The diamond dogs had built their lair in a tall, steep mound at the center of a large clearing. Thick ropes of ivy cascaded down its sides, drooping from gnarled, stunted trees that rose sporadically from the hill's slope. A single tunnel, lit by torches within, marked the entrance to the creatures' domain, and was the only sign of habitation save for a pile of old bones and other filth a hundred or so yards to the west and a plume of smoke rising from somewhere on the hill.
Shining Armor frowned. This was not what he'd hoped for. A surface village of some sort would have made any potential rescue attempt easier. He and Pinkie could have slipped from hut to hut, looking for prisoners or anything else of value, much as he and his companions in the Stormguard had scouted the tribal communities of the griffon clans. But if everything was inside and underground, then there were likely only a hooffull of ways in or out, all of them doubtless guarded and, save this one, concealed.
He'd cast his tracking spell on both Zecora and Applejack's trails, and both had led, inexorably, here. From what he could tell, the two had taken a moment to hide Shining and then had led the remaining diamond dogs on a frantic chase through the forest. They'd almost managed to escape. And then, the diamond dogs had sicked their pet timber wolves on them, and for all their efforts--and judging by the broken trees, smears of sap-like blood, and occasional bits of broken wood, it had been a significant amount of effort--they couldn't escape the monsters.
They'd run for more than two hours. By the time Shining and Pinkie had followed their tracks to the scene of their capture, and then followed their trail back to the diamond dogs' home, most of the day had passed. The sun was starting to set, casting long, menacing shadows over the clearing.
"What's the plan?" Pinkie asked quietly, peeking over the bush they were hiding behind. She'd smeared herself with mud, leaves, and twigs in some rough approximation of camouflage, but her bright pink coloring limited the effectiveness somewhat. Then again, with the setting sun filling the sky with hues of orange, red, and pink, she probably looked more natural in the setting than he did.
"We need to find another way in. They've probably got guards posted just inside the main entrance, right where we can't see them."
She nodded, then frowned. "What if there's not another way in?"
"Then we'll see, but there has to be. You never leave only one way in or out. And unless they keep their wolves somewhere else, there has to be a way for them to squeeze in."
"Okay. How do we find 'em?"
"I don't know," Shining admitted. "We'll have to look around the perimeter. Maybe we'll get lucky and see a diamond dog coming out of one of them."
Pinkie made a thoughtful sound. "What if we made some kinda distraction?"
"You know, we make them think that something's going on at the front door, so maybe they'll be all tricky and sneak around the sides? Then we can watch where they come from and find their other entrances."
"That's not a bad idea," Shining acknowledged. "But if they think something's going on, they'll be on alert. We don't wanna fight these guys if we don't have to, especially not in their own lair."
"What if... " She chewed her lip. "What if they thought they'd captured the distraction?"
"Pinkie, are you... ?"
She shrugged. "I'm not really good at being sneaky and stuff. Like, this one time, I thought I had this really great disguise, but everypony knew it was me anyway. And, you know, I'm really, really pink. But if I could distract 'em while you get in... "
"That's very brave, but I'd rather have somepony watching my back, pink or not." He grinned at her. "But let's call it Plan B. C'mon, let's find a way in."
They made their way around to the west, giving the trash heap a large berth; Shining doubted it would be guarded, he just didn't want to see what these things considered garbage. As they skulked their way through the undergrowth, though, the scraping of stone stopped them abruptly. Pinkie shot up straight, her head swiveling by instinct towards the noise, and Shining had to put a hoof on her head and shove her down into the bushes beside him.
A concealed doorway in the side of the hill grinded open. A diamond dog, gray and spotted with white, stepped out. He carried a crude, burlap sack over his shoulder, and a familiar-looking Stetson was tucked precariously between his ears.
"That's AJ's hat!" Pinkie gasped. Shining clamped a hoof over her mouth and shushed her. The diamond dog looked up at the sound, eyes scanning the treeline for a long, tense moment. Finally, he shrugged and dumped the contents of his bag--Shining tried not to look at them--onto the rotting pile. As he turned to leave, Pinkie began to follow, only for Shining to stop her again.
"We gotta go after him, don't we?" she asked quietly.
Shining shook his head. "Not until sundown. They'll have lookouts somewhere. We can't cross open ground like that without the cover of darkness."
The pink pony gulped. "But... he has AJ's hat."
She didn't need to say the rest. Despite himself, Shining had seen some of the sack's contents. Gnawed bones, mostly, some with meat still sticking to them. He shuddered and shook his head. "I... I think the bones were too small. Maybe rabbits or something. And... they wanted to put us to work before they 'made use' of us. Applejack's the strongest mare I've ever met, they wouldn't... You know. Not yet."
Pinkie nodded nervously. "Okay. You're right. That big ol' meanie probably just stole her hat." Her eyes narrowed. "I'ma deck him in the schnozz."
Shining's eyebrows rose. "Hold on. We want to get in without being noticed."
"Oh, he won't see it coming."
The knight looked at Pinkie and found himself torn between being impressed at her resolve or amused at the sight of the bouncy, pink pony doing her best to look like a hardened soldier. All she needs is a cigar to chomp on, and she'd look just like my old drill sergeant. "Well, you do what you've gotta do, corporal," he grinned. "As soon as the sun's down, we move."
Shining had never really excelled at stealth. The Stormguards had taught him all the techniques and philosophies, of course, and he'd done his best to master them, but his greatest strength had always been standing tall and holding the line, not skulking around and hitting the enemy from behind. His natural inclination towards stand-up fighting had bought him no small amount of good-natured abuse and ribbing from his comrades, but he'd at least learned the basics: keep low, use cover, watch where you're stepping, and don't move if somepony's looking your way.
He'd given Pinkie a rundown on these essentials as they waited for sunset. To his surprise, she'd nodded along with mild impatience, as if she'd learned all this before. He'd been concerned by her lack of enthusiasm... right up until she suddenly donned a black stealth suit--where'd she even get that?--and tumbled across the field like a freaking ninja.
By the time Shining joined her next to the hidden entrance, she was running her hooves over the wall with her ear pressed to it. "Aha!" she said quietly, her hoof sinking lightly into the stone. The hidden door dropped into its groove, and together, she and Shining rolled it open.
Inside, a single torch illuminated a roughly-hewn stone tunnel, sloping gently downward into the darkness beyond. Pinkie frowned at it. "Um, they can see in the dark. Why's there a torch?"
"It's to help their eyes adjust before they step out. Otherwise, if they had to leave during the day, they'd be totally blind coming out of their caves."
"Ooh, pretty tricky!"
Shining nodded grimly. "Yeah, they're smart. Which means they've probably also got traps set up, so keep an eye out." He stamped the torch against the wall, snuffing it out, then turned and rolled the stone door closed behind them. They were immediately plunged into dank, dusty darkness. He closed his eyes in concentration, and his horn began to glow with a gentle, magenta light--just enough to see the floor in front of them, but hopefully not enough to give their positions away immediately.
He glanced at Pinkie, and noticed her nervous expression. When she caught his eye, she offered him a weak smile. "We shoulda brought Rarity for this, my Disarm Traps skill is awful."
Shining chuckled softly and shook his head. "Just watch where you step. These guys seem pretty primitive, so any 'traps' are gonna be trip wires or pits. Those are easy to spot if you're paying attention."
"Okie-dokie-lokie," Pinkie said quietly.
They came across their first such trap a few dozen feet down the corridor, a simple string with some noisy bits tied to it, including a silver bell the dogs must have stolen from somepony. Shining pointed it out, and the two carefully stepped around it. Not far beyond, the corridor branched, with one route leading to a small room filled with a wooden table and three armored diamond dogs, spears and clubs easily at hand. They were playing cards with an old, dog-eared deck, and didn't so much as look up as he and Pinkie passed them by and headed down the left-hoof hall.
A little ways beyond, they came to a large, open room stuffed with crude tables and a rough approximation of a large fireplace carved into the far wall. Benches, chairs, stools, or simple blocks of wood lined the tables, and a few old mugs and beer steins were scattered here and there. The smoke, thick and acrid, billowed out from the fire pit and through a hole punched through the chamber's ceiling.
The room's only occupants were a pair of diamond dogs seated on opposite ends of a table near the fireplace, an old wine bottle on the table between them. Shining's eyes narrowed as he recognized one of them: Dane, the dog who'd first approached the group.
"Pony will be good worker," he observed to his short, red-furred and portly companion, who grunted noncommittally.
"If she can be broken."
Dane shrugged. "It worth the effort. She fighter. Fighter ponies make best workhorses. Last longer, and give more flesh."
"She broke Box's snout."
"Box is idiot. Never approach pony from behind. Even puppy knows that."
The other dog grunted again. "What about other?"
"Striped-pony-thing? She not struggle too much. We get her mines tomorrow. But need to stop her from rhyming."
"Really annoying," his friend agreed.
"Ridiculously annoying. Maybe just muzzle her and save the effort."
Pinkie frowned and looked at Shining. He nodded. They're definitely here, and they're definitely still alive, he thought. Let's go. Pinkie caught the gist of his expression, and she nodded back. A moment later, she was halfway across the room, peering expectantly from behind a chair. How the hay does she do that?
Shining followed as best he could, keeping low and trying to stay out of the dogs' line of sight. He was halfway to the other side and scooting under a table when his flank bumped against a poorly-balanced stool, knocking it to the floor with a clatter. He froze and glanced up. Dane and his companion were looking towards the stool with surprise. "Who there?"
Shining gulped and waited. Don't move. Wait until they look away.
A long moment passed. Finally, Dane's friend shook his head and sat down. "You paranoid."
Dane growled in annoyance. "Ponies' friends still out there somewhere. Pink one and magic one. Might try something."
"Ponies not stupid. They not try to sneak in here. We see in dark, they don't."
The larger dog whipped around and snarled at his companion. Shining saw his moment and crawled forward as fast as he could, right underneath the hounds' table. "You underestimate ponies! How many hurt?! Some dead! Some taken by river! Was stupid to talk to them, should have let dogs have them!"
"But then ponies not work mines!"
"But then half tribe not too hurt to fight, T-Bone! How long until enemies learn? How long until enemies come for diamond dog blood?"
The smaller dog whimpered and leaned away from Dane's tirade. "How I supposed to know pony could do that?! He just protecting ponies before!"
Dane's paw smacked into T-Bone's forehead, drawing a pained yelp. "Never take chance with ponies with horns! How you not learn this?! You so dumb! I knocked out for just few minutes, and you get half tribe exploded!"
Shining scurried the last few feet to the far doorway and rolled into the shadows beside Pinkie. Behind him, Dane snarled and raised a paw to strike his companion again. After a moment, though, he sighed and let his raised arm drop. "You not second-in-command anymore. Go guard kennel."
"B-but Dane... "
A low growl rose in the back of the larger dog's throat. "Not say again. Go do something useful, idiot."
Shoulders slumped, ears drooped, and tail sagging, T-Bone slouched away. He paused to give his boss one last, sorrowful look--Dane's face was impassive--and then continued on his sorrowful way. The larger dog watched him go, then sighed and sat back down, lifting the wine bottle to his lips.
Shining nodded to Pinkie, and they continued on their way, deeper and deeper underground. As they left the more commonly habitated areas of the mound, the floor and walls became rougher and more jagged. Shining, distracted watching the floor, took a deep gash along the side of his head as he bumped into a saw-edged outcropping. With the help of Pinkie's black suit, he bandaged it as best he could, and they moved on.
Their path finally led them to the "mines." Shining frowned nervously at them. He'd been in mines before, he'd even fought in a Ravenwing iron mine once, but those had been dug with care and planning. The tunnels had been shored up for stability, engineers had carefully examined each shaft to minimize the chances of miners dying, and there'd always been a little bird in a cage--well, the griffons had used a squirrel--to serve as an early warning system for deadly gasses.
This was not that kind of mine. Tunnels had been dug haphazardly in whatever direction the diamond dogs seemed to fancy. What little shoring there was looked dry rotted and weak, and there was evidence of several cave-ins throughout the area. There were no proper cart rails; instead, grooves had been crudely cut into the floor, their thickness and distance from eachother wobbling every now and then. No wonder they liked capturing ponies so much. Certainly better than trying to mine here themselves.
On the far end of the chamber, two tall, armored diamond dogs, each leaning on a long spear, stood guard over a ramshackle mishmash of wooden boards that apparently served as a door. Faint torchlight flickered beyond.
Shining frowned and looked for a way to approach. The mine's foyer, for lack of a better word, had been cleared of stalagmites and other debris, save for the collapsed tunnels on the edges. There were a few iron carts here and there, but they were too far away to provide cover for the approach. With a nervous sigh, he turned to Pinkie. "Looks like we're gonna have to-"
She was gone.
He looked back, just in time to see Pinkie drop from the ceiling and deliver swift blows to the back of each dog's neck. The creatured swayed and collapsed dazedly to their knees, then fell on their faces and began snoring peacefully. Shining gaped at Pinkie, and she grinned and shrugged.
"Someone there?" demanded a familiar voice from the other side of the door.
"Applejack!" Pinkie cried happily. "One sec, lemme find the keys!"
"Pinkie?!" Shining could hear the shock and disbelief in the farm pony's voice, and honestly couldn't blame her.
"Yep! And Shiny, too. We snuck in to rescue you!"
Shining, stepping next to Pinkie, put a hoof on her shoulder. "Emphasis on sneak."
She blushed and quieted. "Um, sorry. Is Zecora with you?"
"I am here, do not fear," called a familiar voice.
"Yay! I was afraid they'd have put you in another part of their base for no real reason other than to make it harder to rescue you guys without running into some major complication like setting off all the alarms and having to fight our way all the way back out of here!"
"Sugarcube?" asked Applejack.
"... Ya find them keys yet?"
Pinkie frowned. "Nopey-dopey, artichokey. That's weird! Guards always have the cell keys."
"I'd bet Dane has them," Shining mused. "He seems like a smart guy, for a diamond dog."
"Smart an' scary," Applejack agreed. "Okay, then, stand back. I'll get this here door open one way or another."
Shining and Pinkie moved back, and a moment later the makeshift door exploded into splinters, the frame teetering for a bit before falling off its hinges. Dust and woodchips billowed out from the wreckage, making everypony cough and choke.
Pinkie's eyes went wide as the dust cleared, and she gave a low, concerned moan. "AJ! You're hurt!"
"T'ain't nothin," Applejack said, though her limp, her pained expression, and the myriad welts and bruises forming on her face and hide betrayed her. She started to lose her balance, and Pinkie was immediately there, propping her up.
"Applejack fought them, even after they had won," Zecora said softly, stepping out of the dust as well. "So they beat her as an example... or maybe just for fun."
"Don't worry about me, I'm fine," the farm pony insisted. "I can take a lickin' or two. So, how're we gettin' out?"
Shining frowned. "I... back the way we came. But I hadn't expected... "
One of the diamond dogs on the ground suddenly leapt to all fours and bolted towards the entrance. Pinkie yelped and fell back, taking Applejack down with her. Shining tried to erect a barrier in front of the tunnel, but too late; the dog slipped by just in time, though losing an inch or so off his tail. "Intruders!" the guard howled as he ran. "Prison break! Escape!"
Pinkie looked in shocked betrayal at her left hoof. "B-but that was the vulcanter nerve pinch! He should've been out for hours!"
"What'd I tell ya about keepin' yer hoof-fu in practice, sugarcube?" Applejack stood shakily and bumped her shoulder into her friend's. "C'mon, we'd best hustle before it's too late!"
The group raced back up the way they came as quickly as they could, Pinkie nudging her injured friend along from behind. All around them, howls of alarm rose and echoed through the tunnels, like a pack of wolves closing in on all sides. By the time they reached the dining hall, even Shining was breathing heavily in growing panic. We're not going to make it out of here.
"DRAGONS!" shrieked a diamond dog, running towards them. "DRAGONS ATTACKING!"
He skidded to a stop at the sight of the ponies. The ponies skidded to a stop as they registered his words.
"Dragons?!" asked Shining.
"Ponies?!" asked the dog.
An earth-shaking roar bellowed through the corridors, accompanied by a gout of green flame. The diamond dog yelped and dove for cover beneath a table. Shining, thinking fast, got a shield up just in time to deflect the dragonflame around and over the group.
He looked back at his companions. They stared at him with wide, terrified eyes. "Um," he offered, his mind spinning as it tried to process this new situation. "Left! C'mon!"
They turned and ran the way he pointed, leaving the diamong dog cowering beneath his table. Another roar rumbled in their bones, and the impact of something massive landing atop the hill sent a rain of dust and pebbles down on their heads. Shining shouted a wordless warning and raised another barrier, above Pinkie and Applejack, just in time to catch and deflect a chunk of stone dislodged from the ceiling.
"This place is comin' apart!" the farm pony shouted. Between her injuries and the shaking of the earth, Pinkie was practically having to carry her now. Shining ducked his head under her other foreleg and hoisted her onto his shoulder, then nodded at Pinkie and Zecora. Wordlessly, the ponies quickened their pace.
"Um, Shiny?" Pinkie said after a moment. "We didn't come in this way."
"Do you know where we're going?"
She giggled. He looked at her in surprise, and she shrugged with a smile. "This is kinda fun!"
They rounded a corner and found themselves in another large chamber. A ramp, angled up towards the surface, was illuminated by distant torchlight. Barricades of wood, stone, and bone lined either side, and diamond dogs armed with spears, clubs, slings, and even a few crude bows crouched behind them. A tall, gray-furred diamond dog, his usual leather armor accented by metal shoulder guards and what seemed to be a pony skull for a helmet, stood at the ramp's center with a handful of other large warriors. He turned at the sound of hoofsteps, and his eyes went wide. "You!"
The ponies skidded to a halt as two dozen beady, angry eyes turned towards them. "Uh, hey, Dane," Shining said mildly.
"This is your fault!" the diamond dog growled, taking a menacing step towards him. "You weakened tribe! You made explosion so everything in forest could see! Now dragons know we weak, and they come for us!"
Mutters and snarls went up among the dogs' ranks. Applejack rolled her eyes and pushed herself away from her friends' support. "Seems to me that if these dragons wanted ya'll wiped out, there ain't a lot ya coulda done about it, even with yer whole tribe."
"You think we weak?" Dane laughed. "We repel dragons many times. We do it again today, no matter cost. But first, we make you pay, ponies."
"Your priorities are out of whack," Zecora said loudly, a small grin playing on her face. "You should focus on the dragons' attack."
Dane let out a low growl. "Stop rhyming."
"Why not just let us go, that you might better defend your home?"
"Stop. Rhyming, pony."
"Surely you see the logic here. There are dragons about, yet it's us you fear?"
A torrent of flame, mixed gold and red and purple, poured down the tunnel. Dane yelped and dove away; the other warriors in the center of the ramp, and even many of those to its sides, were not so lucky. Shining winced in sympathy as he watched diamond dogs shriek and pull away charred stumps where their limbs once were, or simply dissolve into ashy silhouettes of their former selves. The dogs panicked and scurried away from the barricades, just as a a half-dozen tall and bipedal creatures covered in scales and spikes charged down the ramp and into their ranks.
"Drakes!" Shining shouted, hefting a protesting Applejack onto his back. "We need to go back to the secret entrance!"
"Um, but there was fire coming out of it!" called Pinkie, a few steps behind.
"One dragon is better than a bunch of dragons!"
They charged back towards the dining hall, the sounds of combat and screaming diamond dogs behind them. But as they burst back into the chamber, they found the terrified hound from before, along with a couple of friends, cowering behind an overturned table while a pair of drakes regarded them with amused malice.
"They get that that's a wooden table, right?" asked the taller one, his scales bright green.
His black-scaled companion threw back a floppy horn that covered most of his eyes. "Let's just kill them so we can get out of here. This raid is lame."
The green one nodded and sucked in a breath. Before he could unleash his flame, Shining placed an angled barrier in front of his mouth; the blast was redirected like water through a trough, and exploded into the face of the drake's companion. The black dragonling screamed and fell to the floor, clutching his face in agony.
"Hey!" the green one shouted. He sucked in another breath, but suddenly Pinkie was bounding across the tables, even leaping off the narrow lip of the diamond dogs' makeshift barricade, and tackling the drake across the waist. It went down with a surprised "whuff," its flame (and the air in its lungs) blown out of it by the impact.
The dogs turned nervously to the ponies, spears raised. Shining scowled at them and waved a hoof dismissively. "Don't be stupid. We're getting out of here. Come with us if you want to live."
The diamond dogs looked at eachother, shrugged, and nodded. They stood and looked at the ponies. The shortest one, his hide speckled gray-and-white and a familiar hat on his head, offered a tentative smile.
"Gimme that," Applejack said crossly, snatching her Stetson and pulling it firmly back over her mane.
"Aww, I was gonna deck him in the schnozz," Pinkie complained.
"Later," Shining assured her. "Come on, we need to go."
A few minutes later, the side door to the mound rolled open, and they stepped into Tartarus.
Everything that could burn seemed to be. The forest surrounding the clearing was aflame. The stunted trees and vines of ivy hanging down the hill were ablaze. Long, blackened scorch marks, still alight with little pinpricks of flame, scarred the clearing around the hill. A handful of charred remains that may have once been diamond dogs dotted the landscape here and there. Above them, a huge, red dragon was perched atop the hill, its attention focused on the sounds of carnage still rising from the main tunnel.
"Divine sisters," Shining breathed.
"We need to run," Applejack observed quietly.
"But where? The trees are aflame," Zecora pointed out. "There is nowhere that we can run without pain."
"We know way," the hat-thieving diamond dog said. "You follow, we take you there."
Applejack scowled at them. "An' why should we trust you?"
"You save us. We save you. Then we even."
"It's the best chance we've got," Shining said firmly, turning to the dogs. "Lead the way."
Skirting along close to the hill, the dogs led the group around to the mound's north side and pointed across the field. The trees there were burning, too, but Shining could just make out something reflective and sparkling below.
"There," said the diamond dog. "Stream. You keep low, follow stream, you not burn."
Shining nodded. "Thanks. Are you coming with?"
"No. Puppies... puppies still inside mound." He grimaced and tightened his grip on his spear. "Need to go back in."
The knight nodded. "Good luck."
Applejack gave the dog a long look. As he and his companions started to turn away, she shook her head and sighed. Pinkie glanced up at her. "What's wrong?"
"Don't wanna talk about it."
"Good, because we don't really have time." Shining frowned as he calculated the distance to the treeline. "It's a few hundred yards. That dragon on the hill's going to be able to see us. I'll hold a shield up as we run, but... "
He didn't finish. Applejack, Pinkie, and Zecora looked at him with concern.
"If I don't make it... tell Cadance... "
Pinkie put a hoof on his shoulder and smiled. "We're all making it. Trust me."
He raised an eyebrow. "How do you know?"
"'Cause you're forgetting something!"
"Oh, I don't wanna spoil the surprise."
Shining gave her an odd look. Applejack grinned and shook her head. "Don't bother, just trust her."
"Yeah, okay." He looked into Pinkie's bright, blue eyes and smiled. "She's earned it."
The pink pony beamed at him. "Then let's do this!"
Pinkie led the charge, Applejack on her back, with Zecora close behind. Shining came last, building magical power in his horn, his eyes and ears focused behind and above him. The distance vanished beneath their hooves as they galloped forward at full speed. We might just make it, Shining dared to think. We're ponies. This is what we're built for. Running free, covering the land-
A bellow of rage shook the night, and even from hundreds of feet away, he felt the wind and pressure as the great red dragon beat its wings and rose into the air. In heartbeats, it had covered the distance, and then it passed them by, only to drop out of the sky and land with a thunderous impact a hundred or so yards beyond. Pinkie, thrown off balance by the shockwave and Applejack's weight, stumbled and fell; Zecora pulled up beside her, as did Shining.
The creature's toothy maw spread in a grin. It sat patiently on its haunches, waiting to see what the ponies would do.
"Dragons go away!" shouted a triumphant, raspy voice. "Dragons leave now!"
Green eyes and stake-toothed maws broke from the treeline as the three tamed timber wolves charged straight toward the surprised dragon. Mounted on the lead wolf's narrow head was the short, red-furred, portly diamond dog Shining recognized as T-Bone, clutching a set of reigns that probably didn't do much to direct the beast's course. He whooped excitedly as his steed crashed into the dragon, though his cheers turned to a terrified wail as the impact sent him flying across the field.
"See? Timber wolves!" cheered Pinkie happily.
Applejack watched the clash of the titanic monsters nervously. "That's real swell, sugarcube."
"Come on!" Shining shouted. "Almost there!"
The dragon managed to fire a blast of flame at the ponies as they passed, but Shining managed to deflect it away, setting part of the field on fire instead. The savage timber wolves, hardly intimidated by a creature three times their size, continued leaping and clawing and tearing away at the beast, and the dragon roared in frustration as it tried and failed to bat them away.
The ponies burst through burning treeline, doing their best to avoid the flames, and dove into the relatively cool stream just a few strides beyond. It was only knee-deep, but by hunkering down, it protected them from the worst of the heat, at least for the moment.
"We have to keep moving," Shining said, turning to his companions. "We'll follow the stream until we're clear of the fire, and then-"
He stiffened. Something sharp bit into his back, and he suddenly had difficulty breathing. He turned his head to see the wooden shaft of a spear sticking out of his back, stuck fast between two of his ribs. The world spun as the strength went out of his legs and he collapsed into the water.
"Never take chance with ponies with horns," Dane hissed, stepping out of the shadows. One of his shoulder guards had been torn away, and his armor was blackened and cracked in places, but he looked relatively unscathed from his battle as he drew a crude dagger from his belt.
Dane grinned. "Many secret ways out. Knew battle was lost. Knew this would be only place to run. Fought dragons before."
Applejack slid off of Pinkie's back, and the two stepped protectively over the fallen knight. "W-what about your puppies?" Pinkie demanded. "You just left them?!"
"We lost. Dragons took mound. Not worth throwing life away." His mouth twisted into a malicious grin. "More to make you pay for."
Applejack stamped a hoof. "You ain't gettin' the chance."
"Fought ponies before, too."
The ponies charged. Dane leapt into the air, catching a burning branch and using it to swing over and past them. If the heat bothered him, he didn't show it; he made straight for the helpless Shining Armor, knife raised.
Suddenly, Zecora was there, a small bit of dust cupped in her hoof. She grinned and the diamond dog and puffed a breath. Dane's furious growl turned into a yelp of pain and surprise, and he fell back into the stream, clutching at his eyes and screaming curses.
Zecora stepped up and kicked the knife out of the dog's paw, sending it clattering into the underbrush. "Though I made this originally for Prince Blue, I suppose I can give this itching powder to you."
Pinkie cheered. "Nice job, Zecora!"
Applejack, limping again, grunted an agreement. She glared down at the agonized diamond dog for a moment, then looked at the fallen knight. "Shining... "
He managed a weak smile. "I'm... I've had worse... "
Zecora knelt next to him and examined the wound with a frown. "I will need bandages of cloth, and herbs for a healing broth. When I remove this spear, there will be much blood, I fear."
Pinkie nodded and began tearing off more strips off of her stealth suit, while Zecora dunked them in water and prepared to bandage the wound. Behind them, ignored, Dane managed to open one red, puffy eye. He looked around, his eyes too bleary with tears and mucus see, and started to push himself up.
An orange hoof pressed him back into the stream. "An' where d'yall think yer goin'?"
Dane snickered. "I escape, of course. I know ponies. You can't bring me with, so you give me lecture about being good dog and let me go. I just saving time."
"Been beat up by ponies before, have ya?"
"Not me, personally, but know some who did."
Applejack pressed her face up to the diamond dog's. "So y'think we're just gonna letcha go on yer merry way."
"What else could you do?"
She frowned. Her voice dropped so that only the dog could hear. "You an' yours... you hurt me. Tortured me. Tried to make me inta a meek li'l workhorse. I could do a lot to you. I could push your face down in this stream. Could tell my friends that y'all just drowned, accidental-like. Happens when yer layin' in water sometimes. Had a cousin what passed out drunk in a two-inch puddle an' drowned."
She pressed harder against Dane's chest. He felt the edges of his mouth sink under the surface. "Y-you won't... "
Applejack stared at him.
The water started to seep past his lips, through his teeth, into the back of his mouth.
The pressure on his chest slackened. He scrambled away, spitting water, but Applejack was on him again, pushing him down hard. "Y'all want a lecture? Here. I ever see you again, I will kill you." She looked him dead in he eye as she said it. He gulped, nodded, and crawled away.
As she turned back to the group, she caught Shining watching her. She stopped and gave him a flat look. After a moment, he nodded. Not a word. She frowned and walked away.
The forest burned around them. In the distance, he could still hear the snarls and howls of the timber wolves as they tore into the bellowing dragons. Bursts of flame still lit the sky like fireworks.
He and Pinkie had saved their friends. Physically, at least.
Cadance, he thought, tensing himself as Zecora prepared to yank the spear free, find us soon. I need you. I can protect these ponies' bodies. I need you to protect their souls.