Approaching Disaster

by FanOfMostEverything


Less Than Stellar Outcome

Namepending Castle, aside from acting as an object lesson about deciding names before the crowd did, had a number of novel arcane properties. In her darker moments, Twilight suspected that one of them was an anti-anxiety aura, one she could overpower without conscious effort. If nothing else, the harmony crystal held up against her pacing much better than the floors of Golden Oaks ever did.

Twilight shut her eyes, brought a hoof to her chest, and took a steadying breath. Her fifth in as many minutes, but she was the only one counting. “Okay, one more time. Shining Armor?”

Spike shuffled the various scrolls, notes, and miscellaneous missives scattered about the Cutie Map until he found the Crystal Empire message-flake. “Sunburst still has the crystal flu, and somepony’s got to look after Flurry Heart.”

“Right. Even with Fledgling’s Forbearance, surrounding her with a bunch of noisy strangers and fireworks probably won’t end well for her, the Festival of Friendship, or Canterlot." It made perfect, logical sense, as much as Twilight hated admitting that. "The yaks?”

Spike pulled over a beautifully carved cylinder of wood, the Equish characters rendered in a spiraling bas-relief, with illuminated portrayals of the party Pinkie had thrown for the Yakyakistani delegation carved along the top and bottom edges. The craftsyakship was only slightly marred by tooth marks and a large crack near the salutation. “That yeti migration’s still going strong. Prince Rutherford said something’s got them even more riled up than usual. Nocreature’s going in or out of Yakyakistan for the next three weeks unless they want to risk getting eaten." Spike rolled the dowel in his claws, considering the postscript. "They would do it if you asked.”

“I know, but I can’t ask them to in good conscience." Twilight sighed. "Once-a-decade migration, and it just had to line up with the event."

After a few moments, Spike said, "I mean, we could reschedule. These aren’t the only no-shows."

"Goodness knows." Twilight shook her head. "But no. If it doesn't happen on the anniversary of my getting my wings, then the whole thing is just a self-serving exercise in ego inflation. I wouldn't want to attend that kind of thing." After a sigh, she said, "Have we heard back from Griffonstone?”

“Kind of. Gabby—you know, the mail-griffon?"

"And the hen who very nearly provided a breakthrough in dermosymbology." Twilight stopped in her pacing and gritted her teeth. "Except she didn't." She started to smell smoke. Probably something in the oven. Why was it getting so bright in here?

"Easy, Twilight." Claws at her side made her jump. She hadn't even heard Spike get up. "We've got enough to worry about."

"I'm fine. I'm calm." Twilight still lay down for a few moments and let Spike work some tension out of her withers. When she let as much time pass as she could spare, she asked, "What did she say?"

"They’re still arguing over who has the authority to respond officially," Spike said as he returned to his chair. "And that Gilda apologizes on their behalf. Kind of.”

Twilight considered her knowledge of the griffon, most of it secondhoof. “She insulted the intelligence and character of every other griffon?”

“And a few other things besides.”

“I hope you’re not getting any vocabulary out of that.”

“Gabby's good enough at filtering that stuff that she's practically the Griffonstone diplomatic corps." Spike chuckled. "And I learned plenty of curses back when Rainbow Dash was crashing twice a day and calling it Wonderbolts practice.”

Twilight gasped. “Spike! That’s a terrible thing to say about a friend.”

That got a shrug. “It’s true.”

“I never said it wasn’t, but it's still terrible."

A faint scream resonated through the map room. This being Ponyville, it wasn't the first time.

Spike raised an eyeridge. “Think we should check on that?”

Twilight shook her head. “That sounded like Roseluck. She probably saw a bunny or something.”

“You are focused.”

“This will be the first ever Festival of Friendship. Maybe the only one if it goes bad enough. I’d like to avoid that if at all possible." Twilight spoke faster with every thought, the last sentence practically tumbling out of her lips. After steadying breath number six, she said, "How about the changelings?”

Spike gingerly picked up a hexagon of something translucent and green. One side had been covered in a waxy substance, with words scratched into the stuff before it had hardened. “Pharynx is attempting either sibling bonding or a coup. Maybe both. Thorax isn’t sure, but he definitely doesn't have time to make an appearance in Canterlot.”

"It's... probably just Pharynx trying to be a good older brother. I'm sure the Map would have alerted us otherwise." A chill ran across Twilight's spine as she considered her uncertainty with both that situation and the mysterious artifact she was using as a glorified coffee table. "So. The dragons? I don't believe they've sent a response yet.”

Spike shook his head and grabbed another scroll, this one singed along the edges. “Ember got back to me earlier today.”

“And?” Twilight looked closer as Spike unrolled the letter. "Wait, isn't that the invitation we sent her?"

"Not a lot of paper in the Dragonlands."

"Fair point," Twilight conceded. "What did she say?"

“‘Thanks, but no thanks.’”

“That’s it?”

Spike turned the scroll around so Twilight could see the four words scrawled on the back. “That’s it.”

“Ugh." She managed to resist the urge to smash her face into the Map, if barely. "The Pillars?”

That prompted quite a bit of paper shuffling. “Well, Star Swirl said he was too busy in his pan-Equestrian pilgrimage. Flash Magnus is apparently arranging some kind of massive training mission for the Guard who aren’t taking the day off—" Spike paused midsearch. "You’re sure about that?”

Twilight rolled her eyes. If she had to hear somecreature ask her that one more time... “It’s a Festival of Friendship. Spears and armor don’t exactly fit the theme. Plus, Celestia has promised me that any ancient sealed evils aren’t due to rear their heads any time soon. The rest of the Pillars?”

After double-checking the newest mail, Spike shrugged. “Kind of all over the place. If they’ve sent responses, we haven’t gotten them.”

“Well, it’ll be a moot point in a few days.” Twilight sighed and waved a foreleg. "Behold, the Princess of Friendship, who can't get any of her friends to come to her party. This must be cosmic payback for Moondancer."

Spike hopped out of his chair and moved to her side, giving her a reassuring pat on the barrel. “Hey, it's not like creatures are ignoring it.”

“Yes, but it's not all bad timing either. Both the Duke of Maretonia and the Sultan of Saddle Arabia basically sent the same answer as Ember, just in more polite terms. And King Angus the White—”

The Ponyville monster alert sirens went live. By the time their droning wails made their way through the twisting passages of Namepending Castle and into the map room, they formed a dissonant chorus that set Twilight's teeth on edge and made Spike curl into himself, claws over his earfins.

A quick, low-power bubble of silence brought the din down to something manageable. Twilight held Spike as he uncoiled himself. Once his breathing was under control, she asked, “Are you alright?”

After a few moments, he nodded. “Yeah. Sorry, it's just... you know."

Twilight said nothing, just nodding against his crest.

"Still, we should definitely check on that.”

“It’s just the biannual emergency preparedness drill,” she assured him.

Spike squirmed out of Twilight's grip and gave her a skeptical look. “Then why haven’t those sirens gone off since, you know, me?”

She smirked. “It’s Ponyville. We usually have disasters more often than drills.”

“Heh. True.” Spike hopped back into his seat. "So, King Angus."

"You're sure you're okay?”

Spike nodded. “It just caught me off-guard is all. So did you ever solve that maze? Or figure out why he sent it?”

“I've managed that much." Twilight looked to the map room's newest tapestry, a tablecloth-sized circular labyrinth of fiendish complexity, each path less than an inch wide. "It’s his response. That’s untranslated Minoan.”

“They write in mazes?”

She shrugged her wings. “It makes sense to minotaurs. I guess he assumed I could read it. Celestia says he thinks very highly of me based on what he’s heard. Though, given how the Saddle Arabian sultan needed a scroll longer than me to say 'no thanks...'” Twilight trailed off and sighed.

Spike scratched his head. “Can Celestia read any Minoan?”

“Just enough to order lunch.”

“And Sunset? The journal must've made that easy.”

Twilight grimaced. “Inviting Sunset means inviting her friends, whose local analogues are already attending. And her girlfriend. Who is me.”

“Yeah, that’s awkward on multiple levels." Spike cleared his throat and gestured towards a pile of more conventional scrolls and letters. "At least we’re getting guests from all across Equestria!”

“Yes, but it feels a little hollow." Twilight looked from that stack to the rest of the table. "This is supposed to be a Festival of Friendship, but so few of my friends will be able to make it.”

Spike chuckled. “You know, it says something when you’re upset because your friends can’t make it. And when the ponies who have RSVP’d count as only a few of them.”

That coaxed out a weak smile. “I guess that is one way of looking at it.” Twilight drooped. “But they’re not there for me, they’re just there for an alicorn. If the creatures I’ve met personally don’t want to come, then—”

A deafening roar shook the room as much as it echoed in it. Dust fell from the roots of Golden Oaks as pony and dragon both tried to keep their footing.

Spike looked up, frowning. “Okay, now I know that isn’t part of a drill.”

Twilight just focused on cleaning up the piles of correspondence the roar had disrupted. “It’s like Princess Celestia taught me, I can’t let ponies assume an alicorn will take care of everything.”

“Twilight, that was clearly a dragon.”

“If it were a genuine emergency, I’m sure Rainbow Dash would’ve flown in by now to tell us." Twilight picked up a stack of telegram cards and rapped them against the side of the Cutie Map before flicking through them. "Now, the western buffalo tribes—“

“Rainbow Dash,” Spike echoed flatly.

Twilight gave him a hard look over the edge of the cards. “Yes. I believe you've met. Blue pegasus mare, Bearer of Loyalty, used to carve furrows in the fields outside Ponyville twice a day?”

“Training at Wonderbolts HQ right now?”

“What?" Twilight summoned her day planner in a burst of magic, flipping through it as she kept talking. "No she isn’t, she…" She trailed off as she reached the current week. And the big rectangle stretching across the whole thing, clearly labeled RD: WONDERBOLTS. Her ears drooped. "Oh dear.”

“Um, Princess Twilight?" Both looked up to see a pegasus standing in the map room's doorway, so anxious her eyes were darting about like a chameleon's. "So sorry to barge in, but there’s kind of a giant dragon on its way to the castle.”

Twilight straightened up and nodded, quietly sending the day planner back to her bedroom. “Thank you, Ditzy, I was about to take care of that.”

“Oh." Ditzy Doo wiped her brow with a wing. "That’s a relief.”

"Yes, yes it is." And with that, Twilight galloped for the nearest balcony. She could've teleported, but she needed the extra time to think.

Spike followed along, moving on all fours to keep pace. “Really?”

She could spare a bit of attention to answer him. “It’s like Cadence told me during that awful airship cruise. Half of being in charge is acting like you know what you’re doing.”

“Well, it’s gotten us this far.”

"That's what I keep telling myself." The last parts of the ninth contingency plan clicked into place in Twilight's mind. "Listen in, but try to stay out of sight. I trust your judgement on this one."

Spike nodded. "You got it." He veered off just before Twilight approached the balcony.

The sight of what awaited her made her immediately throw out Plans A, B, and E through H. "Dragon" undersold just what hovered in front of Namepending Castle. It dwarfed Torch, just as wide but built more sinuously, dangling in the air like an immense silk scarf with no apparent need for wings and casting much of Ponyville in shadow. Cervine antlers and mustache-like tendrils couldn't distract from a mouth the size of the Carousel Boutique, nor the clear intelligence in the eyes behind it. And, of course, there was the small matter of how the entire crimson behemoth twinkled like a night sky seen through a glass of red wine.

All in all, it barely cracked the top ten most awe-inspiring things Twilight had ever seen. “Can I help you?”

“Princess Twilight Sparkle?” it said at a surprisingly reasonable volume, though deep enough that Twilight could almost feel her bones shake.

She nodded. “That’s me, yes.”

The dragon grinned, revealing far too many teeth. “Wonderful. I must request that you come with me.” It writhed its coils until it could hold out a relatively dainty forepaw—which still had as much surface area as the balcony—where Twilight could hop into it without needing to spread her wings.

She didn't take the opportunity, just leveling a flat stare at the creature. “I’m afraid I must decline that request.”

It loomed down to better stare down at her, filling Twilight's field of vision with red stars, the two supergiants that were its eyes burning with barely restrained fury. A single immense eye ridge rose. “Are you?”

Twilight tamped down the urge to yawn in the titan's face. No point being rude. “I am. I am not going to just sit back and let you kidnap me."

The dragon sighed, forcing Twilight to shield herself against the strong, saliva-misted winds. "Miss Sparkle, you are putting me in a very uncomfortable position."

She crossed her forelegs once she dropped the barrier spell. Okay, maybe this called for a little rudeness. "Do you have any idea what my schedule looks like? I don't have time to get kidnapped!"

"Miss Sparkle, I am Draco, the constellatory dragon. And as Mother always said, you can't spell 'constellatory' without ‘story’. That's what the constellations are, stories written in the sky. When we descend from the heavens, we have no choice but to act the part. I am not merely a dragon, I am Dragon, trope and archetype. I terrorize villages because that's what dragons do. I hoard treasure because that's what dragons do."

Twilight rolled her eyes. "And you kidnap princesses because that's what dragons do." She sighed and muttered, "The Ursa Minor was never this bad."

Draco chuckled, wisps of smoke flying everywhere. Dragons, Twilight realized, have excellent hearing. "Well, bears tend to be rather benign in stories, don't they? So long as they aren't provoked, of course."

"Of course," Twilight grumbled.

"Fortunately for both of us, dragons are also very intelligent, and thus I am aware of my own predilections. If you resist, I fear that convention would demand that I lay waste to this charming little village in the ensuing struggle." Draco gestured towards Ponyville. After the sirens had gone off, the town had gone into Tirek-class emergency status: remain indoors and away from windows until the all-clear party. "Given what I've heard about you, I assumed you'd prefer the more efficient option."

“What you’ve heard about me?” It was grasping at straws, yes, but Twilight was happy to stall however she could. “I can’t even get a taxi in Manehattan; how did you hear anything about me?”

That got another laugh, the smoke clouds making the sky increasingly overcast. “I believe you are familiar with the term limits of the Dragonlord, and other such minutiae of dragon law?”

Twilight cleared her throat. “I can neither confirm nor deny that.”

“Oh, I believe you can,” Draco said with a literally brilliant smile. “After all, I am the one who enforces those laws. And when I saw an unfamiliar alicorn aiding one of the competitors in the Gauntlet of Fire, my word, I had to meet such a daring pony myself. Once I cleared out my own busy schedule, of course.”

“Of course,” Twilight said, rolling her eyes.

“Now, we’re both busy entities, so why don’t we continue this conversation elsewhere?” Draco gave a meaningful glance at the town. “Unless you’d prefer a more… crassly physical way of resolving this.”

“Well, you’re right about one thing.” Twilight smirked as her mental countdown, which had started when she'd spotted the one green wisp of smoke, reached zero. "I do prefer the most efficient option."

Draco tilted his head. "Why do I suspect this doesn’t involve cooperating with me?"

"Because it doesn’t. I happen to know another dragon." Twilight didn't dare turn away from Draco, but she couldn't help but give a proud smile. "One who's nothing like the stories. And he got in touch with the one princess you'd never dare kidnap."

The dragon gave a thunderous scoff. "I can't imagine who you could possibly be ref—"

DRACO!” If the scoff was thunder, the shout was a meteor impact.

Physically, Draco stayed the same, but he seemed to shrink in on himself almost as much as his pupils did. Slowly, inexorably, he turned his head to the source of the shout. "M-Mother?"

Luna hovered some distance from the balcony, scowling at him. "What did I tell you about giving in to your narrative compulsions?"

He tried to grin. He certainly managed to bare his teeth. "W-Well, it was so long ago. You can't possibly expect me to—"

"Dragons have excellent memories, young drake."

Draco glared at Luna. "I am over two thousand years old, Mother, I—"

“You are going to your room this instant, that’s what you are,“ said Luna, matching the glare effortlessly. "I didn't raise you to talk back to me like that."

Draco roared, driving Twilight back with the buffeting winds. "You barely raised me at all! You were always with Orion, or Cassiopeia, or the twins, or one of the other pony constellations! Because that's what this is really about, isn't it, Mother? You're ashamed of me! You've always wished that I could be a pony, or a dumb beast, or a set of black-hole-riddled scales! Well, you know what? I—"

Luna drifted closer to the castle as Draco's rant went on. "This has become rather personal," she said as she lit her horn, carefully directed Royal Canterlot Voice somehow cutting through the tirade without putting any more strain on Twilight's ears. "Please excuse us." And in a burst of antilight, both moon and stars were gone.

Spike dashed to Twilight's side. "You okay?"

After a few moments spent figuring that out, Twilight nodded. "Yeah. I think I am. And I think we're done worrying about the Festival for today."

Spike laughed at that. “I think it’s safe to say you don’t have anything to worry about there, Twilight.”

“How so?”

“A creature you’d never even heard of wanted you all for himself. Whatever’s tripping creatures up, it’s not you.”

Twilight gave that an uneasy grin. “Not sure if that’s a good thing.”

Spike smirked and continued, “And you’re good enough friends with the mare who moves the moon for a living that she came as soon as she found out.”

That got a nod. “Okay, that does work better to boost my confidence.”

“And just because some of your friends can’t make it doesn’t mean they aren’t your friends.”

“True.”

“Heck, the festival could go even worse than what just happened, and that wouldn’t change how you’re a great Princess of Friendship!” Spike threw his claws into the air for emphasis.

“Now you’re going a little overboard.” Still, Twilight found herself smiling. “Did you spend that whole time thinking of ways to cheer me up?”

“Did it work?”

“It definitely put a dent in my self-doubt. I suppose the Festival is more symbolic than anything…” Twilight hesitated, looking towards Canterlot. She could almost imagine she could see the preparations taking place in front of the castle, just next to the red smear of Draco. “But it is still the very first one.”

Spike shrugged. “Yeah, but it’s not like some big, smoky, princess-hunting monster will actually crash the party.”

Both of them took a few moments to consider that. “Spike, make a note to review the royal intelligence reports when we get the chance.”

“Yeah, probably a good call. But for right now, Sugarcube Corner?"

"Sugarcube Corner." Twilight knelt to let Spike hop on her back. Once he was secure, she took off, putting her own shaky understanding of the Royal Voice to work:

"We're clear, everypony! Pinkie, start the We're Not Dead party!"