"SI GEOU SVENT WUX VILKLVI!" Spike roared, drawing in a massive breath. The Griffon never stood a chance against the emerald dragon fire which enveloped his body, leaving nothing more than a scattering of ash on the wind when the inferno finally subsided. As Spike looked up from the smoldering, blackened patch of earth he was shocked out of his rage by the sight before him. If it weren't for the unmistakable feel of Twilight's magic, Spike would have surely doubted that the Unicorn lying unconscious before him was in fact the pony he cared about the most in the world. Her mane, splayed across her face from her being thrown to the ground, was dirty and unkempt, and Spike's brief glance was enough for him to see her ribs under her faded lavender coat.
As he knelt down to pick Twilight up off the ground, he was surrounded by a squad of five Griffon guards, their swords and pikes all aimed squarely at his chest. He immediately assumed a defensive crouch, despite the fact he was almost certain he could take this group of fools out with a single well-placed spell. The teachings of his master echoed in his head, however, and judging from the size of the complex from the sky, Spike knew he would have to conserve his stamina if he wanted to get his friends out of it. This meant he would have to focus on taking his foes down physically. Spike flicked his slitted eyes from one Griffon to the next, his muscles tense, ready to counter the first move made against him.
The first Griffon launched his attack, thrusting his pike at Spike's neck. Spike dropped immediately into a full crouch, one of his clawed hands barely skimming the ground. In doing so, he glanced at Twilight for but a moment, but it was enough to notice the gash across her muzzle, left by the first wretch he had dispatched. He saw red, his eyes widening for a fraction of a second before he regained his senses. He caught the sword-bearing talon of the Griffon and whipped the avian beast over his shoulder, slamming it to the ground. With a swift and deliberate elbow to the throat, Spike made sure the guard would never rise again. Spike pushed himself up from the ground with one hand, whirling around with his other arm and tail extended to ensure he was not assaulted as he jumped to his feet.
The four remaining guards were visibly shaken by the display, their eyes betraying their uncertainty on how to proceed. It had taken the dragon mere seconds to kill one of their fellow guards and return to his feet. He was already back in the strange battle stance he had adopted before, emerald eyes blazing. It was almost absurd how fast the beast moved given his size, and the raw power with which he had thrown his first attacker to the ground had audibly cracked the guard's armor. Damaging Griffon-forged steel, the most advanced craft of their civilization, was no small feat.
Spike watched the unnerved avian creatures slowly circle him, his mind racing with possible options. I need to deal with these dregs as quickly as possible, he thought to himself. Every second I spend is another second reinforcements could be on their way. As he weighed his options, he caught another glimpse of Twilight and Rainbow laying unconscious on the ground, and another wave of rage swept through him. In an instant Spike's hands heated up, becoming hot enough to scorch the feathers of the Griffons around him as he prepared his favorite battle spell. He then extended one hand in front of himself, and an orb of pure white light formed in the air above his palm. He smirked when the guards each took a slight step back. He waited for one guard to be directly in front of him, then he closed his eyes, and the orb exploded in a fluorescent burst of light. Spike grinned as the Griffons shrieked and their weapons clattered to the ground, the flash blinding and disorienting them. He clenched one white-hot fist and blindly lunged forward.
The first guard fell before the light had even faded, Spike using his forward momentum to drive his fist deep into the Griffon's chest. The sound of metal shearing echoed out, mingling with the Griffon's howl of pain as his armor and ribcage caved in, crushing his lungs. Before he could register his inability to breathe, Spike whipped around to deliver a crushing backhanded strike to the guard's helmet. Griffon steel appeared to be no match for raw draconic fury as the metal collapsed in on itself, crushing the guard's skull and ending his life.
Two down, three to go, Spike thought as he opened his eyes and launched himself at two of his blinded foes who were standing a little to close together for their own good. Spike landed between the two and once again took advantage of his momentum, this time to drive his powerful elbows down into their spines. Loud, sickening cracks resounded through the area as their vertebral columns snapped, bones shattered and nervous tissues shredded by the sheer force of the impacts.
The two guards slumped to the ground without a single further sound, neither so much as twitching as they lay there, prostrate and broken. Spike turned his attention to the last guard standing. The Griffon was vigorously shaking his head, trying to hasten the return of his eyesight. He finally regained his senses, but all he saw was a purple blur as Spike dashed behind him and grabbed both sides of the helpless avian's head. With a simple twist, the Griffon was once again face to face with the snarling purple dragon. The rest of his body, however, hadn't turned with him.
With the first squad out of the way, Spike quickly checked the surroundings for more incoming guards and leapt over to the ponies. He knew that his flare spell must have attracted attention from the rest of the complex. As he approached Twilight's unconscious body, he gritted his teeth, his eyes burning with anger and the tears he was fighting to hold in. He wanted to cry out in rage and sorrow as he got a full look at the state his friends were in. Rainbow's back and flanks were a crimson mess from the whipping she had sustained before Twilight jumped in, and Twilight's chest and forelegs were in a similar state. They were also both more malnourished that he had initially realized; he could very clearly see both mares' ribcages, and their coats were quite pale.
As he gently lifted Twilight's mane away from her cheek and ran a clawed finger under the gash from the whip, a wave of reinforcements arrived and surrounded him. Spike slowly rose to his feet, his previous restraint vanishing as his mixed emotions turned into pure rage. Nearly thirty Griffons now surrounded him, some on the ground and some in the air, all armored and armed, weapons raised at the young dragon. Spike quickly realized that he would not leave this encounter unharmed unless he pulled from his more advanced pool of spells, and there was one spell that seemed to fit the circumstance perfectly.
He stepped to stand over the two inanimate ponies, effectively shielding them with his body, and raised his arms. The immediate area around Spike began to smell of ozone, and the air audibly crackled with rising energy, causing some of the Griffons' feathers to ruffle. They took care not to get too close, but it wouldn't matter. Spike gritted his teeth as tiny violet sparks arced over his outstretched claws, and before a single guard could react, bolts of lighting arced from each hand, striking the two nearest guards. The arcane lighting did not stop at those single strikes, however. It continued to chain around the circle, periodically drawing screeches of shock and pain as it jumped from Griffon to Griffon, and by the time the two bolts had finished their rounds, every last guard lay in the dirt.
Spike took a few heavy breaths, his shoulders heaving as he glanced at the ring of bodies around him. The stormy scent cleared from Spike's senses only to be replaced by the fetor of burnt feathers and flesh, and the only movement around him was an occasional involuntary twitch as arcane sparks discharged off the corpses.
Having ascertained that they were safe, the young dragon dropped to one knee for a moment, careful to avoid the ponies, still breathing heavily. Casting two sixth order spells, even together like that, had taken more of his stamina than he had expected. The best he could surmise was that in his anger he had poured more power into his spells than he had intended, something he would need to refrain from doing in the future. He scanned the horizon for any other hostiles before carefully picking up both Rainbow and Twilight, cradling their fragile forms against his chest. Not far off was a cluster of mine carts, so he settled on gently placing them inside an empty cart and covering it with a large piece of canvas. Once he was happy with the hiding spot, Spike spread his muscular wings and launched into the air, heading for what he assumed to be the main building of the complex. He knew he wasn't going to be able to get everypony out of here and to safety if even a single Griffon could make it away from the camp. The sky had at least been clear since he started his rampage, but he needed to make sure it stayed that way.
Spike saw no Griffons patrolling the complex during the brief flight, and as a dragon his vision was second to none. When he was directly above his target, he idled in the air for a moment and drew in a deep breath. His only option for ensuring that no Griffon escaped the camp once he entered the building was a forcecage spell, but using such a high level spell, especially on such a scale, was going to be dangerous given how much of his stamina he had already depleted. This spell would need to be perfect. He slowly exhaled, settling his nerves, and dove toward the imposing building. Just before he slammed into the roof, a snap of his fingers encased the entire complex in a rippling translucent cube of energy.
Spike tore through the roof with a deafening crash, rolling several times down the long corridor he had landed in to lessen the impact. He took a moment after stopping to lean against a wall in a low crouch and catch his breath. As he had anticipated, the creation of the forcecage had drained a good portion of his remaining stamina and he could feel his body starting to weaken significantly. His brief respite, however, lasted barely long enough for him to fully stand. A large oak door at one end of the hall suddenly burst open, revealing a group of Griffons who charged into the hallway. Spike entertained the idea of simply roasting the lot of them with dragon fire, but he quickly dismissed the notion. Somewhere in this building must be a storage room, and he was going to need the supplies to aid in the escape.
Spike took stock of his remaining energy and put a self-imposed limit on his spell casting. Nothing above fourth order, he thought to himself as he adopted a defensive stance before the pack of Griffons which were charging down the hall. The space was fairly narrow, only wide enough for three guards to stand side by side with weapons raised, but ceiling sloped high overhead. Perfect, Spike thought as he waited for them to get close enough. Those in front were poised to attack while the rear groups were opening their wings to soar over and surround him, and just as they got in striking range he launched his counterattack. All it took was another snap of his clawed fingers to materialize a towering wall of ice between himself and the Griffons. Spike then focused as much power as he could into his muscular legs before making a spinning leap off the floor to deliver a thundering roundhouse kick to the middle of the wall.
A web of cracks grew from the point of impact as the frozen wall went toppling down onto the aggressing Griffons, forcing them to scatter. The wall crushed the first three outright when it fell, and when it hit the ground it shattered along the cracks which had formed, sending large chunks of ice flying low down the hall. One barreled into a fourth guard, and while his armored chest was protected, his exposed head was immediately pulverized. No helmets, eh? Guess they weren't expecting me so soon. Only six Griffons now stood before the young dragon, and they were now visibly on the defensive. With the odds a little more in his favor, Spike liberated two swords from the dead guards and charged down the hall. While he was not particularly skilled in combat with weapons, Spike knew he was going to need something to deflect the wall of pikes he was heading straight into. Dragon scales could only protect against so much.
"Si charis wux shio tepoha xurwka martivir mrith dout ithquent," Spike roared as he rushed down the hall. He was about to collide with the barricade of sharpened steel when he unleashed a small burst of dragon fire. It wasn't enough to catch anything ablaze, never mind damage any of the Griffons, but the quick burst of emerald heat had the desired effect of startling them just long enough for Spike to weave into the pikes. He did not, unfortunately, perform the maneuver as gracefully as he had hoped he would, and a loud hiss escaped his lips as he felt a pike pierce his side. With a flourish of steel, Spike cleaved the metal tips off the pikes and plunged his swords deep into the chests of the two nearest guards.
As the two avians fell, taking Spikes weapons with them, a third moved up and raked her talons across Spike's chest, causing him to release a pained roar. Another Griffon seized the opportunity to flank around the young dragon, jump onto his back, and clamp its jaw down on his shoulder. The razor-sharp beak pierced through Spike's hardened scales, drawing another cry of agony. Spike gritted his teeth and braced himself before he forcefully shoved backwards, slamming the attached Griffon into the wall behind him. It released him with a squawk and he spun around to deliver a sharp blow to its neck, crushing its wind pipe in a single blow. He then leapt back toward the Griffon responsible for the lacerations on his chest, ramming his skull against hers before she could react, causing her to crumple to the ground.
Spike now turned his attention to the two remaining guards, a blast of smoke and emerald sparks shooting from his nostrils. The pair of avians immediately turned tail and rushed for the door they had entered through. Spike grinned and raced down the hall, his speed proving to heavily outmatch that of his foes. When he caught up to the fleeing pair, grabbed each by the tail, and with a vicious tug he yanked them both backward and grabbed them by the necks, digging his claws in so they couldn't escape. With a single forceful motion, he cracked their skulls together and both Griffons dropped lifelessly to the floor. Spike took a minute to catch his breath before proceeding to the towering oak door before him. Spike balanced on one foot, drew his other leg back, and with a single powerful kick, the door was reduced to splinters.
The chamber Spike entered was spacious and, while not exactly luxurious, it was a far cry from the dingy environment he had seen thus far. Seated comfortably on the edge of a bed at the end of the room was a Griffon larger than any he had previously encountered, with feathers that seemed to glow. Two females were lounging behind him in provocative sheer tunics. All three cast the purple dragon a nonchalant look. Ti norktada? Algbo, batobot tawuraic filki winhal ihk ve. The large Griffon rose up from his seat, turned to his consorts, and calmly said, "Excuse yourselves, my pets. It seems my men were unable to dispose of the riffraff."
Before the male even turned back around to face Spike, bolts of arcane lightning arced past him, singing his feathers and striking dead center of each female's chest. The lead Griffon's head snapped back to the dragon standing in his doorway to find its hand outstretched with two clawed fingers extended.
"Ehs di wux jaseve nomeno goawy takh," was the guttural response. Spike locked eyes with the Griffon, his burning emerald stare a bit unnerving to the feathered beast. The proud male did not show it, however, as he casually walked toward Spike, not even glancing at the burnt corpses splayed across his bed.
"I'll have you know that I simply cannot understand you when you are speaking in that savage tongue," he said calmly. As he continued toward Spike, he withdrew a thin blade with a slightly curved tip from his side.
Spike furrowed his brow, still glaring daggers at the pompous bird before him. Something was off about this particular opponent. He couldn't exactly put his claw on it, but the silent air surrounding the Griffon was unsettling. Spike was not one to ponder for long, though. He opened his still outstretched hand, forming and immediately launching a sizable fireball at his target. The orb struck the griffon head on, and Spike was more than certain that the avian beast was now deep fried. As the smoke dissipated, however, Spike was stunned to see that his opponent was not only standing, but did not have a single feather out of place after the fiery assault.
The Griffon chuckled, clearly amused. "I can see how you were able to make such quick work of my men, but I'm afraid I'll be a bit more of a challenge than they were." His eyes reflected a smugness which only irritated Spike further.
Spike watched his opponent raise the slightly curved blade to eye level before shouting, "Have at you, foul beast!" and lunging forward far faster than Spike had anticipated. It was a testament to his dragon reflexes that Spike narrowly escaped the razor sharp blade as it sailed dangerously close to his cheek. Spike seized the opportunity to grab the Griffon's outstretched talon with both hands, and with as much force as he could muster, he pivoted and flung the bird over his shoulder, aiming for the nearest wall. His opponent easily maneuvered while sailing through the air, however, and as soon as his hind feet hit the wall, he launched himself back at Spike, making another sweeping slash at the now startled dragon.
Spike quickly defended by catching the blade on his forearm, the scales there being some of the toughest on his body. The clash seemed to finally halt the Griffon's momentum and gave Spike a chance to counter the swift attacks. Spike spun, his tail whipping around and sweeping his opponent's supporting foreleg out from under him. As the large avian started to fall, Spike drove a knee square into the Griffon's breastplate, shoving the feathered beast away.
Spike panted, trying to catch his breath. He knew that he couldn't keep this pace up much longer. He was already drained before even starting the fight, and this particular Griffon was indeed what he claimed to be. The only good news was that needing to focus had quelled his rage temporarily. Think, Spike. Think. Magic isn't going to work. The fireball proved that. And this guy has skills. I just need to buy a little more time… His mind was racing, though he didn't let it show.
"Credit where credit is due, bird. You certainly aren't a pushover like the rest of the dregs around this place were." Spike started to take steps to the side, raising both his arms in an offensive stance.
The griffon followed suit and mirrored Spike's movements, the two slowly circling around the room. "Ah, so the beast does speak a more civilized tongue. I must credit you as well, my scaly friend. Dragons appear to be every bit as tenacious as I've heard them to be." As soon as he finished speaking, the Griffon lunged forward to try and slash Spike again, only to have his strike deflected off the Spike's forearm once more.
"It would also appear dragon scale is just as hard as they say," he commented casually, the same smug look in his eyes.
The corners of Spike's mouth turned up in a cocky grin. "You'll need a lot more than your little letter opener to pierce my hide." It was this verbal jab that gave Spike his plan. The blade was indeed thin, and the curved tip and hand guard suggested that it was designed for parrying and slashing. It was simply not broad enough for a thrust to do too much damage, as long as Spike kept his vitals safe. He ceased his side stepping and simply stared his opponent down.
"I'm afraid I'm running out of time for this little song and dance, so why don't we just jump right to the end, featherbrain? I'm starting to figure you're not really that much more dangerous than your peons." Spike brought both both arms up again, assuming an offensive position as he goaded the Griffon.
"My, my, my. Must we make with such petty insults? And here I was beginning to think that we might have a duel between gentlemen. Very well, beast. If you have grown bored of our little dance, I shall gladly end it for you!" The two combatants charged forward, meeting in the center of the room in a flash of silver and violet. A feral roar resounded through the chamber as steel entered through the dragon's thick hide and pierced through the other side, painting the Griffon's face and chest with a spray of crimson.
Before the griffon could move his blade and cause any more damage, however, a clawed hand encased the talon holding the weapon's hilt, crushing it outright. The Griffon growled in pain and confusion before realizing what had happened. Spike had shifted his body at the last moment, allowing the blade to pierce through his left shoulder, to lock the Griffon in melee range long enough to catch him. With the avian's talon firmly crushed in his iron grip, Spike locked eyes with the now terrified Griffon. "Looks like I'll be the one to end this dance, friend," Spike spat out venomously. "Let's see you grit that beak!" The dragon drew back his right arm and drove his fist into the Griffon's skull, letting go of his talon so that the blow sent the now helpless creature spiraling through the air. His limp body skipped across the ground before slamming into the wall and crumpling to the floor.
In an impressive display of pain tolerance, Spike gripped the hilt of the sword and pulled it out of his body, careful of the curved tip, before snapping the damnable thing in half. He then proceeded over to the newly created indent in the wall to find his foe, the his shoulder throbbing with every step. Spike still held the the broken sword by its hilt, fully prepared to finish off the fallen Griffon, but closer inspection proved that he needn't worry. The way the Griffon's head had impacted the wall had left a rather messy declaration that further efforts to end his life would not be necessary.
Spike tossed the sword away and slumped against the wall, panting heavily. He was hoping against hope that there weren't any more Griffons roaming around. His body had finally started to register the damage it had sustained as the flow of adrenaline tapered off, his chest and both shoulders now burning. Spike knew that he was low on stamina, but the puncture wound through his left shoulder was going to create a serious problem if he left it alone. He covered the visible slit with his opposite hand and in a flash of golden light, a wave of relief washed through his body and he visibly relaxed. Spike's knowledge of clerical arts was extremely limited, but healing a standard wound was not something out of his skill range.
Spike rose to his feet and steadied himself before making his way out of the large chamber and back into the corridor. He began searching the building room by room, looking for either any signs of life or, with any luck, a storeroom he could pillage for food and supplies. When he completed his search and had found neither, he made his way to the front exit of the building. As soon as he stepped through the doorway, Spike was met with dozens of confused and tired stares. It seemed as though every pony in the camp had converged on the building, so their Griffon keepers must have either fled or tried to take him down. A quick scan of the skies spotted no Griffons trying to claw their way out of his forcecage, so he assumed the latter was true.
With a snap of his claws the cube of energy encasing the complex dissipated, much to his body's relief. He didn't think he could have kept the spell channeled another minute. The ponies gazed skyward and watched the barrier dissolve away before rushing toward the bloodied purple dragon. Spike could tell there were dozens of questions being asked, but they all melded into one incomprehensible drone. He raised a tired hand to try and silence the crowd.
"I can't understand anything when you all talk at once," he said, breathing heavily. He scanned the crowd for any familiar face he could call on to act as a mediator, eventually spotting a mint-colored unicorn with striking gold eyes.
"It's been ages, but if memory serves you're Lyra Heartstrings, aren't you?" Spike asked as he gestured for her to step forward.
The unicorn stepped out of the crowd and gave him a puzzled look. "I am, sir, but I don't believe we've ever met. How do you know who I am?" Something about the dragon did seem familiar, but Lyra simply could not put her hoof on it.
Spike chuckled. "Pinkie Pie used to rave that Bon Bon made some of the best candy in Ponyville, so naturally I frequented her store when I was younger. There was always a unicorn in the shop that had the most peculiar way of sitting."
Lyra's eyes went wide as she noticed the Amethyst dragon's emerald spine and tried to imagine the powerful creature before her being the size of a filly. "S-Spike? Is that you?" When Spike replied with a nod, Lyra's jaw almost hit the ground.
He smiled down at her. "The one and only. We can catch up later, though. Right now we need to move. I'm almost certain I didn't let any of those featherbrains escape, but I'd still like to get out of here as quickly as possible. I'm in no condition to organize this whole thing, so I need you to gather up a group, find out where they keep the food around this place, and load as much of it into those carts down by the mines. We'll need as much as you can find."
For a moment Lyra stared at him blankly, then the realization set in. "D-do you mean w-were leaving?" Lyra's eyes were suddenly swimming with tears.
Spike gave her a genuine smile and nodded. "You bet your flank we are. You think I just fought through all that for you all to stay here a moment longer than absolutely necessary? To Tartarus with that. We are leaving here tonight." Lyra was clearly on the brink of tears, but with a deep breath she composed herself, at least outwardly.
"Words cannot express how much this means to me and everypony here, Spike. None of us thought we'd live to see the day we could leave this horrible place. Thank you, Spike. Thank you so much. You rest. I'll make sure we are ready to leave by sundown."
"Thanks, Lyra. If you need me, I'll be down at the mines. I need to check on something." Lyra nodded and immediately turned around to start issuing orders. With that Spike mustered what little strength he had left and lifted into the air, vaguely hearing ponies express every reaction from disbelief to breaking down with joy as he left. Luckily for him, the mine was downhill from the guard complex, so he could glide most of the way there.
Spike touched down by the mine carts and rushed over to the one he had carefully hidden his friends in. He ripped the canvas cover off the top and peered inside, his frayed nerves relaxing slightly when he saw them both still safe inside. He laid the canvas on the ground and gently placed both Twilight and Rainbow Dash on it. He eyed their slashed skin, placed a hand over each them, and with what little stamina he had left performed a series of minor healing spells. While he knew this was most likely a mistake and that he should be holding onto as much energy as he could, he simply refused to allow two of his dearest friends to wake up to the pain.
Once this task was finished, Spike leaned up against the mine cart and pulled the two ponies close to him resting their heads on his lap. It was then that he noticed Twilight's muzzle once again. Against his common sense, he drew on his last shreds of stamina to at least close the wound. He wasn't going to let either of them out of his sight. Never again. Spike tried to keep silent vigil over his friends, but the last spell had sapped what was left of his energy and his eyelids were becoming impossibly heavy. It would most likely be another hour or so before Lyra and the others were prepared to leave, so he might have enough time to close his eyes for a moment. This option proved too tempting for Spike to ignore, and he slowly let his eyes close. Even in such a state of exhaustion, he was certain he'd awaken if anything came near.
Spike lay dozing almost peacefully when his subconscious twitched him awake. Faster than a Wonderbolt, Spike's arm shot out and he closed his claws around something's windpipe. Hues of mint and white filled his blurry vision and his eyes snapped open when he realized who he was almost strangling, immediately releasing her.
"By Sardior, Lyra, I'm so sorry." The unicorn backed away a few steps, choking to catch her breath as she rubbed her slightly bruised throat.
"It's fine," she coughed out, "Spike." She coughed again. "I'm sorry if I startled you. It's almost sundown, and we just finished packing the last of the supplies. Everypony is waiting at the gates. Would it be too much to ask where we might be going?"
Spike carefully rose to his feet, and pulled the canvas sheet up, trying his best not to jostle his friends. He tied the canvas around his neck so that it hung around his chest diagonally, like a sling, and after gently placing Rainbow and Twilight into this makeshift pocket, Spike turned to Lyra.
"We're heading to the ruins of the Castle of the Two Sisters. It should be deep enough into the Everfree to keep away prying eyes. We should be able to set up camp there for at least a little while." He shifted his weight back and forth to make sure his precious cargo was safe and comfortable.
Lyra hesitated for a moment. "Are you sure about that, Spike? I mean, I know you can obviously defend yourself, and if I could get this bucking ring off my horn I could help, but there are a lot of ponies here that are far too weak to defend themselves."
Spike placed a hand oh her shoulder and gave her a knowing smile. "Don't worry, Lyra. I wouldn't be marching you all out there if I wasn't sure that I could keep everyone safe. I know a good number of defensive spells and wards that should keep us well guarded once we get to the castle." Lyra nodded, concern still evident in her eyes, and followed Spike back up to the gates of the camp.
"Alright, everypony, listen up. Our destination is in the Everfree. Everypony must stay in a tight, single file line. Wandering off will place not only you, but everypony else in danger if we have to find you. We should reach our destination by sunrise if we keep up a good pace through the night, so stay focused, stay with me, and rotate who pulls carts every few hours so we don't have to stop moving. Oh, and keep chatter to a minimum. We'll be making more than enough noise hauling these carts around. We can't afford to make much more."
With his piece said, Spike stepped to the front of the line and lead the trail of ponies into the dark unknowns of the Everfree. Spike, having regained a bit of strength from his short rest, conjured several small orbs of light which he scattered along the line of carts. He lead the way with a much brighter orb hovering over one shoulder, the other arm cradling his previous cargo close to his chest. The journey progressed uneventfully for hours, much to Spike's surprise, and by midnight he had concluded that the presence of a grown dragon was likely keeping most beasts in the Everfree at bay. Not even a lone Timberwolf had come anywhere near the group, and they littered the dark forest.
Once he was confident that the ponies would be safe as long as he stayed near, Spike periodically made brief flights above the treetops, using a darkvision spell to ensure that he was leading the group in the right direction. Thankfully, aside from a few encounters with hazardous terrain, their luck held, and nothing threatened the caravan as they pushed on through the twilight hours. Just as most of the ponies were reaching the point of exhaustion, Spike pushed through the brush into a clearing. Just ahead lay a drawbridge, warped by time but clearly built to last. The sun had yet to rise as the group of newly freed ponies funneled across and into the ruined castle, and, while he had to be careful to not tear open his wounds, Spike managed to raise the drawbridge after a serious struggle against the rusted bridge crank.
The group decided to set up camp in the throne room of the castle, as it was the only space vast enough to house everypony. While the rest of the group organized their acquired provisions and set up camp, Spike stood in the center of the room with his eyes closed and his hands in front of his chest, several inches between his clawtips, as if he was holding an invisible ball. The canvas pouch containing Twilight and Rainbow Dash sat at his feet. When Lyra finished organizing the group and took notice of the dragon's awkward stance, she proceeded over to him.
"Umm, Spike, what exactly are you doing?," she asked inquisitively. "You've been standing like that for nearly ten minutes now." She tilted her head slightly in confusion.
Spike did his best to maintain his focus while answering the unicorn's question. "I told you before that I would personally make sure everyone was safe. I'm preparing a defensive spell to ensure that anything which tries to wander in will either be repelled or occupied long enough for me to deal with personally."
Comprehension dawned on Lyra's face and she nodded, retreating away to let the dragon concentrate. It was another twenty minutes before a tiny pearl of luminescent amethyst light materialized between Spike's hands. The dragon slowly extended his claws, keeping the sphere stable as it grew larger and larger until it eventually expanded to encompass the entire throne room, passing harmlessly through everypony as it grew. The translucent magenta sphere soon circumscribed the whole palace, rippling for a moment at full size before slowly dissolving into nothing. Spike immediately collapsed to his hands and knees, hissing as the impact jarred his injured body. His breathing was labored, the guard and ward spell officially draining the last of his stamina.
Lyra, having seen him fall, rushed to his side, her face full of concern. "Lyra," he panted out, "I'm leaving you in charge." His body shook as he tried to get out his words. "I can't keep going anymore. T-take care of Twilight and Dash. Make sure everyone eats. If I'm not awake by sundown," he drew another shaky breath, "hit me with something heavy." Spike's body crumpled, falling away from the canvas pouch as his world went pitch black.
Twilight slowly opened her eyes, vision still blurry, to see patches of darkening sky and stars just now sparkling into view. Her mind was in a haze. The last thing she remembered was standing between Rainbow and a guard, and she remembered pain, but she didn't feel pain now. As she looked around groggily, one thing became quite apparent: this was not the work camp she had passed out in. Tilting her head slightly to one side, she could see several small campfires scattered around a long hall with stairs leading to two identical thrones at the far end. A handful of mine carts sat against the walls. Twilight could feel something screaming at her from the back of her fogged mind, but couldn't make it out.
As she struggled to gain her bearings and sit up, a Unicorn with a mint coat approached her with a bowl. "Here, Twilight, eat this. You've been unconscious for a full day, now. You need to regain your strength."
Twilight blinked at her but slowly took the bowl. It took a moment for her to recognize the mare, her mind finally putting together the mint coat and golden eyes. "Lyra? What's going on? Where are we?"
Lyra smiled gently. "We're in the ruins of the Castle of the Royal Pony Sisters. He lead us here after he dismantled the work camp." Lyra struggled against her horn ring to levitate a small scrap of blanket onto Twilight. "He told me to make sure you two were taken care of to the utmost of my ability until he woke."
With Lyra's help, Twilight sat up slowly, realizing that her body was, in fact, a bit sore. She took a long draught of the vegetable soup Lyra had handed her, the warmth and flavor almost bringing tears to her eyes, then slowly began to puzzle through what she had been told. "What are you talking about Lyra? Who is 'he'? How did we get out of the camp, never mind make it this far into the Everfree?" Twilight looked around her again, noticing a rainbow mane not far from her. She registered then that Rainbow, and in fact herself, must have been badly injured, but when she looked back at Lyra the other Unicorn's smile only widened.
"Well, he said to wake him up by nightfall, so why don't you do it for me? Then you can ask him all the questions you like. I know we all have plenty, so I'm sure you have even more." Lyra pointed her hoof at a section of wall Twilight had not yet scanned.
Twilight's eyes followed the invisible line from Lyra's hoof to their apparent savior. As her violet eyes fell on the sleeping form of a large Amethyst dragon, her vision blurred and her throat tightened. She flung the blanket away and leapt up, paying no heed to her sore, fragile body or the bowl which she kicked aside. She galloped the short distance to the sleeping dragon and threw herself rather clumsily into his lap.
Spike shot awake to the feeling of something crashing into his chest, fully prepared to throw the object across the room, but he immediately stopped himself when he caught sight of the object's lavender coat. The next moment his emerald eyes locked with the large violet ones which looked as though they held a lifetime of unspent tears.
Twilight was the first to speak, as she fought to choke back her sobs. "I've had this dream so many times that it eventually became a nightmare. Tell me this isn't that nightmare. Tell me I'm not going to wake up on that cold mattress, inside that horrible camp. Please, please tell me you're really here, Spike. Tell me it's finally over. Please!" Twilight whimpered out her words, her voice low and desperate as she pressed her forehooves against Spike's chest.
Spike was momentarily at a loss for words. Twilight's terrified pleading voice and the look in her eyes of hope and terror struck him like a hammer and put a sudden burning desire in his heart to never let her out of his sight again. He wrapped his arms tightly around her and pulled her close, nuzzling into her mane.
It took him a moment to find his voice. When he could finally speak, he whispered into her ear, "You aren't dreaming, mom. I'm here. Everything is going to be okay now."
With that, the last of Twilight's restraint cracked and the floodgates opened. She buried her face into his hard scaly chest and cried like the world was coming to an end. Spike sat and stroked her mane, whispering comforting words to her as she let out two decades of sorrow, pain, and regret. Spike made another promise right then, with every ounce of conviction in his heart and soul.
Mom...I promise I'll make them pay for this. I swear to everything that I hold dear in this world that I will make them tremble at a dragon's might.