The smile on Mira's face as The Inconceivable finally came into sight of Dragon's Breath might well have beggared the sun for its brilliance, that is, if anypony had been keeping score. The vast sea of sand stretching far as the eye could see in every direction was certainly something nopony born and raised in Araea could ever have imagined. Dunes the size of mountains rose up to challenge the sky, rivers of quicksand slurred slowly but surely across valleys of stone, and the thick, scraggly brush found only in the harshest of climates dotted the landscape in green.
Here was the place a god had gone to die, here was proof that there were powers in this world nopony could ever dream of, here was where ponies had learned to love and build together, and it was beautiful to those who knew its story and could look past the scorching sun and blistering winds to see its glory. The Desert of Jewels, the few who had managed to tame its power called it, and justly so. In the dawn light, the sea glimmered as if made of gold.
"There you have it, Dragon's Breath, the Boundless Sands." With a grandiose wave worthy of a seasoned showman, Darkfang presented to his friends one of the world's greatest natural wonders.
"It's beautiful," the ponies said in unison, their eyes large as dinner plates and sparkling with wonder.
There was little time to gawk, however, as the airship righted itself and began to ascend back into the sky. The town they were headed to was called Beakisburg, a prosperous port strategically placed on several trade routes, and the ideal place to gather information and supplies before journeying in any direction. Griffons, like dragons, were notoriously poor namers, Darkfang mused thoughtfully as the city shrunk beneath them, its large harbor clustered with over a hundred ships from across the world, though not one of them could match The Inconceivable for looks or speed.
"What are you doing?" Darkfang called, as Gadgets swung the wheel around, bringing The Inconceivable's nose forty-degrees to port.
"We need to be higher up or somepony on the ground might start shooting at us before we can explain!" he called, "the dock's too small for us to land in properly, so I'll park it a ways above and descend via landing craft!"
"Parking" the massive airship turned out to be far simpler than Darkfang would have thought it had any right to be. All that was really required was to simply shut down the propelling fans and make a few minor adjustments to the stabilizers to keep the airship from drifting in the wind. The real trouble came when a squad of disheveled, nervous griffon soldiers arrived on deck, claws gripped around the assortment of spears and scimitars they carried, eyes darting nervously around the deck.
The leader, who was a head or so taller than the others, (though that only meant he was about level with Darkfang's stomach) stepped forward. His claws, beak, and silver feathers were immaculate, as was his uniform and spear, sharpened to a lethal point that gleamed with menace. If a soldier could be judged from how he kept his weapon, this one was Grade-A, cream of the crop, badass. Glancing at the numerous medals and ribbons adorning his blue jacket, the dragon recognized him to be a military griffon of some worth, though what he'd done to be assigned to dock duty was a mystery. While not exactly a poor post, particularly in a city the size of Beakisburg, the Griffon Empire was legendary for its military, and the more decorated the officer the more important and dangerous a post he commanded. So what was such a veteran soldier doing in an out-of-the-way town like this one?
"I-I am," his voice cracked noticeably and he took a second to noisily clear his throat before continuing. "I am Captain Grayshaw, official Overseer of Beakisburg Docks, representative of the 4th Glorious Griffon Empire, upon whose space you are currently intruding, please identify yourselves and sub-submit," here his voice failed him, "to-to inspection."
He was forced to crane his neck upwards as Darkfang approached him, his eyes becoming noticeably wider though, to his credit, his trembling was near imperceptible. The dragon gave him a smile, careful to conceal his teeth, no sense in scaring the poor fellow into doing something stupid, and bowed slightly, raising one hand to his chest and spreading the other one wide where the griffons could see he was not reaching for a weapon.
"My name is Darkfang, of Toothclaw Village, far to the West and South." Okay, that was a good start; he noted the easing of claws upon weapons and the relaxing demeanor of the overseer at the familiar name. "My friends' names are Gadgets and Mira." He gestured at the ponies standing some ways behind him, one of whom was waving frantically, the other attempting a deep curtsy.
He was tempted to snort with amusement at which did which, but thought better of it when he realized the flame might be misinterpreted. Celestia knew the last thing they needed right now was for somepony to take fright and set off the inevitable chain of events that ended with half the ship on fire, a dozen dead griffons, and Gadgets firing up the death ray on the innocent ponies below.
"We are not here for trouble, we intend to stay only long enough to re-supply, and perhaps gather some news on recent events. That is all."
Captain Grayshaw nodded, though from the far-away look in his eyes, it was clear he had not heard a word said and was instead staring intently at the buzzblade in the dragon's belt, no doubt wondering what kind of destruction the strange weapon was capable of. Darkfang dearly hoped the griffon did not try to disarm him. It wasn't illegal to carry weapons in Imperial territory, so long as they remained sheathed, but the military had been known to appropriate rare and advanced arms from no-name travelers. Their carriers were given a choice of either accepting compensation for the loss of their things or thrown in jail for a few nights on charges of disrupting the peace until they agreed to leave town.
Either way, the dragon was certain his friends would react poorly to the idea of what could only be described as blind robbery, and he was even more certain what would happen if anypony was stupid enough to actually try and arrest them. Thankfully, the captain merely nodded again, blinking rapidly to bring himself back into focus, and continued to address Darkfang, whom he obviously thought captained the vessel.
"You are, of course, more than welcome to stay in Beakisburg for as long as you need, but I must warn you that any and all misbehavior will be met with swift retribution." The dragon nodded. "And I must ask that you submit yourselves to a cursory inspection of any and all cargo you may be carrying, and despite the, er," he glanced around nervously, "nature of your vessel, you are still required to pay docking fees. Please register at the official docking platform at your, er, earliest convenience."
"But we're not using the docks," Gadgets had finally had enough and decided to join the conversation, his mechanical limb drawing every eye as it clicked against the deck.
After a moment of semi-awkward silence, Grayshaw managed to tear his eyes away from the unnatural appendage and look into the pony's eyes, which were currently in shades of amusement blue and building curiosity orange. "Yes, but you are in Gryphon space, and the law states all ships, including airships, are required to register their name, place of construction, government allegiance when necessary, and captaincy at Customs when they arrive in port."
"But we didn't arrive in port, we arrived over it."
The captain looked baffled, completely at a loss for words at the strange pony's disarming logic and relentlessly upbeat tone. Gadgets laughed at the griffon's expression, and Darkfang was relieved to see a number of soldiers' beaks turn up slightly in what passed for a smile among their kind. Still chuckling, the pony draped his real leg over the captain's shoulders, steering him towards the entrance hatch that would lead them below decks.
"Right this way, Captain, I'll give you the grand tour; oh, and your friends can come too. I think you'll be suitably impressed."
Grayshaw glanced over his shoulder, once again dumb with shock, at his soldiers who, after a brief moment's confusion, hurried after him. Darkfang watched them file down the stairs, easily walking two abreast in the spacious hall. They could've walked three, it was, after all, big enough for the dragon to fit comfortably inside, though he was forced to go on all fours everywhere except the cargo bay. But he got the feeling they were bunching up more out of fear than military discipline.
"Well, that went well," Mira, speaking for the first time that day, said as she walked up to his side, "thank Celestia you were here to put 'em at ease."
"Huh, a dragon putting griffons at ease, there's something for the history books. Somepony should probably write that down."
Mira snorted and clopped him on the shoulder, "Come on, silly filly, let's go prep the landing craft. Time to go shopping!"
Darkfang felt his smile stretched into a full-blown grin as the deliriously happy mare clapped her hooves together in glee, eyes twinkling like a thousand fireflies, before dashing down the stairs, leaving behind only the echo of a surprisingly feminine squeal. Dropping to all fours, tucking in his wings, and carefully adjusting the buzzblade in his belt with a flick of his tail, he raced after her, leaving a throaty chuckle in his wake.
Gadgets "landing craft" turned out to be a small junk rigged with one solar sail and two small fans for propulsion. While tiny compared to the mother ship, the little vessel was more than big enough to comfortably accommodate two ponies and several hundred pounds of luggage. Darkfang had taken one look at the thing and immediately elected to fly down on his own wings, he trusted Gadgets engineering but that primal part of him screamed bloody murder at the sight of what appeared to him as a matchbox held together with glue and tape.
Captain Grayshaw and his squad had departed a few minutes ago, having not gotten through half the tour before griffons started fainting from over-stimulation as entire walls, or what they thought were walls, began to get up and move around. Before he left, the captain had managed to extract a solemn oath from The Inconceivable's crew not to, under any circumstances but open war, turn their weapons upon the city, trusting them to keep to their word. The captain was no fool, even a cursory glance had been enough to tell him neither he, nor his entire command (not to mention the city garrison) had the power to fight against them.
"Welp, time for first official contact with ground ponies." Gadgets announced grandly, wrenching the last wench into place.
"What am I, chopped liver?" Darkfang asked from where he was leaning against a support beam, arms crossed and heavily-lidded eyes watching with detached amusement as his friends scurried about. It never ceased to amaze him how dexterous they were, fingers and thumbs be damned.
"We met you in the sky, you don't count, Commander Comet."
"Yeah I don't know where I was going with that one but! Look at this,"
With a flip, he dismounted the junk, landing lightly several feet from the dragon's position. His face disappeared as he shoved his head into a pocket, drawing forth a heavy cloth purse, jingling noticeably with the sound of gold, moments later. With a flick of his neck he tossed the purse to Darkfang, who snagged it effortlessly out of the air, loosened the drawstring, and dumped half its contents into the palm of his hand. Heavy gold coins sparkled up at him, each worth at least ten bits in any reasonable market, double that with proper haggling.
"What's this?" The dragon asked, though he was quite certain he already knew.
"Allowance!" Gadgets announced happily, producing an equally heavy purse from his coat, while waving a hoof towards Mira, who flashed yet another before returning her attention to the dozen little automatons that would crew their landing craft.
Darkfang grinned at the overly excited stallion, his eagerness at the prospect of shiny new toys infecting him as if it were the common cold. Laughing, he jogged towards the center hole, which Gadgets had christened "The Mining Shaft" and, flipping for good measure, dove down through the belly of the ship and out into open air just as the pony re-boarded his own vessel, which promptly dropped from the mooring cables. The thunder of the fans roared as the junk took flight, easily outstripping the free-falling dragon, who chuckled and spread his wings, beating them furiously against the rush of the wind to catch up.
Though not far away, relatively speaking, The Inconceivable had been parked high enough in the air so as to provide a complete view of the city and, even though he'd seen it several times before, the sight still took Darkfang's breath away. He could only imagine how his friends must be reacting at their own first glimpse of how civilized ponies lived down here on the surface.
Beakisburg had been built across a wide river, officially named after an obscure griffon emperor nopony remembered the name of, but affectionately called the Turbin by its residents. The river opened out into a large, natural harbor sheltered by colossal sandbanks circling out to form a massive oval; entrance was allowed only by a thin gap between their far ends, large enough for ships to pass comfortably through but small enough that it was still defensible. The Turbin also provided the interesting geography that had caused the town to be split down the middle, connected by numerous lofty bridges, wide enough for carts to trundle along two-abreast, and high enough for all but the most grandiose sailing vessels to pass under.
The griffon architects, inspired by ancient ruins found beneath, and in many cases carved into, the deep desert, had made shameless use of the pyramid when designing buildings. Massive structures of golden sandstone towered above the smaller, squarer homes of the poor and middle-class, capped in crystal and gold, and covered in elaborate statues and runes depicting the many griffon gods as well as elaborate magical rituals.
The city was not all stone, however, for the Turbin's banks had long ago been covered in hardy trees, green shrubbery, and the thousand other varieties of plants that thrived in desert oases, and the ancient griffons had sought to improve upon this natural beauty, rather than crush it beneath their own ideals. Countless gardens, filled with a thousand exotic smells and colors, encircled the pyramids or crowded along the rooftops; Darkfang was pleased to note that many of the larger structures had been built with ledges and over-hanging balconies upon which grew small fruit trees and flowering bushes. That was new.
Landing the junk went fairly smoothly, evidently Greyshaw had informed the dock workers and officials of the strange circumstances, so the fainting and caws of terror were kept to a minimum. Gadgets tipped a group of bored-looking laborer ponies to stick around and help carry their bags when they returned from the city. Their leader, once the initial shock had worn off, had glared at the little pony as if he were insane. That skepticism had evaporated the moment he got a good look at what he was being offered. It was amazing how gold had that effect on ponies; well on everything really.
A few of the laborers had exchanged dark glances, no doubt wondering if they could get away with robbing the two obviously naive, trusting adventurers. A brief glare from Darkfang and a few muted warnings, kept low so his dazzled friends bouncing about the docks trying to see everything at once couldn't hear, and that plan disappeared before it truly began. It was convenient being four times larger than everypony else at times, even if it did mean he bonked his head often enough to justify wearing a helmet full time. Not that he'd be caught dead wearing such a thing, to hay with how drunk he was at the time.
Darkfang took the lead, leading the small group towards what he'd been told was the customs office. A small wooden building facing the wharf, its door guarded by two griffon soldiers, their steel chestplates and caps gleaming in the sunlight, handled the majority of the dock's daily business. The ponies ooh'd and aah'd appreciatively at the shiny warriors. The Empire took grooming very seriously, and even in the most out-of-the-way, backwater outpost, one could find gryphon soldiers looking for all the world as if they were going on parade through the swamps.
Customs itself was simple: the stuttering clerk, a small, greasy-looking pony wearing a dark-brown vest with sandy fur and a well-oiled, sweaty mane, simply passed them a scroll and hesitantly led them through the proper procedure. Nothing he said was particularly new, Darkfang made a mental note to thank the captain later for his quite informative explanation. The dragon simply scratch his name, their ship's name, and a brief summary of their business in Beakisburg, before the clerk rolled the scroll back up, tied it with a blue ribbon, and handed it off to a pegasus page.
As the crew of The Inconceivable made their way back out, they noticed that for the ten minutes of their stay in the customs office, all business had ceased as every eye in the room stared at them. They felt oddly flattered, an opinion Gadgets gave voice to as they joined the main thoroughfare on the west side of the Turbin.
"I think they like us."
Darkfang made a noncommittal noise in his throat, head swiveling around, nostrils flared, eyes moving so fast it threatened to make him dizzy, looking at everything he could and searching for the tell tale signs of premium shopping.
The thoroughfare was crowded, ponies rubbing shoulders with griffons in the streets or crammed in front of stalls admiring priceless jewelry, beautifully elaborate rugs, or thousands of tiny statuettes made of every kind of stone and gem imaginable. Even the occasional Diamond Dog could be seen striding through the crowd on their own errands, easily identifiable as they towered over the crowd by a head-and-a-half, gems gleaming at their throats or dripping from countless belts, bracelets, and anklets.
A million smells battled for dominance with the sights and sounds of a thousand creatures haggling for wares or bragging about where they'd be spending the summer. It had never ceased to surprise Darkfang the variety of dishes ponies were capable of producing, taking into account their rather limited digestive capabilities. He spotted fifteen different dishes made of the same weirdly glowing green fruit, fifty using apples as the main ingredient, and a hundred using only vegetables beginning with the letter t.
Despite being from a primarily carnivorous species (gemstones being largely regarded more as a rare treat rather than a meal unto themselves), Darkfang had forsaken the consumption of other living creatures as part of his attempts to appeal more to the gentler races. Nevertheless, he felt his mouth watering as the smell of cooking sausage assaulted his senses when the group passed one of the few restaurants in Beakisburg which served meat as its primary dish. His pony friends deliberately avoided the place like a plague, odd mixtures of disgust and morbid curiosity painting their faces.
The dragon surveyed the place with an idle glance: the restaurant served primarily griffon customers, as expected, though he did note a few Diamond Dogs among the outdoor tables and peaking through the windows. He was forced to double-take, however, when a plucky griffon waitress delivered a steaming plate of venison steaks to a particularly feral-looking pony sitting in the darkest corner. Just as he was beginning to wonder how a pony could eat meat, the mare in question opened her jaws, revealing row upon row of jagged teeth, and began tearing into the red meat with ferocious vigor.
Darkfang made a mental note not to mention this disturbing sight to his friends, who were thoroughly entranced by a flute playing desert griffon charming a snake in a basket, making it dance in time to the music. Beakisburg attracted creatures from all walks of life, and the wide world was filled with the unexpected, and as an adventurer, he was quite certain a meat-eating pony was the least strangest thing he was likely to see this week.
"Soo, where should we go first?" Gadgets, whose saddlebags were already laden with all manner of interesting things, suddenly spoke up, almost directly behind the dragon.
Darkfang whirled on instinct before he could stop himself, claws rising to strike at whatever had the nerve to sneak up on the top of the food chain. The tan little pony blinked up at him, his smile as disarming and confident as ever, completely unaware or the more terrifying option, completely unfazed, by how close he'd come to being mauled.
"You really should not sneak up on dragons." Darkfang muttered, sheathing his claws and tail spikes with a shiver. Gadgets shrugged and stepped up beside his giant friend, gesturing a mechanical hoof at the city, alive with the sounds of wonder and aflame with the smell of adventure.
"We've got an entire city to explore, and a full purse of bits to spend on whatever takes your fancy. Gotta start somewhere."
The dragon thought for a moment, going over a mental checklist he'd compiled of all the places he'd gone to last time he was here, "The Governor's Library is pretty noteworthy; a pony could learn alot about the surface from there."
"Than that's where we'll go! To the library!"
Gadgets had galloped all of four feet before screeching to a sudden halt, realizing he had no idea where he was going. He looked back over his shoulder at Darkfang, who was clutching his gut in a transparent attempt to stifle laughter. The adventurer pony rolled his eyes in mock annoyance, then pointed a hoof up the river.
"Lead the way, Oh-Knower-of-Things-I-Do-Not."
Still stifling his mirth, the dragon took the lead, beckoning Mira, who forcibly tore herself away from a dazzling pair of sapphire earrings, to him as he did. The Library would be crowded this time of day, but the vast pyramid housed one of the largest collections of books and scrolls in the entire world; there would be room enough for two ponies and a juvenile lizard somewhere.
Actually getting to the building proved to be an adventure unto itself. Although Darkfang could wade through the crowd with ease, his pony friends could not. Numerous times Gadgets, and to a greater extent Mira, found themselves performing stunning feats of acrobatics simply to avoid being squashed by heavy carts towering high with goods, or pushed into the river by griffons who believed themselves too important for manners. To their credit, the ponies took it in stride, still too enamored with the unfamiliar city to realize they were being regarded as unsavory tourists by the natives.
Had he been in their position, Darkfang doubted very much he would be able to do the same, particularly when a griffon lady, swathed in gaudy emerald robes sewn with pearls, nearly backtaloned Mira into a wall with a sniff of disdain. He was almost ready to go and lecture her about the importance of manners (which basically meant he was going to see how much of her he could set on fire before she dove in the river), when Gadgets solved the problem for him. The clever pony had seen the affair for what it was, even as their friend apologized profusely for what she believed to be error on her part, and surreptitiously placed an egg-shell like device into the lady's handbag which exploded moments later, showering the lady, and her neighbors, in black ink.
After hours of walking, a number of humorous mishaps involving more ink bombs on the unsuspecting nobility, one flaming hat followed by a quick dip in the Turbin, and a dozen gentlepony's calling for guards, the trio finally reached their destination. The Governor's Library was massive even by griffon standards, second only to the Governor's Palace in terms of sheer size, though in Darkfang's private opinion, it ranked first in beauty as it housed more than a fat politician and his eleven squalling brats.
Like the other pyramids, the Governor's Library was made of golden sandstone bedecked with statues of gods, goddesses, and famous griffons, even a few ponies could be spotted here and there, and was over-all a drastic representation of the Empire's absurd wealth. Though he marveled at the beauty of the place, the dragon could not help but wonder how many starving innocents could be fed or sheltered with even a fraction of the funds needed to build it.
Although the world at large had enjoyed an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity, ever since Princess Celestia took the throne of Equestria and ended the reign of Discord, within the Empire's borders the poor and the infirm still suffered. Even here, in one of the world's greatest trade cities, beggars lined the streets: old veterans too injured by fighting bandits and monsters for conventional work, mothers struggling to feed their young when their husbands abandoned them, and urchins with no place to call home.
It wasn't right and it wasn't fair that these unfortunate souls should be left to suffer in the gutters of their betters, surrounded by life-saving food on all sides but starving all the same. Darkfang did what he could to help, he gave generously of the money he carried, and he saw his friends do the same. He purchased food for the hungry cubs, even knowing that tomorrow would simply see the cycle of death repeat itself and any hope he gave them was false.
He saw, to his joy, a number of shop owners selling food far below market price to those who wore little more than rags against the wind and, to his rage, he saw ponies and griffons slip into dark alleys to trade their finery and jewels for deliberately dirty rags and take advantage of this kindness for their own greed. Without thought, he confronted these cheaters, and if they would not confess their crime to the owner, return what they had stolen, and pay their dues, he threw them into the river and paid double what they owed, usually from the purse he snatched while they were learning how to fly.
A number of these would-be thieves had attempted to call the soldiers down on him, at least until they realized what kind of a monster they were really dealing with. It was amazing how many shades of white a creature could turn when it suddenly realized that unkempt ruffian it was shouting at was three times their size and had very, very pointy teeth. Those few who still attempted to "bring him to justice" found themselves hauled away instead as an entire block of grateful shopkeepers rallied to his defense, many of whom had relatives in the military or were personal friends of Captain Grayshaw. Apparently word of his visit to the massive airship had spread like wildfire and numerous civilians flocked to see just what kinds of creatures would live aboard such a thing.
That name was steadily becoming more and more familiar, Darkfang mused as he stepped through the heavy oaken doors and into the library common. The pyramid which housed the Governor's Library was completely hollow and constructed of many tiers, each covered in historical artifacts housed in glass cases interspersed among shelves crammed full of books, all circling a central shaft of open air. Gadgets and Mira's shocked gasps quickly faded into oblivion as the duo shot off in different directions, ripping books off the shelves as they went, though the dragon did take note of the exceeding care with which they handled said tomes, even at those speeds.
Chuckling, Darkfang strolled into the library proper himself, idly watching as griffons and pegasi fluttered up, down, and between tiers, taking advantage of their natural wings to move about with that much more freedom. For everypony else, the library came well equipped with numerous magical pads, which elevated up and down of their own accord, wench-and-pulley systems operated by more bored-looking laborer ponies, or the old-fashioned favorite: stairs.
After about an hour of aimless wandering, taking his time to appreciate the works of art and history that decorated what might otherwise be any other musty old warehouse of knowledge, Darkfang finally came once more upon Gadgets. They were somewhere on the twelfth tier, right near the edge, and the dragon had a moment to wonder how the currently grounded Earth Pony had managed to get up here so fast. Mira had insisted the flying machine not be used during their trip into the city, scared it might frighten somepony or worse, make somepony jealous enough to try and steal it.
It was then he noticed one of Gadgets' most peculiar talents: the pony could read an entire book cover-to-cover simply by flipping through the pages so fast they all blurred together. Not only that, he could also memorize the book, word for word, and recite it perfectly to himself even as he picked up another. The dragon was about to call out to his friend, but before he could a tentative tug on his kilt caused Darkfang to look down into the terrified eyes of a young griffon page. Giving what he thought was a relaxing smile, though he quickly abandoned the attempt for a look of neutrality when the cub shrank down even lower, the dragon asked,
"Yes, can I help you?"
With trembling talons, the griffon removed a scroll from its carrier bag and, when the dragon eased it out of his grip, swiftly vaulted over the railing, gliding smoothly down to the floor before dashing out the doors. Darkfang glanced down at the message and froze with dawning dread.
The scroll was tied with black ribbon and sealed with Governor Gripeye's own private crest. That couldn't be good.