The alicorn needed no introductions or announcements as an unnatural wave of cold entered the volcano's crater. Boiling pools of magma rapidly cooled and cracked to form a black and desolate wasteland as she landed gracefully and began to walk towards the caves at the far end of the crater. The clip-clop of armored hooves was quickly drowned out as a half dozen dragons bolted from the holes and charged at the intruder.
The first had barely left its ambush spot before a beam of magic no wider than a strand of hair lashed out and split the dragon cleanly down the middle. The second and third fell into heaps of crushed scales, bones and flesh as telekinetic forces crushed them. The fourth and fifth were intercepted by two lances of ice that nailed them to the crater's far wall, where they struggled and died. The last crashed to the ground as its wings were torn from its body. Despite the grievous wounds it rose to breathe a gout of fire at the intruder, only for telekinetic force to twist the dragon's head off of its body with a series of sickening cracks. Throughout the short battle, the alicorn hadn't so much as missed a single step.
She stopped and set an icy stare upon the largest cave mouth as another dragon appeared. Unlike the previous attackers, this dragon's scales were as white as fresh snow and it was far, far, far larger. Several moments passed before the dragon had completely emerged from the cave and made quick use of its superior size to glare down at the alicorn.
“I am Shirogane, and I am the last of the matriarchs. All that remains of my people are in those caves, and if you seek to murder them, then you must first defeat me, monster!” the dragon roared and prepared to attack.
“Such irony to label me 'monster' when Kurogane had similar plans for my subjects,” the alicorn said coolly and without any concern shown for the gigantic dragon's threats.
“Kurogane and his brood were fools, and they got what they deserved!” Shirogane snapped. “What of Hagane and her children or the broods to the east? They had no designs against you, and neither do I!”
“Dragons are greedy creatures, and it will only be a matter of time before another brood attempts to pillage my domain. Like a gardener, I must cull the weeds to ensure the survival of the crops,” the intruder emphasized the insult before taking another step forward. “I have come for that which you seek to defend, Shirogane. I will have what is in that cave, and if I must walk over the cooling corpses of the last of your species, then I shall.”
“You want my eggs? My unhatched children!?” Shirogane screamed with equal parts fear and outrage. “Your deal with Kurogane was banishment and a vow never to attack again! I will never--” Anything else she might have said was cut off when a blanket of magic held her frozen in place.
“Kurogane's deal became null and void when his brood failed to abide by it after he lost. I have since altered the deal,” the alicorn stated, and the temperature of the crater dropped even further. “You are going to give me all of the eggs in that cave and I will hold them hostage until such time as I am convinced that your kind has learned its lesson. If you do not agree...” the one visible eye narrowed behind the blizzard of snowflakes that coalesced around it, “...then I will kill every dragon that cowers behind you and I will crush every egg before your eyes. I'll then leave you to contemplate the fact that you will be the last of your species. Choose.”
Shirogane struggled both physically and mentally to escape the terrible choice that had been forced upon her, but in the end there was only one choice that could be made. In the end she couldn't even say the words. She could only bow her head in defeat as the intruder entered the caves and returned with the eggs floating in a line afterward.
The guilt of Shirogane's choice was interrupted as the sound of a teleport echoed through the crater, and the musky smell of unicorn sweat and fear assailed her nose. Though she didn't react in any way, her keen hearing was able to hear every word the new arrival said.
“Your Majesty, I beg your forgiveness for this intrusion...” the unicorn's voice was slightly muffled as he no doubt bowed and groveled before its ruler. “I have terrible news from the royal city. Civil war has broken out between the Magisters, Enforcers and Laborers! We can't--” Anything else the messenger might have said was lost as the resounding crack of instant petrification cut him off, followed by the snap of teleportation. Shirogane finally lifted her gaze to find the petrified form of a unicorn wearing ornate armor and a terrified expression on his face. The alicorn was nowhere to be found.
I hope your garden rots and burns, Queen Solaria, Shirogane thought bitterly as she turned towards the caves to console the last of her species.
Queen Solaria glared down from her throne as the doors to her audience hall opened. The first to enter was a unicorn mare with streaks of shining silver in her mane and tail who possessed a regal manner that spoke of the aristocracy. The second was an armored pegasus that seemed to waver between disciplined impartiality and shooting glares at the unicorn. The last through the entrance was an earth pony stallion in chains with two pegasi at his flanks.
The group came to a halt before the throne, and Solaria simply glared at them. The earth pony lasted the longest, but all eventually wilted under the force of her gaze. “You will explain this to me. Now.” She said as she turned her eyes to the unicorn.
“Your Majesty,” the unicorn said as she bowed deeply. “Since your departure last year to deal with the dragon menace, the laborers have forgotten their place. Their work ethic declined as treasonous and seditious thoughts such as receiving payment for doing what they were bred to do has taken root. Some have even gone so far as to demand days of rest, which is quite impossible! Does the mallet require payment to operate? No, it does not, and neither should the laborers.”
“Spoken like somepony who’s never worked a day in her posh life, Princess,” the earth pony spat, and while one of the guards cuffed the prisoner on the head for the remark, the other pegasus let out a short laugh.
“And there lies the other party to blame,” the unicorn continued as though the snarky response was beneath her notice. “The former Commander Typhoon had failed to crack down and stamp out these seditious thoughts from the laborers; at the height of his treachery he dared to express sympathy for them.”
“And you had him murdered for it,” the lead pegasus interrupted with a glare.
“Queen Solaria’s order must be maintained, and any disruptive elements must be removed,” the unicorn spat viciously. “Your negligence, Commander Hurricane, started that very night. You did nothing but watch as a rightfully empowered agent of mine was murdered in cold blood for doing nothing but his duty.”
“Your assassin died squealing like a pampered pig,” the earth pony smirked, and he only continued to smirk when neither guard struck him for the remark.
The unicorn’s composure began to erode as she ground her teeth. “Since Commander Typhoon’s removal from office, the laborers have begun to rebel. They destroy their fields and workshops, and in some places they even dare to attack their magisters! Commander Hurricane’s enforcers have done nothing to quell the unrest.”
The aforementioned pegasus rolled his eyes. “My enforcers aren’t going to do a thing to save you, Princess. You brought this mess down on all of our heads, you’re just as liable as the ground pounder over there for the rebellion.”
“And you, sir, are part of the problem, just as much as the Princess is,” the earth pony spoke, and despite his bruised and dirty appearance, he commanded the attention of the room. “You call me a ground pounder? Fine. Mudhoof? Fine. I’ll be sure to remember that when you and yours come begging me and mine for food. We remember everything that was done. Every stallion that was worked to death. Every mare that was taken to satisfy the whims of the nobility.” His eyes narrowed and he grinned viciously. “The only way you’ll see food grow again is if we get the respect we deserve, plus the Commander’s broken wings and the Princess tied to my bed.”
All three ponies began to shout and accuse the others of wrongdoing. Their voices filled the audience chamber completely, and when Queen Solaria spoke one word, the silence was deafening.
Every set of eyes turned to look at the queen to see just who the statement was directed towards as she descended from her throne. “Princess Platinum, you are guilty of overstepping your authority on this matter,” she said icily, and a look of pure terror marred the unicorn’s beautiful features before she was petrified on the spot. “Commander Hurricane,” Queen Solaria continued, and the vindictive sneer on his face vanished instantly. “You are guilty of dereliction of duty for not subduing this rebellion.” The pegasus had just enough time to open his mouth before he too was rendered into stone. Queen Solaria turned to the earth pony last, and he dared to look her straight in the eyes and set his jaw. “You are guilty of wasting my time,” she accused, before walking past the now petrified laborer.
“HEAR MY ORDERS AND OBEY!” Queen Solaria boomed as she stepped onto her balcony overlooking her capital city. Enforcers along the walls and the skies turned to face the balcony, as did the Magister nobility below. The few Laborers present didn’t dare raise their gazes to look upon her. “THIS REBELLION WILL CEASE NOW! FOR EVERY DAY THAT THIS CONTINUES, SO SHALL THE WINTER PUNISH ALL!” Solaria shouted, and the sun began to fall from the sky. Chill winds had begun to roar through the city even as the queen turned to resume her seat on the throne.
Queen Solaria’s winter had lasted for nearly a year before she felt a familiar presence in the back of her mind.
“Approach no further, Traveller,” she commanded, and she felt the thing behind her stop. Once she was certain the creature would not move into her line of sight, she continued, “How fares your projects in the void? When last we spoke you mentioned several experiments currently in the process, but that was millenia ago.”
“Enter my mind again and this conversation is over,” Solaria snapped, and the thing behind her surrendered with a sigh.
“Fiiine,” it sighed dramatically, and with several voices simultaneously. “I did have several irons in the fire so to speak, but I had to give up on a few of them. I gave them one simple command and they blew it all out of proportion.” Another multi-voice sigh preceded an almost eager explanation, “The newest project is pretty promising, though. I find myself loving a people with a naturally developed sense of irony.”
“Oh?” Solaria asked politely.
“I just finished checking on them, and for some reason they think it’s some great and significant act to nail a carpenter to a piece of wood. I imagine if they don’t all kill each other then they could become pretty interesting in the future.”
The ice blue alicorn could only shake her head at that. “Appreciation of irony aside, your projects keep failing because you do not monitor them. These creatures cannot be trusted not to destroy themselves without proper supervision. They don’t need freedom to squander their lives away. They need structure and discipline to give their lives meaning. The marks I have implemented on my world have provided these. When one of my little ponies receives their mark, they know what they must do. There is no angst or wandering over their purpose.”
“Well, that’s no fun. I’ve always found the best mortals are the ones who had to struggle to become what they were, not have it branded on their flank.” A moment of pause was followed by the thing diverting its attention elsewhere. “You know, for one who advocates control so much, the populace does seem a bit rowdy. Nothing like a good old war to spur innovation and change, right? Though if this winter keeps up there might not be anything left.”
“That is the point, Traveller,” Solaria stated. “The mortals have dared to resist the systems I have put in place. They will submit to those systems or the winter will continue.”
“And what happens if they continue to resist until the winter cripples their civilization beyond repair?” When Solaria left the question unanswered, the Traveller’s response was tinged with almost palpable disbelief. “You can’t be serious!? These creatures are all amazing in their own unique ways! You’re giving them the choice to have all that crushed out of them or to die! Can’t you see what a tragedy that is? It’s cultural and literal genocide! They are a bit too stuffy for my tastes, but if you just let them work this out they could be happy. If you played this right they might even come to love you!”
“I do not require their happiness or their love. I require their obedience,” the alicorn stated. “If they will not give me that which I require, then the winter will continue. Nothing in my world is irreplaceable, not even its people. If I must, I can start with a clean slate.”
The Traveller recoiled and for the first time since Solaria had encountered the creature, it was still and silent. “Well, then. I see I have no other options in the matter.”
The attack came so swiftly that Solaria nearly missed it. She spun and launched herself away from her throne just in time to see her seat of power consumed. Reality itself convulsed around the Traveller as a wholly alien being twisted the room itself into a weapon. The transformation halted as a wave of of power exploded outward from Solaria and froze its surroundings. Hundreds of blades of ice coalesced around Solaria like a blizzard and hurtled towards her foe. Each one struck home and did nothing to stop the oncoming rush of eyes, jaws, beaks, claws, tentacles and wings. It was like stopping a flood with her hooves: for every swath of limbs she destroyed, hundreds more appeared. To her horror, some of the severed and destroyed limbs had begun to cross the floor towards her under their own power.
In that single moment of distraction, the fight was decided.
A massive tentacle hurled itself at Solaria only to be severed and torn to pieces in the blizzard. Any relief at stopping that attack was brief as the individual pieces morphed into a myriad of limbs. They were all picked off by the spinning blades of ice as they approached the alicorn, but against all odds one made it through. It was an ugly thing, nearly completely hairless and with five digits attached to a flat palm, and the longest digit was curled back and pinned into place by the smallest-and-thickest. That curled-back finger snapped forward and struck the tip of Solaria’s horn… and the Traveller’s laughter signaled that the fight was over.
“Oh, that was far more difficult than I anticipated, Solaria.” Reality began to reassert control on the throne room, and the formless mass of limbs began to shrivel and shed. “Your power almost rivals that of my people. Bravo, bravo.”
“What have you done?” Solaria demanded as she attempted to conjure another cloud of icy blades to carve up the withering form before her. The magic simply refused to activate. The energy had been gathered and the spell matrices formed… but no frozen death flowed at her command. Neither did petrification or any of her other chosen and well-used forms of punishment. “What have you done!?”
“When you like using a hammer, my dear, every problem looks like a nail,” the Traveller said cryptically. “It’s an understandable impulse, after all. If you find something that works for you, why change it? The answer is that not every problem is a nail, and you need to learn that there are other tools that work just as well if you're willing to put in the efford.” A figure emerged from the decaying husk that was once the Traveller, and it gazed upon Solaria with wild yellow eyes and a grin filled with crooked teeth. Without another word, a griffon talon appeared from the pile and snapped its digits.
“My Queen, is anything amiss?” called a voice from the door.
In the split second that Solaria’s gaze drifted away from her foe, he had vanished along with all signs of their brief conflict.
“My Queen, the Enforcers had reported sounds of a confrontation. Are you in need of aid? Or disposal of the remains?” the voice asked again as the door started to open.
Solaria’s glare snapped back to the door as she lashed out at the fool who thought to enter without her permission… and nothing happened. As with the Traveller, no killing magic froze, petrified, or otherwise tore the pegasus asunder as he peeked into the throne room. Why isn’t it working? she asked herself before a chill ran through her. If I cannot administer punishment, how can I rule? How can I admonish these mere mortals when they step out of line? They will not obey without that threat! They will not respect or obey me without my power behind me!
“My Queen?” the enforcer asked meekly as he stuck his head through the doorway.
Solaria opened her mouth to reprimand the trespasser, but the words stuck in her throat. Some emotion she had never felt before began to erode at her will, and she found herself backing away from the doorway as the pegasus entered the room. “A-away!” she screamed, before vanishing in a flash of light.