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Wheels Within Wheels
An MLP:FiM Fanfiction by Midnight Shadow
"You want to what?" hissed Silver Chalice, eyes wide and fastened onto the large yellow and scaly forms that were currently stuck in what was left of the doorway.
"I want to make you my slaves, but I promise I'll let you go when this is all over," said Chip, his eyes also not leaving the two dragons who were forcing their way into the basement, overturning piles of clothes and boxes of junk as they came.
"How dare you suggest... that's crazy! Why?"
"Because those two," Chip nodded his head at the dragons, "have a contract to kill you, and I'm not convinced I can stop them. Unless you belong to me. Or do you think you can take them?"
"Both of them?"
"I could probably kill one," Chip said off-hoofedly, eyes never leaving the advancing yellow menace. Snorting, he shrugged himself out of his leather saddlebags and pawed a hoof at the two other dragons.
Silver blanched, the items he still held fast in his magical field dipping slightly as he flinched in fear. "I don't think I'd want to try."
"Then..." Chip hung his head, looking at the ground for a moment before he fastened a steely gaze back on the dragons, "submit."
"How?" Sunshine asked, her small voice quavering with fear from behind her sire's legs. She darted out and took Chip's saddlebags, squeezing herself into them and fleeing back as far out of harm's way as possible.
"I don't know!" Chip wailed, "But it's the only chance you've got."
"I know. If you'll let me help." called a new voice, rough and deep.
Chip raised his head and looked behind the group, into the tunnel, where it had come from. It was a voice that caused Silver Chalice to prance and put himself between his daughter and the bearer.
"Pig Iron?" Chip called uncertainly, "What are you doing down there?"
"I heard through the grape vine that you had run into a little trouble, young dragon. I came to help, and to apologize." the voice echoed back, cordially.
"For what?" Chip asked, glancing back and forth, calling to the as-yet unseen newcomer.
"You know... whoever or whatever that is?" Silver Chalice asked, ears flattened against his skull.
"That's Pig Iron," hissed Chip, "a friend of mine. A dragon."
"I'd say if that's a friend, then I'd hate to meet your enemies, but..."
"Yeah, you worked for one."
"A good reason to stay on your good side, I'd say."
Chip laughed, weakly, as the former butler smiled wryly. "You could say that." Chip briefly turned, still backing up, and called back down the corridor, "For what?"
"Well, I heard you had a run-in with some whizbang. Where'd you think it was purchased? I'm terribly sorry. When I heard who it was for, I decided to make it up to you. It looks like I was just in time, too." Pig Iron, when he came into view, was limping slightly and one wing was torn, "Apparently I had quite a bit of making up to do. On the plus side, I now own some of those gem-eyed darlings I was talking about." He laughed, scratching at a scab and flicking it away with a torn scale or two.
"Oh?" Chip couldn't take his eyes off the two dragons, now. They were close now, eyes fixated on the two ponies behind him, but they'd momentarily stopped their advance.
"It's amazing what a brush with death will do for the soul. It makes some think that little things like liberty are worth a lot less than breathing."
"I can't say I agree with you," Silver Chalice said, snarling.
"And yet here we are." Pig Iron smirked, "and you're preparing to do just that."
"I would never-"
"Pig Iron," Chip growled, a flicker of green fire dancing around his muzzle, "lay a paw on my friends and you will regret it."
Pig Iron threw up his paws, one of which was bleeding from what looked like bites, "Hey, they're beautiful specimens, but I know they're not for sale. More's the pity."
"Are you going to help me or what?" Chip grumbled, stomping a hoof. "I promise, I'll let you guys go just as soon as this is over, but until then... it's the only way I can think of to keep you safe, from monsters like them!" Suddenly, Chip leaped at the pair of dragons, catching one with the bolas on his tail and striking the other with his metal-clad hooves. They yowled and screeched, breathing fire that bathed the room in heat and light. The flames caught the clothing and other junk easily, sending crackling sparks towards the ceiling, which was rapidly turning black and starting to bubble. "Quickly! Decide!"
Pig Iron fixed the two unicorns with a steady gaze, "I can only say he's right. There are two ways to do this, and he's a little... busy."
Chip bellowed as he fought, a roar that caused the two unicorns to flinch. The pony-shaped dragon kicked his forehooves and struck one of the pair, turning his head as he breathed first in and then out - a gout of green flame spewed over the other, causing it to roar in retaliation and swipe a claw, throwing Chip off and gouging rivulets through his armour.
Pig Iron appeared non-plussed, "You have to repeat this after me, but say it at him." The dragon pointed with a claw, "And you have to mean it! I will tell you now, you are giving your life to him. All you have is his word he will let you go - he will be under no such geas, unlike you. For you, it is life long."
"I trust him." squeaked Sunshine, fearfully.
"And I will not abandon my little princess."
Pig Iron nodded, and said a few short phrases in a scratchy, guttural tongue. The ponies repeated it, stumbling a little. Pig Iron held up a claw for silence, and said another few phrases. Again he was copied. They hesitated, a little, but Pig Iron nodded, and took a breath to utter the next set of phrases.
Sunshine whimpered, mid-repetition, as Chip was thrown clean through a support post that also happened to be on fire. He groaned and stood up, and charged back into the fray.
Pig Iron said one last phrase, and then shouted out to Chip, "Do you agree? Do you take them"?
"I do! I do!" Chip shouted, and he gasped as something unseen washed over him. For a moment, everything stopped. He dropped to the floor, the two dragons growling in dissatisfaction.
Silver Chalice hissed and jinked sideways, looking at his hips, "Ow! What did you..."
"Ah, good, good. Come here, little one, you too... let me check." Pig Iron gently but firmly turned Sunshine' body so he could see her flanks. He nodded, satisfied, and let her go.
"What! What is he doing?" Silver bared his teeth at Pig Iron, who held up his paws again.
"Your cutie marks," Chip answered, "they're mine, now. They display my family's clan design."
Silver looked at his daughter's cutie mark. Chip was right. The tea-set was unchanged, but on the side of each piece was a new image, a strange sigil like an intricate diamond. A quick glance at his own hips verified that his mark, too, was the same.
The dragons snarled, and looked at each other. There followed a quick-fire round of guttural snarling that apparently passed for speech, before one of them turned to Chip, throwing him to the floor and knocking his breath out. "There are contracts still valid, Diamond. Don't think you are safe."
One of the two dragons spat, and he set fire to more of the basement before hurling one more final gob of liquid flame, and left. The other quickly followed suit. There was an ominous rumble, and the smoke and flames burst down from the floor above. The mansion was not only ablaze, it was collapsing around them.
"I suggest, Chiphoof, that we get as far away from here as possible. Come on, I have some ponies I want you to meet." There was another crash as the roof near the stairs fell in, obscuring them from view. "It's not like you have much choice."
Chip stood in the archway to the basement as his friend and his slaves trotted down into the darkness. He was breathing heavily, mostly unaffected by the smoke. Limping slightly, he turned and followed them.
With a practiced flick of his tail, he shattered the supports. Weakened, the entrance collapsed. They were sealed in.
The tunnel was dark, lit only by Chip's green flames that still flickered around his muzzle, and the softly glowing horn of Silver the unicorn. The walls were no longer shored up with wood, but seemingly hewed from solid rock. They were oddly smooth, as if melted, and the solid rocky floor was uneven with the ruts made from many hooves passing.
Chip was breathing hard and trembling, still worked up from the fight. His lip was bleeding and one eye was bruised and swelling. He had some rake-marks from his stifle to his flank, where the haunch-plate hadn't quite protected him enough, but he held himself high. He'd held off two relatively-mature dragons. And survived. Intact. He'd technically been winning. Most of that may have been due to their general unwillingness to injure the son of a dragon-lord, but still...
Silver Chalice walked behind his daughter, who walked between the two. His horn was lit up to carry his new master's box of personal belongings as well as his own. The soft silver glow danced lithely around as they moved. He'd sold himself into slavery, but he'd done it to protect his daughter. He guessed best intentions often led to some pretty dark places. He hadn't guessed they would be literally dark, though.
"Address him as Master." informed Pig Iron, nonchalantly. They were new slaves, after all, and couldn't be expected to know all the formalities.
"Just call me Chip. What?"
"I... need to tell you something."
"Letting your slaves talk back to you is bad for morale.." chided Pig Iron. He looked like he was enjoying himself.
"Really not helping, Pig Iron. What, Silver?"
"This concerns you, too, Sunshine. Years ago, I was in the guard. The nightguards. I guess I thought the bat wings would look good on me."
"You're not a pegasus." Chip said, flatly.
"Indeed, I was rather young and stupid and didn't really think things through. Anyway, I... was eventually sent on a diplomatic mission."
"...With the Baroness Anthracite Irontail."
Chip was subdued as they walked, hooves echoing down the long corridor. "Carry on."
"Daddy?" Sunshine whispered.
"We were sent on a long trip to an amazing, faraway land. There were griffons there, by the thousands. It was hot, dry, and so very, very sunny. The days were long, the evenings longer. I was required to be near her, every day, all day. I guarded her at night as I watched over her in the day. The mission lasted for months. I don't really remember. What I do remember... is her."
"What happened?" asked Chip softly, though he felt he knew.
"Something that probably shouldn't have."
"You slept with Baroness Irontail?"
"And for it, I lost my job."
Chip stopped, looking back over his shoulder, first at Silver Chalice, and then down at Sunshine Filigree. "Go on."
"I was honourably discharged almost immediately from the guard when we returned. I was forced to wander Equestria, penniless and virtually destitute. There are surprisingly few jobs available for an ex-nightguard. That is the price one pays for dalliances with the upper crust and a mare of means. Eventually, I found my way to Stalliongrad, and a house, with big iron gates and a crest that I recognized. She was... gravid. It was late in her pregnancy, and the foal had not yet dropped, but the signs were visible. I signed on as her personal attache, and helped her run her business and her estate."
"What happened then?" Chip asked, stopping resolutely. Pig Iron hung back, silently observing for once.
"What do you think happened? She gave birth. I, we... persuaded a mare to be seen leaving our daughter on the steps of the mansion, I was suitably chastised for my infidelity and it was let known that this had been the reason for my disgrace. I cared not, I had my darling Sunshine. With her, no day was ever cloudy again." Silver Chalice smiled down at Sunshine Filigree, whose eyes were wide with shock. Chip could see the smile, even in the darkness.
"And we took the foal in. From then on, she was my princess."
Chip brightened, smiling, "Do you know what this means? It means I have a cousin!"
"And... I guess I finally know who mummy was, don't I?" Sunshine added, sadly.
"You do, princess. I'm sorry she could never tell you. She meant to, but... it was for the best, until you were older. We thought so, at least, and then... she died."
"She was murdered before I got to call her Mommy! She wa-was murdered by Py-Pyrite and-" Sunshine hoof-stomped, tears in her eyes.
"And look what happened to him," Silver chided softly, "look where his hate and jealousy took us."
"I don't want to lose you too, I couldn't-" Sunshine looked over at Chip, and gasped, "not that, I mean, uh..."
"At least I knew them both, for a while. That's why... I couldn't let those dragons hurt you. You're all I have." Chip looked so forlorn that Sunshine nuzzled him, gently. He nuzzled her back, "You're safe now. Both of you. Actually, I want to help make that clearer. Silver, can you take this neck-piece off? And my wither-guards?"
Silver Chalice nodded, placing the other objects he was floating around his head on the ground. With a few deft manipulations, the two pieces of armour were removed.
"I want the neck piece to go to Sunshine, and I want you to have the wither-guards. You're going to stay with Pig Iron, who owes me, until this all blows over. He will look after you as if you were his."
Pig Iron nodded his assent.
"Now wait just a-"
"No," Chip said, shaking his head and mane, "you will go with Pig Iron, when we get out of here, and he will look after you. Please," Chip's voice was strained, "don't make me make you."
"You can do that?" Silver's voice was hoarse, worried.
"I own you," Chip said, remembering Oak Keg. He opened up his leather box and placed all of Silver's belongings inside it before closing it up again. He hoofed it over to the unicorn, smiling sadly and gesturing for Silver to lift it, "I can do anything."
There hadn't been much talking since the last pause in the tunnel. Chip had wandered on ahead of Silver and Sunshine. Sunshine walked behind him, Silver brought up the rear. Chip swore he could feel the glare of the unicorn boring into his skull.
"The first few weeks are the hardest, Chip. They'll get used to it."
"I don't want them to get used to it!"
Pig Iron scratched himself, easing a wing out and back as if massaging it. There was a faint pop as it stretched and Pig Iron visibly relaxed, "You weren't listening, were you?"
"Listening to what?"
"There are still contracts out. On you."
"And your father."
"Is that what my late uncle was doing down here?"
"Judging by the trouble I had on the way in, yes. We're almost there, now. This tunnel will open up in a second to-"
The dragon was correct, the seemingly endless tunnel did indeed end, and was replaced with a gigantic cavern that did a far better approximation of forever than mere open sky ever could. It was daunting; as Pig Iron summoned a large glowing ball of magelight that he sent upwards, the scale of the thing became visible.
"We're under the Howling Mountains, now, in the Under Deep. This is dragon country, always has been. For millenia, before Equestria even, we dragons were here. Those ponies that came to inhabit our lands... we tolerate them and their presence, but occasionally we demand our dues."
Pig Iron whistled, once, and waited. He didn't have to wait long. A small group of gem-eyed ponies, smaller and stockier than Silver or Sunshine, hustled up to the dragon, seemingly both eager and very reluctant to approach him.
"Ah, my pets, I am glad to see you have recovered from our brief altercation before. Now, how do we greet our new master? Hmm?"
One by one, the ponies fell to their front hooves, inclining their heads to the floor. Chip, embarrassed and slightly revolted, looked away.
"That's right, well done! Up you get now, up. Tell me, my pretties, who was the contract for? For whom did you think fighting a dragon was worth?"
There was a lot of shuffling of hooves, and finally an earth pony spoke up, her voice soft, "We don't know who we were working for. We were to-told it would mean we wo-would no longer have to fight for the Under Deeps. The diamond dogs would be gone."
"Ah, they sold you dreams," Pig Iron said, shaking his head, "I don't think-"
"Actually," Chip spoke up, "I think that's what this is all about. My parents... I... Sharptooth supposedly has a map, I don't know what it leads to, but... whatever it was, the diamond dogs must have wanted it enough to... to... to kill my parents for Pyrite."
Pig Iron growled, "Then wheels are in motion, Chip, I fear I cannot help you much more." The dragon looked at the ground around him, idly stroking the ears of his new pets. They were still fearful of him. He murmured to them softly, calming them for a few moments. Brief flashes of magefire burst from his clawtips as he healed their various cuts and scrapes. The first few were balking, but soon they gathered round for his ministrations. "These ponies, dragon, are used to a master. All they have are dreams..."
"So?" Chip asked impatiently, when a longer pause yielded no continuation of the sentence.
"So, dreams are powerful. They drive creatures to do wonderful, terrible things. If you stand between somebody and their dreams, you had better be ready for trouble." Pig Iron looked worried.
"Then take good care of my family. I have to get back to Tacksworn! If whatever ponies Pyrite was working with decide to cause trouble by looking for whatever this map is there, I have to stop it."
"And if they're following you, they won't be following your slaves."
"I'm a dragon, I can take care of myself. They're just ponies, I can't let them get into trouble. That's kind of what Sharptooth did, I see that now."
"Now just a minute here!" Silver protested, "I was in the guard!"
"And now you have a daughter, my cousin. I'm responsible for you until I see this ended." Chip stomped a hoof, "I lost my parents, I won't lose her. Or you."
"I shall take care of them as if they were my very own." Pig Iron said.
"Put them to work in your bar, where you can keep an eye on them."
"I will not-"
Chip turned on Silver, "You will. You will follow his orders as if they were mine because they may just save your life, and if he dares abuse that privilege, it will cost him his."
Pig Iron raised an eye-ridge, but said nothing.
Chip carried on, "This is the way it works, Silver. I'm sorry, but it has to be like this. I don't know what is out there, and you're only safe with Pig Iron. You will submit."
Silver bared his teeth, snarling, lashing his tail. His horn glowed in fits and spurts as if he were trying to use it. He probably was. Sweat beaded on his brow, he tried to nicker and lunge, but couldn't. Eventually, some force he could not resist bore him down, down, down, until his stomach was on the floor. Panting, he lay on his side, raising his legs so his belly was exposed. He shuddered, weeping, trying to spit out the words, "I'll kill you!" but not managing it.
"Please," Chip said, lips quivering, "I don't want to do this."
"Then don't!" Silver spat, immobile and supplicant.
"Daddy!" Sunshine screamed, "Let him go, Chip! I trusted you! You don't have to do this!"
"I have to! You have to! Pig Iron, tell them!" Chip sounded desperate.
"The young master speaks the truth, my little ponies. If you care for your hides, especially for your pretty daughter, Silver Chalice, was it? If you care for her, you will do as Chip says. I promise, my word to you is my bond, I will look after you as if you were my own. Would it help... would it help if I showed you what that means?"
"Rise," Chip said, turning away. He felt bile in his throat, and deep disgust. He couldn't look back at Silver or Sunshine, the latter had a heart-breakingly angry look on her muzzle. He looked at the floor, despondant.
"I want to show someone to you, to all of you. Truth be told," Pig Iron laughed, scratching his head and turning to Chip, "I want to give someone to you."
Chip choked, "What?"
"Meet Hairpin, Hairpin Turn. She's one of my best flyers. Not the fastest, but a fine strong mare. And now, she's yours."
"You what?" asked Chip, shouting, his voice echoing from the distant walls. "I don't want-"
Pig Iron whistled, and a few minutes later a silver-grey pegasus with a golden mane trotted into view. Her blue eyes shone even in the gloom, and the lightning bolt twirling around three white clouds on her flank spoke of her prowess in the air.
"Meet hairpin turn, she's one of my favourites. I'll miss her, but she's yours."
"I... wait... I set her free! I don't want any more-"
The pegasus snorted, and rattled off some very precise-sounding words in Old Draconic, abasing herself before Chip.
"What did you just-"
Pig Iron laughed, and tousled the mane of the pegasus, "She's also smart."
"My master is not pleased?" she said, soft tone of voice belying her quick manner.
"But, I... how did she..?"
"She knows draconic spells, Chip, so you're not going to get rid of her that easily. I suggest you quit trying. She was excited when I told her she'd be the personal slave of the scion of a real dragon lord's clan."
The pegasus snorted, flicking her mane out of her eyes, "I can't say I was expecting you, but... are you really a dragon-lord?"
The pegasus made a moue of annoyance.
"My father is though." Chip finished.
"A bonafide dragon lord. I can dig it. I'll be very pleased to... serve my new master, in any way he desires." The pegasus trotted around Chip, flicking her tail across his muzzle and batting her eyelids.
Chip gulped, and rolled his eyes, "I can see why you wanted shot of her."
Pig Iron's maw lolled open in a draconic smile, "She grows on you, but you need her. In truth, she is rather a lot to handle, but she's quick, clever, and strong... and I do owe you for all the trouble."
"Pin, tell these nice ponies what fun it is working for a dragon."
"You expect me to take the word of a slave about how wonderful it is to be one?" Silver snorted with derision.
"I can make her tell the truth, Silver," Chip still couldn't look at his friend, let alone meet his gaze.
"Silver, was it? Lemme tell you, I've been all over Equestria, and there ain't nothing better than this. Griffons, dragons, diamond dogs, ain't nopony tangling with a dragon's pet. I get free drinks, the best service, the best food. The perks... ain't no beating the perks."
"Pet. Slave. Traitor."
"I've said I'll let you go!" Chip wailed.
"When it comes time, you may not want your freedom."
"That's what I'm worried about," Silver growled.
"So, you believe me now? Pig Iron will look after you, keep you safe?"
"I do, master," Silver spat, "but I will not thank you for it."
"I know," Chip hung his head, "but I care about you. I can't lose you."
"Does that mean you won't be able to free us, when it's time?"
"I hope not," Chip whispered, "because that's not what I want to be."
"Come," Pig Iron said, after bidding farewell to his gem-eyed pets, "we have to head to the surface. From here, it's easy. We're not going to learn anything more from my new pets, but I'll be keeping an eye on them. If anything comes up, I'll send it via dragon-mail. We have to head back down to Stalliongrad, to get you on your way."
"I need to get to Tacksworn, and fast!"
"Well, I don't have enough pegasi for a charriot, and I'm not sure you'd be safe in the skies if there are more dragons after you. Accidents happen, after all, but there is one way for you to get where you need to get to."
"And that is?"
"The postal service. My girl... sorry, your girl, is one of the best couriers in Equestria. She knows all the routes, knows all the stops, knows all the teamsters. Get on the mail train, it goes all the way down. We're headed for the train station."