame in being tied to such an important individual as the Royal Mage of Equestria,” Bauxite stated, “though many of my tribe would not see it that way. Will you be available later? I think you and I have much to discuss that may be of interest to you.”
Princess Haruka bowed to Rarity before they entered the door to the meeting hall. “For the tour of the castle grounds, I thank you, Duchess. It has been a delight.”
Rarity curtsied in return, wishing she’d had enough time to read up on some of the customs of the foreign nations. “It was a pleasure, your highness.”
“I do have another small request, if I may: do you know if the Royal Mage is present? I’ve corresponded with her now and then, and I was hoping to actually meet her this time and compare magic notes.”
“Unfortunately, she departed this morning with Princess Luna on official business. However, is there something I might be able to assist with? Twilight is one of my dearest friends, and I would be remiss if I did not offer to be of assistance.”
“That would be most appreciated! Are you much versed in magic? Mage Sparkle had inquired into the aspects of Inariese paper magic and I had desired to discuss with her the aspects of shielding magic. Would you be able to assist me with that?”
“Well, unfortunately, not really, I’m afraid – I’ve only begun studying advanced magic of recent and I’m not sure that my current level would be what you’d desire, but perhaps my tutor may be able to assist. I’ll be meeting with him tonight, and you’re more than welcome to come.”
“That would be lovely, thank you, Duchess!”
“Please, call me Rarity. Then we are on for tonight, your highness?”
The golden fox nodded. “Yes, and please, call me Haruka.”
The map was sprawled out for all to see. Upper Reaches, the Admiral of the pegasus fleet, adjusted his garrison cap before looking at those assembled. He was an old stallion, grizzled and probably would have retired had it not been for his unswerving duty to the Crown, the Fleet and his family – in that order. The sky-blue and haze-gray pegasus pretty much was the embodiment of the term “Old Warhorse”, and there were even jokes that the color-switching system in the new flight suits were actually based on his colors so the admiral would be everywhere. Regardless of the jokes, though, there was no doubting his devotion to his duty or the subsequent respect of the fliers under him.
“This, stallions and mares, is the coast of Inverneighs,” he started in his gruff, deep voice. “About three days ago the city fell to the enemy, and the largest port in Caballus was cut off to the world. The Guard Council firmly believes that once Princess Celestia declares war—”
“‘Declares’, sir?” one pegasus asked. “Aren’t we being a bit presumptive?”
Upper Reaches stared at the questioner as if he were terminally stupid. “I’ll be sure to ignore you now. Anyway, for anypony else with half a brain and are paying attention to what’s been going on for the past month, once we get authorization from her majesty to initiate military operations, we will be launching a full strike on Inverneighs, with the intent of either capturing it on behalf of the Caballan government or completely obliterating it with their permission. We cannot allow that port to remain in enemy hooves, as it cuts off vital supplies our allies will need and gives the enemy a point from which to invade our continent.”
At the back of the room, Rainbow Dash sat with Spitfire, Fluttershy and Bamboo Grove. “Just keep quiet and the Admiral won’t tear you a new one,” Spitfire said. “The Old Warhorse’s definitely in his element today, and he’s going to pretty much going to buck anypony who isn’t up to snuff.”
“Yeah, I can see that,” Rainbow Dash replied. “Gonna definitely be interesting working for him.”
“Wait, just remembered: aren’t you supposed to outrank the admiral?”
It was Fluttershy who answered; the fact that she did meant she was a little calmer despite her earlier fears. “They have more experience than we do, so it makes sense to answer to them. Twilight’s the third highest in the Mage Guild despite outranking the two above her, so if she can deal with it, so can we.”
“I’m so sorry we interrupted your tea party up there, ladies, but considering this is a strategy session, you might just want to pay a teensy bit of attention!” the old stallion roared from over by the huge map. At being singled out, Fluttershy practically shrank in the chair; there was nowhere else to run in the room without slamming into somepony else and, their chairs being against the back of the wall, she couldn’t dive behind it for cover.
“Now then,” Upper Reaches said, not quite letting them off the hook yet, “Commander Spitfire, Commander Dash, either of you care to refute Lt. Commander Vapor Trail’s assessment?” With both mares stared blankly, Upper reaches repeated. “Vapor Trail just pointed out that if there were any weapons emplacements, they’d be on both the rocky shoreline towards the southern portion of the port, as well as the wetlands on the northern part; the wetlands will probably also have a series of traps to make up for the smoother terrain in order to ensure we won’t have an easy time punching in that way. His recommendation, which for the record I concur with, is that that we approach from due west, as that’s where the ships are moored. With the infrastructure required to load cargo on the ships and warehouses to store materials, there’s not a lot of space where they can place ballistas or other anti-flyer weapons.”
The two pegasus commanders looked intently at the map, alongside the red magic dots pointing out Vapor Trail’s thoughts on weapons emplacements and the huge green arrow recommending their particular path of assault on the port. Neither mare could see any problem with it, so they wisely kept their mouths shut while the aged pony glared in their direction.
However, Fluttershy was also looking at the map and had a very different picture in mind. “Um, Mr. Admiral, sir? I have a question.”
Upper Reaches focused his rapt attention on the yellow pegasus; if he showed any surprise as to who spoke up, he didn’t show it. “Lady Fluttershy, is it? Please, enlighten us on your opinion.”
“Well, it would seem to me that it wouldn’t be a good idea to put traps and snares in the Inverneighs Saltmarsh. I usually get reports from the Caballan Royal Wildlife Society, and there was a monograph last year about the Inverneighs Marshduck, and in the monograph it detailed how the RWS had just completed an extensive restoration of the marshlands to make it easier for the ducks and other animals.”
“I…see. So you think they won’t lay any traps or the like because it would do damage to the marshlands?”
Fluttershy’s smile was sweet as she nodded. “After all, nopony ever wants to hurt poor defenseless animals.”
The room fell deadly silent at that point. Spitfire and Rainbow Dash looked at each other, wondering at what point Upper Reaches was going to snap and how many pegasi it was going to take to hold him down before he attempted to massacre poor completely-out-of-her-element Fluttershy.
Several seconds passed by before the admiral just shook his head and chuckled. Those who’d served with him a long time knew that expression: it was the one he saved for ponies who weren’t in the military and thus whose opinions really didn’t matter; in many ways it was worse than if he’d just merely verbally ripped her head off. “Lady Knight Fluttershy, while I’m very appreciative of somepony of your stature giving your opinion, I’m afraid I’ll have to disagree. Your counterpart Commander Dash – excuse me, Lady Knight Rainbow Dash – has not disagreed with the review of the situation, and she’s been working with me for quite a bit longer.”
At that point, Fluttershy realized she’s just walked into the hydra’s lair – and it wasn’t in a particular friendly mood.
But the admiral wasn't done yet. “Your pacifist methodology is well known and to be honest, I’m actually glad somepony holds those viewpoints. But this is war, not a symbolic shootout in Appaloosa with crème pies, and I can guarantee your infamous Stare won’t work against thousands of enemy forces at once. While your gentler methods may actually be useful at some later juncture in the conflict, the first strike must always – always – be brutal and decisive, to show the enemy we mean business. I guarantee that my counterparts are telling their own forces the very same thing. So, please, just sit and let us plan this. Later on, you and I can discuss what can be done to get them to surrender once we regain significant portions of Caballus. But not until then.” Not even waiting for an answer, he started to detail the particular attack patterns for this operation.
Fluttershy looked as though she’d been slapped several times; in fact, she probably would have preferred to have been. She’d just been humiliated and dismissed in front of the whole room. Like earlier, she wanted to run, hide, maybe even punch a hole in the wall behind her and head home as fast as she could. But that would only validate everypony’s thoughts of her: the coward, the wimp, the pacifist.
“Fluttershy….” Rainbow Dash whispered gently, wanting to hold her friend, extricate her from this place and put her on the first train back to Canterlot. But she couldn’t; she had a unit to command and a duty to ensure they’d be safe. So all she could do was let Fluttershy stew in her own fears…and hate herself eternally for letting that happen.
“So, was anypony else bored by that whole display?” Luna said as she slumped upon the bed in the senior officers’ quarters that had been prepared for her. “I mean, I’m just the Crown Princess of Equestria, The Princess of the Moon, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseum, but maybe a full-out military parade was just a bit over the top.”
“You noticed that too, huh?” Twilight said, sarcasm on full force. She’d taken notes of the whole inspection as part of Goldengrape’s request, and he wasn’t going to like what she had to say. Granted, she wasn’t a military expert, but common sense alone knew this whole thing had been a joke; the garrison commander was merely currying favor as much as any noble or bureaucrat. “All in all, I’d say today was a complete waste of time.”
“Well, back on my world, the saying was that a spit-polished military was one about to die, because they did no training.” Pumpkin Tart was looking over some of the notes that the unicorn mage took, adding a few of her own. “I wouldn’t say that it was a complete waste, Twilight; we did have a nice afternoon stroll on a beautifully sunny day while looking at the comical antics of woefully undertrained soldiers.”
Twilight read over Pumpkin’s added notes; while Twilight had noticed the obvious, their resident military expert had figured out at least seventeen different ways to kill each soldier – and that was just up close – taking advantage of the subpar training…and that was without using magic. “You always know how to put the most positive spin on things, Pumpkin.”
“Of course – how could I be a proper hoofmaiden to my lady princess or her gallant knight commander if I wasn’t?” The orange gypsy pony continued to read over the remainder of Twilight’s notes, adding yet more documentation.
Luna sighed. “Look, as much as I’d love to hear the continuing tales of Team Sarcasm, we have a real problem on our hooves – this is the biggest of the three Earth Pony Guard training facilities, and it’s pumping out a bunch of glorified street sweepers!”
“Not true, Luna – we have no confirmation that they’re even trained to do that much.” When the night alicorn stared at her hoofmaiden, Pumpkin returned a smile. “Seriously, though, this is bad. Not ‘if they’re on the front lines they’ll break ranks and run’ bad, but ‘if they’re on the front lines they’ll be slaughtered in seconds because they’re almost completely useless’ bad.”
“I do have a suggestion how we might be able to fix it, though.” At Twilight’s words, both listened. “I’ll let Goldengrape know of what’s going on…and then I’ll recommend that Strongback be promoted to Brigadier and assigned to command this base. He’s due for a promotion, he’s been assigned to the castle longer than is good for his career, and if I remember correctly, his wife is from this area, so it would do him a world of good and we’d have a responsible commander here.” A thoughtful look crossed Twilight’s features. “As for the current commander, he does look a tad on the old side, which means he’s probably due to retire. Let him retire – despite the fact that we probably shouldn’t be letting anypony do so now – and it will get a thorn out of your side while sparing Goldengrape any undue grief.”
“That’s a wonderful idea, Twilight! The question is how long would it take to retrain everypony and what about those that have already been reassigned to other garrisons?”
“Anypony who’s here presently will have to go through additional refresher training. As for those who’ve already been reassigned, we’ll have to discretely send out the word that they need additional training, and their own units can deal with that.”
“Fair enough; I suppose what’s done is done.” Luna put her head down on the bed, less than thrilled about the compromise. “I’m hoping that we won’t have to deal with this tomorrow; I don’t think I could deal with another day of ineptitude.”
“Fortunately, that won’t be the case tomorrow. When it comes to the Pegasus Guard Fleet, pretty much any pegasus wants one thing: to be able to join the Wonderbolts or Starbolts, so even if they don’t get the training, they’ll train themselves. And as Soarin’ is a former member of the Wonderbolts, you know he’ll make his unit so top notch that pegasi will want to join it, too.” Twilight then had a huge smile of pride as she added, “As for the Guild, we have to deal with so many things in addition to military duties, all of our ponies are constantly trained – just because you pass apprenticeship and become certified does not mean you can kick your hooves up and call it a day.”
Luna looked at her old friend; as always, she had come through. “Twi, I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Good, now that that’s settled, let’s go get something to eat,” Pumpkin chirped. “Saw a pizza place not too far from here, and I don’t know about you two, but I’m just craving a pizza with double cheese and extra thistle!”
The two horned mares looked at each other uneasily before looking at Pumpkin and blurting as one: “Thistle?”
“Yeah, I know – acquired taste and all that, but really! It’s good! You should try some!”
Luna considered her other options. “I wonder if they have hayball sandwiches.”
Spike knocked on the door to Bauxite’s private quarters at the Draconian embassy. “Please, come in!” the deep voice said. Spike opened the door and found Bauxite finishing a roast that he’d prepared. “I do hope you’re hungry; I usually only cook a couple of slabs of venison for myself, but since I was having company over for dinner, another one couldn’t hurt.”
Spike blanched; usually on the rare occasions he ate meat, it had been mystically prepared by Twilight and thus in some preset form, like a steak or whatnot. Seeing it like this – the dead remains of a deer, hopefully the non-sentient variety – was something entirely different.
Bauxite took it in stride. “I understand for you that it’s quite unusual seeing the real thing rather than something magically created, and I am aware of Equestria’s laws against hunting non-sentient animals. But, the embassy is technically Draconian territory, so we can do as we please.” A pause, followed by, “But you needn’t worry – these are hunted on Draconian lands and teleported over. We do respect the laws of our closest ally.” Mindful of Spike’s size and upbringing, the huge dragon produced a knife and cut Spike off a portion, before setting it on a place and giving it to the smaller dragon. “Tableware and the like are on the table, as well as some wine. Please, help yourself.”
Spike took the plate and sat at the table, pouring himself a glass of wine, which was unusual to him, and cut a piece before taking a bite. The flavor exploded on his tongue in a way he’d never had before. Seeing that, Bauxite chuckled. “Sad to say, those who create meat analogs without actually knowing what it tastes like will never get it right.”
Spike had to restrain himself from inhaling the meat; it was delicious in a way he’d never had before. Unbidden, Bauxite dropped a second, larger piece on the smaller dragon’s place before tearing off a haunch for his own meal. “This is delicious!” Spike said with gusto. “Thanks!”
“You’re quite welcome. To be honest, it’s commonplace for those of us Trueborn to eat game on a regular basis. The Halfborn mostly eat farm-raised animals, and have game for those special occasions. Unfortunately, situations like this are the only times Unborn such as yourself ever experience true meat.”
That, Spike knew, was his cue to begin. “About that term: Unborn. I don’t quite understand.”
“Well, how much do you know about magic dragons, Spike?”
“Not much, to be honest. I honestly thought all dragons were one and the same, to be honest.”
“All dragons are the same in the same way as all ponies are the same: that being, they’re not. Similar to the three extant pony tribes, there are four dragon tribes: the winged nomads, magic dragons such as myself, the solitary wyverns, and the rather…well, to be honest, frivolous sea serpents. You obviously saw Ambassador Magnet today, and he’s not very atypical for his tribe. But I digress.
“The most visible, of course, are the winged dragons. They go where they please, and they vaguely follow the edicts of their leader, their sultan. However, they meet once a generation at the mystic tribal lands on the other side of the world during a period they call the Great Migration.”
Spike looked embarrassed. “When I was younger, I tried to go on one of those migrations. I ran into a bad crowd and barely managed to escape once I told them I wasn’t going to go along with their stunts.”
“Good for you – it wouldn’t have gone well for you once they’d realized you were a magic dragon. The winged tribe can be very provincial. Anyways, to continue: the wyverns mostly keep to themselves, living in subterranean caves in Caballus. To be honest, they’ve pretty much degraded themselves to nothingness. You noticed the difference between Alpha Rex and Alpha Spot, correct? The grand vizier of the wyverns should honestly ask for protectorate status from the Caballan Crown at this point, but they’re too lazy to do even that much. I suspect Trottingham will just have to do that themselves, as Celestia needed to for Rex’s followers.” Spike had noticed the difference between the two diamond dog rulers: Rex had practically begged for Celestia to give him an opinion even as she’d asked him for his own unvarnished thoughts; Spot, contrariwise, was very opinionated
“As for Mr. Magnet’s tribe, they ostensibly follow the lead of a ruler whose name changes from generation to generation; last I’d heard, their leader was the oddly named ‘Disco King’, and considering Mr. Magnet’s attire, he may very well be said Disco King. But how much authority any sea serpent ruler has since they threw their lot in with the Commune, I can’t say.
“This, of course leads us to my tribe, the magic dragons. At the most superficial, you could say we’re like the unicorn pony tribe, the dragons that interact with magic on a daily basis. However, that’s a gross oversimplification: the truth is, as much as we are masters of magic, so too are we its slaves. Your social position, lifespan, and even genes are determined by whose magic you absorb at birth.
“I, for example, am a Trueborn. What that means is that during my incubation and eventual hatching, I absorbed the full magic of my natural parents and it affected me both within and without. So when I was born, I was born with all the abilities of a full magic dragon, as well as the station befitting one. I am a lord amongst my tribesdragons, and I enjoy all the benefits of being one. But I must also exercise the duties of a lord, one of which is looking out for and recruiting Halfborns, as well as advising the rare Unborn when necessary. I may choose a mate only from a Trueborn caste; were I to do otherwise, the resulting egg would always be sterile. So as you can guess, marrying for love amongst Trueborns is rare.
“The next are the Halfborn. Halfborn suffer needlessly: they are magic dragons that for some reason are hatched by somedragon other than their natural parents, yet still dragons; for example, the egg of a dragon lord may be inadvertently hatched by a servant, or stolen magic dragon eggs hatched by winged dragon bandits. When that happens, they absorb the magic of that hatcher, and become lesser in magic, genes and the like; they start to look or act less like magic dragons and more like those they are bound to. They have the general lifespan and abilities of their ‘parent’ species instead of their true heritage.” Bauxite shook his head as if pitying the situation of the Halfborns. “Did you, by chance, notice the two guards at the gate, and how they looked slightly different from the rest of us within the embassy? Those poor souls were stolen and then hatched by winged dragon raiders out of spite to a magic dragon noble family. They were denied their birthright out of spite. We treat them well and give them as many rights as we can be accord them, but in the end, they have no access to the expansive magic of my tribe, and they will live out the relatively short lifespan of a winged dragon, a mere five hundred years.”
“So then, what about Unborn?” Spike wasn’t sure he wanted to know the answer, but he had to know.
“Are you sure you want to know?” Bauxite paused. “In some ways, it will probably be of great comfort to you, but at the same time, it will be of great pain to you. Truthfully, I would spare you this pain if I could, and not even Celestia could force me to utter it. But if it is your will, so be it.”
Spike nodded assent. “I have to know. I’ve spent my whole life not knowing, and even though I’m happy with my life as it is, it would answer so many questions.”
“So long as you understand the gravity of what I am about to tell you. You are an Unborn, perhaps the most tragic, and paradoxically the most blessed of all the castes: Unborn are those hatched to species other than dragons. Your magic, your genes, everything about you becomes mapped to the hatching species. You, in essence, are nothing more than a pony trapped in a dragon’s body, your genes are closer to a pony’s than a dragon’s, and under other circumstances, you likely would live no longer than the average pony – a hundred or so years, at the most.”
“Under other circumstances?”
“I see you caught that; very shrewd of you. Yes, your circumstances are much different. Of all the ponies to be bound to in this world, you are special, because you are bound to the Halfborn Alicorn herself.”
“Halfborn Alicorn? You mean Twi?”
“It is a name we magic dragons have for your sister. I suppose it is difficult for you to understand, considering you’ve been with her your whole life, but understand this: out of the five strongest magic users on the planet, four are ponies, and three of those are alicorns, divinities. To us, she is if she was meant to be an alicorn, but had the unfortunate stigma of being Halfborn. Of course, ponies don’t have the same situation or birth status as that, but it’s meant to signify the level of respect – and in some cases, fear – we have of Twilight Sparkle.”
At that pronouncement, Spike wasn’t sure how to react to that. Twilight, somepony to be feared? The same pony who took care of him when sick, tucked him into bed and read him bedtime stories as a baby, who was as nurturing with him as she was strict? He pictured the view of the Twilight he knew in his mind with the image presented to him, a sort of wingless Nightmare Moon…and the two just didn’t match up. Was Twilight somepony to be admired? Sure. Loved? Of course. Feared? Never.
“I see you’re having quite a time trying to wrap your mind around what I said. I don’t blame you; if all I ever saw was her gentle side, or even her mildly angered side, so would I. But that’s not important. What I’m referring to is the fact that because of your specific bonds to her, you are the only Unborn in all of creation with the potential magic levels of the Trueborn.”
“Really?” Obviously Spike knew the voluminous range of magic Twilight had at her disposal, but now to be told he had the same potential….
Bauxite nodded. “Under normal circumstances, it would be proper and best if your sister instructed you in the arts magical, but I suspect she will be extremely busy; plus there are some things that would not translate well, even with your mindset, from pony to dragon. If you are willing, I offer my services to bring you up to speed on the magic arts.”
Spike’s answer was instantaneous: “Sure! But can I ask why?”
“It would be unusual if you didn’t. Sure, I could spin you a tale of how unfair your life has been as an Unborn and that it’s a miracle that you were bound to Twilight Sparkle or that you are deserving of at least a minor amount of your true heritage. But the simple truth is, we are on the verge of war, and if there is a way to produce an extra Master Mage-level talent out of nowhere, then I will do it. The use of your magic talents could very well spell the difference between victory and defeat.”
The fox princess held her forelegs out, her eyes closed, her body and eight tails aglow with the sparkle of magic. Underneath her a circle of pure white surrounded her, motes of magic rising from it. “As you can see, in most Western schools of magic, you draw the energy from within, but we Inariese draw from the earth directly,” she said to her rapt audience. “The strongest of us, the kyuubi, the great nine-tailed foxes that are my parents the Emperor and Empress, can actually use more than one school at once just as your princesses can.”
As they watched, the motes of light came together, forming a simple sheet of paper in front of them. As it floated in the air, it began to fold, forming shapes. A butterfly. A crane. A frog. Then it began to form more complex and non-paper forms: a sword. An earthenware bowl. Cherry blossoms. An apple. “This is Iniariese paper magic, kami no mahou. We draw from the earth to create of earth: paper, made from trees, which come from the earth. We then use the magic to further trace it down the lines of what comes from the earth until we have what we need.” She smiled. “I suppose it’s needlessly complex in comparison to Western styles, but if it were simple, it wouldn’t come from Inari.”
Both Autumn Wood and Rarity watched, amazed by the radically different style of magic. “Wow, Princess,” Woody said, trying not to sound like a rube, “That is the most impressive thing I’ve ever seen!”
“I suppose. If anything, I’m impressed by the more direct styles, such as the pony or dragon forms – they’re extremely quick and efficient, which is why I was hoping to learn something from Mage Sparkle.”
“Well, I did promise to teach you the shielding spell, and so I shall.” With that, Rarity moved away from the pair and stood. Her horn lit up with a soft blue aura, and a sphere of azure energy enveloped her. It sparked and shimmied, before taking on a translucent appearance.
As Rarity set her shield, Woody explained. “With unicorns, they simply think about it and it happens. If they’ve got the spell memorized and have enough energy and talent to use it, it’s there. And as unicorns have a natural affinity with magic, even the most forgetful of them can instantly recall a long and complex spell even as they forgot what they had for breakfast.”
“Well, if you’re ready, Woody!” Rarity called from her location.
“And now, time for the test.” Three balls sat on the table next to him, all of the same size. Picking up the first, he threw it as hard as he could; the whiffle ball bounced off the shield as expected; immediately afterwards, the tennis ball impacted against the shield, with no sign of stress on the barrier. The heavier and faster baseball, however, visibly rebounded, ringing with a hollow gong.
“Okay, ready for the next!” Rarity cried triumphantly.
“Princess, if you’d be so kind,” Woody asked, and Haruka did so, summoning up an apple and sending it rocketing towards Rarity’s shield. Just before it reached the shield, however, the aura around Rarity’s horn sputtered and died, and the shield dropped just in time for the white unicorn to take the relatively hard fruit straight in the face. The apple shattered on impact, but that wasn’t as surprising as what had happened to Rarity.
“Rarity!” Woody and Haruka raced forward, only to see a dizzied unicorn splayed out on the grass, mumbling something incoherent. Woody, ever the gentlestallion, scooped her up and placed her gently on a nearby bench while Haruka stood there worriedly.
“Will she be okay?” Haruka asked.
“She’ll be fine, your highness; but I was afraid this was going to happen. She’s plateaued.” When the fox asked, the earth pony explained: “Like those who exercise physically, mystic exercises push you to a certain limit your body and mind will accept for a while before you can move on to the next level and anything otherwise is just diminishing returns. I’m sure she hasn’t told you this, but she’s been in intense training both day and night for the past few weeks, and today was the first ‘rest’ she’s had in days…and you saw how little a rest that was.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?”
Woody scooped her up again. “All she needs is some rest, though I don’t foresee her getting any until after the summit. The best that can be done is to see her to her room, which I will do. If you’d follow me to her room, I can then escort you back to your embassy afterwards.”
“No, as much as I fear I’m to blame for what happened to her, I must get some rest myself to be prepared for tomorrow. When she wakes, please let her know that I apologize and will find some way to make amends.”
“She won’t blame you, I promise you that. Are you sure you won’t need an escort of any kind?”
The fox princess smiled sweetly. “I am an eight-tailed fox, on par, magicwise, with the most senior of your mages. Besides, this is a city of peace, I can feel it. Thank you, but I will be fine.”
She obviously doesn’t know about the attacks a few weeks ago, Woody thought, but she seems determined. Well, I won’t worry her then. “Well, then have a wonderful evening and we’ll see you later.”
Haruka bowed. “Oyasumi.”
Through the night, two pegasi flew back to Canterlot. Bamboo Grove stayed the night at the fleet base, in order to train with Spitfire the next morning, leaving just two old friends flying in very uncomfortable silence. Finally, Rainbow Dash couldn’t take it any longer. “Fluttershy, would you say something already? You’re freaking me out here.”
The yellow pegasus just kept flying silently for a few more beats before asking, “Do you think I’m weak?”
“Do you even need to ask that? Fluttershy, you faced off a cockatrice that even Twilight couldn’t beat! You’ve faced manticores, dragons, the Cerebus, and all sorts of other things? Where do you get any idea that you’re weak?”
“Because I don’t like fighting,” she said, simply. In a strange display of perfect timing, she flew past the dark cloud shrouding her, and the moonlight hit her at that exact moment, giving the yellow an ethereal, saintly glow.
“I think you’re overreacting to the Old Warhorse’s comment a little too much. He still wants you on his staff to help come up with peaceful solutions; he just doesn’t think the first engagement will be very peaceful.”
“I’d rather we find some last attempt to try to make peace with them.”
“If it was going to happen, it would have happened before Stalliongrad or Rhine-Mane got turned into conquered territory,” Dash replied. “Look, we’ll pound some sense into them and they’ll see the light. Don’t worry.”
“What, can’t I be worried about you, or Scootaloo, or the rest? You realize that you’re going to be the one out there fighting!”
“Don’t you think I don’t know that?” the blue pegasus screamed, jarring her friend. After a second she said, “I know, Fluttershy, and I think about it all the time. And you know what? I’m not afraid of anything happening to me…I’m afraid of what will happen to Scoots. She follows me always and everywhere, even when I tell her not to. She’s the kid sister I never had, and I’m terrified of what will happen to her. I think about her…and then all I can see is how Pinkie just fell apart when she saw Octavia.” The moonlight illuminated Rainbow Dash and it showed that she’d been silently crying all this time. “We don’t even know if Pinkie’s still alive.”
Fluttershy flew over and gave her old friend a hug. “Pinkie’s fine. Pinkie’s always fine, you know her – whenever she’s in a jam, she’ll find a way out of it. And if you promise me you won’t worry about her, I won’t worry about you, okay?”
Rainbow cracked a smile. “Pinkie Promise?” At that, the two pegasi repeated the ritual, breaking down into relieved laughter by the time it was over. Feeling buoyed by Pinkie even if she wasn’t present, Rainbow Dash and Fluttershy continued flying towards the bright lights of Canterlot, miles distant.
In his private tent, Aspenclaw slept uneasily. He thought that by sleeping away from the pretty lights and pointless frippery of Canterlot, he might get some rest. But the gaiety and sparkle of the white city invaded his mind like pretty ivory daggers. Shaking off the sheets, he looked out the window at the main gates of the city. Celestia called this a town? Please – the Alaxsaqi citadel of Eversnow, now that was a fortress, built to withstand any and everything that went against it, to wear its enemies down until they could be destroyed. Eversnow was made for war – Canterlot was a life-size doll house.
As he stared at the castle, his anger grew. He’d ordered his men to hunt for dinner that night; he knew well the Equestriani laws against it, but what did that matter against the needs of the wolf king? Unfortunately, his hunters then revealed that Canterlot had prepared for it and had so driven all the animals within dozens of miles away from the palace. Aspenclaw and his men would be forced to eat their emergency rations and it would make the journey back to Eversnow difficult. Just yet another insult piled on insult courtesy of Equestria’s little whelp of a princess.
And then thoughts of Celestia directly made his blood boil, so much so that he absentmindedly shattered the dressing mirror before him. The little princess fancied herself a deity? What a joke! Deities only provided for those who succeeded in earning favor, such as his god the Great Aurora Wolf. They didn’t make a nation of brainwashed simpletons who fawned at her every word. Was she the most powerful mage on the planet? Even Aspenclaw couldn’t argue with that. Was she a member of a rare equinoid species? She was probably the next step in the evolution of ponies, come a little early. Immortal? Who even believed that? What this made her in total was a very powerful preternatural creature, but supernatural. All it would take was one chance, one swipe, and there would be black and red all over that fine white coat.
“Hello, your majesty. I bring you some gifts, the first of many.” The voice came out of nowhere, and Aspenclaw turned, he noticed several dozen bodies of freshly killed deer and rabbits that adorned the floor.
Aspenclaw turned to face the new arrival. He was an earth pony, orange in color with a tricolor mane of magenta, pink and yellow. He stood there, relaxed with the ease of a trained killer…who was not there to kill, but deliver a message.
Perhaps my fortunes have changed, the wolf king thought before saying curtly, “I care not for Celestia’s trinkets. I would rather starve beforehand.”
“Your majesty, I know you’re not a fool. You know who I serve.” Purple eyes stared right into the wolf king’s ice-blue ones. “She asked me to pass a word to you, on how difficult it must be to have to bow before those who are your lesser, instead of working alongside those who value you as an equal.”
“I see. And you are?”
“I am her Hunter. I need no other name, your majesty.”
The wolf king gave a terrible smile. “Please let her majesty the Queen of Magic know that I will be back in Eversnow within a week, and we will most warmly welcome an envoy from our new ally when it is convenient for her.”
Hunter Four bowed. “It shall be done at once.” As he turned, he added, “And now for my gift to you, your majesty. The nights in the north are cold, and there is nothing like having warmth in the bed.” He raised a hoof to signal behind him, and a bundle was tossed forward.
Princess Haruka looked up at the gypsy pony and the traitorous King Aspenclaw. Moreso, she heard the Hunter’s words, and knew exactly what was meant. Terrified, she tried to break free, but the bonds were too strong. She tried summoning her magic, but the bonds she was tied with somehow nullified her craft. After a few minutes, she was reduced to horrified screaming, blocked by a gag she couldn’t remove.
The wolf king looked at his newest trophy. “Little vixen, you will have the honor of being with a king for the duration of the trip. I hope you appreciate that. If not, well, my men have needs as well.” The thought of that shut down the young fox’s mind and she passed out into relatively safe unconsciousness.
Aspenclaw looked appreciatively at her young body. “Such a gift deserves one in its own.” He walked over to his closet, producing a sword. Handing it to the Hunter handle first, he intoned, “The sword is the word of a wolf amongst wolves, it is a prize of blood and honor.”
The Hunter took it and bowed ritually. “The prize is a bond of blood and honor, wolf amongst wolf, equal amongst equal.”
Aspenclaw nodded appreciatively. “So you know the words of the Book of the Wolfsong. I am most impressed.”
Hunter Four bowed once more. “It is the directive of my Queen. We honor our allies and destroy our enemies. Now, your majesty, I must take my leave and report back to my liege.”
“Do so with my gratitude,” the wolf king said, waving his ally off, who disappeared as quickly as he came. Looking at the treasures given to him, things were finally looking up. Tomorrow, he would bid farewell to this farce of an alliance and join a true victor – and there would be more. More befitting his status as the Wolf King of Alaxsaqa.