League of Discord
Chapter 5: A Thirst Unquenched
“Captain, prepare the Royal Guard. I want a transport arranged to Ponyville. Your men are to escort three ponies who identify themselves as Swain, Singed, and Riven; the group is composed of a unicorn, an earth pony, and a pegasus, respectively. Do not let your guard down, though. These are not Equestrians, and we cannot be certain of their motivations yet. That being said, show them the utmost courtesy and respect. I will arrange for their housing in one of the guest suites in the castle before I leave for Manehattan to sort out yet another parasprite infestation. Allow them the same amenities and access that would be extended to a foreign ambassador.” The captain of the Canterlot Royal Guard nodded wordlessly, and set about his tasks, leaving Princess Celestia to her thoughts. The ruler, famous within and without her domain of Equestria for maintaining a state of peace that had lasted so long that even the memory of war had faded into obscure legend, was the epitome of regal mannerisms tempered with a practical mindset. Even with the return of Luna and her reintegration with the administration of the kingdom, Celestia still was responsible for most of the day-to-day running of the Canterlot Court, though with liberal use of delegation she still managed to find time to retain her sanity.
In addition to being the driving force of Equestrian policy, she and her sister had one other, much more important duty. Long ago, in times when even Celestia and Luna were naught but fillies, the mighty race of alicorns that the sisters were the only remnant of had seen signs of doom on the horizon. Wielding magic that would make even the vaunted Summoners of Runeterra nervous, they had made preparation for the worst. Thus, what should have been the twilight of a planet was merely the eleventh hour of a race, and the land survived the death of its sun long enough for a smaller, more sustainable replacement to be crafted. The catch was that this new sun was too large to be held easily in the orbit of the planet, so it fell to the last children of the alicorns to maintain the paths of the celestial bodies. To do this, though, the pair would have to be unbound by constraints such as age, and would have to possess untold reserves of power. Once the sisters had come of age, after decades of preparation, for the good of all living things, the alicorns transferred the greater portion of their power to Celestia and Luna. There was another price, though, for when the time came for the surviving alicorns to give birth, they found that their foals possessed either wing or horn, but not both. More surprising was that some of these foals had neither of the two marking characteristics of the alicorns. Thus, as the final midnight fell for the alicorn race, the dawn of ponies had arrived, an age that had lasted in a peace enforced by the sisters for time immemorial.
Celestia broke out of her reverie, and resumed preparations for her journey. Parasprite infestations hadn't been a problem in ages until recently, when the pests had begun flooding out of Everfree and Whitetail Woods. She would have to see if there was an imbalance in their natural predators after she was done making trips around the kingdom to educate major settlements on parasprite control, as well as subtly gauging the state of her kingdom as she was wont to do on occasion.
She was not aware, however, of the presence of another entity listening to her conversation with the guard captain, an entity that had been sealed away, but had secretly retained its perception, among other things. Sensing its opportunity, it started forming a plan.
- - - -
Riven braced herself for the trial she was about to face. She was about as mentally prepared as she believed she could be for the upcoming test, and drifting through the air with Rainbow Dash, both still slightly damp from finishing the day's flying practice with a bath in the lake, she might almost have been relaxed for the first time in many months. However, the warrior still felt a slight amount of trepidation at the thought of what waited for her at Applejack's barn, which had been decided on as the best location for the evening's festivities. Riven hadn't participated in any revelry since her tour of duty in Ionia. 'I wonder if I'll even be able to truly celebrate anything tonight,' Riven mused to herself.
Rainbow Dash noticed her pupil's melancholy mood, and thinking back to what Riven had previously mentioned about Noxus, decided to intervene. “Is something wrong? You seem kinda down for someone about to go to a party.”
Riven sighed. She'd actually become quite fond of the rainbow-maned showoff, respecting her drive to continuously improve and her determination to achieve her goals. Riven steeled herself, and decided to take a risk. “I'm just...a bit nervous, to be honest.” A hollow laugh rattled out. “I'm not sure I'm ready for this.”
Rainbow Dash smiled genuinely, hoping to reassure her newest friend. “Don't worry about it. I know Pinkie comes off a little strong sometimes, and to be honest even I get a little annoyed by her antics sometimes, but she means well. That, and there's nobody in the world who throws a party like Pinkie.”
“It isn't that...” Riven's gaze was downcast. “This is the first time I have celebrated anything in about half of a decade. I don't know if I can handle it.”
“What's to handle? If it's been that long since you've had any reason to celebrate, sounds like you need it that much more! Relax! It'll be cool. Trust me, I know cool.” Rainbow Dash let a smug smile sneak onto her face, but her eyes still reflected concern. “Why haven't you celebrated anything in that long, though?”
“Everyone...I...If I tell you something, you have to promise never to tell anyone, especially my comrades. I don't know how they'd react to others knowing about where we come from.” Riven's expression was grave.
Rainbow Dash's response was equally solemn, and she began reciting with equal solemnity. “Cross my heart, hope to fly, stick a cupcake in my eye.”
Riven thought the wording was strange, but the tone of voice told her that Rainbow Dash was serious about not telling. “Well...The most important thing is, the world we come from...It's different from here. Things are harder, and the inhabitants are harder too.
“Our world has conflict, plagues, disaster...everything your world seems to lack, to be honest. This place we live in...it's a daily struggle to survive for many, and we all have different ideas on the best way to make things safe for ourselves and those we love. In Noxus, our idea was to make everyone as strong as possible, so that we'd all be safe from the terrors of the world. We refine ourselves in whatever ways we can find, trying to become stronger, smarter, faster...better...In our culture, there is honor in contest, and position is afforded to those who are able to shine above others. As such, it's in our very heritage that we tend to be perpetually in conflict with those who do not share our ideals.” Riven gathered her mental strength as what she deemed to be the hardest part approached.
“Please try to understand, this world is so different from ours. We don't have Princesses watching over us, making sure we're all safe and that we all play nice. Our way of life is just the best we could think of to make sure that nobody could ever make things worse for us. Anyway...One such place who did not hold our ideals is Ionia. The Ionians believe that peace, war, good, evil, and everything must be balanced. To a degree, they do strengthen themselves, but not to the end of strength. Rather, they wish to know themselves more thoroughly, and pursue this objective through any means. I can understand the mindset, to a degree, as knowing yourself enables you to find your weaknesses, but as a concept, I don't think that's enough to keep your loved ones safe and your belly filled. The time came when we went to war against the Ionians, hoping to show them that their ways could not keep the world at bay, while simultaneously strengthening Noxus. It was to be a contest of ideals, pitting the strength of mind against the strength of will. Victory would have proven the superiority of the winner's mindset.”
Riven's breath caught. “But...something went wrong. Someone high on the chain of command forgot what strength meant, and what honor was worth. Then they went and hired that bastard. His knowledge of chemical warfare is matched only by his mentor, who was so sick and twisted a goddess sacrificed her divinity to curse him into having an exterior as monstrous as his interior. A lot of good that did. Somehow, I think his student was worse, though. Before there was a sadistic pleasure in the pain of others, and at least then the lives taken meant something, even if it was demented. But after his mentor's transformation, the new Head Chemist of Noxus only looked at things in a cold, methodical way. Lives were the currency in a sickening sacrifice to his god of Progress. He was the one who showed me what my home had become. My unit had walked into a particularly clever Ionian trap, and we had taken heavy losses from them, for they were excellent fighters. To be honest, we didn't deserve to win that fight. In a way, I don't think we did. The Head Chemist's abominable creations were flung at the battlefield when hope seemed lost, killing Ionian and Noxian indiscriminately. We only prevailed through numbers.”
Rainbow Dash looked horrified. Riven was shaking with rage, barely able to keep a steady flight pattern. “I was the only survivor from my unit. Do you know why?” Riven almost lost her balance in the air as her muscles involuntarily tightened from the anger pouring through her. “LUCK! It was damn luck! Not strength, not because our ideals deserved to outlast theirs, not because our victory was well-earned. We won, I lived, but so many died, just because of LUCK. So much potential was wasted that day. Tactical geniuses might have arisen on either side, new and great heroes who would refine the world itself so that one day everyone might be strong enough to survive and thrive in it. All of that was wasted. That wasn't war, it wasn't even a battle. It was wholesale slaughter, and after I heard the Head Chemist talking about how much he'd learned about his latest creations, I left Noxus, determined to become so strong I'd defeat everything, even luck. Then I would be able to show Noxus, and everyone and everything I cared about, that this...murder wasn't the Noxian way. That we were better than that, and that our very heritage demanded that we conduct ourselves with honor, and that every life lost is a tragedy brought on by a world stronger than us, and that for the good of all we must find the strength to protect everything dear to us.” Riven paused to catch her breath, ignoring the burning in her eyes. “The last time I celebrated anything was the day before my unit fought its last battle.”
For several seconds, Rainbow Dash said nothing, trying her best to comprehend fully everything that had been said. War didn't exist in Equestria, and the worst of the danger was confined to the Everfree Forest. How could anypony relate to a world like Riven described? How could anypony stay sane in a world like she described? A small voice in her head was sounding off another question in sad tones. 'Why should anypony have to live in a world like that?' She cradled that voice in her thoughts for a few more seconds before knowing how to answer. Rainbow Dash flew over to Riven to put a hoof on her back, careful not to disrupt the already unstable pegasus' flight. “I can't say I can understand wanting to kill anypony. I don't think I want to. That said, without understanding that, I can't understand if the way you think is truly the best for your world. In the time you've been here though, you've shown that you have a lot of light in you, even if the dark world you come from tries to smother it, and I wish to Celestia herself that your world could be like mine, this place where people are free to seek happiness as they wish. Maybe for tonight though, at least, you can leave your world behind and stay in ours for a bit, in more than just body? Even the strongest souls get tired eventually, and I know from experience a smile can do so much for renewing that strength, and trust me, if anyone can make you smile, it's Pinkie. So what do you say to stepping away from Noxus for a while and giving Equestria a chance? I'm sure your homeland will still be there for you when you get back, and I'm sure that you'll do your best to do right, as much as right means in your world.” Rainbow Dash gave Riven a hopeful smile.
Riven couldn't help but return the smile as she looked up at the first person she had considered a friend in years.
- - - -
“Signs of life at last. This isn't a game trail, it's an actual path. Maybe we can finally go home soon.” Ezreal sighed in relief. “Just when I was really starting to like this forest, too. I mean, if it weren't for the ravenous creatures attacking us every time we took a second step, and the distance from any sort of civilization, I'd sa-”
“Shut up, boy. We get it. Talk about it less and correct it more.” Ryze could tolerate the kid in short doses, but after having to listen to hours of his complaints filtered through wisecracks both decidedly lacking in wisdom and decidedly effective in producing cracks in Ryze's temper, the mage-turned-stallion was in a foul mood. He'd definitely need a break from their 'lessons' after this incident was over.
Ezreal scoffed. “Don't get all high-and-mighty on me. Just because you prefer to be angry all the time doesn't mean I can't joke around. Maybe I'm not made of the same stuff as you, but I can't tolerate being down all the time.”
Ryze's vitriolic comeback was interrupted by Nasus. “Someone would have to travel this path at least somewhat frequently for it to be this well-defined among the foliage. Either this is a trade route, or someone lives near enough to make frequent use of this path. Either way, if we follow it long enough, we shall probably encounter someone. It's probable that the friendliness and camaraderie abounding here will inspire them to be just as friendly and helpful to us as we are to each other.”
The message was received clearly, and the greater portion of the bickering stopped as they journeyed along the dirt trail. Fortunately for the group, most of the animal attacks had abated, and the wildlife appeared more and more innocuous the further along the path they progressed.
After another hour or two of walking, they found themselves at a crude but sturdy looking hut, and all were relieved by the sight of smoke coming out of a chimney. Nasus led the way to the door, and knocked firmly. The door creaked open, and a striped face greeted them. “Greetings, travelers, and welcome here. Might I ask what brings you near?”
Ryze and Ezreal shared confused looks, but Nasus didn't miss a beat as he responded to the zebra. “Long by us this forest has been crossed. I am afraid we are somewhat lost.” The Curator of the Sands silently thanked growing up around a nearly limitless supply of poetry, hoping he could avoid offending any locals by imitating their customs.
The zebra for her part was delighted to meet someone who could returns her effortless rhymes. “Come in, sit down, stay if you might. Over some tea we shall discuss your plight.”
Ezreal, with more stammering and less smoothness than his larger companion, voiced his concern. “Thank you, stranger, for your generous, um, backing, but I fear my rhyming is somewhat lacking.”
The zebra laughed. “You need not fear, for most are the same. I did not catch yours, but Zecora's my name.”
The white unicorn smiled. “Thank you. We're kinda in an unfamiliar land, and to be honest, that's not all that is unfamiliar.”
Ryze spoke in his most diplomatic tone. Zecora decided not to take offense to the harshness of his speech. “We were wondering if you might direct us to civilization. We've been lost in this forest for almost two days”
Zecora nodded. “Glad I am, to be of help to you. Following the path is what you should do. Supplies I can spare, take them if you will. By tomorrow you'll be in Ponyville. You should not tarry here, I do advise, if you wish to leave the forest before sunrise.”
The four of them, led by Zecora, began packing some supplies into saddlebags provided by the zebra. Being an experienced woodspony, the supplies taken didn't phase Zecora, as they were all easy for her to find and replace. Thus equipped, the trio heaped thanks onto the zebra and departed in high spirits, looking forward to the prospect of long-absent civilization.