The whisper of smooth stone on stone brought up the expectant eyes of two Equestrian girls.
“… Audience is granted.”
“Whoo nelly, it’s about time!” Applejack whooped as she tossed her Stetson high in the air. “I was beginnin’ tah think we’d be greyer’n these rock by the time things got rolling. Er… no offense,” she hastily added as the hat quickly came down to cover an embarrassed flush.
It was probably a good thing she did. Respect went a long way with Carregard, Honored Brood of the Anrydedd Salamander Tribe, and from the way his coal black eyes flashed beneath his ember-hued mane, that final apology was the only thing keeping his dragon blood in check. Not that he needed it, of course: a muscular warrior clad in the gleaming chainmail of his clan, he could have squashed the girls like a pair of overly ripe bananas. The fact that he didn’t let Rarity loose another – in what was becoming quite a large number – small sigh of relief.
Thing had not exactly progressed as expected over the past few days. When their airship had touched down before the mountain stronghold, the Salamander guards had greeted them warmly and shown them every courtesy as welcomed ambassadors of Equestria. However, Rarity had quickly learned that they were of the Fintai, and the Fintai’s attitudes were not what they could expect for long.
When they made their request for audience before the head of the Dragon’s Enclave, the girls were taken to the back of the stronghold where the Anrydedd waited. Right from the outset, it was obvious even to Applejack that they were not wanted. For the better part of two days, the pair of them had repeatedly pled their case before stone-faced warriors who met every word with reticence, if not outright hostility. For the freckle-faced farm girl, it was about as confusing as finding pear in a family pie. For Rarity, not so much, but equally frustrating nonetheless.
Finally, though, it seems their persistence had paid off as with a curt nod, Carregard bid them to follow. Rising from their comfortable, if closely guarded quarters, Rarity and Applejack followed behind their brooding guide as he led them further into the stronghold’s depths. The further they walked, the more Anrydedd they met, each with the same look of grim disdain for the Equestrian pair.
The further into the stronghold they went, the fewer windows they saw until eventually, the walls were lit with fiery glow of pyre stones rather than sunlight. Each step brought with it further transformation as well, as carved stone and tiling slowly gave way to rough walls and unfinished rock. It was a gradual process, which is why it was such a surprise when the girls realized they no longer walked through halls, but in tunnels bored into the mountains themselves.
“You know what’s going on?” Applejack softly whispered so as not to disturb the clearly unhappy Carregard.
“I assume we’re being taken to their leader,” her friend replied in equally hushed tones.
“So, that mean we’re gonna be talkin’ to a dragon or somethin’?” the blonde cowgirl asked as her eyebrow arched with slight concern. “What, er… what happens if it tries tah eat us?” Rarity paused to think before replying.
“Let’s just hope it’s not hungry.”
Suddenly, the tunnel widened as they entered a spacious cavern that housed a large, metal door at the other side. Though the strangely eldritch glow that emanated from its ancient carvings would have drawn the curious gaze at any other time, it was rather what stood before the door that captured the girls’ attention.
Dragons. Men. Dragon men. Standing in ordered rows, no less than fifty of the ember-haired Salamanders lined the way towards the gate. However, instead of standing in human appearance as their guide did, these warriors stood with their enchanted blood roaring wide awake. Draconic heads stood atop each shoulder as reptilian eyes glared coal-black through the smoky haze arising from the slits of their nostrils. Arms, crossed before chests, ended with the razor claws and diamond hard scales that could rend through iron like tissue. Upon each back stood a large pair of folded wings ribbed with bone and hung with leathery skin. Imposing, serpentine banners, those wings served as a proud call of challenge to any who dared question the might of the Salamander people.
“These are the visitors?” the foremost warrior asked in more growl than question, the smoke thickening as he glared down at the girls.
“Indeed we are,” Rarity replied with a gracious curtsey, her poise made even more impressive by the way she hid her trembling knees. “Princess Celestia and Princess Luna of Equestria bid us come that we might petition your Honored Elder for aid.”
“…Soft, Carregard,” the Salamander snorted as he turned a fang-filled grin towards the still scowling guide. “Were it up to me, I would have rent these blood-traitors limb from limb upon sight.”
“And I would be the first to join,” Carregard grunted. “But our orders are to lay no such hands on the raw hides. Thus, they walk.”
Despite her outward equilibrium, Rarity couldn’t help but throw a furtive glance towards the downright spooked Applejack. Having two large, reptilian warriors talk about their preference for dismembering you right over your heads was a decidedly surreal experience of the distinctly unnerving kind.
“Well, in they go,” the guardian shrugged as he raised a clawed fist into the air. “Whether they come out, well… that’s for the Elder to decide.”
At the sign of his fist, each Salamander turned and took hold of a link in a pair of massive chains that lay at either side of the cavern. Muscled turned to steel with strain and the air filled with thick plumes of smoke as together, the fifty Salamanders shook the very mountains as they pulled open the metal gates.
“Well I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” Applejack gaped as she took off her Stetson in reverence. “If that don’t jess beat all…”
It was like opening a portal to another world. Before the gates, the cavern was nothing but smoke-stained rocks lit with the flickering lights of flame-hued stones. After the gates, there were was nothing but crystal. From floor to ceiling, every surface was composed of iridescent stone that ranged from cool blues, serene green, soft violets. The girls knew they were under the earth, but from the light that shimmered from those glittering surfaces, they may as well have walked beneath a frozen ocean lit by a glittering sun of frosty light.
“In you go,” Carregard snorted as flicked an irritable thumb towards the beautiful path. “I’ll be here to collect you when you’re done.”
“You do mean that as in yer comin’ to get us, right?” Applejack smiled. When she got a fang-filled smirk in return, her smile wilted like a bloom in drought.
“Well then,” Rarity sniffed as she grabbed Applejack by the hand, “I suppose we might as well get this done with. Come along, dear Applejack, we’ve work to do.”
Walking between the rows of silently staring guards, Rarity paid them about as much heed as the shrubbery along a walkway as she resolutely made her way forward. Even after they crossed the threshold and felt the large, metal gates closing behind her, she went about with the cool aplomb of a lady at the salon. Once the door ground shut behind them, however…
“My goodness!” Rarity gasped as her legs finally gave way beneath her. “That was… that was just awful!”
“You can say that again,” Applejack barked with laughter, more from broken tension than anything else, as she plopped down beside her. “Them fellers were glarin’ hard enough tah curdle milk with a look.”
“Indeed,” Rarity agreed with a hearty nod. “I mean, I get that they don’t much care for us, but there’s no need to be so inimical. I swear, after these last few days, I wouldn’t be surprised if I found a wrinkle.”
“We’ll be lucky if that’s all we walk with,” she chuckled as the hat in hand quickly became a fan. “But why were they so uptight about us? I mean, from the way those blue-eyed fellers met us, I’d have thought the dragon-folk an’ Equestria were regular peas in a pod. But these other fellers are about as taken with us as granny with the Flim Flams.”
“I suppose they have their reasons to be disagreeable,” Rarity sighed as she tucked a stray curl back into place. “I don’t suppose it matters. Reason or not, it’s our job to make them see past their personal vendettas to work for the common good, and I for one, intend to do my job.”
“Now yer soundin’ jess like the marshal,” Applejack chuckled. “He’s sure rubbin’ off on you a somethin’ fierce.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Rarity smiled as she stood once more and reached down for her friend. Taking the proffered hand, the blonde cowgirl stood and together, they made their way deeper down the glowing crystal hall. On they walked, deeper and deeper into the mountain depths as the translucent stones around them lit the path with their iridescent glow.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the two girls saw the tunnel give way to blackness. Approaching cautiously, Rarity and Applejack came to the hall’s end and saw that it lead to a small, stone ledge, beyond which lay nothing but darkness.
“Uh… we at the right place?” Applejack blinked as she peered into the gloom. “We didn’t miss a turn off or somethin’, did we?”
“I can’t believe so,” Rarity intoned as she gazed about with equal perplexity. “After all, it’d be very hard to miss a turn off in a straight hall.”
“Well then jess what’re we supposed to be lookin’ fer?” the blond cowgirl huffed. “They expect us tah talk to the dark?”
“No, child. They expect you to talk to me.”
The words were felt more than heard. Deep, rumbling, and vast, the words held such power that they shook the bones and jarred the girls to their very core with each pounding syllable. But the rumbling did not stop with the voice, because even as it spoke, the darkness shifted.
Fire roared. In an instant, what was black as pitch flared to life with the grand light of an erupting volcano. From every direction, brilliant crimson, flashing gold, and searing vermillion refracted from the hundred thousand giant crystals that formed the vast cavern’s walls. Refracted, because unlike the tunnel they had passed through, the light came not from the stones themselves, but from a grand moat of molten magma bubbling away in the depths. But how was it that the girls had not seen it till now?
The answer is quite simple. They didn’t see it because even though the cavern was large enough to swallow a village whole, it was filled by something even bigger.
To call it a dragon would be an understatement. A dragon, even a full grown kaiser, stood fifty paces from haunch to head at best. The creature… no, this, this... behemoth before them, was easily five times that size. Resting on a glittering pile of diamonds the size of a crystalline lake and bathed in the glowing fires of molten rock, was a dragon that seemed born from the very earth itself. Its scales were the boulders of the stony plains. Its spine was the ridge of the ancient hills. The fangs in its yawning maw were swords forged from purest iron birthed from the planet’s core itself.
This was not just a dragon. This… this was one of the great ones, a child of the Dragon Mother herself. This was one of the Firstborn.
“So,” the voice rumbled again as the monstrous beast folded wings large enough to fill that vast cave back to its massive side. “What. Have. We. Here?”
“M-may it p-p-please you,” Rarity stammered as the trembled like a leaf in the hurricane. “M-my n-name is Rarity and th-th-this is–”
“Applejack” the Firstborn interjected with an even deeper rumble that must have been what the earth sounded like when it chuckled. “My children have told me of your coming, small one.”
“Well… that’s a relief I guess,” Applejack smiled through a rather sickly pallor. “Then, um… if yah don’t mind me askin’… who might we have the pleasure of addresin’ today?”
“My true name is not for the likes of you to hear, whelpling,” the dragon growled as the molten river surrounding him seemed to blaze all the brighter. “But if you must address me, you may call me… Tiamat.”
“A pleasure, Mr. Tiamat,” Applejack said as she removed her Stetson once more. “Now, I figure since you know about us, you must also know why we’re here, right?”
“Indeed,” Tiamat answered as he scratched his chin with a claw large enough to cleave a house in two. “Your princess sends you to request our aid in the war against Mawr Du of the Great Dark.”
“Yes,” Rarity quickly nodded. “Equestria will need all the help it can get if we hope to put him back in his–”
“But why?” the Firstborn growled as the cavern rumbled once more. “Why should we help you?”
Sapphire eyes blinked in the fiery light before she turned to an equally confused Applejack who could only shrug in reply.
“I’m… not quite sure what you mean,” Rarity hesitantly advanced. “Nul, or… Mawr Du as you call him… is a threat to all living creatures, not just Equestria. We need to–”
“WE?” Tiamat roared, the force of his breath bringing hands to ears as a hundred of the closest crystals shattered into glittering dust. “WE need do nothing for the traitors of Equestria. Should the darkness consume your flesh and rot your bones, the dragons would count it as naught but a blessing.”
“Wha… well how can you say that?” Applejack snapped as indignation overtook sense. “Yer tellin’ me that you’d rather see a whole country wiped out than raise a hand… er… claw tah help?”
“Even if your lands were razed a thousand times over,” the Firstborn growled, “it would still not be enough to atone for my brother’s death.”
“Rarity, what the hay is he talkin’ about?” Applejack asked with hands thrown up in frustration. “The way he’s carryin’ on, it sounds like he’s got a blood feud with the whole dang lot of us, or somethin’.” The violet-haired beauty pursed her lips.
“That… might actually be the case.”
“It is as she says,” Tiamat rumbled. “Five years ago, one of your marshals, a dog of Celestia… he dared raise his hand and slew my brother. With his accursed lightning, he struck Typhon and ended the life that had been since the days the earth was formed.”
“Lightnin’?” Applejack blinked as rusted cogs began to turn. Even flabbergasted as she was, it didn’t take long before she was gaping at Rarity like she’d given up fashion for a chance to become a folk singer. “Wait, is he sayin’ that… that Graves actually offed one of them?!”
“Not my choice of words, but yes,” the fashionista replied with a wry grin.
“For you, it may have been years,” Tiamat continued, “but for ones as ancient as we, the wounds are as fresh as if but hours passed. Your soldier committed a grave sin, and for that, he has made an enemy of you all.”
“Well, it’s hardly fair to call it a sin, now is it?” Rarity murmured with mild disapproval. “You know as well as I that he only did it because Typhon had gone mad.”
“It was not his choice to make,” Tiamat growled.
“Because it wasn’t a choice at all,” Rarity replied. “If those marshals hadn’t intervened when they had, thousands would have perished before the same thing happened. We couldn’t allow one as great as Typhon to rampage in his crazed state, and the fact that there was peace between our people means you recognized he was beyond saving as well. As painful as it may be to admit, the simple fact is that the marshals did what they could to save as many lives as possible.”
Golden eyes flared dangerously at the challenge in the young lady’s voice.
“Are you saying that you condone his actions?”
“I’m saying that the marshals did what they had to do to preserve life.”
“Easy words for one who lost nothing,” the Firstborn answered. “You do not understand the pain of losing a brother.”
“But the marshal does,” Rarity answered right back. “The one you continue to vilify lost not one, but four brothers and sisters that day, each one closer than the bonds of flesh and blood. If anyone has a right to hold a grudge, it’s him, but he still stands ready to fight by your side for the sake of protecting others. Shouldn’t you be able to do the same?”
“Bah, what does a whelpling know of pain?” Tiamat snorted with thick blasts of dense, black smoke. “I was with my brother when the earth was new. We flew together in the newborn skies and breathed deep of the flames of creation. To say that his loss would equal ours is–”
“Oh, would you just hush up already?” Rarity snapped. Applejack stared as if Rarity was the one who’d gone mad and Tiamat’s golden eyes gleamed as he did in fact, fall silent from sheer, unbridled surprise. This gave Rarity all the time she needed to advance.
“I understand, you’re hurt and angry at having to lose one close to you,” she continued with brisk tones usually reserved for Sweetie Belle’s bouts of uncommon silliness. “However, that doesn’t give you a monopoly on feeling bad. Maybe you’re right in that you knew your brother longer, but you have absolutely no right to say you loved him more than anyone else. As such, if you would kindly stop this incessant pity party and start focusing on the bigger picture, I would greatly appreciate it.”
Giant eyes blinked as Tiamat, more stunned than he’d been in the last two thousand years, looked down on the tiny creature who dared to… to lecture him.
“… You are either very brave… or very foolish to take such tones with me,” the great dragon rumbled in not quite friendly, but not quite such hostile tones as before.
“I’ll beg your pardon on that point,” Rarity said as she straightened her curls into their neat tresses once more and curtsied. “I tend to get a little… emotional when it comes to the marshal.”
“Then you two are broodlings as such,” Tiamat nodded. “He too, dared to take similar tones with me when he came here as well.”
“Wait… you met him?” Rarity gaped.
“Before peace could be reached, we had to know our brother’s killer. Five years ago, he stood just as you did, spouting defiance and ire at one who could rend him to ash with a simple breath. There was rage in his eyes. Such rage. But it was a clear flame that burned in his iron eyes. Had it not been so, he would not have walked out as he did.”
“Wait…” Applejack called with a quick shake of her head. “So if yeh didn’t have a mind to barbeque the feller even after all that happened… does that mean you’ll help us?”
Golden eyes, so vast and old that they may well have been windows to the fiery days of the planet’s birth, grew dark.
“A peace was brokered, but the fury remains. I am not so light in my affections that I would easily shed blood for my brother’s killer, regardless the man.”
“The dragons shall do as they shall do,” Tiamat as wings unfurled with a blast of heated air as darkness descended once more. “Our place is not at Lleiddiad’s side.”
Back in the cool crystal hall, the two Ponyville girls walked along in heavy silence.
“Well that didn’t go quite like I hope,” Applejack murmured.
“I suppose not,” Rarity sighed. “I’m not looking forward to breaking the news.”
“You jess let me handle that,” Applejack said with a bracing pat to the back. “After all that standin’ up you did tah that big feller, it’s the least I could do.” Rarity gave her friend a grateful smile as the two fell into silence once more.
Footsteps echoed through the glittering way.
“So… how long did yah know?” Applejack asked slowly.
“After the Gala,” Rarity quietly replied. “After the meeting with the general.”
“Huh. Figures. I always had a feelin’ you knew more’n you were lettin’ on about the marshal.”
“Applejack, please,” Rarity began. “You have to understand, I would’ve said something if I thought it appropriate, but I just didn’t–”
“Now don’t get yer frilly bits all in a bunch,” the freckled farm girl chuckled as she held up a hand for silence. “If anythin’, I think yah did the right thing by keepin’ quiet.”
“You… do?” the pretty seamstress blinked. Applejack nodded.
“Everybody’s got some sort ah skeletons in their closets,” she mused as they walked along. “Maybe they’ve got a heap of regrets, or maybe they’re memories that just hurt like the dickens to even look at. Either way, that stuff don’t belong tah nobody but that one person and if they don’t feel like sharin’, it ain’t nobody’s business but theirs.”
“I’m sure he will one day,” Rarity added with an earnest glance of her sapphire eyes. “After all, you’re his friend too. It… just might take a little time.”
“Shoot, ain’t no skin off my back,” Applejack chuckled. “I’m jess hopin’ you’ll be in shape tah take care of him on yer own till then. Can’t be easy lookin’ after the feller who done offed a legendary dragon, can it?”
“Honestly, I sometimes think he does these things just to give me grief,” Rarity groaned. “But, I suppose that’s part and parcel with territory.”
“Oh, he’s your territory now, is he?” Applejack asked with a playful look, a playful look to which Rarity just laughed.
“But of course. Was there ever any doubt?”