The wood had charred into a crumbling state, and soon the fires would have completely worked their way from the straw thatched roof tops to the cobblestone foundations. Twilight stood immobilised in the freezing river with her friends. Fluttershy had already given in to the chill and could no longer control her shivering. Her teeth were snapping rapidly, uncontrollably, making a demoralising sound to the colts and fillies herded within the protective circle. Pinkie Pie would not move her lips to soothe those who were as shaken as she was. Applejack stood as a wall amongst other adults to protect the young, even now that her conscience had faded and she could barely feel or hear. An occasional quiet muttering escaped the lips of a shell-shocked pony trying to make sense of the event that that was now taking place.
Ponyville was burning!
The Great Mare trod cautious steps toward the hill by the river, watching over the burning town. Rarity followed with her eyes, but turned to Twilight.
"We won't rebuild, will we?" Rarity asked.
Twilight was hesitant to reply. Ponyville had withstood many thrashings and every time it had been restored. For the first time a destructive force had undergone the cold process of calculation and been woven with evil intent, specifically for this purpose. There was no chaos, there was no forewarning, and there was no communication – only fire and the snow of midwinter.
On the top of the hill a grand tree cast a great shadow as the full moon fell behind it. The hill shone blue from the reflection of the snow, contrasting the dim red on the other side of the river. There was a place of solitude, there was a place of hell, but safety was felt the greatest in the running water between them.
The Great Mare climbed the hill. This time Rarity turned to follow and slowly waded her way out of the cold waters. The freezing air stung her exposed underbelly and discouraged every move, but she forced herself to take the next step.
"I don't think we will..." Twilight whispered, with nopony to hear it.
"We can still save it, right?" Rarity called to the Great Mare. "You know what to do? What should be done now, don't you?"
Applejack broke out of her slumber, and hastily recounted all she knew. Her mind was hazy, as sleep was lost most to her. She broke away from the protective circle, leaving a small opening to the now exposed foals.
"Where are you going?" a concerned stallion asked.
"Must... go with... her..." Applejack mumbled as she dragged herself to Rarity's side.
Another stallion quickly took Applejack's place in the protective circle and nudged a familiar colt, which let loose a smile upon recognising his father.
Rarity was slowly catching up with the Great Mare, while Applejack stumbled and slipped trying to get a good footing. The top of the hill was near and the moon quickly disappeared behind the dead branches, glowing very dimly through the twigs.
"Please, tell me it is not too late. I beg you!" Rarity pleaded.
"She won't... answer, ye hear?" Applejack sighed. "Give 'er... give me some time and I'll..."
Rarity only now noticed Applejack struggling behind her. Making the decision between pursuing the mare or aiding her friend, Rarity rushed down the hill to support the swaying earth pony.
"Here, lean on me." She said. "I will carry you."
"Much obliged, Raridy... rity" Applejack chuckled. "I'm no good to myself right now."
The Great Mare stood on the top of the hill, glancing down on the two ponies; patiently awaiting their successful attempt at scaling the relatively petty mound. The cold had not gotten to her and she was with grips with her muscles, an art learnt from a harsh home. A home not shared with the ponies who now sought refuge in the water, out of fire's reach but awaiting of a frozen death.
"I heard 'em say it... they thought I was asleep. I heard 'em all." Applejack growled. "They blame 'im, they do."
"What are you talking about?" Rarity asked.
"They think those dragons were after revenge. I know they weren't, but nopony listens to me." Applejack shook her head and then gave Rarity a stern look. "They stood over the li'l 'uns and whispered. 'They would never have come had we not let him stay' they said. Scared some of the foals too, they did."
"You're angry, Applejack, and they are scared. Don't let them get to you so easily."
"I owe him a darn lot, for all of you. Now they forget everythin' that happened this fall. It's our fault. All our fault. Not his."
"Shush now, dear, we're at the top."
Stood next to the Great Mare, towering over the two ponies, the familiar figure could be seen. Crawled up into a frail ball of misery, the once proud and steadfast champion had been reduced to nothing.
"What's wrong with 'im?" Applejack asked.
"I don't understand it myself." The Great Mare replied. "Rarity?"
"You taught him to speak our language; you must have learnt something that I have missed."
"Teaching is one thing. I didn't... we didn't..."
"Save it, sugarcube. It ain't no secret what you did. Only what you did to do it." Applejack interrupted. "Nopony here could have expected 'im to crumble under pressure, nopony except you."
The Great Mare threw her head violently, bit her lip and paused. An air of contempt was present and Rarity felt more intimidated than ever before.
"I should be the one to know him skin and bones,” the Great Mare snapped, “but I never knew that this... that thing hugging the tree could ever be reduced to this. This! I want to know what you saw, what happened to him, what changed him."
Rarity could barely breath. She had sworn an oath of secrecy, but the mare before her had never before appeared so ready to kill for an answer.
"You can tell us, hun. Only us three here." Applejack said.
"Tell me what you saw, what he is hiding." the Great Mare demanded again.
"His... face." Rarity whispered
"Come again, hun?"
Rarity gave a final look at the pitiful creature, apologising with her eyes as she drew breath.
"It was not so long ago. He was weak and helpless, but he had fought so hard to hide it. I saw him wading out in the snow so I dragged him in. He tried to resist at first, but then I saw something. Tears. I never knew he could, but there was no end - he finally stopped fighting me and fell to the floor. I... I knew there was something wrong with him."
"Get to the point, Rarity" Applejack ushered.
"No, I want to hear this!" the mare snarled angrily.
"There was no way bringing him to the doctor would help, so I tried to investigate myself. The hide, the bracelets, the boots; he never tried to stop me, until the helmet was all that remained of his false skin. He wouldn't let me touch it, not even come near it. He flailed and he barked and I got scared. Then he took it off on his own."
"Tell me what you saw." The mare said with a sudden calmness.
"He was not warrior. No hunter. Not a champion. Nothing of the like." Rarity said.
"Then what?" Applejack asked.
"It was the face of a child."
A cold silence befell the three equines as Rarity had spoken. Applejack's mind had suddenly rekindled with focus, the Great Mare was stunned. Rarity was ashamed to have broken her promise.
"That thing, a mighty dragon slayer, you saw a kid in 'him!?" Applejack cried.
The words had been heard by the pathetic entity lurking in the tree trunk's shadow, and had sparked a reaction. The ball opened up and a pair of legs stomped heavily on the ground, flattening the snow into a solid platform. One of the creature's forelimbs slammed down on the ground and sunk the claws on its tips into the earth below and pulled the weighted figure up on its two. It growled, it wheezed, it spat; miserably so, but in a furore most terrifying. In the mixture between the coughing and the rapid breathing only a few words of any meaning could be heard. He had awoken from his self-pity and something had begun to burn within him. But not even the mare saw this to be a good sign.
"Twilight, he's goin' crazy!" Applejack shouted.
"He shouldn't act like this, hold him down!" the mare commanded."
Applejack was the first to rush in. She tried to pin him against the tree until Twilight could use her magic to sooth him, but something had given him unfathomable strength. He didn't try to push or pull Applejack away, instead he had set his claws upon her skin, trying to carve a path through her, starting from her back.
"Ow, argh! I ain't budgin' but somepony gotta help me now. Now-now-nah-argh!"
His claws sunk in under Applejack's skin and first blood had been drawn.
"And so with what evidence has the dress maker, known as Mareli of the Patriarchal Circle, been accused and confirmed for the below listed crimes:
- Punishable by the payment of blood money.
Falsifying information to an Officer of the Black Owl Court
- Punishable by the payment of an inconvenience compensation sum.
Desecration of a grave belonging to the Temple of Loathing
- Punishment to be decided only by the pride court.
- Punishable by death, or the removal of genitals.
It is the decision of the Black Owl Court, agreed and authorised by the enforcer, that the dress maker, known as Mareli of the Patriarchal Circle, hereby be sentenced to death by the sword." The judge said.
"These gatherings... you really hope that one day there would be no need to gather half the justiciars to court every time someone committed a death-warranted crime," the young justiciar remarked silently to his neighbour.
He was met by an intolerant look by his elder, but no words were uttered. The court had brought forth a lady from the Patriarchal Circle, otherwise devoid of reported crime. It was clear many of the justiciars were moved by this event, but the court demanded their silence. No one dared to speak their minds, even in whispers.
"If the accused now have anything to speak to her defence, I permit her now to do so." the judge asked.
"I'm innocent! Please, don't kill me!" she cried.
"Enforcer, I demand clarity." The judge ordered dismissively.
All justiciars gathered in the room wore the same attire: a dark grey split robe, a wide hat, a mask formed like the face of an owl; all except one. Stood next to the seated judge was one justiciar who wore an additional article - a silver chain around his neck. The enforcer stepped forward and demanded eye-contact from the woman.
"You speak a lie now, yet when we first confronted you there was only the truth," the enforcer said.
The woman stood silent, but her face turned obedient and showed signs of deceit no more.
"Of the crimes listed you are guilty." The enforcer said. "Deny them."
"No, I am guilty of all of these crimes." The woman confessed. "I cannot deny them."
"So first you confess, then you try to deny your confession, now here we are again. You see, Mareli, there were never any doubt that you were guilty. But that a resident of the Patriarchal Circle forgets the justiciars are immune to treachery and deceit breaks my soul. You and your enclave are the first to learn that truth is not an object, it is reality," the judge said followed by a deep sigh.
The enforcer leaned in to the woman, balancing coyly on one foot, and brandished his ring, encrusted with a single pearl. He allowed her to observe it for a moment before whispering.
"Those of us who are enlightened cannot be told lies, nor tell them."
The woman was dumbstruck and dared not utter another word. She had admitted to her crimes, but had been eager to deny them fully. Once the enforcer had commanded truth, she could lie no longer. Perfect tyranny to trample crime.
"Take her to the courtyard," the enforcer ordered. "The execution shall be held anon."
Two justiciars seized the woman and dragged her towards the door. A man who had been stood next to the judge with the enforcer gave the judge a reminding nod.
"There is one last matter to attend to," the judge informed.
The justiciars stopped and turned the woman to the judge.
"The stallion, accessory to your crime. It has been decided we shall let the loathers have him. But for reasons you may well be aware, I would like to know his name."
"Not necessary." the enforcer assured. "We have already procured the document of pedigree. Like the loathers, we valued these enough to take matters into our own accord." The enforcer produced documentations from his robe. "I imagine when the loathers get their hands on him, they can rename him whatever they please."
Impatiently the man approached the enforcer and took the documents. He studied the texts carefully before looking at the
family tree. There was a brief moment when the man appeared pleased with the contents, before suddenly twitching a brow.
"A stud, but no good for anything else," he complained.
"The stallion is an offer of appeasement to the pride court, not a gift for a tyrant..." the enforcer said, "... you wish to pursue reprisal,” he challenged with a direct and informed ton as the same young justiciar found himself wondering why theirs’ was the language that lacked the question form.
The man growled. The enforcer had no fear of the loathers, and would show no more respect than due a fellow man, but in this particular instance he had little to spare. The loathers, he thought, were a savage lot and he would keep his dealings with them to a minimum. A hard goal, considering the enforcer was the grandmaster of the legal office watching over two of the three enclaves that separated the city. The loathers watched over their own.
"It is sufficient. But I presume you will deliver it personally," the man said and made his departure.
"I was hoping not to," the enforcer mumbled. "Men, courtyard, now!"
Electing to pass the execution onto his deputy, the enforcer made a hasty move for the stables where the repossessed stallion had been placed pending its re-homing. As he entered the box where the stallion stood, already outfitted with saddle and bit, the enforcer became aware of evidence pointing to negligence; the stable boy had neglected to prepare the enforcer's own mount. The enforcer would have to walk, not one to ride another man's horse.
"The loathers would cut up and feed the boy to the dragons," the enforcer growled as he lead the stallion out of the stables.
"Enforcer, I have urgent matters,” a justiciar said, meeting the enforcer on the courtyard.
"I will hear it."
"A child claimed to have spotted a dragon prowling the rooftops in the Common District. And it is likely bound for the Culling Grounds."
The enforcer spat.
"A loather let slip a dragon from the roost. Not only is Town Hall lost to the brood, now the dragons spill out," the enforcer snarled.
"By your orders I will see to tracking it down and lead it back to the roost."
The enforcer deliberated. He looked over to the centre of the courtyard where the woman was now bent on her knees. The deputy was passing the sentence, reciting the chant in its entirety.
"I wonder..." the enforcer mumbled.
The deputy drew his blade. The woman began to struggle, shrieking with every ounce of strength her lungs could muster.
The deputy held his blade up high, preparing a strike.
The woman became limp, slouching with her back her head hanging forward. The enforcer observed intently, tapping the stallions chin and nodding with his head. Whether a horse was intelligent enough to know what was about to happen was never a question interesting enough to ask, but perhaps, just perhaps. With a sharp thrust the deputy delivered a single, deadly blow.
"I wonder how long one lives... how long one may wallow in regret," the enforcer wondered out loud.
"Enforcer, by your orders I would handle the dragon," the justiciar repeated.
Slowly the enforcer turned to his subordinate. His lip gave off a twitch of amusement, provoking the justiciar to tilt his head.
"I wonder if it would not be best to leave the dragon," the enforcer suggested.
"The dragons are not precise. It would harm the commoners."
"But loathers were all commoners once. I wonder..."
"By your orders, enforcer, I would take care of the dragon."
"No. Leave it. Let no justiciar or agent of the Black Owl Court interfere."
"By your orders, enforcer," the justiciar said and bowed lowly in respect before retreating.
The enforcer gave a last look at the courtyard, looking at the lifeless woman, then to the stallion.
"A new master awaits you."
It was clumsy, too greedy and careless. Already from the start he knew he was being followed, but now he knew exactly by what, from what angle, distance and inclination. The dragon, barely old enough to have fully grown its wings, must have thought itself most clever when it sprang out of Town Hall. But it would not be food the dragon would find at the other end of the line - it would be a blade. The dragon was going to die young.
It was hard not to smirk at the faces of the commoners who only just realised what stalked the loather over the rooftops. Each one either falling to the ground or diving through the nearest door or window. But the loather kept a steady marching pace, never once giving away his knowledge of the dragon's presence, for that could make matters unpredictable.
Every step of the stairs ahead of him was climbed with a rhythmic skip, never once failing to appear childishly ignorant. And a dragon, if only smart enough to hear the words of others, would think the townsfolk were, in fact, shirking away from the loather itself; for that was the magnitude of fear and respect they commanded.
A justiciar appeared around the corner at the top of the steps. Upon noticing the loather and, likely, its follower he obediently stepped aside, allowing the loather to pass. He would have interfered, no doubt, but had chosen not to. Simple guess: he had been ordered not to. Good. He would have the dragon all to himself. Now to plan the attack.
Crossing the borders out of the Common District into the Culling Grounds a familiar figure caught the loather’s attention. The figure would prove an unwelcome addition, and he did not want to share this kill. Coming closer without much reaction implied the dragon had not yet scaled the stairs, which made this the optimal time to briefly break cover and send away the intruder.
"I awaited you -" the other loather began.
"Stand aside, Marksman, this one belongs to me," he said behind clenched teeth.
Marksman made a sharp turn and observed in his peripherals the follower appearing from behind the stairs. With that Marksman gave the loather an acknowledging grin and made off. Before the loather stood the Great Hall of Horses, a stable of great proportion to the typical farm sized ones. That would make an ideal battleground; enclosed, many rooms, places to hide, little space for a dragon to manoeuvre. The loather delved inconspicuously into the hall and entered the first room open where neither horse nor young could be caught in the midst.
Hiding behind the door the loather drew his sword and held it over his head, ready for a swift sweep. The dragon had yet to make a sound, likely it had not entered the stables. Foolish enough to follow, cautious enough not to catch up too quickly. The kill would be all the more satisfying with anticipation to spice it.
The sudden sound of neighing broke the loather’s concentration and he looked to investigate the source. Fury enraptured when he discovered his own horse left unattended before him. His own horse behind bars in a room with an open door, at a critical time like this - a young would pay dearly for the insolence, but now was not the time.
The dragon had entered the stable and its heavy, cumbersome steps on the stone floor measured accurately its distance. The stench of its breath contaminated the air with a provocative aura, a scent of confidence from an inferior mind. The horse was much alarmed by the smell and clamoured, causing the dragon to immediately spring for the kill. The loather was now beyond himself, a single moment of hesitation and he would lose his most prized treasure, and, possibly, his own life.
As a head came through the door opening the loather made a rough estimate on how to align the sweep to connect with the
throat, one good hit and he would win. He swung, but the dragon moved too quickly, and his blade simply severed the leather on one wing. The dragon could have ignored the inconvenience, but stopped to challenge his interceptor. The loather was at a disadvantage.
The dragon snapped at the loather, trying to bite into his flesh. The loather barely dodged with a hair to spare, but he had no vantage from which to strike. His blade was held low and unable to gain momentum enough to lacerate the hide. The dragon rebound from the wall and bared his fangs for another attack. In a fool's gamble the loather raised his blade to meet the bite as the dragon struck. Sliding hopelessly along the dragon's gum and lip the blade almost fell out of the loather’s grip before he could jump after it. A fighting chance appeared now that his blade had aligned itself into a perfect stroke. He swung with full force, holding tightly the hilt with both hands.
The blade cut deep into the root of the neck, triggering a strong jerk reaction from the dragon who staggered backwards in panic. The head held low, preventing a good swing from severing the neck completely. The loather roared from the bottom of his lungs:
The dragon stomped heavily on the floor while reaching the ceiling with his wings, and the head came high with it. The loather charged and swung once again at the root of the neck, but too early. The blow glanced and did little to sever. Next swing had to count for final. The dragon regained control and tried to snare the loather with his claws to bite from above. The loather swung up high to counter the offence, scoring a solid cut deep into the throat just under the mandibles. The two separated once again.
The horse was in a state of panic, kicking the walls trying to find an escape. The wild wailing of the fight could not go unnoticed any longer, to secure a personal victory the next swing would have to be victorious. The loather, howling like a wild animal, spun the sword above his head for added momentum and struck, like an axe, down on the dragon's neck, held to the side as it had tried to cower by the wall. The spine would barely hold what little flesh was uncut. The loather clutched the dragon by the horn and, as a young came running in, tore the dragon's head of its base. The young screamed in terror.
The dragon, no less than three times the loather’s size, had been slain.
Facing the young, the loather brandished the head, eyes still rolling, and barked with vindication.
"My horse, unguarded. You must aspire beyond the gods, young."
The young did not reply.
"Know your place, young, and see that the withered clean the corpse away. I must take my horse away from this vile tomb."
The loather approached the horse.
The horse stopped its struggles, stopped kicking and lost its energy to fight. The loather opened the gate and led the horse out. As he neared the door opening the young was still stood where he had been left. The loather heeded no respect and kicked him aside, leaving the young on the floor, stained with the red spilt from the dragon's carcass. He then led the horse out of the stables.
"No, you idiots, he's getting away. Get him!" the curator commanded the other ponies in anger.
Panic was wide-spread as the specimen had broken free from his bindings. Discretion had been the goal, but now a monster would haunt the midnight streets.
"He's not that fast, just take him!" he ordered.
"You, Sir, can chase him if you like. I'm going nowhere near something that runs like that!"
Only half the plan had gone off as predicted, but now the unexpected had become a reality. Half the group were chasing down the specimen, half the group refused to fight and remained in the study.
"I can't believe we were so stupid! Taking that... thing in here," one of the stallions complained.
"Harmless until awake. How did we come to the conclusion that he... I mean it, was even herbivorous?"
"Somepony was stealing the food, it had to be that thing."
A loud cry came from under the toppled bookcase.
"He's alive?" a stallion yelled. "Help me out here. Let's get him up on his hooves!"
Together three stallions raised the bookcase and observed the rolled up unicorn cowering under the books.
"Is he gone?!" the unicorn asked.
"Yeah, that's the problem."
"How am I? What did he do to me?" the unicorn asked.
There were no immediate signs of injuries. The coat was rustled, but not bruised, the hooves were all aligned as they should and the unicorn was most certainly not dead. However, his horn was mostly missing.
"I think he shattered your horn, there. There's only the base left."
"My horn? But I didn't even..."
There was not even that much blood, just imperfect cracks from the area the horn dislodged.
"Where is it? Can you see it anywhere?"
"Umm... no. It's nowhere to be seen!"
"He took it?!" the unicorn cried. "What a psycho! My bloody horn is gone!"
"It'll grow back, don't you worry. We have bigger problems on our hooves."
Another stallion came crawling into the room; red under the chin. He wheezed uncontrollably and spat.
"Well? Did you get it?"
"No..." the stallion replied, swallowing the dry spit. "I had to stop when he tried to knife me with that horn. Where did he get that from anyway?"
The stallion quickly spotted the hornless unicorn and let out an ironic laughter.
"If there ever were a total wash-up in the history of zoology, this has got to be it." He joked. "You would never have to worry about first impressions when studying insects."
"We're all doomed," the unicorn whined.
"No, no we're not," the curator said. "You will still head out on your scheduled expedition as planned, but you will take another partner with you. I need every pegasus on the team to bring this creature back in. At any cost, dead or alive."
A pegasus came knocking on the window with the face of somepony who had seen a ghost. The curator opened the window and growled.
"What? Have you captured him yet?"
"Bad news, curator. Umm... Errantworth is dead."
"He tried to hold that thing, but then something happened. You should see this for yourself," the pegasus finished and flew off up the road.
The team assembled far up the road and into a dark alleyway where they were met with a most foul sight.
"What happened to his face?" the unicorn asked.
"It's... sunken in."
"Where the heck's the skull?!"
"Shush, idiot. We can't be too loud!"
One of the stallions stepped forward and examined the face. He prodded it cautiously before making the final diagnosis.
"His cranium is there... but somehow... somehow it's crumbled. Like porcelain."
"What, did he get beaten to death?" the unicorn asked.
"No." The pegasus replied. "That thing just yelled in Errantworth's face and he went limp."
"I want every pegasus we have ready to fly." The curator ordered. "What we have here is a vindictive monster out on the run and anypony he runs into will most likely not have the benefit of a doubt. He may strike indiscriminately and ferociously at anypony he finds, and before that happens, I want him gone."
"What are you saying?" the pegasus asked.
"Kill him. We need him dead." The curator said. "And get rid of that body. Nopony would be aware of Errantworth's relation to us, so a missing body is better than a mutilated body."
The stallions stood in silence, hardly believing what the curator had told them. But obey they did.