“We've been out long enough as it is,” Stu said, looking across the dim enclosure. “Are you sure we must stop now?”
“We're only halfway to Sanctuary, and we need to preserve our strengths,” Sam Rose said. Evening had fallen, and the gray world above hung dark and ominous. The four ponies and Rainbow Dash were retiring within the comforting embrace of a dense chunk of marble, doubly shielded from the sky of Silvadel above. In the distance, several loud shrieking noises could be heard. That didn't stop the group from making a tiny fire to warm themselves as they reclined to catch their breaths. “We've eliminated many broodlings today. No need to rush to our destination. Once we are safe, then we can celebrate. I'm sure the Council would respect that.”
“Very well, your majesty,” Stu nodded.
“I'm going to patrol and watch for hunters from above,” Sam Rose said, trotting away. “If you hear my whistle, dive for deeper cover.”
“But your highness!” Swirls exclaimed in a raspy voice. “When was the last time you slept?! Don't you need your rest as well?”
“You know me,” Sam Rose grunted, though in his voice there was the barest hint of levity. “I will rest when I'm dead.”
Stu and Swirls chuckled lightly. “Well said, my leige,” Stu uttered.
Sam Rose disappeared amidst the wreckage.
Stu took a deep breath. “I don't know where he finds the energy. I reckon it's his armor.”
“They say he wears it in his sleep,” Swirls added.
“Guess we'll never know for sure.”
“Heeheehee...” Swirls sat down next to him. “You know, he only took down half of the monsters on this excursion.”
“It was a group effort. We all kicked scaley butt together.”
“Yes, well...” Swirls smiled warmly. “You were really brave out there today.”
“Hmmm...” Stu stared off into the grayness and cocked his head aside. “Yes. Yes, I was.”
Swirls chuckled again. Closing her eyes, she gently leaned into him and nuzzled his side. Stu supported her weight, and the two were quiet within the breaths of one another.
Rainbow Dash observed this from afar. Exhaling, she squatted low on her haunches and rested her muzzle down beside the fire. With two jaded eyes, she gazed up at a tiny patch of sky.
“It must be really unfortunate.”
“Hmm?” Rainbow Dash glanced aside.
Ember Speak sat across the tiny campfire from her. “To not be able to fly,” she said.
Rainbow Dash made a face. “We're surrounded by death and destruction and the only thing you feel bad about is the fact that I can't fly?”
“You mustn't have known that you'd be running into dragons,” Ember said. “Being stuck here below the surface of old Silvadel isn't your fault.”
With a bitter smirk, Rainbow Dash gazed towards where Sam Rose had trotted off. “He seems to act like it is my fault. I really can't blame him...”
“Sam deals with a lot of frustrations. He's the sole heir to the Silvadelian throne. He has a lot on his shoulders and... well... heh...” Ember smiled crookedly. “He isn't exactly living in the same luxurious palaces as his forebears.”
“Say, how come there's a prince anyways?”
“On the way through your kingdom, I picked up a book from some old, old library. It said a lot of stuff about the Silvadelian way of life. It described a ruling oligarchy and a ritualistic family structure. It didn't mention anything about royalty.”
“Hmmm...” Ember Speak scratched her chin in the firelight. She spoke, lightly, her voice echoing like raindrops against the tiny enclosure, “The royal family is as old as Silvadel. They're as important as the Council has been for us throughout the years. I guess you could say they're like the surviving spirit of this kingdom.”
“It sounds like there's quite a few of you still kicking around beneath the basement of burning dragonville.” Rainbow Dash raised an eyebrow. “Sounds like you ponies got enough spirit of your own.”
Ember Speak chuckled lightly. “I guess I really can't explain it. Sam Rose means a lot to us. We'd follow him into death if it meant winning back even an inch of our kingdom.”
“It's really that intense a situation, huh?”
“This 'situation' is my life, Rainbow Dash,” Ember Speak said solemnly. “I was born beneath the rubble, as was my mother and her mother before her. Since foalhood, I was told about the dragons and what they stole from us.”
“Just what are they here for?”
Ember sighed, gnawing on her lip as she gazed into the flames. “Nopony is sure, exactly. Not even the Council has all the facts right. All I know is that Silvadel was once a glorious kingdom. We cultivated paradise in the middle of a harsh desert. We constructed a peaceful coexistence of civilization and nature. And then... the dragons erupted.”
Rainbow Dash made a face. “What do you mean, erupted?”
“They, uhm... They sprung up out of the earth,” Ember Speak said gently. “Hundreds of them. Thousands. In the space of days, the entire realm of Silvadel was converted into a giant brood's nest. The calamitous birth of so many fire wyrms at once was enough to demolished this kingdom from the inside out. The way I understand it, this was something that was always bound to happen, only the Silvadelians had no clue. They couldn't suspect that there was something teeming, brooding underneath the homes they built out of love and prosperity.”
Gulping, Rainbow Dash muttered, “The Matriarch.”
Ember Speak nodded. “Nopony knows her true name, or why she chose the underground caverns under Silvadel to be her nest. But she arrived in the subterranean hovels below the palace centuries ago and laid her eggs. When her broodlings hatched, it spelled the end of the old age, and she's been holded up in her place of labor ever since, undoubtedly watching over some ghastly hoarde.”
“Has anypony ever seen her?” Rainbow asked. “The Matriarch, that is.”
Ember Speak fidgeted. “None that survived.” She cast the pegasus a forlorn gaze. “And those who returned to speak of her... mmm... did not live long...”
Rainbow Dash said nothing. She gazed quietly into the sparkling campfire.
Ember smiled out of nowhere. “This book that you found. Do you have it?”
“What? Oh... Yeah. Yeah, I still do.”
“May I see it?”
“Sure. Heh, why not.” Rainbow Dash opened her saddlebag and reached in. “You'll likely make more sense out of it than I ever... uhhhh...” She paled, having grabbed a green bound book by accident. Clearing her throat, she reached I deeper, grabbed the Silvadelian book, and hoofed it over. “Seriously, though,” she managed in a shaky voice. “It's pretty boring.”
“Heh...” Ember was smiling brightly as she cradled the manuscript in her hooves as if it was an infant. “Speak for yourself! I love things like this...”
“Do you now?” Rainbow Dash remarked, for once in her life not having the impulse to call another soul an “egghead.”
“I've salvaged several books and portraits in the last five years of visiting the surface,” she explained. She looked up at Rainbow Dash before flipping through the book some more. “I'm lucky, you know. Very few ponies get to visit old Silvadel. It's not an easy lifestyle, of course, but I'm blessed to be able to fight and hunt alongside Sam. If it means being able to see glimpses of the past ike this, then I feel... connected. Does that make any sense?”
“Heh...” Rainbow Dash slid the green book into the deepest corner of the saddlebag and snapped the thing shut. “You're talking to the last pony who would bother much with connections,” she muttered.
Ember Speak paused to look at her. She slapped the book shut and squinted, murmuring, “You're... from a long, long ways away, aren't you?”
“Hrmmff...” Rainbow Dash scraped her forelimbs against the stone floor before her. “What gives you that idea?”
“You mean besides the fact that you have a pretty, magical mane?”
Rainbow frowned. “For real; cut that out.”
Ember Speak giggled lightly, then spoke, “The elders of the Council tell me ancient stories of flying ponies, and how they used to hover over every corner of the earth like fae folk. But then, one day, the pegasi all withdrew into clans. They built castles out of clouds and piloted their sky cities to the furthest corners of the earth, so that way they could look after the entirety of nature.”
“Huh... That's a pretty sexy version of our backstory.”
“But is it true?” Ember leaned her head to the side. “Could your kind walk on clouds, shape the weather, and build such amazing cities as Stratopolis?”
“Stratopolis is a myth,” Rainbow Dash grunted, then shrugged. “But the other parts, they're not too far from the truth.” With a sigh, she gazed up at the dim sky above the wreckage. A tiniest hint of light danced through the smog and clouds. “I haven't met any pegasi since I... well, since I began flying places.”
“It's been hard to stay excited,” Rainbow Dash said. “I didn't figure it would suddenly become hard to stay alive.”
Ember didn't immediately respond. She watched Rainbow Dash for a while, following the angle of her eyesight. Eventually, she said, “Do you long for the sky?”
“Eh... It's not quite that.”
“What's bothering you, then?”
“Timing,” Rainbow Dash muttered. “Lousy, rotten timing. It was almost a full moon right when I got here. I was hoping to... meet with a good friend.”
“In old Silvadel?”
“No, not quite. You see, when the moon is full, I get to use this snazzy pendant you see around my neck to chat with an alicorn princess from far away and—”
“Uhm, Rainbow Dash?”
She stopped in mid-sentence, glancing at the mare. “Yeah, what?”
Ember Speak was squinting. “What's this... 'moon' and why should it be 'full?'”
Rainbow Dash did a double take. “Uhhhh...” She glanced upa t the ruins, ruins, ruins, and dense smog beyond. “Oh. Uhm... It's... It's a bright cosmic body, I guess. And... like... an alicorn goddess raises it every night to shed light upon the world and affect the tide. It's kind of like the night's version of the sun, only it's not as bright as the sun, and it's also made up of different—”
“'Sun?'” Ember Speak gazed curiously.
Rainbow Dash blinked. She looked at the fire, then at her hooves. “This 'Sanctuary' of yours... It's really darn deep in the ground, isn't it?”
Ember nodded. “It has to be, otherwise we wouldn't survive. It's large, vast, and is home to thousands of proud Silvadelians all working together to bring about salvation.” She took a deep breath. “Still, though, I'm willing to bet it's not nearly as glorious as where you come from, Rainbow Dash.”
Rainbow looked at the rubble, then at her. “Would you like to know about where I come from?”
Ember's eyes brightened, and her teeth showed with a gleaming smile. “I would love to...”