When Rainbow Dash hovered into the Dragon Queen's lair, Axan was alone with her labored breaths. She was lying upon her bed of gold, her nostrils filling the cavernous air with nauseating fumes. All of the laborers were gone. All of the whelplings had scattered. The Matriarch was resting, her scaled face twisted in pain, as she summoned the strength to emit another commanding shriek into the air.
It didn't take long for her attention to be piqued from the sound of a petite pony's hooves. Twitching, Axan's long, mammoth snout lifted up. Her violet brow furrowed; her horns flared. With an icy sneer, she pivoted about and stared at Rainbow Dash with one good eye. Her left socket was still bleeding profusely from Ember Speak's arrow striking it a day and a half before. Muscles rippling, she raised her huge body up and marched towards the pegasus. Each clawed foot formed rivulets and cracks in the stone as she squared off with the bomb toting equine.
“For a pony who serves the legacy of an immortal,” Axan sneered, “You are quick to commit suicide.”
“If you knew anything about me,” Rainbow Dash said, clinging to the weight of the bulbous bomb. “You'd know that the Princess and I don't exactly get along.”
“Save your breath,” Axan hissed. “Your precious little 'Sanctuary' is ash and embers soon. Your beloved ponies are food for my young. And your blind ambition is—”
“And if you knew even more about me...” Rainbow Dash paced across the cavern from her, dragging the bomb with a scraping noise across the ground. The flames from the nearby pit illuminated her twitching feathers. “You'd know that I hate violence, that I find murder and killing to be really, super lame.”
Rainbow Dash's eyes narrowed as the crimson light glinted off her ruby pendant.
“There was a time when I wouldn't hurt a fly, when I used to plant seeds and escort birds north after wrapping up winter,” she said. “The worst I had ever done to another pony was argue about the running of the leaves or the lameness of being an egghead.” She came to a stop, frowning. “And then I started flying around the world, and I realized that things just can't be pretty everywhere, all of the time.”
“Congratulations,” Axan growled, though her iron jaw curved slightly, showing both rows of teeth. “You've learned about the real world.”
“Have I?” Rainbow Dash remarked. “The moment I've slayed you, what will I have become?” Her eyes flickered a yellowish hue and she hissed through her teeth, “I don't care if you think it's strong or wise or whatever. I think I'm better than that. Heck, I know I'm better than that.”
“You and everything else in this world will be dust in a matter of decades,” Axan said, her voice rumbling majestically across the treasure-laden hovel. “What will you know then?”
“More than you, ya big bag of whining!” Rainbow Dash said, gripping the bomb now with two hooves.
Axan saw it. The temperature in the room picked up as her gigantic claws tightened against the stone floor. “Do you intend to kill me with such a paltry weapon? 'Death Water?!' Seriously?!” She snorted; it sounded like a cannon blast. “What makes you think you'll succeed where so many putrid Silvadelians have failed before you?”
“Simple.” Rainbow Dash tightened her muscles, one hoof affixed to the lid of the hideous device. “By being different.”
Axan stamped her hoof, her three-pronged tongue lashing behind her roaring mouth. “You dare?!”
Rainbow Dash smirked. “Watch me.” And then she surged forward.
Axan's response was infernal and swift. She raised herself up on four limbs, evened her throat towards the ceiling, and fired high at Rainbow Dash. Horrendous flame covered every high spot along the ceiling of the place, blocking any path for a violent bomb drop.
Which was precisely the opposite of what Rainbow was doing. With a grunt, she dove down, dodging the flames entirely. She spun towards the floor, pivoting so that her spine was brushing across the stone surface.
Axan gasped, watching in shock as the blue pegasus blurred directly between her legs and past her thrashing tail. She turned around in a thunderous twirl. Before she could roar in anger, the sight of what happened next made her freeze.
Rainbow Dash flew directly towards the hoard, popped the metal lid loose from the bomb, and flung the whole thing straight at the mountain of gold. “Hnnngh!”
The bulbous sphere twirled in slow motion. Its bubbling contents splashed loose and drenched a quarter of the glittering trinkets. In a blink, the death water had spread over half of the treasure. In less than five seconds, the entire heap of shiny valuables was sizzling under the acidic compound.
Axan's jaw fell in a heated gasp.
Rainbow Dash hovered a few feet away, panting for breath and watching with a proud smile as the entire hoard melted in less than a minute. The death water melted through the gold, consuming layers of stone beneath and forming a deep pit that rivaled the smoldering crucible on the far edge of the chamber. Soon all platinum reflection and glitter was gone. Every single piece of the Dragon Queen's treasure—collected over a century of draconian expeditions in every cardinal direction—was utterly gone.
When the death water had finished its violent task, the air tingled with the sound of steaming stone. A rusted smell filled Rainbow's nostrils, and she reveled in it. Pivoting about, she planted two hooves on her hips and smiled up at the giant beast.
“You... You...” Axan stammered, her lips spitting up sparks and embers as a deep shiver swam from her tail to her horned snout.
“Tell me, oh Queen of Farts...” Rainbow Dash settled down on her hooves and stood fearlessly before the breathless Matriarch. “What good is a dragon without her hoard, Divine or not?”
Axan shook. Her two front limbs formed clawed fists as she pivoted and snarled at Rainbow, exhaling vaporous breaths of searing heat in her face. “Silvadel will die for this! I will hunt down every pony and skin them alive—”
“You will not!” Rainbow Dash said, frowning.
“I'll crucify their flesh upon the highest—”
“And I'll tell you why you won't!” Rainbow Dash pointed up at her. “Because even a brood mother like you has gotta know how much freakin' time it's gonna take to pierce through their inner sanctum! You think you'll last even half as long before the nearest group of dragons senses that your hoard is gone and come here to claim your children?”
Axan, the Queen of Flame, was older than time. For that very moment, she was utterly speechless.
Rainbow Dash easily filled the void. “Even if you spend every waking hour of your pathetic life trying to kill every surviving 'vermin' on this continent, you'll be hunted like prey. Why? Because you're a failure of a Queen now. You've got no hoard, no lifeline, and you're as useful to the rest of your scaled kind as meat is to a dog. What's it feel like to have no honor, Axan? To have no dignity? You think staying here and having your little tantrum until you die is going to help you? Going to help your children?”
Axan's enormous face was flexing between various different emotions. The fire rose in her emerald eye, only to be drowned out once again as another frigid thought overwhelmed her. She started to gnaw on her own lips until blood oozed out.
“What's worth being loyal to more?” Rainbow Dash asked. “Your family? Or your lame woes for the end of the world?!”
Axan's gaze fixated on Rainbow Dash. Her frown returned, as did the heat to the boiling cavern.
“Tell me, ya lousy bully!” Rainbow Dash exclaimed. “What are you going to do?”
“If you think for one minute that this has—”
“What are you going to do?!” Rainbow Dash bellowed.
Her echoes were like thunderclaps against the suddenly claustrophobic walls around Axan's trembling shoulders. The Matriarch took a deep breath, and in so doing her huge body withdrew from Rainbow Dash like she was a plague. Axan gave her a long, squinting glare... then swiftly lifted her snout towards the ceiling. Her nostrils flared and her jaws opened wide as a loud, high-pitched shriek emanated from her throat.
Rainbow Dash gnashed her teeth and weathered the sheer volume of the dragon queen's commanding cry. After a few seconds of resonating thunder, a salvo of distant cries sounded off from beyond the mouth of the cave. When all was said and done, the gigantic drake once more stood on all four limbs.
Axan snorted smoke and stared down at the pegasus. “I have just ordered my children to leave this landscape. They shall spread to the far corners of the Machine, to occupy the wilderness on their lonesome, where they will not harm another pony.” She took a fuming breath and narrowed her eye. “Well played, pegasus. You win.”
Rainbow Dash's wings fluttered as she smiled victoriously. Her breaths came out more evenly as she stood tall in the shadow of the Matriarch.
“You are right. Those dragons who don't answer to the Divine Four shall now chase me until I am dead. I cannot and shall not bother with exterminating the rest of this kingdom's putrid population.”
“Good.” With a nod, Rainbow Dash said, “And if you try hard enough, you just might find enough gold to rebuild your hoard before—”
Two claws slammed on either side of Rainbow Dash, knocking her onto her haunches. The shadow doubled over Rainbow's gasping body as Axan's sneering jaws loomed above her.
“However, that does not mean that I won't exterminate you...”
Before Rainbow Dash's face could pale, her eyes reflected a set of glinting claws flying straight at her. With a single flap of her wings, she darted sideways.
The stone floor exploded beneath her.
Axan tilted up and reached again.
Rainbow Dash spun about and soared towards the ceiling. She dodged one hand of scales and made swiftly for the dimly-lit exit—
The Matriarch's next swing contacted solidly.
“Ooof!” Rainbow Dash was pelted like a lopsided pebble into the hard wall of the place. Before she could slump down, she was slammed against the wall by a violet palm and clutched in an iron set of claws. Hissing, Rainbow Dash wrenched a hoof free and slapped it over her pendant. A platinum glow billowed around her like a prism...
All Axan had to do was squeeze her mammoth knuckles.
Whitemane's shield fluctuated, danced, and shattered in a burst of white light. One of Axan's claws immediately impaled Rainbow's lower left hoof.
“Aaaaaaugh!” Rainbow shrieked, her head tilting towards the crimson ceiling as she smelled her own juices.
Half a second later, she was being pummeled viciously against the stone—then once again, bending her right front hoof in the wrong direction. With a hiss, Axan twirled and slammed the full weight of her tail into Rainbow's twitching body.
“Graaaaughk!” Rainbow sputtered. Halfway through her gurgling breath, she realized she was flying into the wall on the opposite side. She slammed into it—her entire body stiffening. Falling down like a wet sack of meat, she sobbed in one continuous wail of agony. “Mmmmmchnngh—Aaaaagh...” She crawled forward on her remaining good limbs, not caring where it took her, so long as she could move. Through the numbing pain, she faintly sensed the earth vibrating beneath her from each of Axan's iron steps.
The Matriarch finally stood above her, planted a hand over Rainbow's spasming body, and placed the tip of her claw against the pegasus' side. With a single flick, she snapped her right wing down the center.
“Haaaauckkt!” Rainbow Dash thrashed and yelled in agony. She tried clutching at her dangling limb, spilling feathers and blood, but Axan would have none of it. She gripped Rainbow Dash again and threw her viciously against the far wall.
Rainbow landed, but had no energy to yell this time. She tumbled to the floor, twitching with tiny little gasps of pain. Seconds bled into a tortuous minute, and she propped herself back against a chunk of stone. Her face was awash in tears and blood. Sputtering, panting, she stared up across the cavern.
In a dizzy haze, a huge dragon loomed above her. Axan's emerald eye lit up, watching patiently for the breath to leave Rainbow's lungs.
“Hnnkkkt...” Rainbow vomited a trickle of blood and bile. With her last good limb, she wiped her chin and formed a devilish smirk, stammering, “Th-that all you g-got, wimp...?!”
Axan blinked. Axan snarled. She reached her hand forward one last time.
With a limp cry, Rainbow Dash found herself draped in the Matriarch's grasp.
Axan raised the pegasus up to her jaw. After a heavy hiss, the Queen of Flames opened her mouth, preparing a heated breath... when suddenly she froze. Something was glinting in her one good eye.
Dangling from the bloodied pegasus' neck was a pendant in the shape of a lightning bolt. Its immaculate ruby texture glistened for the first time in the Matriarch's close gaze. If Axan stared closely enough, she could have sworn the gem was glowing, as if illuminated by a deep, inner spark. All the heat left her lungs as her violet features paled across a furrowed brow.
All Rainbow Dash could do was twitch and sputter for breath.
Axan blinked. She frowned one last time, then managed a deep, thoughtful exhale. Slowly—gently—she lowered Rainbow Dash and laid her out in a corner of the cavern. Then, she turned around and marched off towards the far end of the chamber.
Rainbow Dash felt this through her broken limbs. The vibrations in the structure of the cave were lessening. Wincing, she lifted just her head from the floor and stared out of a bruised eye. Gnashing her teeth, she dizzily spotted the swishing, massive tail of Axan as the Matriarch stormed off.
“No... Hckkkt... Come back...” Rainbow spat. Rainbow bled. “Come back, y-you coward. Come back and finish it! I dare you! I dare...”
The breath left her. Rainbow Dash's ruby irises shrunk. Her lips were quivering.
They stared at her, smiling, so full of color and life. Bright eyes. Pastel manes. Soft breaths and sweet, sweet laughter. The air was crisp with spring, and the dew on the blades of grass glistened like the sparkles in her emerald eyes.
“No...” Rainbow whimpered, slowly sinking to the earth. “C-come back...” She sniffled and her eyes leaked tears to mix with the blood and bile. “Come back... Please...” It hurt to sob, so she whispered instead. “I d-don't want you to go. I hate being alone. Please...” Her eyelids were following the path of her tears, meeting inside the shadows of the stone floor. “I don't want to b-be alone...”
There was one last flicker of light, a bright and burning thing, like a sunrise.
And then Rainbow Dash saw nothing.