Trudging down the seemingly never ending dirt road, Spike kept a tight hold of the wrapped staff clenched in his right hand. Despite his best efforts, he had yet to figure out how to get the staff to work for him, failing to elicit even a single iota of magical energy from the object. He could feel the magic radiating off of the staff but had no means of activating it. Was it because he wasn’t one of its designated Element bearers? The Elements of Harmony did select those it deemed worthy to use their power, after all.
“Hey Star Swirl?”
The skull made no response.
“Star Swirl?” Spike was starting to panic. He crouched down and, setting the staff down, brought the skull up to his face. “Star Swirl? Star Swirl?!”
“I...I’m-I’m h-here, Spike.”
Spike let out a sigh of relief. “Are you alright?”
The skull’s nonexistent eyes meet his own. “Just a little tired. No need to fret.”
Since his grisly demise at the hands of Discord, Star Swirl was reanimated but as a walking skeleton and after a few mishaps, was reduced to just a skull. The magic keeping him on the mortal plane was finite, meaning that the once-renowned conjurer couldn’t cast spells like he used to. The pair learned this when Star Swirl erected a wall of fire to protect them from a rampaging owl-bear and remained inactive for the following half hour. Necromancy was an old but forbidden form of magic, one that dealt with summoning spirits or raising the dead as ghouls or revenants. Some practitioners could even bring themselves back to life, provided that the rites were performed properly.
“You saved my life back there. Thank you.”
Star Swirl nodded slightly. “Of course. What are friends for?”
They left it at that, instead resuming their journey in silence. As insane as it was, having a talking skull was better than no companionship at all and Spike was able to look past the morbid side of it to appreciate Star Swirl’s company. After all, he didn’t have many friends left. Discord had to seen to that, which was another reason why he had to answer for his crimes. And I’m going to be the one to take that bastard down.
Flying eyeballs. An orange dog-cat hybrid on a bicycle. A caterpillar smoking a hookah, smoke-shaped letters drifting through the air as he drone-sang. The thing about living in a bizarre, logic-defying world is that after a while, you get used to the abnormal and think about it less and less. It becomes as natural as breathing and loses its impact. Discord might as well step up his game if he wants to shock anypony anymore.
“Well, here we are.”
Ponyville. What had once been a cozy little hamlet was now a collection of ramshackle huts surrounded by a wall of sharpened wooden pikes. The outer wall of the town was drowning in a perpetual layer of thick fog, giving it the appearance of being a cluster of teeth. Spike's heart ached at the state of his former home but he then steeled himself, remembering his training: never dwell on your feelings of anger or grief. Such feelings can get a lesser stallion killed but a true knight can rise above such distractions.
Just then, several ponies popped up at the top of the wall, their crossbows and spears aimed directly at the stoic dragon. There was thudding sound like hooves ascending a flight of stairs and a pale-amber earth pony mare appeared, her two-toned mane held back in a tight bun. "Who goes there?!" She yelled in a commanding tone.
Spike couldn't help but to crack a smile. "What's the matter, Mayor Mare? It's been so long that you don't recognize Twilight Sparkle's former number one assistant?"
"Spike? Sweet Celestia, it is you!" Mayor Mare smiled warmly and then turned to bark at an unseen pony. "Well don't just stand there! Let him through!"
Large twin wooden doors slowly creaked open and Spike entered without a second thought, where he was yanked forward and pulled into a death grip of a hug. "Ugh, it's good to see you too, Ms. Mayor! Can I breathe now?"
The mare blushed and sheepishly released him. By then, a small crowd had gathered around the two and Mayor Mare placed a foreleg around Spike's shoulders. "Everypony, Spike the dragon has returned!" The crowd cheered and like a tidal wave, swarmed Spike, giving him pats on the back or asking him about his travels. It was nice to be home once more.
As Mayor Mare led him through town, the nostalgic feeling of coming home hit Spike like a hammer to the chest. He could make out familiar houses and landmarks, though they were now warped from their original forms. The clocktower was made of graham crackers with a roof of chocolate bars while town hall was upside down and sagging to the left, slowly sinking into the earth beneath it and breaking apart due to its displaced weight. Many of the cottages were either boarded up or covered in zany patterns such as polka dots or stripes. In short, the town had seen much, much better days.
Spike abruptly stopped in mid-stride, the claws of his exposed toes digging into the ground. Where Golden Oaks Library once stood was instead replaced by a gnarled, burnt tree stump, an ugly, hole-filled charred piece of wood that stood like a rotten tooth. The tree stump became clearer as Spike approached it as though he were sleepwalking. He ran a hand down its side, his nails scraping off splinters. Rage, heartache, shock and grief swarmed around in the dragon's head.
"Discord burnt it down when he arrived," Mayor Mare stated, her voice shaky with pain. "He said that it was a monument to the Element of Magic and had no place in his new kingdom."
Tears gathered in Spike's eyes. This...this isn't right. Ponyville, and by extension, the library, wasn't his first home but the most important moments of his life occurred there. It was in Ponyville that he'd made some real friends, where he fell in love for the first time, and celebrated his first birthday. The library held so many wonderful memories that its charred corpse filled him with an indescribable fury. It was like losing a family member, one he'd never gotten the chance to see before their untimely demise.
He turned his head to glance over at Mayor Mare. "Is Sugarcube Corner still standing?"
Mayor Mare nodded. "Yes...the Cakes still live there too. Are you alright?"
Brushing off his hand, Spike rose and replied in a low growl, "No, I'm angry." The stunned mare stayed rooted in place though Spike didn't notice. The dragon's dark demeanor cleared the way for him as he made his way towards the establishment, the ponies willingly avoiding conversation with him. For this, Spike was grateful. Even the most uneducated knew to never get in the way of a pissed off dragon.
Tink-la-tink-la-tink! The tiny bell rang as Spike shut the door behind him. A blue mare with a swirly pink mane scurried over to him and smiled, "Welcome traveler to Sugarcube Corner! I'm sure that we can accommodate..." She froze and leaned forward to inspect the newcomer. "S-spike? Is that you?"
He set his things aside and placed both hands on the mare's shoulders. "Yes it is, Mrs. Cake. It's nice to see you."
Unlike Mayor Mare, Mrs. Cake's hug was eager but loose, giving Spike room to breath but still showing that she missed him. "It's been too long, Spike. Far too long." She lifted her head up to gaze at him tearfully. "When...when we'd first gotten the news about Canterlot, we'd feared that you'd been killed. Nopony could tell us anything. Where have you been this whole time?"
Guilt wormed its way into Spike's heart. "I ran. Twilight and the other Element bearers held Discord off so that I could escape. I eventually found my way to the Crystal Empire where Princess Cadence and Shining Armor offered me sanctuary. I've spent the last year training as a knight with Shining Armor. I was hiding and so the fewer that knew of my existence the better. Please forgive me."
Mrs. Cake sniffled and ran a hoof through his head spikes. "Oh Spike, there's nothing to forgive. I understand."
A yellow stallion exited the kitchen, his forelegs buckling slightly at the weight of a kettle that they were supporting. "Hey Cup, who're you talking...." He took notice of the dragon and the kettle clattered to the floor. "...To?"
Spike raised an awkward hand. "Hi Mr. Cake. Long time no see, eh?"
The stallion stumbled forward slightly and stopped a foot away. "Spike...you...you're alive."
"Isn't it amazing, Carrot?" Mrs. Cake beamed. "You see? There is still hope in the world."
Mr. Cake placed a hoof on Spike's shoulder and nodded, "There sure is."
The touching moment was interrupted by a warbling growl. Spike nervously grinned.
Mrs. Cake shook her head. "We should get some food into Spike before his stomach devours us all."
It's so good to be back.