Yeah, yelling that is going to change anything, you big dumb lizard!
I dove under a low branch as the hulking mottled green dragon closed in on me. As expected, he was focused on me.
Not the branch.
He yelped as he cracked the foot-thick branch with his skull.
I wanted to stop and grin, but that would have ruined the moment. After all, I was running for my life. I was a terrified, helpless animal. I was stuck on the ground while being chased by dangerous predators with big terrifying sharp teeth. That could breath fire. And had spikes twice the size of my body.
Okay, fine, they were a little scary.
“I’ve got you now, you plucked chicken!” screamed the second of the trio, diving right at me. His aim was good. If I hadn’t felt the air currents and heard his stupid little warcry, he might have caught me.
Instead, I stopped dead in my tracks, cocked my head and watched the result.
He made a very satisfying thump when he hit the ground headfirst.
I let out my best turkey-like gobble—it tended to help things along—jumped over his scaly tail, hopped onto his head and then sprang from the tip of his snout.
A few feathers fell off as I scampered back into motion. He took a swipe at me and snagged a bit of fluff.
Ha! Too easy!
An ash and soot-colored dragon slammed down before me. I let out my first real squawk of surprise.
“Think you’re pretty funny, huh, little birdie?” their leader, Mareg, growled. His teeth glistened in the hazy morning sunlight. “Game’s over now.”
Most teenage dragons were pretty thick in the skull. However, this one had some brains. He thought he was being clever by cutting me off. After all, I was just a poor, sick, pathetic, mewling defenseless birdie who’d almost lost all of her pretty feathers.
Mareg approached slowly, and I heard the other two tromping up behind me.
“You’re gonna be a good little chicken now, ain’t’cha?”
I jittered backwards, only to run smack into the one with half a branch sticking from one of his spikes. I let out another squawk and jumped sideways, flapping my stubby wings to dodge his swipe. I jerked back and forth in a feigned panic, trying to find a way out.
“Nowhere to run!” Mareg cackled. “Nowhere to hide this time! Zog is going to send me on the next raid for catching you, you pathetic excuse for a—”
What is it with dragons and monologuing?
I dove between his legs. Both of his friends had been—once again—paying attention to me instead of their surroundings.
Most teenagers weren’t the brightest, but dragons… dragons were a special kind of thick.
They pounced. I couldn’t help but laugh at the resulting pileup. It was very entertaining to watch for a few moments. This was the best deal I ever made with the Dragon Lord. After all, I couldn’t let the griffons have all the fun of playing chicken with these idiots.
However, laughing might have been a mistake.
“Flame her!” Mareg bellowed. He shoved his friends aside and leapt into the air.
This time, I did run. I tore between trees, bounded over bushes, rounded rocks.
They had one advantage over me.
They could fly.
At present, I couldn’t.
They were gaining ground. The forest thinned as we approached the rocky plains near the foothills. My only chance to escape was a small cave under a short cliff. I’m sure the dragons knew about it, but it was still my only option.
My feathers continued to fly as I ran.
I wasn’t ready for the first blast of flame. I barely dodged the thing. I’d expected more witty retorts, but it looked like they were well and truly peeved.
I made it to the tree line and had a clear shot at the cave, a hole about the size of one of the dragons’ heads thirty yards away. It was surrounded by debris from the cliffs above.
I wondered if the new Dragon Lord or Zog was up there. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were. They were probably laughing their scaly tails off.
My legs kicked up little puffs of dirt as I headed straight for the hole.
“Oh, no!” Mareg bellowed. “You aren’t getting away like that!”
With an impressive burst of speed, Mareg flew over me and unleashed a roar of flame at the tiny cave entrance. It took only seconds before the rock bubbled and melted under the onslaught. I skidded to a stop as Mareg dropped before me with the finality of a cave-in. His eyes glittered with rage.
“I’m not gonna let some little featherbrain make a fool out of me!” Mareg growled as his other friends joined the party behind me.
Too late, I thought with a roll of my eyes.
They weren’t going to fall for my last trick again. I stopped and jerked back and forth, my eyes darting left and right as if looking for an escape.
Finally, I squawked at him and glowered. Granted, my glower right now wasn’t very good, but it was a glower, and mine at that.
Mareg laughed, but he never took his eyes off of me.
Yep. He’s madder than Aunt Hessin on the last day of her Cycle.
“Zog said he wanted you dealt with. Captured. But I’m thinking ‘flame-broiled’ at this point. I’ll never understand how a scrawny thing like you could tick off a dragon sergeant.”
I did my best to look panicked.
“Last chance, featherbrain. Give up or you’re getting a flame bath!”
His companions chuckled behind me. I knew they could grab me. But Mareg’s henchdragons wouldn’t do a thing without their boss’s go-ahead.
It was all about Mareg anyway.
So, I did what any ‘wild animal’ would do in my situation. I went berserk, screamed out a battlesquawk and flung myself right at his ugly dragon face.
He responded by hosing me with dragon fire.
“Idiot bird,” Mareg spat as he glowered down at the ashes at his feet. “Oh well, at least we can tell…”
The ashes moved.
While it would have been nice to stay like this for a while—Mareg’s flame had been rather cozy—the lesson wasn’t over.
In fact, it hadn’t started yet.
All three dragons backed away as my ashes spun up into an invisible air current only I could feel. My body coalesced and my magic reignited. In a blaze of light and fire, my Cycle was renewed once again.
“Uh… Mareg?” said the dragon who had plowed into the ground earlier. “Zog didn’t tell us this thing was a phoenix.”
“I ain’t screwing around with no phoenix!” The tree-butting dragon backed away.
I just hovered in the air, silent as death as I stared down at the three teenage dragons. A flew flaps of my enormous fiery wings kept me aloft as I smirked at them.
“It’s just a bird!” Mareg growled. “We’re dragons. We aren’t afraid of anything!”
Ah… the foolishness of the young…
I blinked, frowning at myself.
Didn’t Mom and Dad say something like that before I moved out here to the Dragon Lands?
Time to teach these dragons a lesson about respecting phoenixes.
I was sick of looking at Mareg’s ugly face, so I divebombed and strafed it with sunfire.
Mareg howled and covered his eyes as I soared out of reach, snickering all the while.
The idiot now had a lovely scorched face. The haze of smoke coming off of it definitely made it easier on the eyes. After all, I didn’t have to see it that much anymore!
“Okay, no more Mister Nice—”
I wasn’t about to let the teenager get off yet another pithy comment. I went into another dive and charged my magic just long enough to give it an extra boost.
With two dragons cringing and a third ready to take a bite out of me, I stopped just a few inches in front of Mareg’s nose. Mareg was so surprised he didn’t react immediately.
I smirked at him.
He blinked at me.
And that was just the latest of his many, many mistakes.
I unleashed the brilliant radiance of my magic right in his ugly dragon face. He howled again as he tried to shield his eyes, but I followed it up with sunfire. Three rapid shots, aimed directly at each dragon’s tail.
My aim was perfect, as always.
The dragons were now yowling in agony, indignation and pain as they clutched their backsides and scrambled around like desperate featherless birdies.
It was beautiful. I couldn’t help but laugh as the blinded dragons finally leapt into the air and bolted like the little flapping fools they were.
They even did me the wonderful service of smashing headlong into oak trees, going halfway through them before stopping. I fell over cackling at that point, completely unable to keep myself aloft. They were too busy trying to get away, but since they were still blind, they couldn’t tell what had trapped them!
Their screams of rage echoed through the forest as they thrashed, trying to get free.
That’s my cue.
Zog would deal with them when they got back to Alzac Crater. If I was lucky, maybe the new Dragon Lord would have a few choice words. I wished I could be there to see it, but I had done my part. They’d even been kind enough to advance my Cycle by a day or two.
Finally, just as Mareg was starting to pull himself free, I took to the air and soared back into the forest, giggling all the way.
I almost flew into a tree when a fiery flash appeared beside me.
“You were having far too much fun back there,” the newcomer trilled with a suffering sigh.
“Asanda!” I cried, banking to wrap my old friend in a winghug.
She laughed, and we tumbled in the air for a few seconds before I let go. We righted ourselves, and almost instinctively fell into our Cycles-old pattern, weaving and bobbing through the forest I had claimed as my home. We danced like hatchlings, just enjoying the thermals from each other’s wakes.
It was amazing how quickly old habits came back to a phoenix. Before I knew it, we were spiraling up into the air, boosted again and again by our own thermals. We left a faint helix of fire behind us as we rose.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had done a Firespin. It was the one thing I missed from home. The only other phoenixes in the forest were a newly mated couple. They were far too busy with other pursuits to play with a ‘hatchling’ like me.
It was absurd. I hadn’t been a hatchling in a dozen Cycles.
I blinked and remembered myself just in time for the final piece. Asanda darted left. I darted right. Each of us performed a perfect flip—something no mere ‘birdie’ could do—and bolted forward for a head-on collision. As I had done a hundred times, I watched her eyes and not her path. Then we each tilted just far enough to brush our talons together. The moment that happened, we sent our magic into the double helix beneath us.
A pillar of fire, extending from the top down spun toward the forest below. We made sure it would snuff out before it reached the canopy, but still it was a beautiful sight. Dragons and others would see it for miles, but I didn’t care. This was one of those special moments. A tradition among my Clutch. One that had been practiced by my parents and grandparents for countless Cycles.
After all, the phoenix race was ancient. And while I didn’t follow many of the Old Ways, this was one I would always do.
Especially for Asanda.
We glided for a time in a great arc, side by side, watching as flames flickered and died away.
“You’ve grown reckless, Philomena,” Asanda sang with a smile as we approached the canopy. “I remember when you first saw a dragon. You cowered under your mother’s wing and your father had to pull you out by your tail!”
I stuck out my tongue at her and did a lazy backflip, shifting my path toward the northern shoreline. Tiny shapes in the distance flittered over a lump of rock out in the vast expanse of the ocean.
Asanda did a barrell roll around me—she always was a bit of a showoff—and took position off my left wing. She glided with the ease of a phoenix used to traveling over whole nations with a few beats of her wings. There was a reason she was the Clutch’s Emissary, after all.
“So, Asanda... what brings you to the Dragon Lands?” My voice was a little scratchy from my renewed Cycle, but my song was still clear.
“You were never much for ditties.” Asanda laughed.
I shrugged my wings. “Eh. I’m impatient. Blame Mom.”
We shot over a small hill with a single tall tree, my old home when I had first arrived. My beak turned up in a smile, but we kept going. I had a nagging suspicion the past wasn’t done with me today.
“So? Let’s hear it,” I moved just close enough to prod her with a wing.
I flared despite myself. It took a conscious effort to smooth my feathers again. “And what does His Imperial Majesty want with me this time?”
“What he’s been asking for six Cycles now.”
“Asanda…” I sang patiently. “I’m happy out here.”
“You’re alone, Philomena.”
“I’m free!” I snapped. “Free from that... cage! All those obligations and duties Dad thinks are so flaming important. He wants to clip my wings!”
Asanda didn’t sing anything for a time. I let the silence settle as we banked slightly to follow the coastline toward the northernmost point. I looked out over the sea. There were an awful lot of things flying around hovering over some rock.
“You are Eldest, Philomena.” Asanda’s song brought me back to the conversation. “There are expectations both from you and for you. Especially considering your line.”
“Asanda!” I keened. “This is me! We’ve had this song three times a Cycle for six Cycles! He knows my answer. You know my answer. Why are you doing it again? Why do you never simply come to sing with me? You used to! Do you just not care anymore?”
Asanda looked away. Her four-pronged plume drooped and her flames banked.
“Asanda… I’m sorry.” I bowed my head. “That was unfair…”
“No,” Asanda warbled softly. “No, it wasn’t.”
Now I felt like a total hatchling. My oldest friend had soared for the better part of two days to see me—including at least one sunrise teleport—and here I was keening like some desperate chick demanding a second dinner.
“Philomena…” She paused and continued. “I know living out here is a challenge… but back in the Clutch’s skies, things aren’t blue and white. There’s been storms. Other races encroaching on our lands. Our skies.”
“They…” I blinked in confusion. “What would be dumb enough to mess with the Clutch? With any phoenix clutch?”
“Many things,” Asanda sang. “Two solstices ago, we had issues with a pack of timberwolves.”
I stared at her as we began skimming the glistening sand. “Timberwolves are made of wood.”
“Thank you for the lesson in earth spirit anatomy.” Asanda rolled her eyes. “This pack had enchantments upon them. Ones that resisted fire.”
I almost plowed into a sand dune. “What, did they make a deal with the Hearts of Flame?”
“We don’t know,” Asanda shrugged her beautiful wings. “That’s the problem. We’ve sang pacts with the Golden Eagles and the Ospreys of Gentlebog, but even they find themselves beset by strange foes. Whispers of shadowkin being seen in the Deep Places. Rumors of upheaval with the dragons. Some even sing anthems of war.”
I suddenly wished she had just come bearing news about Dad wanting me home again. It would have been easier to dismiss. If the Clutch was in danger…
“Have the Clutch Mothers spoken to the Hearts of Flame? Have the Elders sang the Dawn Chorus?”
“We’ve received no answer from either.”
I shook my head, adrift. This wasn’t my plan for today! I was supposed to be making teenage dragons run in circles!
“The Clutch needs our Eldest, Philomena.”
This was too much.
Something inside me snapped.
I banked hard and shot out to the north, over the crashing ocean waves. In seconds, I surged forward with speed, though I was careful to stay well above the splash line.
“Philomena!” Asanda cried. “What are you doing?”
I didn’t answer. I poured on the magic. I didn’t even know where I was going. I just flew. I wasn’t about to get bound up in the Clutch’s politics. I was not going back to that cage.
Tradition be damned!
I could feel Asanda’s air currents behind me despite my flight over the surging waters of the endless deeps. I shifted more magic into my flight, and a wake of fire blazed out behind me. Asanda let out a squawk of surprise from somewhere behind.
I ignored it. All that mattered was getting away.
I closed my eyes and tried to fight off the worry, just letting the wind rush past me. The sound of the water beneath me. The crash of pounding surf against rock. The bellows of dragons and the screeches of griffons—
My eyes popped open.
In my recklessness, I had flown straight for the island in the middle of the raging sea. But it wasn’t only the sea that was raging…
The skies were raging with what could only be described as war.
Full wings of griffons looped in tight formations around two massive red and gold dragon matriarchs. Young adult dragons maybe a few solstices older than the teenagers I screwed with this morning were locked in combat with small wings of griffons. The griffons outnumbered the dragons three-to-one, but they didn’t have two matriarchs to support them.
Asanda appeared beside me in a fiery teleport. I was too stunned by the sight before me to be impressed she’d teleported twice in one day. “What madness is this?”
“Flamebreaker Clan.” I hated the fear in my song, but there was no hiding it. “They refused to accept the new Dragon Lord after the last Call.”
“This is the madness I speak of!” Asanda keened desperately. “Something is wrong with the world, Philomena. Come, we must leave before we are seen.”
An adult dragon swatted a pair of griffons out of the sky with a single swipe of her tail. Both plummeted into the frothing ocean, sending up plumes of seawater. In moments, they disappeared beneath the waves. I considered diving in after them… but even a phoenix needs to know her limits.
Thankfully, the griffons were ready. I saw three dive into the water after the stricken warriors.
That’s when I realized where we were. It was a small place. The isle was no bigger than the two matriarchs. There was little but wet rock and dead seaweed on the surface.
But it did have a gem mine in its depths.
“This is the Isle of Beak,” I trilled. “The Dragon Lord likes to send cocky young dragons here to get thrashed by the griffon guards from time to time when he’s not sending them my way.”
“Humility. Aren’t many other races around here. The Dragon Lord always makes an arrangement with the griffons before sending out a ‘raid.’ By the Dawn, the griffons consider it practically a sport to do ‘the dragon dance.’ No one’s ever hurt, save for the dragon’s pride.”
“Races of the Air should never be this insane!” Asanda insisted. “We must go, Philomena.”
Four griffons narrowly avoided being roasted alive by the flame of a matriarch.
“No?” Asanda cried. “Those are dragons, Philomena! You’re not immortal!”
“I don’t like bullies,” I snapped. “Two matriarchs against a small gem mine garrison? Not while I’m around.”
“This isn’t a dance!” my companion shouted at me. “They’re out for blood!”
“They should be out for flame!” I hissed and darted forward. “Stay here, Asanda. They aren’t part of the Clutch, but this is still my home!”
“Philomena!” Asanda shrieked.
I ignored her and dove into the battle.
A griffon female—she looked like her wing was badly injured—had drifted into the line of fire of one of the matriarchs. The dragon’s great cat-like eyes focused on her as her companions cried out. The griffon looked up into the gaping maw of the red and gold beast.
Well, that’s not happening.
I focused my magic, teleporting right in front of the wounded griffon. With a cry, I flared both my wings and my flame.
Dragonfire and phoenixfire were different kinds of magic. When I didn’t have my flame, dragonfire simply accelerated my Cycle.
Otherwise, it was little more than a rush of warm air.
If I didn’t let it overwhelm me.
I let out a cry of defiance as the fire tried to wash over me to devour the griffon. I cupped my wings, absorbing what power I could and redirecting the rest. I was in the center of a great rose of red and orange, expanding in all directions, save one.
The flames stopped and the matriarch cocked her head, staring at me dumbfounded. I glanced behind me and smirked at the surprised eyes of the wounded griffon.
I turned to face the winged behemoth once more and stuck out my tongue at her.
This was probably not the smartest decision. She roared so loud, she very nearly knocked me out of the sky. Thankfully, I crashed into the griffon I had just saved.
I looked at the griffon and nodded to her companions below, telling her to flee. She said something, probably a thank you, but the second roar of the matriarch drowned out her words.
Didn’t matter. Job wasn’t done yet.
I used the griffon as a launching perch and flung myself at the ancient dragon. Honestly, the beast could probably flatten me without even noticing. She was huge in a way I couldn’t even begin to describe.
Bigger wasn’t always better.
I flew forward and unleashed the full might of my radiance right in her face. The dragon howled, shying away from me.
“Take that, you brute!” I sang at the beast.
The matriarch let out a cry for help. She was old and clever enough to know she couldn’t catch me. I was far too agile.
Her brood, however…
Five sleek dragon males broke off from their fights and rushed me. I squawked in surprise and dove again, skimming the matriarch’s scales with years’ worth of experience. I compensated for her every move. Every twitch. Everything.
I was the best, after all.
A young golden dragoness—only a solstice or two older than the teenagers—appeared in front of me. I let out a cry of surprise as the dragoness lunged forward and pinned me hard against the thick metal-like scales of the matriarch.
“You picked the wrong side, birdbrain,” the dragoness growled as she slashed at my head with a glistening claw. I darted left and dodged the attack, but I couldn’t break free. I dodged the second swipe, but that just made her more mad.
Behind her through the haze of smoke, a wing of shadows soared in from the west and bore down on the dragonflight. Armor glinted in the sunlight from the leading shape. My beak curved in a smile. The griffon reinforcements had arrived.
“Hold still, so I can end you!” the dragoness screamed.
I didn’t want to oblige her, so I spat sunfire in her face. She let out a howl of pain, but dragons were as fireproof as me. It would sting, but it wouldn’t do any damage.
However, it did get her to let go.
I plummeted straight down, folding my wings close as I approached the second matriarch, who had been intent on attacking the gem mine’s entrance. I glanced behind me. The dragoness was in pursuit, but more importantly, my attack gave the griffons time to regroup and to join up with their reinforcements. The reinforcements appeared... strange, but there was too much smoke in the air to see them clearly.
It didn’t matter. They had the other dragons distracted. The griffons struck back with spears and claws, not letting themselves get pulled apart again.
I had evened the odds a little, but I still wanted to down at least one of these overgrown lizards. Was it cocky? Arrogant? Foolish? Maybe even stupid?
It would also be fun.
Okay, you overgrown iguanas… watch the birdie!
I zeroed in on the second matriarch’s left wing, pulling my magic into my flight again and leaving a vertical contrail of flame in my wake. A few of the griffons realized my goal and immediately attacked the second matriarch, keeping it from noticing me. I pulled in my wings tight and, at the last possible moment, I shifted my magic from my speed to my aura, instantly conjuring a shimmering cone of fire before my beak.
I shot through the matriarch’s wing as if it were nothing more than branches and leaves.
It wasn’t a fatal wound. That wasn’t the point.
The point was to screw with her flight.
As I pulled out of my dive—using my magic again, so I didn’t plow into the ocean surface—I glanced behind me. The griffons were attacking the wings of the behemoth. She bellowed in impotent draconic rage.
She knew she was fighting a losing battle.
I was far enough away to avoid the massive splash when the matriarch crashed into the ocean’s surface.
I let out a victorious cry, spinning in the air, my wings wide as I showboated just how good I was. Despite my words, I hoped Asanda had seen me. That was something worth remembering in the Clutch’s Cloudsong.
I may have gotten a little carried away. I didn’t see the six dragons coming from behind.
Two of them grabbed me at once, while a third wrapped his scaly claw around my beak. I tried to shriek in protest, but the claw nearly crushed me. I tried to flare, but they just jeered at me.
The golden dragoness hovered in front of me, her eyes burning with hatred. I had a nagging suspicion whose brood she belonged to.
“We’re gonna fillet you for that, you little feathered freak,” the dragoness roared. She brandished her claws and pulled back.
“Break and attack!”
A voice like the song of the Great Mother rang out. All the dragons looked up. I couldn’t help but do the same. One of them let go of my beak. I should have struck, but instead… I just stared.
The reinforcements weren’t griffons.
They were ponies.
Six armored pegasi slammed into the dragons holding me and I was free. In moments, they were dueling with the skill and precision of… well, me.
Where had these pegasi learned to fly?
“No!” the golden dragoness screeched. “Not you! I won’t let you!”
“Stand down!” the same regal voice intoned from above. “I have no wish to hurt you, young one.”
A large, strangely armored pegasus—a female, I think—glowered as the dragoness darted forward. With an effortless flap of her great wings, she dodged the first wild swipe.
“I will not ask again,” the pegasus warned. “Stand down!”
The dragoness shot downward with rage etched on her face. Well, I wasn’t about to let a favor go unreturned. Focusing my power, I teleported once more—though this one was far harder than the last—and appeared right in front of the strangely armored pegasus.
“No, you don’t!” I sang and I sent a wave of pure sunfire into her face.
The dragoness screeched, blinded. I wasn’t done this time. I darted forward with a snap of my wings and slammed into her headfirst. The dragoness gasped, the breath knocked from her. The impact spun her off-course.
To my shock, she grabbed me as we careened past the lead pegasus, holding me so tight I could barely see.
“I can swim,” the dragoness hissed, her eyes glinting. “Can you?”
I looked down to the rapidly approaching ocean and panicked. I tried to breathe fire again, but the second teleport had taken more out of me than expected. With horror, I realized my flames were banked.
I thrashed. I tried to bite her. I tried to teleport. I tried to do something. Anything.
She didn’t let go.
I keened as the cold ocean instantly snuffed out my flame. The dragon growled and shoved my head under the waves. I sputtered, feeling the water’s salty bite pouring down my throat. I tried to claw or knock her away… but without my magic, I was as helpless as a hatchling.
Suddenly, the dragoness let out a very phoenix-like squawk of protest as a field of golden magic tore her away from me and sent her tumbling out of sight.
I bobbed to the surface and tried to tread water, but the dragoness had been right.
I didn’t know how to swim. Most phoenixes didn’t.
My head slipped under the water as I started to sink.
In a moment of clarity, I saw the pegasus I had saved through the waves.
She wasn’t wearing armor. She was wearing regalia.
And she wasn’t a pegasus.
Her long white horn glowed with soft golden light. Even as the darkness came, I could feel a familiar magic envelop me.
“Her name is Philomena?” an angelic voice said from somewhere above me.
“Yes,” came the familiar rumble that could only be the Dragon Lord. “She’s helped teach some of our young humility.”
“A trickster, then?” The other voice sounded amused.
“A good one.” The Dragon Lord didn’t ever ‘say’ anything. He only ever rumbled. Or some version of ‘loud noise.’ “We met when she challenged me to a little game. It was many years ago… but one does not forget an opponent such as her.”
I opened my eyes.
“Ah, Philomena!” the Dragon Lord roared. His voice shook the great crater he called home. “Nice of you to join us, little one.”
“Indeed,” said the feminine voice. “I would like to know more of a phoenix who would defend both griffon and pony.”
I blinked a few times and tested my wings. I felt completely healed… and renewed.
That was impossible unless…
Asanda was there. She was smiling at me, but her eyes kept darting to the great white pony beside her.
The great white alicorn.
The one I had seen above me in the ocean…
It couldn’t be…
My eyes drifted from her smiling face, past her perfect golden regalia to the mark on her flank. I had always found it strange that ponies got marks there to symbolize… something. Maybe it had something to do with their clans?
This mark was special. Every phoenix knew this pony.
“Glorious Dawn,” I trilled in a quiet, humble song.
The great white alicorn’s smile grew. “It has been a long time since I heard that name, little one. These days, I am simply called Celestia.”
I turned to Asanda with my beak hanging open. Was this a dream? Had I actually died under the ocean?
Asanda smirked. That smirk confirmed everything.
I was in the presence of a goddess.
Thankfully, my training beneath Dad’s wings saved me. I bowed low to the Goddess of the Sun, which seemed to amuse her even more.
“Don’t get formal on me now, little Philomena.” Glorious Dawn’s laugh was like the brush of a newborn sun on a clear morning. “It wouldn’t do after all your friend has told me of you.”
I shot Asanda a look of pure terror.
Asanda snickered and sang out, “Don’t worry. I only told her the good parts. It was a short conversation.”
I glared at her, but was once again graced by the goddess’s laughter.
“I am interested in hearing more from you, little phoenix,” Glorious Dawn said as she leaned down. I managed not to bow this time. “Why did you rush to the rescue of a wounded griffon? Why did you engage a Flamebreaker matriarch? And why would you throw yourself in front of what you took to be an ordinary pegasus?”
Yeah, because if I had known it was Glorious Dawn, I would have been too stunned to do anything.
I didn’t understand why she was even here. Why a being of her power and stature would bother with lesser creatures like dragons or griffons was beyond me. Even phoenixes were beneath her. And yet… she was here.
I looked into her eyes and saw a wisdom beyond my understanding. She reminded me a lot of my mother… whom I suddenly missed very badly. However, there was also a deep sadness. It took me a moment to realize… Glorious Dawn was letting me see these things. I couldn’t read ponies.
She wanted me to know.
I couldn’t guess why, but, since she was being honest with me, it was only fitting to return the favor.
“I do not like bullies, Glorious Da—”
“Please, Philomena. Just Celestia.”
“She’s a lot like you,” the Dragon Lord rumbled. “Doesn’t care much for what others think. Likes things informal.”
Glorious Dawn—Celestia—didn’t argue.
“I don’t like bullies... Celestia,” I sang. “And that’s all the Flamebreakers are. Teasing, tricks and play is one thing… but they were trying to kill those griffons. Maybe start a war. I couldn’t just fly by and do nothing”
“Well sung,” Celestia replied. “Indeed, that is why I have come. Torch here offered me a great gift in exchange for helping him smooth things over with Griffonstone. You’ll be happy to know Torch’s brood arrived and captured the rest of the Flamebreakers shortly after you fell. The Isle of Beak is still in griffon claws. And… though many were injured, none were killed.”
“Ah yes, the gift,” the Dragon Lord rumbled. He nodded at an elegant dragoness, sleeker and a solstice or two younger than he with blue scales and a knowing smile. The dragoness departed quietly and Torch returned his attention to Celestia. “It has been prepared as you requested, Celestia. The spells and incantations should hold for a few centuries past the appointed time.”
“Thank you, Torch,” Celestia said. For some reason, she looked away from her setting sun in the west. Her gaze shifted to the eastern horizon. “You have my promise that he will be well cared for.”
“And this is the key to your prophecies?” The Dragon Lord seemed more curious than anything else. “Even you might have trouble breaking these spells.”
“I will manage,” Celestia replied. “If it does not go well, I do hope you’ll hold to the arrangement.”
“I am a dragon of my word, Princess,” the Dragon Lord declared, though there was a hint of bitterness in his voice. “You know that. I will take no pleasure in it, though.”
She looked at him like a proud mother, though the sadness in her eyes grew for a moment, as if this deal was not something she wanted.
Dad used to look at me like that…
I glanced at Asanda, who stared back at me with an odd expression on her face. There was almost a hint of a smile. Almost.
A large chest was brought before Celestia. Her pegasus guards stood behind her, all but invisible in the shadow of the Dragon Lord and Glorious Dawn. It took two of them to hold the chest between them. It was simple on the outside, but even I could feel the magic pulsing from it.
“With the new treaty signed, I believe we’ve concluded our business, Dragon Lord.”
“Indeed, Princess,” the Dragon Lord rumbled. “I thank you for your assistance, in both battle and diplomacy.”
“You have learned much about the strength of shared ties since we first met, Torch. I’m impressed. The dragons have a fine leader.”
“Well, I cannot take all the credit.” The massive dragon looked down at me. “She did help a little when I was younger.”
For a moment, my nervousness was forgotten and I fired off a one-winged salute at the Dragon Lord. He bellowed in laughter.
“Now, that brings me to one last matter,” Celestia said, drawing my attention back to her. “Your companion told me of the troubles facing your Clutch. I would like to help.”
I gawked at her, my beak once more hanging open.
She smiled warmly. “Asanda mentioned who you are in your Clutch. How you rejected that role out of a desire to find your own way. I have no desire to take that away from you. Yet it is your right to speak for your Clutch. Would you come with me back to Canterlot? Be the liaison between your kind and mine?”
I froze, feeling like I’d just been thrown in a pool of ice. I didn’t want to go back to my Dad, even after all of this, but this was Glorious Dawn. The Bringer of the Sun. She was… everything to the Clutches.
“All I ask is for you to be a bridge between us,” Celestia said gently. “You need not promise anything more.”
“I…” I warbled, unsure what to say.
“I should also mention I have a court full of humorless nobles that tend to be far more stuffy than is good for them. Perhaps you could help them, as well.”
I perked up at that and I looked into her eyes. In there, I saw something. She may be a goddess. The phoenixes may have revered her for Cycles upon Cycles. She may be Glorious Dawn.
She was also lonely in a way I couldn’t hope to understand.
But what really did it was the familiar twinkle in her eye. It was the same twinkle I felt when playing tricks on foolish young dragons.
I could see it as plain as the setting sun.
Who better to keep an immortal goddess of the sun company than a phoenix?
I nodded proudly.
“Wonderful!” she declared. “We’ll depart after I raise the moon. If you need anything, just ask.”
With that, she soared off to speak with the armored pegasi.
I stood there, my wings fluttering a little as I just realized what I had done.
“Looks like you were supposed to be here all along,” Asanda sang as she sidled up to me. “To be the companion of Glorious Dawn Herself…”
“I… I don’t think I even know what just happened…”
“Well, I do,” Asanda trilled. “And I know that the Clutch will be proud of you. Your father and mother especially. I will start the journey to tell them come daybreak.”
I leaned in to give Asanda a gentle nuzzle. She wrapped her wings around me. I laughed a little.
“I have one question though,” Asanda chirped.
I cocked my head.
“What happened to being free?”
“I’m not giving up being free,” I sang, feeling my fire burn even hotter than before. “I’m just entering a new Cycle of it. Anyway… an entire new race to prank? A whole court of puffed-up nobles?”
My beaked curved into a grin as the Princess of the Sun met my gaze and matched my expression. I saw the twinkle in her eye from here.
“This is going to be fun.”
The song of our laughter echoed through the crater as the sun slipped below the horizon, waiting to be reborn again as the dawn.